17 August 2017

The End of Music

An illustration by Mark Stamarty taken from Culturebox
Predictions have never been my strong point.  It seems that just about everything I have predicted has not come about.  In the past, this has caused me some embarrassment and a considerable amount of bruised pride, but with my latest prediction, I earnestly hope that I am proved wrong.

I predict the demise of music.  One day, not in my lifetime, possibly not in that of my daughter, but quite probably in that of her children and certainly by the time of the subsequent generation, music will have become extinct.

Naturally, I need to define what I mean by music before explaining why its destruction seems to me inevitable.

By music I do not mean musical sounds – those accidental noises, not necessarily originating from mankind, which seem to us to have a musical quality – but that art form which, ever since the earliest of human civilizations, has been used for the gratification, inspiration and entertainment of man and involves pre-meditated combinations of pitch and/or rhythm and which is disseminated by means of sound.  Today we may talk about Folk, Pop or Classical music as distinct genres – as, indeed, they are – but my prognosis sadly refers to all of those.

To understand why I believe it is in terminal decline, we need to look both at history and at Man’s relationship with the environment.

History first.  Although few today realise this, music was not part of most people’s lives until about a century ago.  For the vast majority of the world’s population, music simply just did not exist until the invention of recording.  Before that, if you wanted to hear music, you had to make a sacrifice, and one which only a few were either able or prepared to make.  You had no control over what you heard, you had to make a conscious decision to hear music, you needed to travel to a specific location where music was being performed, and in most cases you had to devote considerable personal resources both to reach the location and then to gain entry.  Music did not happen every day, and your exposure to it was determined by forces beyond your control.  Christians usually had access to music at worship in their churches, but only a very small percentage of the world’s population were Christians, and few other religions used music to the same extent in worship.  

Going back still further in time, music was denied to all except the aristocratic or religious elite, and going even further back, it was seen as the sole possession of rulers and gods.  (I have never subscribed to the romantic notion that peasants were routinely entertained in the fields by roving hordes of travelling musicians – for this to have happened, it seems to me, there would have been so many travelling musicians that there would not have been any peasants left to work the fields!)  So, for most of human history, music was an irrelevance.  Those ridiculous people who claim they cannot live without music should know not only that they can, but that their ancestors most certainly did; the absence of music did them no harm whatsoever.

As for our relationship with our environment, we have seen – in my own lifetime – the destruction of much of our natural world.  Species become extinct, natural habitats are destroyed, pollution poisons rivers, seas and land, and as climate changes, our very existence seems to be under threat.  In all of these cases, much of the harm has been done by man’s complete indifference to the environment.  We have plundered natural resources without regard to their sustainability, we have damaged the atmosphere without thinking of the long-term consequences, and we have hunted, fished and slaughtered with an abandon which has outstripped the abilities of animal and fish stocks to regenerate.  In short, we have been in grave danger of destroying our environment simply because we have taken it for granted. 

Unlike most natural resources, music is not a finite resource.  But it is an abstract one, and as such possibly needs more care and attention because we do not really know where it comes from or what it is.  We only know our own intellectual and emotional responses to it without fully understanding what its true nature is.  Yet we still take it for granted and, unable to see the parallels between Man’s relationship with the environment and Man’s relationship with music, are heedlessly heading down exactly the same path.  Our indifference to music, our assumption that it needs no protection and our simple taking it for granted will finish it off before we are really aware of what is happening.

Today, unlike 100 years ago, music is all around us.  We cannot escape it.  It is used as a tool to make us buy, to help us eat, to calm our nerves, to get us excited, to make us change our emotional state, to encourage us to spend money, to spur us on to dance and move.  It is used to exercise our intellectual and motor skills.  It is used as a game, a competitive sport, as a recreation activity and as a background to onerous tasks.  In short, music has become all things to all men, and in so doing has lost its very raison d’être.  Music is now used as a substitute rather than something in its own right.  And, as with any substitute, it can just as quickly and comprehensively be substituted by something else.  Once music is used as an adjunct rather than an object, it no longer has any purpose and its survival hangs on a knife edge, ready to collapse as soon as something new comes along able to take its place.

Even today, as we ask young people about music, we learn from their responses that music no longer has anything unique about it.  They will talk of “seeing” music; a generation raised on music as being a visual stimulus can no longer listen to music without the benefit of visual images, and there has been a marked change in music as perceived as being accompanied by images to images perceived as being accompanied by music.  They will talk of music as being “emotion”; yet emotion exists without music.  And many will say that music helps them work, relax or think, activities which can easily be undertaken without music.  If, for them music does not exist in its own right, how long before they recognise the irrelevance of music and replace it with something else?

Until that disastrous year of 2012 when I lost all my worldly possessions, I had a collection of many thousand sound recordings.  People used to ask me why I had so many and that, surely, I did not need so many nor even have a chance to listen to them all.  I used to come up with what I thought was a pretty good response, and even now, as my CD collection has risen, once again, well into four figures, I excuse its enormity by suggesting that I can listen to anything I want, when I want, and, for my professional purposes, have access to just about every piece of music I might need to refer to.  Similar arguments are put forward by those who build up ridiculously huge playlists or who cannot travel any distance without access to a music-sharing device.  Yet I, like them, am guilty of abusing music, of treating it as a commodity which I need to have access to at any time of day or night.

Music is not a commodity, it is a luxury which, treated properly, can enhance our lives in a way no other thing can.  But like a dependent drug, initially taken to alleviate a medical problem, continued reliance on it to the point of addiction negates its value and leaves us open to a recurrence of the problems for which it was originally taken as a palliative.  The parallel between music and addictive drugs is one which we should not ignore.  Look around at the people on trains, planes and buses; are they not all totally addicted to music as ingested by means of digital devices and small white leads plugged into the ears?

By taking music for granted, as we do, and by using it for purposes and to achieve ends it was never intended to satisfy, we are risking losing it altogether.  Once its unique purpose is lost, it becomes valueless.

Is there a solution? Can we ensure music is restored to its place as a unique art form rather than a ubiquitous accompaniment to life?  I think there is, but one which is so unpalatable that it will, surely, never be adopted.

I suggest one international music-free day.  24 hours during which it will be impossible to listen to, hear or have any exposure to music.  Most of our radio channels will close, shops, hotels and transport hubs will cease to function, gymnasia and other sports arenas will be emptied and major multi-national companies will see their share values plummet.  The more you think about losing music for a day, the more profound the repercussions are.  Yet that in itself is symptomatic of our wholescale abuse of music.  How has something so elevated, special and unique reached a point whereby it props up just about every human activity?

Music MUST be valued and our exposure to it limited, if it is to survive for future generations.


  1. How refreshing it is to read an obituary for all music -- not just classical!

    I am surprised to hear your comments on the sparseness of music in the past. One reads about vibrant-ish working class and peasants cultures, including musical ones. And what about the songs of African American slaves? Is your argument still true if you replaced ‘the world’ with ‘the West’?

    As for the International Music-Free Day proposal, it is too optimistic. I think many people would find themselves enjoying the absence of music from public spaces. Only a minority of the population responds to music in any meaningful way. You fast, you get hungry. You don’t sleep, you get tired. You lose street lighting, you become more acutely aware and fearful of the dark. But what actually happens when you lose music? For most people, as you imply, it would create no black hole in their lives.

    It’s been a joy to discover your blog, by the way!


    1. Before the 17th century music was unknown to the vast majority of peasant classes, and before the 14th century it simply did not exist outside the lives of rulers and religious leaders. Evidence of musical cultures in peasant classes before the 19th century is both sparse and very dubious. Thanks for your comments!