The State of Music in the 21st Century

This article was written at the beginning of 2016 - where wrapping up the 20th century seems a bit overdue. At least to the author.

Ultimate Guitar
What can we say about the development of music, musicians and the various contexts in which they appear during the 20th century? Well for one, we can say that it's over. New Year's doesn't really argue about that.

Beyond that, we actually face an extremely complex landscape of diverse developments which in many cases can't even be easily separated from historical, political and technological developments that happened during our last century.

Neither rock (and various follow-ups), nor most of modern styles would have been able to happen the way they did without the widespread availability of electricity (which apparently only came up towards the end of the 19th century). Sounds kinda trivial, right? But the enormous effects of that fact become very quickly apparent when you start thinking about how work and possibilities for musicians has changed (let alone the sound and possibilities of the music itself). How easily could one become a musician in the 1990s as compared to someone living some decades before the first World War? Mozart certainly didn't have a friggin' garage band (let alone the software).

With changing (human) circumstances, musicians, their craft and their music start to change – and that becomes relevant to anyone working in or with music. Whatever comes beyond this (or any other) point will necessarily have to develop from whatever there is to be found in the current situation – trying to develop a grasp of what that situation and the development up to that point can potentially be an enormous help and advantage when working in the field. And even if you are "only" a hobbyist I already consider you as someone "working in the field" (just without the (theoretical) payment. And beside the potential values, looking at something like the history of people doing cool sounds is probably a lot more fun than a lot of other things (what a precise way to make an argument, right?).

Which brings us to the theme of this article – music and its various scenes, forms and people have fragmented to an enormous degree over the last 100 years. This is not intended as critique or the infamous "call for unification" or somesuch nonsense. It is simply the starting point from which any approach to music and its "state of the art" has to start.

The development and roots of pop music probably cannot be understood without knowing blues and jazz – yet their fanbases and musicians generally don't have to do much with each other (the same can probably be said about rock and follow-ups). Supposedly everything has been influenced by classical music (or is religiously claimed to have nothing to do with it), although how exactly either case can be grasped or understood is pretty much left hanging in the air ("Mach" in D minor anyone? (Google it)). Therefore, much work and understanding is to be done – at least the author would argue that.

Along with the changing landscape of the craft side of things, with new forms of production (recorded music anyone?) come new roles of music within human societies. The relevance of music in everyday life changes, as do the expectations towards it and musicians. All that mounts up to "old narratives" not really being appropriate or "working well" anymore.

Is the sign of musical genius divine inspiration? Talent? Drugs? Some combination? All three? Does musical genius even make sense? Is it all about feeling? Spirit? More drugs? Or is it about the infamous four-chord axis and some 4/4 electronically programmed drum pattern? So many question marks – and probably about as many answers as there are people you ask about music and their opinion on it.

So what does that mean for us? Well first of all, for getting any "good" picture, we probably are limited to 1) looking up a lot of info and history, and 2) can always only present and understand one string or aspect of a history that at this point is potentially too big to be fully reconstructable and understandable. That makes music an interesting thing to look into as well as a cheap way to learn some stuff – since learning about history really is friggin' boring most of the time (at least in their author's opinion). It also should make clear that whatever any one person says about music, its history, musicians and so on really is always some partial viewpoint that has been molded over time – and it might be as (un-)interesting and (in-)complete as anything that anyone else is saying (myself and yourself included).

Music is also something that does not "do itself" and requires some degree of mechanical competency and "taste development" (for lack of a better word). And since any work that has to be done completely alone is likely to suck pretty bad, looking at the works, viewpoints and whatever you can find by other people might be a very easy and efficient shortcut to get "better" and to make the whole thing a more enriching experience. Which I think are all good reasons to look into music – it is just important to understand that as of the 21st century, music is an enormously fragmented complex of references, note material, anecdotes, opinions, recordings, and much more, and not seeing it as such will probably make you miss out on most of the potentially interesting stuff.

About the Author:
David Sertl is a composer and guitarist based in Vienna, Austria. He also runs David's Music Guild, the Youtube channel telling you everything you (n)ever wanted to know about music. For more information you can visit his website.

8 comments sorted by best / new / date

    It's well written, but reads like an introduction to a much longer piece, on its own it doesn't really say much beyond "wow, music is really damn diverse". Focusing on different genres (though general, doubt many people would want to hear about the history of shoegazedownbeatporncore) or at least showing the changes music has undergone throughout the years would be nifty.
    So 21st century music is complex, good job! so dense.... you didnt really say anything there.
    He was implying that Mike Tyson speaks and spells like a 5 year old. In regards to your typographical error. Not that I think that comparing your typo to Mike Tyson's language problems is appropriate...just explaining.
    David Sertl
    Thanks for the answers, so let me reply. The Point of the article was to roughly Sketch Out that the situation is complex. If you knew that already - good for you, so sorry to waste your time. I didn't Set Out to specifically describe all existing styles, as only shortly describing each would Do them injustice (which is what I tried to Show in the article). Just understanding that 'enriches' whatever Music You Look at - in my experience anyway. But yes, I write somewhat densly, but that seems to be stylistic preference Don't understand the Tyson reference though, sry.