Music And Evolution

An article that describes and compares the similarities and differences between musical evolution and biological evolution. If you are interested in how music changes and adapts and how that process can be compared to the biological theory of evolution by natural selection, then read on!

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This is a more serious, somewhat nerdy article compared to my previous ones - few, if any, laughs here. If you are interested in how music changes and adapts and how that process can be compared to the biological theory of evolution by natural selection, then read on!

We're probably all familiar with phrases used in a musical context such as "their sound evolved" and "this album marked the evolution of such and such into a heavier territory" etc. Most of us are also aware of the theory of evolution by natural selection, whether we believe it to be true or not. But to what extent does musical evolution correspond to natural evolution? What do they have in common, and what differences are there? Understanding the evolution of music better will enable us to make sense of musical history - why did Nirvana's Nevermind album sell so well? - and also perhaps help us predict where music will go next.

Put simply, the theory of evolution by natural selection, jointly co-published by Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace, is how changes in an organism can enhance its chances of survival, and so are more likely to be passed onto future offspring. Over time, these changes accumulate until an organism is a different species to its distant relatives. There's no real grounds for arguing that the mechanism doesn't work; the biggest objection some people have is the amount of time (we're talking millions of years in many cases) required for any significant change to happen.

An obvious difference between musical evolution and natural evolution here is that musical evolution doesn't require millions of years to occur. Why might this be so?

It is all to do with how the changes come about. In nature, the changes are physical ones to the organism's genetic code, and are completely random in what effect they have. Not only are any changes pretty rare (maybe 1 or 2 per generation), but on top of that, those that do occur are only rarely beneficial. Many have no effect, and many are in fact harmful. Hence, many generations are needed before any significant number of beneficial mutations can build up.

In music, a change is likely to be large and deliberate - they have intention. If a guitarist is experimenting with getting a heavier sound, he will try a number of things. Hitting the fretboard with a hammer clearly doesn't work (not that I've tried...), and so this change is not beneficial, and "dies" out (gets scrapped). Dropping the low E string to a D does work, and hence will be kept for future use. Tuning a guitar to drop D does not in itself create death metal, but it is a step nearer. Often in music, the changes happen in blocks all in one go - i.e, as well as drop tuning the guitars, the drum beat will become more aggressive and the vocals harsher. Successful changes will also spread much more quickly in the musical version of evolution, as one idea can be taken up by many artists of different genres at once. This is different to the natural world, in that a change in one organism can only be passed on to its direct offspring. This means successful changes in music are more frequent and spread a lot faster - hence musical evolution is much quicker than natural evolution.

So what determines whether a change is beneficial or not? In nature, the collective term for the group of factors that do this is "selection pressures". Selection pressures are basically external conditions in the environment in which an organism lives, e.g, the climate, the nutrient supplies etc. Different environments provide different selection pressures - a change that leads to a big woolly coat would be beneficial in the Arctic, but it would be harmful in the middle of the Kalahari desert. With selection pressures, there are winners and losers. Those that adapt best to cope with the pressures are most likely to survive, whereas those that go against the selection pressure will be more likely to die out. This introduces the idea of "competition".

How does this translate into musical evolution? Clearly, there isn't a physical environment in which music lives - it is an abstract concept. Instead music, in all its different forms (c.f "species") exists in an abstract environment, and as a result, the pressures exerted by this environment are very different to that of a physical environment. Factors such as public taste and opinion, as well as technology available, are what applies the selective pressure to music. Again, different environments have different selection pressures. Becoming a head-banging, windmilling melodic death metal band would be a good change in the eyes of a metalhead audience, whereas it would be a bad change as far as a jazz-loving audience would be concerned. What you can do as an artist greatly depends on what your audience wants. The music adapts to suit the audience (or local scene) - an example of something changing to better cope with the pressures exerted by its environment.

It is true that in the natural world an organism can affect its enivironment to such an extent that the selection pressures are altered - an obvious example of this is the building of large cities on once rural ground. The same also happens in music - a successful band may spawn a host of similar bands or cover bands in an area, which will then further increase the influence of the main band.

