"Beware The Spectre Of Polyphony": Seven Innovations That Have Been Accused Of Killing Music

T-Pain: Accused of killing music with the microphone, on the Internet.
T-Pain: Accused of killing music with the microphone, on the Internet.

People have been concerned for a very long time with what's killing music. The current boogeyman is undoubtedly Auto-Tune, the pitch-correction software that can both sweeten off-key voices and create new vocal effects. Some have long protested its ubiquity: It will kill real vocals! Live performances will die out! It makes human performers sound like robots! But it also falls into a rich tradition of new musical ideas that were thought to be on the very verge of killing music forever—which is another way of saying "changing music a little," of course. Let's look back at seven centuries' worth of music's impending demise and see what we can learn.

POLYPHONY Early on within the Western traditional, sacred music was largely monophonic: Listeners heard just a melody without any accompaniment, like those Gregorian chants that were big in the '90s. Once the idea of harmonizing notes began to sneak in (whether from folk music or non-Western countries), the Church freaked out about this corruption of pure monophony, and Pope John XXII banned the technique in 1322. Complaining that clerics "do not fear to dance licentiously in the church cemeteries, and at times sing silly songs," he made a "kids today" case against polyphony:

These composers, knowing nothing of the true foundation upon which they must build, are ignorant of the church modes, incapable of distinguishing between them, and cause great confusion. The great number of notes in their compositions conceals from us the plainchant melody, with its simple well-regulated rises and falls that indicate the character of the church mode. These musicians run without pausing. They intoxicate the ear without satisfying it; they dramatize the text with gestures; and, instead of promoting devotion, they prevent it by creating a sensuous and indecent atmosphere.

ATONALITY Once polyphony was accepted, there followed another few centuries' worth of battles over what was and wasn't a "true" harmony; augmented fifths were known as the "devil's interval" and generally avoided by more conservative composers. In The Rest is Noise, Alex Ross details the slow avant-garde growth of chords throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, with composers eventually growing the traditional three-note cluster into a twelve-note blare, to much decrying. But the most famous example of atonality's danger is the "riot" that went down at the premiere of Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring" in 1913. In response to the harmonically radical opening section, audience members began arguing with and eventually punching one another, prompting the police to be called. Atonality continued to be occasionally blamed for hysteria and other types of fun.

MUSIC PUBLISHING Sacred music was often not written down, but was instead taught through the oral "viva voce" tradition from teacher to student. Once transcription became possible, art music became a carefully guarded possession of the affluent, who had the resources to obtain scores and learn the repertoire well enough to perform the pieces publicly. Everyone else had folk music, and the two rarely met. But with the advent of the printing press, new compositions could be widely distributed. Combined with the mass production of pianos, popular music became possible. Everyone could buy sheet music and perform it at home for one another. That was pop music, at least at first. Allowing the masses access to formerly sacred pieces performed before only by trained professionals caused some consternation, but by the end of the 19th century, that music was everywhere.

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