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Chronicle of the NonPop Revolution

Uses And Niches

by Scott Johnson

The Counterpoint Of Species, 1997

  1. Introduction
  2. A Strobe Light And A Staircase
  3. Splitting The Adam
  4. Ideas And Organisms: What Translates, And What Doesn't
  5. Stir Thoroughly, And Not All At Once
  6. Growing A Purpose
  7. Uses And Niches
  8. The Fools On The Hill Go Down In The Valley
  9. The Urge To Procreate
  10. Adam, Eve, Cain, Abel, The In-Laws, And The Kids [Hybrids, Thoroughbreds, and Survival]

     Musical examples of the process of exaptation are very easy to find. Musicians are constantly importing and exporting ideas, both between individuals and between their stylistic tribes; using what they find, and changing what they use. Given time and intermediate stages, a musical technique can eventually show up anywhere doing anything. And, as with biological evolution, apparent purity of purpose for a feature can evaporate if one keeps an eye on the ball long enough.

     Cloistered monks didn't intone medieval religious chants so that their melodies could later mutate into a cantus firmus within a florid pile of counterpoint, performed by professional musicians for powerful clients. Nor did African-American work songs employ call-and-response so that jazz masters could wow club audiences a century later by "trading fours" at dizzying tempos. The transmission and variation of ideas is clear in both of these cases, and it's equally clear that the end results of these evolutionary processes were not pre-ordained or written into their beginnings: they are simply what happened to happen as generations of creative people took whatever materials they had inherited or discovered, and adapted them for their own purposes. Although both of these examples moved in the direction of greater complexity, that motion did not render their original sources "obsolete". Nor did it render them ideal or exemplary in any way, making it somehow unnecessary for future musical cultures to make further exaptations from sacred uses to profane uses, or from folk to professional, or from anywhere else to elsewhere. The uses of music are not like a technological problem which can be once and for all solved by the invention of the wheel; rather, they demand the renewal of continuous rediscovery and reinvention.

     Ideas from the chants and worksongs jumped genres at some point, whether in leaps, with individuals intentionally applying the techniques of one field to another purpose, or in gradual tides, as large numbers of musicians incrementally veered in a new direction. In both cases there was a general trend towards increasing difficulty over time, because the music became a profession, and because individuals wanted to provide themselves with a sense of personal accomplishment and invoke the admiration of others. But there were no inherent and immutable "essences" of sacred/profane, serious/pop, or high/low to be defended or transgressed upon. Rather, there were collections of tools which had worked before, and therefore were the first things likely to be picked up, tried out, and jury-rigged to fit when changing circumstances presented new challenges. And there were job sites, niches where there was something particular to be accomplished. Such niches can be occupied by any musical materials, regardless of their history or genealogy, that either satisfy the local requirements of the niche, or succeed in convincing the local users they will be better off if they redesign their habits to fit the new candidate.

     Most of the available niches within a culture's ecosystem are sites where music is used to induce specific emotional states for specific occasions, and most often it gets straight to the point. Music is great for inducing mating, or generating reverence, whether religious or nationalistic. It can be used to strengthen bonds of class, age, consumer brand loyalty, or whatever else people can dream up in the way of groups to belong to. In such circumstances the connection of music to the Darwinian basics of a culture's needs is not terribly mysterious. Art music with no apparent purpose beyond itself offers a reflective access to some of these functional pleasures and to new inventions of its own as well, while escaping some of the ritualization and relentlessness which can accumulate around more utilitarian music.

     But if serious, Sit-down-and-shut-up music began and continues as a sort of rebellion against the tyranny of the obvious, it is not therefore an escape from utility itself, and certainly not from ritualization. It is simply another type of use, conversant with the others. It is defined not by abstract principles, but by a behavior; a way of focused listening which generates a demand for more music that will satisfy our desire for more of these listening experiences. It is a system comprised of a niche and the stuff that fills it, partly invented and partly adapted from the culturally available materials. But that niche only partially defines the nature of the occupants who branch out within its space. Sit-down-and-shut-up music or Get-up-and-dance music each contain a set of broad instructions about what use you are supposed to make of what you hear, but Saturday night's set of dance tunes might evolve or be appropriated into a polite Sunday suite, and the suite with its minuet into a symphony with its scherzo. Simple music initially intended to serve as a soundtrack for mating can and has evolved offshoots which provide more satisfactory abstract listening, but less satisfactory social dancing.

     And so as it goes about its not-quite-independent business, serious music's processes of abstraction from the simple sources which gave it birth not only can be repeated, but must be repeated, if the equation linking it to its culture is to be a living transaction, rather than an enshrined memory. Through the likes of Bach, Chopin, and Bartok, the older European tradition continually demonstrated that shifts in use are part of the evolutionary process; and we would breathe life into our own times by keeping that in mind. In the end, or rather in the beginning, the only unchanging, essential characteristics of music are those which are written into the physics of sound, and those which are wired into our nervous system or our primal experiences: sudden loud sounds startle us, sounds that remind us of adults cooing over an infant have the opposite effect. Beyond that sort of nearly involuntary analogy, the use to which people are putting a given music will gradually decide its nature.

     Military bugle calls once effectively allowed synchronized advances and retreats on confused battlefields: here is a function so simple that it's really only a signal, and some might not want to call it musical at all. But after the fight, the same person picks up the same instrument and plays taps over the graves of his comrades. He plays slowly and well, people are moved: have we entered the realm of art yet? The space between reveille and taps is a tough place to go hunting for a line where mechanical uses can be cleanly walled off from the universe of the fine arts. Did we enter it when our bugler played trumpet on an anthem at a commemorative civic ceremony, or only when a symphony dedicated to the fallen is premiered the following year? In which situations is it sensible and fruitful to ask exactly when and where we enter the territory of esthetics? We all can recognize that there are differences in musical use here, but what we make of them often says as much about our affiliations and goals as it does about the differences themselves.

