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? . ?
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!