“We Drive Into the Future Using Only Our Rear View Mirror”

I’ll start off by shooting some holes in this quote. Firstly, we can’t see into the future, so realistically we can either drive blind or drive with our rearview mirror. That being said, it’s still not an inaccurate depiction of the music industry. It just reads with a misplaced tone. In anyplace, does music need to become something else? For now, we will just assume that the quote is pointing out our tendency to rely on old techniques to generate new music.

If necessity is the mother of all invention then surely experience is the key to refinement. Music itself is an interesting topic amongst these ideas as no one ever really needs music, but we do have a deep connection to it. You could almost say that we have a pseudo necessity for music. Without a real necessity for music, it’s hard to express in words exactly why we created it in the first place. That being said, due to our personal connection to music, it’s not difficult to understand why we made it. A probable guess would be to say that it was just for fun. But having music alone isn’t enough for us. We use it as a device to express ourselves as individuals and thus, out of necessity, we try to create new music. You could identify music as a system for communicating self expression. Each style of music would then be like it’s own language, and within each language we arrange each phrase to best explain who we are and how we feel. But that’s enough philosophy for the moment

Lets talk about the education system. The way in which we learn music has a large impact on the music we are likely to create. After all, we learn to play our instruments by learning other peoples songs. Learning someone else’s songs teaches us to adopt mannerism in their styles. This is the first point to be made about looking in our rearview mirror. Secondly, our educational systems teach us to use the western tonal system. We learn to play music technically and following rules that have been around for centuries. The other common approach to learning music is as a social activity through friends. In each situation, we’re encouraged to develop a voice using a collection of other peoples.

In understanding that what we know usually comes from someone else, it begs the question, how do we create something new? The first method is experimentation. This is the driving blind approach mentioned earlier. The issue with driving blind is that it’s pot luck weather on not you end up anywhere near where you wanted to be. Another way that new styles come about by the addition of two different genres. A classic example is Jazz, as it takes the technique and precision of classical music and combines it with the free flowing melodic ideas of Blues music. Another approach is via the adaptation of an existing style. The discovery of guitar distortion allowed for rock to break off and form heavy metal and psychedelic music. Playing simple rock fast, loud and aggressively gave way to punk. The following is an exert from an interview with James Brown as he discusses the creation of Funk.

Music is also a product of it’s environment. Referring back to the necessity of self expression, music has been used as a tool to highlight the political and social injustices that have occurred through time. Due to these circumstances, we have gradually conditioned our ears to make certain assumptions over the tone of the music. For example, when we hear the blues, more often then not, we will associate it with sadness. When we hear funk music, we hear overtones of empowerment. At this point I should note that these examples can vary between the individual, but are usually the product of exposure and can therefore be generalised. The effects of saturation and   conditioning are powerful enough that we even associate harmonic patterns with different countries and continents. For example, the harmonic minor scale sounds, to most westerners, to be Egyptian. Indian music, through it’s use of microtonal systems sounds distinctly indian. Saturation has even caused an association between ragtime music and cowboy western films.

Knowing that we’ve been conditioned is a big part in understudying the development of music. We’re comfortable with the western tonal system and we’ve come to appreciate elements of it more than others. To the average listener, dissonance is not aesthetically pleasing. (Probably why we call it dissonance.) In knowing that we’re confined to a tonal system and have favouritism towards certain harmonic relationships, its expected that patterns and similarities would start to occur. A man by the name of Dave Carlton analysed the chord progressions of 1300 songs to try and identify any trends. His research revealed that out of the 1300 songs analysed, over a quarter where written in the key of C/Am. Given that there are 12 possible keys to base a song around, a quarter weighting is quite significant, however this could be the result of the keys positioning on common instruments or the fact that there are no sharps or flats in the key of C. Carlton also analysed the frequency of each chordal mode across the songs. The results showed that the IV, V and I chords are the most common across all the songs. This expresses the favouritism for certain harmonic relationships that was mentioned earlier. For the full analysis you can visit the following website:


