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


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.

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.

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.

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.

One of the styles that took advantage of this new boom was ragtime, a piano-centric fusion of European-style marches with the rhythms of blues and gospel music. By taking the classically derived melodies and marrying them to a syncopated beat, ragtime managed to hit both the “impure” thing and the “immoral” thing—syncopation is a hell of a lot more danceable than Sousa marches. Today, ragtime is used as a joke about old-timeyness on “Family Guy.”

Early sound recording was controversial in its own way; just as music publishing made performance something other than a direct experience of musical perfection, so did recording inevitably shift what it meant to play music. Pointing a microphone at a live band and recording it live didn’t seem too bad, but multitrack recording, seemed like cheating. We still see this uneasiness surrounding it today: the widespread outcry about ProTools around the change of the millennium was the complaint that you could just copy-and-paste pieces of sound endlessly. Multitrack recording is scheduled to be universally accepted right about when a new form of recording is developed.

These styles, both widely hated even today, represent the two terms under which new genres can be rejected by self-styled musical champions. Disco was rejected for its seeming lightness, its inconsequentiality and fun, and was burned; rap was rejected for its stylistic innovation, for being “not music,” and was banned. Both have become integral parts of the fabric of modern music, but are still occasionally seen as pernicious influences. (Note: If you like any music made after 1979, disco and rap didn’t ruin music.)

Since the invention of the synthesizer, people have been concerned with how purely digital electronic instruments or sound processing technology will affect music. They might ruin singing (Auto-Tune) or live sound (brick-wall compression). Synths, on the other hand, were accused of ruining guitars. They haven’t, of course.

The impulse to think that music is on the verge of being slain is understandable: People think that no matter what they have on their iPods, they’re already listening to the “best” music; favorite artists, whether the Rolling Stones, Jay-Z, Liz Phair, or Miles Davis, aren’t merely great—they’re “perfect.” No one thinks, “Yeah, I like the Beatles OK, but I’m really waiting for something slightly better to come along.” Because listening to music is a quasi-religious experience, any changes in how music is played, recorded, or consumed seem like blasphemy, and must be fought against. And so we do, again and again. But music will be just fine. Music always is.