As well as the constant, gradually changing environmental selection pressures, large, one-off events can also drive evolution in both cases. Meteor impacts and flash floods can wipe out many species and change the environmental conditions upside down overnight. In music, leaps in music technology and stagnation within a music scene can give rise to a sudden change in music taste - just think of the rapid rise of grunge in the early Nineties. Does this mean that the most up-to-date, contemporary music scenes are "better" than that those which preceded them? Just as in the natural world, there is no reason to assume that because something is well adapted to its current environment, that it is any "better" than something else which also just as well adapted to its environment at that time. It is merely different. Perhaps what can be judged is the environment itself - some environments in nature (e.g volcano craters) are inherently self-destructive whereas others are more conducive to sustaining life (e.g. the rainforest).

Just as all aspects of an organism can change in the process of natural evolution, so the same is true with music. Not only does the sound change, but also the image (just compare the bright, colourful image of Def Leppard 20 years ago to the black and brutal of most of today's popular metal bands). Instruments change as well - just compare the classic Les Pauls and Fender Stratocasters of the Sixties and Seventies to the brighter superstrats and X shaped guitars of the Eighties to the black and sinister guitars of modern metal. Virtually all aspects of music are able to undergo change, in a process very similar to that of evolution by selection.

In each case, there is what can be referred to as the "basic unit of selection" - in the natural world these are genes. In music, perhaps we can think of the various components of a song and its artist as the equivalent to genes, for example, fast drumming, palm muted guitar, high pitched vocals etc. Just as 20,000 genes all work together to produce a

cell --> an organ --> an organism --> a population etc.,

so do many combinations of musical components work together to produce a

song --> an album --> an artist --> a music scene.

Different combinations and variations of biological genes lead to different organisms; so too do different combinations of musical components lead to different types of music. The parallels are striking. In both cases, individual units of selection join up together in order to increase their chances of continuity.

Here is a tree diagram:

  .              Classic Rock
  .              .      .    .
  .             .       .      .
  .            .    Glam Rock    . 
  .           .         .       Prog Rock
 Punk     NWOBHM        .         .
/Alternative .  .       .         .
   .         .   .      .         .
   .         .    .     .         .
   .         .     Hair Metal     .
 Grunge    Thrash       .       Prog Metal
/Alternative  .  .      .          .
 Metal        .   .    extinct     .
   .   .      .    .               .
   .    .     .   Death Metal      .
   .     .    .         .  .       .
 Nu-Metal .   .         .   .      .
   .       .  .         .    .     .
   .        Metalcore   .     .    .
   .         .    .     .      .   .
   .         .     .    .       .  .
 almost      .       .  .       Djent
 extinct     .       Deathcore    .
             .           .        .
            about to go extinct?  .
                                  ?
Let us consider the evolution of Heavy Metal, since it is a popular genre amongst users of this website, and also has many interesting twists and turns that make it stand out amongst other genres in this evolutionary respect. From the classic rock roots of the early 1970s, the New Wave Of British Heavy Metal took off in the latter stages of the decade. The aggressive edge of the increasingly popular punk movement of the time was incorporated into the sound of NWOBHM bands such as Motorhead, and is an example of how a beneficial change can spread between genres - something that doesn't really have biological parallel. NWOBHM then went on to influence both the glam metal scene of the Eighties and the early thrash metal scene. Glam metal turned out to be an evolutionary dead-end - there were subtle changes in its sound due to technological advances and the public's taste for a certain sound, but after a while, the public tired of the lack of originality in what was admittedly becoming a stagnant genre.

Underground scenes, particularly grunge/alternative metal and extreme metal became vastly popular - think about how mammals took off after the extinction of the dinosaurs as a parallel. Fast forward to today, and you can see that genres such as metalcore are in roughly the same position that glam metal was 20 years ago - it has been around a while now and there is a perceived lack of originality, in other words, the environment is changing. Does this mean metal is on the verge of another big leap forward?

