Are Today’s Artists More Uniform and Less Musically Adventurous than Those of Yesteryear?

Do you remember those not-so-long-ago times when soda came in glass bottles, drive-in-movies were still a thing, and tomatoes actually tasted like tomatoes?

Even though in most ways we are generally better off now than we used to be, it’s easy to look back and romanticize the “good old days.” Whether we call it declinism (bad) or nostalgia (not so bad), it’s pretty common to gripe about the state of things today, bemoaning the declining craftsmanship and build quality of our furniture, the dwindling number of doctors who make house calls, or  those NBA players who are all about flashy highlight plays and lack the fundamentals of the Larry Birds and Hakeem Olajuwons of decades past.

The same sentiment crops up in the arts as well, where some musicians have observed that there seem to be fewer unique artists nowadays – that the musicians of yesteryear were more idiosyncratic, remarkable, unique, and had more to say than those of today.

For instance, Canadian conductor Boris Brott once remarked that while 50 years ago one could tell immediately which orchestra was performing a given work, nowadays, orchestras have become “very similar and often (are) lacking in personality.” He goes on to say that “It will be important to regain a sense of personality in our art…it remains for those of us who are entrusted to its future (the orchestra) to use the best in our imagination to assure its health and development for future generations.”

Another conductor, Franz-Paul Decker, noted that “Musicmaking nowadays is mostly without soul and heart (unfortunately) in spite of really technically fabulous playing (by soloists)… When (Fritz) Kreisler (played the violin) you had either a smile (on) your face or tears in your eyes.”

Violinist Ivry Gitlis expressed similar thoughts in a recent interview, saying “…Elman, Kreisler, Heifetz, Milstein, Menuhin, Busch, Sammons, Oistrakh, Francescatti, Huberman, Enescu, Szigeti… Each one of them playing the same music would be a completely different work. Today you have marketable potential if you fit into a certain format that one can sell without too much of a problem.”

Is this simply a reflection of our tendency to look favorably at the past, or are we truly becoming more “cookie-cutter-like” in our approach to making music?

The evolution of music

I didn’t turn up any studies which address this debate in the classical realm (please let me know if I missed something), but there is a study of the evolution of western popular music that provided some interesting insights.

The music analyzed in this study was part of the Million Song Dataset – a huge file that includes the audio “signature” of 464,411 songs from 1955 to 2010 across a range of genres, such as rock, pop, hip hop, metal, and electronic. To get a sense of how massive a collection of songs that is, the authors calculated that it would take about 1200 days, listening 24 hours a day, to get through the entire playlist.

The researchers were primarily interested in seeing how popular music had evolved over 50 years, and looked at three key elements of the music contained in this dataset – pitch, timbre, and loudness.

Pitch included details about harmony, melody, chords, and progressions – essentially how the notes were arranged and unfolded over the course of the song.

Timbre related to the color, texture, and quality of sounds used in the song, for instance the choice of instruments as well as recording techniques which affect this aspect of sound.

And loudness, of course, is about the inherent volume of the music itself, before any adjustments by the listener.

Less variety, but louder

The researchers found that while there was a lot of same-ness among all the songs in the dataset (even over a span of 50 years), there were three trends.

In terms of pitch, the data suggested that the variety of pitch progressions used has shrunk over the years. In other words, musicians are becoming less inventive and adventurous in how they get from one note or chord to the next, and instead seem to be relying more and more on the same sequences and patterns that others have used successfully in the past.

A similar homogenization seemed to occur with timbre. Whether it’s due to an increasing reliance on the same instrumentation, or the utilization of the same limited toolbox of recording techniques, the palette of sound colors/texture/tone present in recordings has diminished as well.

(When you get a chance, check out this amusing fake pop song , which is a collection of all the cliches which illustrate the sameness the study gets at.)

Meanwhile, everything is getting louder. Which might not seem like a big deal (just turn down the volume knob, right?), until you start to notice that when everything is louder, the dynamic range becomes much more restricted. As in, the contrast between the really soft stuff, and the really loud stuff shrinks, so the overall emotional impact of the music is reduced. Check out this video for a vivid demonstration of what this sounds like.

Take action

It’s not fair to compare popular musicians and classical musicians of course, so it’s not clear what an analysis of classical music recordings would yield.

But what is your impression of today’s music scene? Are musicians/orchestras/chamber music groups today more uniform and undistinguishable than the great artists of years past? Or is our perspective just skewed?

