Is the music today overall ‘better’ than music in the past?
It has often been advancements in technology that have allowed forward-thinking musicians to push the envelope of what is possible in music. The invention of the piano around the year 1700 allowed for a range of previously impossible expressive dynamics, just as the electric guitar allowed for the development of rock 'n roll. Music is currently better than ever, primarily due to the invention of digital technologies.
A host of digital editing tools has made studio recording faster and easier, allowing for previously impossible levels of perfection, as well as a diversity of fresh, new sounds. Digital tools also allow for remote collaboration between artists, leading to new and mixed genres, no longer limited by distance.
The rise of streaming technologies, file sharing, and the general democratization of the internet has led to a diversity of styles and artists previously unknown to listeners. The ease of online communication has replaced traditional “gatekeepers,” who have long been focused on profit motives, exchanging creative control for financial security. The story of Terra Naomi, one of the first wildly successful YouTube sensations, illustrates how direct communication with a wide, international audience is now possible via streaming platforms.
Just as digital editing tools significantly reduced the role of traditional industry “gatekeepers,” they have made recording incredibly accessible. High-quality recordings can now be made with relatively inexpensive software, allowing creative musicians to record ideas without the expensive costs of studio time. By allowing increased access to recording, ease of use, and democratization of direct distribution, digital technologies have largely driven the unprecedented levels of quality and creativity in today’s music.
Today's music is inferior to the music of the past for several reasons. Today's digital technology has made it possible for one person with the right software to 'create' music overnight and, thus, dilute the supply of new music. Any amateur can fill critical professional music-making roles such as writer, producer, mixing engineer, etc., which leads to a lower-quality final result. Today's music is also less interesting by several objective measures, and it's noticeably coarser and less literate than the music of the past. In fact, when asked which decade since the 1970s produced the worst music, 42% of respondents, across all age groups, selected the most recent one.
For comparison's sake, let's use the decade just before the introduction of the compact disc to represent the music of the past (i.e., 1975 - 1984). This period was a watershed moment in classic rock and pop music, as new stars such as Bruce Springsteen and Prince emerged. While both artists' work clearly differs from one another, the musical complexity and lyrical sophistication inherent in both is undeniable. 'Born to Run' by Springsteen is a literary sketch set to music about escaping the limitations of adolescence. While Prince's 'Little Red Corvette' is an introspective lament about a one-night stand and its consequences.
It's difficult to discern the origin of much of today's music, as it is consistently filled with profanity and celebrates social ills such as violence and illegal drug use, to name a few. Today's music suffers in comparison to the music of the past.
- A Spanish National Research Council report on pop songs released between 1955 and 2010 revealed that songs are beginning to sound the same, noting the 'diversity of … note combinations … has consistently diminished in the last 50 years.'
- 2015 marked the first year that older music outsold new artist releases.
- According to experts, musical taste emerges as early as age 13, and most people stop seeking out new music by the time they turn 33.
- World-renowned pop singer Tony Bennett only reached number 1 on the Billboard 200 chart at the age of 85, with his Duets II album where he sings alongside contemporary artists.