In evolution, there is a tendancy for something to evolve towards an extreme of a property or characteristic once it starts heading in that direction. Sauropod dinosaurs got bigger, primates got smarter, etc. Metal has very obviously been heading in an aggressive, more brutal direction over the last two or three decades. What is considered "normal" metal today would have been regarded as "extreme" metal twenty five years ago. Metalcore is essentially a form of extreme metal, with its fast riffs and screamed vocals and heavy breakdowns. Less mainstream metal is even more brutal and aggressive. Does this mean the next step for metal is to become yet more brutal and aggressive?

A possible contender for "the next big thing" in metal is a sub-genre known as djent. Inspired by Meshuggah, it is characterised by its heavy, extremely technical guitar playing and fast aggressive sound. Artists such as Periphery and TesseracT are gaining a following, especially over the internet. Yet is djent really the future of metal?

It's safe to say that the technical complexity of djent is an acquired taste - and therein lies the problem. A change which leads to a genre of music to becoming an acquired taste is rarely, if ever, a beneficial change. Djent may be the future of extreme heavy music, but extreme heavy music may be on its last legs.

If we look at examples of evolution in nature, where organisms will evolve towards an extreme once they begin on that path, then we can confidently conclude that djent will be the next big thing in metal. Quite how big it will be is another matter. Polyrhythmic drumbeats aren't everyone's pint of brew. The sauropod dinosaurs reached only a certain size before they died out - could the same be about to happen with metal as we know it?

An interesting difference between natural evolution and musical evolution is the dynamic nature of the music audience environment. In particular, there is a tendancy for a historic environment to heavily influence a future environment, hence making complete musical extinction virtually impossible. For example, the Beatles inspired music of the early Sixties had a strong influence of the Brit-pop movement of the early Nineties - 30 years later. The increase in popularity of pop-punk (yes, Blink-182 and Blink-182 cover bands and that sort of rubbish) in the early 2000s had a similar time gap between the heydey of punk in the mid Seventies. Similar patterns can be found elsewhere.

One possible explanation is that the parents of musicians have a big influence in what their children listen to as they grow up - parents who grew up with the Beatles will be more likely to pass that enthusiasm onto their children, some of whom grow up to be the musicians of tomorrow. Thirty years seems like a reasonable enough time gap for this to happen. Maybe the near future of mainstream heavy metal might be strongly influenced by the Eighties.

And anyone who's read my other articles will probably guess that's something I'd like to happen! :D

Thanks for reading!