Leave your vote in the comments below (“yes, musicians are more alike each other today” or “no, musicians today are as unique and distinct from one another as they ever were”) – and to make things more fun, I’d love if you could also post a YouTube link to one of your favorite examples of a musician (current or past) who has a unique, distinctive, artistic voice.

Additional reading

I’m currently fascinated by Norman Lebrecht’s book The Life and Death of Classical Music, which chronicles the birth, rise, and fall of the classical music recording industry from Caruso in 1902 through the year 2006, with lots of interesting anecdotes about legendary figures such as Artur Schnabel and Wilhelm Kempff along the way.

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30 Responses

  1. “yes, musicians are more alike each other today”
    Does lack of originality nowadays has something to do with the mediatization of the violinists and the easy access to their recordings ?
    Last time, I heard a student listening to the recording of the concerto he was working on in the practice room.
    And I think it’s kind of a “danger”. If my teacher said to me, “well, music is much more available than before, why couldn’t you just get inspired from them. “. Does it mean that we are drawn to listen to the artists that are the greatest and copy them ?
    We should listen to recordings but in a reflective, deliberate way.
    Look at the music sheet first, think of the performative message of the piece, and decide.
    A “creative” way to listen to recordings, and there are musicians who do that, is to judge whether you think this recording is “too much” or “too little” something.
    So this is not only an affair of creativity but also an affair of having a critical eye about music.
    This is all the debate of the “authorities”. Who is the authority, so who should I “copy”.
    Personnally, the way I play is probably very influenced by the music I have listened to or have heard. I give an example, but if your parents turn on the radio which plays hip hop songs all the day long since you are born, you will maybe have a certain type of sensibility to music, and I don’t even speak in the case you are a prodigy.
    (Actually for this reason, because I do not want to be one of those who imitate a violinist to look like himher too much, and because I want to preserve my originality and creativity, I try to limit my access to Youtube, and to recordings of artists, I try to mostly listen to street or concert artists in real, and play to the music I want to listen to myself, even if I play a single voice)

  2. In a way, I think the past was more unique. On the other hand, we usually pick 10 or so musicians from the last 100 years… which isn’t really fair. As in, I don’t think Everyone was unique, but that the unique ones ‘ lived on’ after their death.

    For example, Volodos, Brendel and Schiff all have their different styles, and would easily be recognised in a group.

  3. Very interesting post Noa. The YouTube videos you linked to are great.

    I’m not sure if I can vote yes or no. I really don’t listen to “popular music” much at all. When I do hear it, I do think it all sounds pretty similar and relatively uninventive compared to what popular musicians in the past have done. However, a lot of the music I do listen to is very different and inventive. I wonder if there are as many unique and inventive musicians today as ever…but if they just aren’t getting representation/attention. Maybe there are formulas for commercial success today that are driving what gets produced, well marketed, and popular, but still as many unique and inventive musicians under the radar.

    1. ^This! Commercial, boring, cookie-cutter music sells *because* it’s generic and therefore appeals to a mass audience. There are more musicians out there than ever before, and many of them are producing glorious music that would never make the mainstream but that is extremely varied and interesting. My example to you is IAMX, the new project of ex-Sneaker Pimps singer Chris Corner. He’s making incredibly beautiful, original and moving music under the radar of the mainstream:

      Although there are undoubtedly countless more that I haven’t heard, who are also doing something just as unique.

  4. I blame the way music has been taught. At least in the piano world, creativity, improvisation, and playing by ear have been squeezed out by an exclusive focus on reading. If you want inventiveness, look for artists who play their own compositions and actively improvise. I’ve spent my entire career actively doing this and teaching “recovering classical pianists” to learn to play “off page” in camps, conferences, articles, and books. There’s a lot of fear to overcome and we have a long way to go but there are signs that the winds are changing back to a more comprehensive teaching approach that balances the eye and the ear.

  5. True and untrue at the same time.
    There are far more violinists (musicians) now, far more recordings, you really can’t compare the situation before with now. Also the facts that the repertoire is much better known by the public and that, as a whole, musicians have better command over their instruments, all that has an impact on “diversity”, or perceived diversity. Busch’s playing was terrible, for instance; if someone showed up today and played like that (on the classical scene of course), he wouldn’t last long – just as Busch did in the USA which were always more “modern” than Europe, i.e. in Busch’s time, America was already more like now than Europe was.