     If the histories of each of those uses could be mapped, and the points where they diverged in the distant past could be found, then in biological terms this would become a question of speciation. Exactly when is the beginning of a species; with what individual or generation can we say that it came into existence? The answer is that you cannot. In a direct line of inheritance, individual Z may be of a new species when compared with individual A, but individual J might be considered to be of the same species as either A or Z. At no point in the alphabet was any one type of individual unable to interbreed with those types immediately before or after, or there would not be a line of inheritance at all.

     Nevertheless, gradualism is broken into by circumstances, and every transfer of information provides an opening. Ernst Mayr observes that "Evolution is not a smooth, continuous process but consists, in sexually reproducing organisms, of the formation of a brand new gene pool in every generation".9 Each moment in time has particular, lateral qualities not completely shared with its ancestors or descendants, and the potential volatility of a pool of cultural practices is even greater than that of a gene pool, since the merging of linear and lateral inheritances within culture gives every thought a multitude of parents. With so many characteristics to shuffle, and an active, choice-making human mind doing the shuffling, there are strong incentives for people to make distinctions which will help them by partially pre-programming their decisions.

     Looking laterally across the range of jobs that are simultaneously available to our brass player there is a gradation, but it is marked by a few fairly pronounced distinctions, the results of previous audiences' requests, and previous musicians' agreements to clump together as genre specialists. Each incremental move, from the battlefield equivalent of an animal cry to the fine arts, shares characteristics with the next. But as we shall see, our very perception of genre differences tends to cause them to become more exaggerated, as we assign them jobs within the culture. People are drawn to identifiable quantities because it saves them sorting time. Twentieth century art has repeatedly proven that the very act of giving a name to a genre can contribute to a process which, if successful, attracts attention and causes it to become further differentiated from its sources and surroundings. Similarly, on the broadest possible level, separating music into the serious and the popular is a tool which our musical culture has used to help individuals focus on their divergent interests, and avoid wasting time on unpromising avenues when they have a general idea of what they are looking for. The subgroups and communities which result are simply social structures whose function is to act as cognitive filters for their members: what you don't like, or have been instructed not to like, you don't have to learn about. This is the reason why the blunt instrument of the serious/popular distinction survives, despite its pronounced resemblance to an attempted division of all plants into trees and grasses.


1 On this point, see Stephen Jay Gould's essays "Bushes and Ladders in Human Evolution", from Ever Since Darwin, 1977, New York, Norton; or "Life's Little Joke" from Bully For Brontosaurus, 1991, New York, Norton.

2 Antonio Damasio, 1994, Descartes Error. New York, Grosset/Putnam (chapter 10 p. 239). Descartes Error is not specifically about evolution, but about its outcome. Damasio's examination of how the mind/brain/body allows us to imagine the future describes the operating system which gives cultural evolution its unique qualities. Also, his overall point about the crucial role which emotions play in reasoning should be both gratifying and intuitively familiar to most artists.

3 Richard Dawkins, 1976, new edition 1989, The Selfish Gene. Oxford, Oxford University Press (chapter 11). This book is a central text in sociobiology, which sometimes suffers from the long and unhappy history of attempts to derive right wing political implications from knowledge about our place in the natural world. But the idea of memes is not necessarily responsible for the behavior of all of its relatives. For a brief and lucid summary of the concept, see also Daniel Dennett's 1990 Memes and the Exploitation of Imagination, Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, vol. 48.

4 Daniel Dennett, 1995, Darwin's Dangerous Idea New York, Touchstone, pp. 203-204. This book is a sweeping attempt to make a whole of biological Darwinism and its ethical, cultural, and philosophical implications. The determined attack on Gould as a threat to Darwinism may seem puzzling to outsiders.

5 As I was editing this essay, an article by Richard Taruskin appeared in the New York Times (9/24/97) in which he referred to classical music's concern with artistic pedigree and inherited texts as "vertical", versus the "horizontal" influence of recordings, which reflect a cross-section of what is available in our living culture, regardless of source. As far as I can tell, his "vertical" is essentially identical to my "linear", and his "horizontal" to my "lateral". I hope that this concept enters into common use, under whatever name survives the selection process.

6 Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin, 1979, The Spandrels of San Marco and the Panglossian Paradigm: A Critique of the Adaptationist Programme, Proceedings of the Royal Society of London, vol. B205, no. 1161.

7 Stephen Jay Gould, "Not Necessarily A Wing", from Bully For Brontosaurus, 1991, New York, Norton.

8 Stephen Jay Gould and Elizabeth Vrba, 1981, Exaptation: A Missing Term in the Science of Form, Paleobiology, vol. 8.

9 Ernst Mayr, 1988, "An Analysis of the Concept of Natural Selection", from Towards A New Philosophy of Biology (p. 99), Cambridge, Harvard University Press.

10 For several days, I thought this visual analogy was of my own imagining, but then I noticed that on p.192 of Dennett's Darwin's Dangerous Idea, which I had read several months earlier, there is a similar visual image in a quote from Manfred Eigen's Steps Towards Life (1992 Oxford University Press). It is populated by genetic mutations, with different meanings attached to the hills and valleys in the terrain, and no miners clomping around its abstract topography in their dirty boots. Well, at least I get a good example of the exaptation of an idea as a consolation prize.