-Redd Dymond

24 comments sorted by best / new / date

    Iommianity
    A lot of your points about metal seem to be based on misconceptions and misunderstandings. For example,metalcore doesn't hold up as being more extreme aesthetically when compared to a lot of older bands. There's nothing extreme about the average metalcore band, and comparing it with death metal 20+ years old only confirms that. How many bands today are actually 'heavier' than say, Suffocation? That actually looks like a regression to me. A lot of the 'evolution' in modern metal comes from ill advised genre mashups, or an eagerness to do something different, just for the sake of it. That's all well and good if you're truly innovating, but if you're marrying together two different styles just because, and sandwiching them between lackluster riffs and pointless copy and paste break downs, you're not innovating.
    Divinephyton
    JimDawson wrote: Another example- If you compare the remains found from people who lived in ancient Greece or any other civilization you will find notable differences in how they looked as opposed to their descendants. Supposedly they averaged out to something like 5 feet tall if they were full people and not just skeletons (skin and stuff has got to add a bit of height).
    I'm sorry, I can't let this one slide. Yes it is true that ancient greeks etc. were shorter on average. However this is most likely due to nutritional habits and lifestyle and not evolution. The male nobility usually averaged higher than male commoners. Average hunter-gatherer homo-sapiens roughly had the same average height as we do now (5'9). Why not choose a better example such as the pygmy's (and even among those peoples there's more to it than just genetics btw)
    arnolddrummer
    Redd_dymond wrote: esp 4 life wrote: Really interesting article, I thoroughly enjoyed it no no, thank you Thanks dude, glad you enjoyed it!
    mark3777
    Your tree is a little off. Djent is deathcore trying to be progressive.
    !SOAD!
    Lies!!! its all lies. Metalcore isnt about to go extinct, yeah bad metalcore is going extinct but good metalcore stays
    robertito696
    Djent, in my opinion, is far too abrasive to become mainstream. Where shred was fast and technical it also lacked dissonance, it was fast but relatively easy listening. Djent on the other hand is a good bit more challenging, and a lot of people don't want that. *Just as a note when I think of djent I think Meshuggah more than periphery.*
    hildesaw
    Very interesting article, butthis can be applied to practically any abstract idea. It's essentially the idea of memetics, or the evolution of culture. Check out some stuff by Richard Dawkins or Daniel Dennett, if you want more!
    Emenius Sleepus
    For the tree diagram, you forgot black metal, and doom metal (this one arguably a variation of heavy metal, but is usually reserved its own name) - some of the biggest players in the genre. As long as people are writing songs/music, no genre will really become extinct. They will change and might disappear out of the mainstream eye, but within small scenes, you can find just about anything. Also; djent is a waste product of too much musical schooling and not enough taste. Most of the bands are just unlistenable.
    JimDawson
    Actually, as I already mentioned in my earlier post, I know that diet actually has a very significant effect on evolution. It's just common-sense really, if you're not eating very much you should be smaller, that in turn has a direct effect in many different ways on what you can do with your life. Like you said (although I quote it slightly out of context), "there's more to it than just genetics". How are nutritional habits and lifestyle not going to effect evolution? A guy who is really big and consumes lots of resources isn't going to last long where there isn't much food. Natural selection seems to do a good job of taking care of this; just because something isn't directly the cause of genes, doesn't mean that they can't effect them later on. On the other side of the coin, you have people like the male nobility who have a way to secure a higher level of nutrition from the start of their lives. This gives them the resources to grow bigger than most others, generally speaking. At the same time, it makes them more likely to reproduce as well. Clearly a lot more is going on with evolution than simply how genes are passed down, and how genes are passed down can be explained by natural/sexual selection and the varying selection pressures for different situations. There's more to it than that though, and that is my point. This one is just speculation on my part, but I would be willing to bet that someone with the genetic makeup of someone from ancient Greece living nowadays would be far more likely to suffer from obesity and heart disease than modern day people living in some places like Europe today already are. I say this because among communities of people who tend to have less to eat than others, people actually find that their bodies adapt to take on excess nutrients because their people developed that trait to cope with their environment. This has actually been found in many regions of the world with some kind of famine, especially if it has been going on for awhile. I wish I could cite a source for this, but I honestly remember reading about this as well as discussing this with people a few times. It actually carries on to future generations of those same groups who move to places with more food, although one would think it would wane away eventually if it wasn't needed. There are a number of genetic traits that exist