It’s not just the chords that repeat themselves in popular music. Perhaps because it’s easier to buy an instrument than it is to make one, commercial instruments such as guitars, drums, bass and keys are also prominent across popular music. This suggests another reason why new music is repeating itself, or at least why we can perceive it to be similar. Stating the previous brings into question weather a new instrument would have the potential to create a new music. But we’ll look at that later. I will note that it is extremely rare to see a new or original acoustic instrument in popular music. Comparatively, synthesisers appear in popular music more often then not. With synthesis, we have an unlimited potential for the creation of new sounds and instruments. But this also begs the question, if synthesisers are so common, why does a lot of pop music sound the same? Again this is probably due to aesthetic favouritism causing people to generate similar harmonic structures. It’s possibly also solidified that we’re introducing a new instrument back into our old traditional tonal system.

Electronic music doesn’t need to be this way. In the 1950s’, Karlheinz Stockhausen demonstrated the vast potential for music that could be obtained through complete control of sound and timbre. The piece that best exemplifies this is his work titled Kontakte, which can be listened to below.

Expanding on this concept, the artist Aphex Twin used electronic synthesis to create music that would be more relatable to a modern age. This is demonstrated in the video below.

With the popularity of electronic synthesisers rising through the nineties, the 2000’s allowed dub step to take a platform as a new medium for popular music. For me personally I felt like this was the first time I had heard a truly new style of music being created. I can recall listening to the Skrillex song Scary Monsters and Nice Spirits and thinking that this did not sound like anything I had heard before.

This wasn’t exactly the case as dubstep is yet another product of combination and refinement that branched out from other EDM sub genres in the late 90’s. I was given the illusion of a completely new musical style as I hadn’t been aware of dubstep or its relatives until it broke into the mainstream in the mid 2000’s. It was as though the music had grown up behind closed doors and once the doors opened, it was it’s own separate entity.

Outside of the electronic world, new acoustic instruments are still being created. Possibly one of the biggest challenges for creating a truly new instrument is developing a new way to play it. We’re used to plucking, bowing, blowing, resonating and striking our instruments to make sounds, but have we discovered all the possible physical mediums? Below is a video of a man named Görkem Şen playing his new instrument called the Yayabahar. You’ll notice that although the instrument is unique, it still is somewhat familiar. Following my recent statement we can see that he has not invented a new medium for playing the instrument, but instead he combined multiple other methods.

You can also hear that his method of playing, tonal system and harmonic content cause you to relate the instrument to classical and ethnic backgrounds. The biggest point to note about this video is that although he has created a new instrument, he has not created a new music.

Another potential problem in perceiving a new music lies in our desire to categorise. Often, instead of acknowledge the slight variations between two pieces of music, we rope them together under a genre. For the consumer market, this makes it easier for us to find music that we might potentially like. But for artists, it means that the individuality of their style is lost amongst a sea of similarities. A classic example of this is the genre known as “Alternative.” The term alternative has gradually lost it’s meaning as it began to cover any artist who struggled to define the elements of their music that made it unique. Realistically, it would be impractical to label every song that sounds different under a new genre heading. Though this mentality has had the psychological effect of making us perceive two songs that sound completely different to be stylistically similar.

I’m going to talk now a bit more about the current western popular music industry. There is a notion that popular music, more and more, is beginning to sound the same. This could be true for many reasons, but perhaps the most obvious one is because they know their music will sell. Music is a world dominating industry. Record labels are in control and they want to succeed. To do this, they have to release music that they know people will like. And how do they know what people will like? By knowing what people currently like. They have it down to a science and they’re good at what they do. And thus the music industry feeds into itself.

In saying all of this, does the direction we travel actually matter? If we look to the past to make new music, is that a problem? Evidence suggest that popular music will always appeal to a popular market regardless of where it comes from, provided it conforms to modern conventions. In other words, the pop market will always love pop music. A man by the name of Mike McCready worked on an algorithm that could calculate the potential for success in new music. It was tested and calibrated against music ranging from todays pop hits to famous Mozart and Bach pieces. What they found was that whenever the market would have an itch for a type of music, popular songs would cluster around that point. The closer to one of these points a song got, the better its chance of success. With his algorithm, McCready was able to predict the success of such acts as Norah Jones and Maroon 5. Below is a video of McCready talking about his algorithm and abba’s potential success in todays market.

