The Process of Natural Selection in Music

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drawing of Charles Darwin on red back ground with the text "viva la evolution" on the foreground

An English naturalist by the name of Charles Darwin shook the grounds of the scientific community on November 24, 1859, when his work “On the Origin of Species” was published.

In the book, Darwin explains that every species obtains variations in traits including size, color, physical structure, and organs. Darwin suggests that one of the most crucial aspects of these variations is the way that they allow a species to survive and adapt to their environment. This notion suggests that slight differences in traits within the same species can increase the chance of certain organisms to adapt and survive while decreasing the chance of others.

For example, organisms that are able to blend into their surroundings and remain unseen from their predators will have a superior chance of surviving when compared to members of the same species who cannot blend into their surroundings. Additionally, a giraffe with a longer neck than other giraffes will be more likely to eat and thus survive than the giraffes with shorter necks because it can reach leaves on the top of a tree after the lower leaves have been depleted.

Organisms that survive mate with other organisms that survive. The traits that allowed the organisms of a specific species to survive are then passed on to the offspring through DNA. This development, over time, refines the species as a whole to obtain traits that increase the species’ chance of survival and adaptation. This process is known as natural selection.

Does music face the same type of natural selection? If culture is the environment, it would make sense that individuals who make up the culture set the conditions to which the music must adapt and survive. The members within the culture collectively pick and choose what they enjoy listening to, support it, and discard the unwanted. As a result, music progresses and evolves as the disliked or unwanted characteristics of music are left behind since they weren’t fit to survive in the conditions. The surviving characteristics merge and create music that the culture has naturally selected.

Simply put, culture cultivates aspects that are congruent with the culture’s ideals.

This process could plausibly explain why the Western culture (as a whole) no longer listens to Gregorian Chant. Instead, over time, the culture has introduced, accepted, rejected, and refined specific musical traits that aligned with popular ideals. The current tech-savvy and media craving culture we live in today deeply desires sex appeal and electronic presence such as auto-tune, drum machines, and synthesizers.

See Ke$ha for reference…

While specific musical genres of the past are capable of surviving with the support of a small community within any particular culture, they pale in comparison with pop music of the time. Baroque music is certainly supported by well-trained musicians, scholars, and a crowd of music goers. However, Baroque music would be placed on the endangered species list when compared with pop music or rap in today’s culture.

This cycle of natural selection in music will continue as long as culture changes. Eventually, the music of The Beatles will exit the pop stage and a small community of musicians, scholars, and music goers will voluntarily take on the responsibility of keeping the music alive. There will also be a time when a small community will gather to collectively keep the music of Snoop Dogg, Kanye West, Jay-Z, and the likes alive.

The notion may sound odd now, but history has a track record of repeating its self.