because of things similar to this. Sickle-cell anaemia is an excellent example, and it is a more drastic one at that: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sickle_cell If this genetic mutation can happen, is it really so unlikely that different cultures of people can have different combinations of genes to control and regulate things like height and weight based on selection pressures? Now I'm going off on a bit of a tangent, but my point is that many of these things exist because of natural or sexual selection. Based on examples I have actually seen in real life I believe I have enough information to form the hypothesis that despite their nutritional and lifestyle habits, the ancient greeks must have had genetic traits to help them deal with substantially less food than we do. However, I will admit that the number I gave for how tall they were on average (5') is from something I was told rather than something I actually read. Other than that detail which I don't know for sure, I think I have a good case...
    Divinephyton
    Sorry for the double post, but I forgot to add that ancient greeks, yes, were shorter, but not 5 feet flat. I think it was between 5'5 and 5'7 depending on what specific time.
    Redd_dymond
    esp 4 life wrote: Really interesting article, I thoroughly enjoyed it
    Thanks dude, glad you enjoyed it!
    JimDawson
    You can find examples of evolution in everything. It also happens WAY faster than you think, Redd_dymond. You can actually see some VERY noticeable differences in some organisms over the course of one generation. Actually, an uncle of mine (who is a biology nut) told me about these tests done at some university where they bred fruit flies. They documented noticeable changes in them after only 4 generations, as in if you compared the young to the new they looked like completely different fruit flies. However, not only do insects usually change faster than man, this experiment was done by people so I could see them taking on very different selection pressures which could explain how they got such drastic results. Another example- If you compare the remains found from people who lived in ancient Greece or any other civilization you will find notable differences in how they looked as opposed to their descendants. Supposedly they averaged out to something like 5 feet tall if they were full people and not just skeletons (skin and stuff has got to add a bit of height). Not only are there actually a ridiculous amount of mutations every generation, there are so many things other than genes that directly effect evolution as well, even the food we eat. You can plainly see a whole bunch of differences when comparing kids to their parents. One thing that I found out that surprised me is that supposedly less than 10% of our DNA really does anything more than just fill a space. Apparently there are many genes that exist simply to get taken out by a genetic virus. I don't really know what a genetic virus is, but if you just think about how random genetics is it makes sense to think that much of it must just be like someone mashing on a keyboard, if you put that mashing together enough times you're bound to accidentally make a real word eventually. With all the 'lines of code' in DNA, this happens numerous times each generation. Not only that, but you have natural selection to insure that these words build on to each other to build sentences which completely fit the context of what that organism does. The same sentence can have so many different meanings depending on how it is used as well. Like tusks for example; not only can they be used to kill enemies, but among creatures who have them they are considered status symbols and usually quite attractive to the females. As you already know, evolution is far from a linear thing. I just think that despite what you know, you still underestimate it. I think we all do, because it is one of those ideas that you can keep feeding and coming up with different things. Even the idea of saying that one trait is 'beneficial' while another one isn't is kind of flawed because you can use these traits in so many different contexts that you're bound to find SOMETHING useful to some end in genes that are seemingly bad. Also, if you take everything I have just said and break it down into metaphors you can apply all of it to music as well. I would encourage everyone who is interested in this stuff to research the Theory of Relativity. If you put evolution and relativity together and apply all of that to music... wow.
    Zeppelin Addict
    Redd_dymond wrote: Hey man, its more than a metaphor. The whole point of the article is to show that both processes are almost exactly the same, which I think is quite profound, especially from a biological perspective.
    As is everything my friend. Evolution is the same process no matter what the medium. Be it clothes, food, music or physicality and mentality of the human race.
    Redd_dymond
    Zeppelin Addict wrote: Exactly this. I to had the same one and only problem with your article. Otherwise, great job it was an interesting read and quite a nice metaphor for musical evolution.
    Hey man, its more than a metaphor. The whole point of the article is to show that both processes are almost exactly the same, which I think is quite profound, especially from a biological perspective.
    Divinephyton wrote: But I just don't like the analogy, because in a certain sense it is quite determinative. I don't feel comfortable with liking evolution to the produce of our minds, which I feel is where a much larger degree of freedom lies (even though yea determined freedom bla bla).