Perhaps one of the most accurate subjects in Mclauchlans quote are todays mashup artists. Mashup artists use pre-recorded material to generate new compositions, an Idea that has been used for centuries. In many ways however, this mashup music is as close to a new music as we might reach in our modern society. Firstly the principle of developing music is no longer based around how someone else played, but rather what they played and what it sounded like. Given the advent of digital recording, a sound library has become infinitely more vast giving mashup artists a broader pallet to compose with then ever before. Another advantage to mash-up music is the ability to pre-select exactly the sounds wanted for the composition. In the past and artist would have to sculpt a tone and tweak it in context with the other elements of the music in the hope that it would work out. Now artists can audition the sounds they wan’t in their compositions allowing for more accuracy then ever before. In the early days of blues, artists would regularly steal lyrics and melodies from other artists, and this behaviour was more than acceptable, it was commonplace. The following is a quote lifted from the book “The public domain” featuring Ray Charles talking about musical exchange.

“I knew back then that Nat Cole was bigger than ever. Whites could relate to him because he dealt with material they understood, and he did so with great feeling. Funny thing, but during all these years I was imitating Nat Cole, I never thought twice about it, never felt bad about copying the cat’s licks. To me it was practically a science. I worked at it, I enjoyed it, I was proud of it, and I loved doing it. He was a guy everyone admired, and it just made sense to me, musical and commercial sense, to study his technique. It was something like when a young lawyer—just out of school—respects an older lawyer. He tries to get inside his mind, he studies to”

The book is free for download and can be accessed here: http://www.thepublicdomain.org/download/

If this has been the attitude of musicians as recently as 60 years ago, then what changed to completely reverse societies attitude toward the exchange of ideas? Below is a clip from RIP – A Remix Manifesto, explaining the change in attitude toward intellectual proppery.

Another section of interest from this video is this classic example of copyright law getting out of hand.

Given the statistical boundaries of tonal favouritism, it is seeming almost impossible for the music industry to come up with new successful music without repeating at least some element of the past. So what would a new music have to sound like in order to be truly unique? In an article titled Quantum Improvisation: The cybernetic presence, Pauline Oviseron questioned the limitations of our perception of sound. She suggested that with advancements in technology, we could one day perceive a spectrum outside of any that we know of. She questioned the medium for sound itself and asks “could a new musical paradigm include a new spacial domain?” I would then have to question this new musics potential for success in a popular market. And above that, would we still call this music?

“We drive into the future using only our rearview mirror.” Necessity always gives us a clearer understanding of what we need to do. Necessity is a math question that asks “solve for x.” Possibly the hardest part of imagining a new music is imagining why we would ever need it. Music serves to entertain and it does so substantially well on it’s current platform. I would have to argue that there is no possible way, even with a completely new paradigm for the musical experience, that we would ever be able to create a new popular music that doesn’t somehow reference the past. It’s in our nature after all. To quote no. 1 on the Remix Manifesto, “culture always builds on the past.” It’s inescapable, but it is what it is. I also don’t believe it has either negative or positive connotations, but rather we choose to view it one way or another depending on our gain from any given situation.

I would also have to say that it’s impossible to imagine a world where music doesn’t progress. Music develops through referencing the past and this is how new music occurs. Perhaps we’re just looking at it all too closely. After all, no one would argue the similarities between dub step and classical. Music evolves like an organism. It changes incrementally over short amounts of time but it becomes unrecognisable over long periods of time. And I suppose this just the way of the world. This is how we exist and provided we keep progressing, I don’t believe our means of doing so is relevant.

On the surface, Mclachlan’s quote looked to be a criticism on human kinds approach towards development. But the reality is that it’s a neutral statement. A point almost made moot by it’s contextual limitations. Mclachlan is right, “We drive into the future using only our rearview mirror.”


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