    I agree, I am quite the libertarian myself. You have the (scientifically inexplicable) freedom to create what music you want, but whether or not it is successful is beyond your control. Hence, lots of small freedoms --> seemingly deterministic world in many respects. I also agree with points 2 and 3, although it seems they are regrettable truths
    Divinephyton
    It's a good article and probably has more valid and grounded points than my next points, which are probably non-based and subjective opinions, that might make me look like a pompous fool though. But I just don't like the analogy, because in a certain sense it is quite determinative. I don't feel comfortable with liking evolution to the produce of our minds, which I feel is where a much larger degree of freedom lies (even though yea determined freedom bla bla). Secondly I find the current over-division of music into genres and 'scenes' regrettable and for a large part artificial over-economy-minded marketing nonsense, even though it's largely accepted and usually taken as is. Third I don't like 'trendyness' and the need for 'a next big thing', which is where the large economic influence and overratedness of social capital (known as cool) in modern music and art comes in. I would like to liken the modern music world to the the 'capitalist virus' instead of to evolution.
    Gitaarbanaan
    Everyone knows that evolution can pressure to 1 or 2 extremes, OR fancy the heterozygote version..,my point being that it is very well possible as well for the audience to become to prefer an older genre Heavy metal will never die! :p
    felakutihimself
    link no1 wrote: So unless you like "Djent" (which to me sounds mostly like noise) you are screwed in the world of metal?
    Not really, there will always be other subgenres. There were other bands releasing awesome music when Nu Metal became the face of heavy metal, you can expect the same hopefully. I mean awesome bands like Cynic, Opeth, Intronaut, Deftones, Alice in Chains, Karnivool, Agalloch, Porcupine Tree, Protest the Hero, BTBAM and Mastodon are still active and releasing material. So the future doesn't look that grim.
    link no1
    So unless you like "Djent" (which to me sounds mostly like noise) you are screwed in the world of metal?
    Zeppelin Addict
    felakutihimself wrote: While I like the article and agree with most of it, I have to disagree with what your saying about "djent" not going mainstream in the near future. Your saying because the genre is technical, it won't appeal to people. Look at 80's Shred Metal, guitarists were overtly technical and solos were excessively fast. That was what drew their audience. Before that, there was the prog rock movement, when bands like Pink Floyd, Yes, Rush and King Crimson were becoming very popular. There music was technical as well and many people were drawn to it for that reason. Therefore, I don't see technicality in music as a reason for people not to find a genre appealing. In fact I see it as the opposite way. Just like the more simplistic grunge/nu-metal ended the 80's technical shred metal craze, the more technical Prog Metal/Djent will end the simplistic nu metal/post grunge popularity these days. And in the future, when djent becomes stagnant and unoriginal, a more simplistic genre will take over. This is one of the factors of musical evolution, the tastes are determined through technicality. A generation that grew up in technical music will prefer more simplistic music, and vice versa. But I think the article was enjoyable and I agree with a lot of it.
    Exactly this. I to had the same one and only problem with your article. Otherwise, great job it was an interesting read and quite a nice metaphor for musical evolution.
    felakutihimself
    While I like the article and agree with most of it, I have to disagree with what your saying about "djent" not going mainstream in the near future. Your saying because the genre is technical, it won't appeal to people. Look at 80's Shred Metal, guitarists were overtly technical and solos were excessively fast. That was what drew their audience. Before that, there was the prog rock movement, when bands like Pink Floyd, Yes, Rush and King Crimson were becoming very popular. There music was technical as well and many people were drawn to it for that reason. Therefore, I don't see technicality in music as a reason for people not to find a genre appealing. In fact I see it as the opposite way. Just like the more simplistic grunge/nu-metal ended the 80's technical shred metal craze, the more technical Prog Metal/Djent will end the simplistic nu metal/post grunge popularity these days. And in the future, when djent becomes stagnant and unoriginal, a more simplistic genre will take over. This is one of the factors of musical evolution, the tastes are determined through technicality. A generation that grew up in technical music will prefer more simplistic music, and vice versa. But I think the article was enjoyable and I agree with a lot of it.
    megaslaythrax
    i think there needs to be a renaissance of the good old stuff. You can kind of see it with the release of new albums by new bands like Megadeth and Testament. But I think people nowadays should start playing the older stuff. A lot of what I hear from new bands is the same stuff. There's no real originality to it. I'm trying to start a 60s-80s cover band to bring back both the rare and amazing music of rock, blues, and metal. Sure, it's not the same as writing a new great song, but it's still a way to get in touch with our musical roots. We really need to get into our past or the future is gonna suck