    Another aspect is society, consumerism, fast-paced life, pop music… I personally know many high profile musicians of today: the only one who has deep inside knowledge and understanding about music, is cultivated like people used to be (think Kreisler, who read Homer in Greek etc.), is a pianist mentioned above whose name begins with V. And of course Leon Fleisher and the like, but he’s a different generation. Many soloists today listen to pop music (or metal, rap…), which in my opinion is not only different but so contrary to classical music (“organized noise”, says V.), that you can forget about any insight into Bach or Beethoven. Musicians now are talented mass products.

    Don’t make the wrong assumption that being an artist is about “creativity”. Younger musicians think they’re being “personal” or “creative” when they change the rhythm here, make a glissando there, and make totally unmusical rubato in the wrong places. Being a real musician is about understanding better, seeing farther in to the music. Sometimes this means that you won’t sound different than other people. But to people in the audience who are receptive, what you play will make sense and will mean so much more.

    As to loudness: a friend of mine who’s a great musician and took lessons with Menuhin and Szeryng among others says that violinists (and cellists) in the past used to produce a louder tone than people can now, one of the reasons being that they didn’t press as hard and let the violin sound freely. I agree with him. And Frans Helmerson does too when he says “Think big and you’ll play big”.

  6. Yes, I feel like originality is decreasing in performance. Part of it is in response to performing older pieces with “historical accuracy.” And lots of contemporary music is so very specific on how it should be played. In baroque times for example it was expected that a performer would improvise on what was on the page. In many competitions and such, you get marked down for not performing things “properly.” But in the world of classical composition, I would say the opposite. Today’s composers combine styles from the last five to six hundred years and pull in influences from around the globe, creating very new and interesting and beautiful sounds. Sadly as others have mentioned, popular opinion affects recordings and listeners have become less adventurous. Much of the music with greater variety and artistry flies under the radar.

  7. To me it seems like many North American conservatories essentially “teach to the test” with the test being orchestral auditions (for the applicable instruments). I can’t blame them because an orchestral career is what many students want and also one of the few more stable employment options for many instrumentalists…but, especially at the early rounds of the audition, the focus seems to become “get it right” as opposed to any sort of individual expression, forcing applicants into an environment where being machine-like may get you the best results.

  8. If you want a good reference for studying stylistic convergence in twentieth-century classical performance as well as evidence of diversity in early-twentieth-century recordings I would recommend reading any of Robert Philip’s work. Look up his article, “Traditional Habits of Performance in Early-Twentieth Centuey Recording of Beethoven” to get started. He also has a great article on the pervasive influence of Schnabel’s recordings on subsequent artists.

    This is a really important topic that is not well studied.

    Chris Hatton

  9. Modified yes: classically trained musicians looking for hot-swappable orchestra jobs are forced to pursue sameness to keep from annoying that one person in the jury who can tank them, even if the other people on the jury are fainting in adoration.

    Meanwhile, there’s lots of uniqueness and individuality elsewhere, outside of the world where 500 people show up to audition for one part-time bassoon position, and where competitions force sameness because annoying a panel member with too individual an interpretation bears more danger than wooing another with the same interpretation bears benefit.

  10. No, I don’t believe that musicians are any different than in the past. What is different is that the mainstream radio only publicizes the same sound. They use a formula and when an artist fits it, they are promoted.

    I go to various jams and hear some amazing artists, who will never be played on the radio or make much money professionally. If it doesn’t make a lot of money, really quickly, there is little interest in distributing it. The genres vary from Rock to Depression Blues to Jazz to Country and believe me the talent is still alive.

    The internet puts the music back in control of the musicians and that isn’t bad.

  11. I think one factor is the globalization of music. This means musicians across the world are influenced by the same performers and repertoire. Compare that to the late 1960s when British musicians took influences from black American recorded music and overlaid that on an upbringing in British church and folk music and the result was heavy rock. I’m not sure that combinations like that are so likely when culture is so homogenous.

  12. I would say that yes, performers do sound more similar to each other today than they did in the past. People have already given wonderful examples and explanations, so I’ll just add my two cents: In my experience, teachers often seem to care more about teaching students to play everything “the right way” — with the most popularly accepted interpretation — than about teaching them how to form interpretations of their own.

  13. I think this an interesting debate. I’ll be honest, I’m not convinced it’s true. We are hand-selecting a few giants in the classical realm with careers spanning decades and comparing them to “today’s” musicians, many of whom have neither the skill nor the breadth of experience. We are also dealing with an era unprecedented in the number of musicians who turn out to become classical performers. As a clarinetist, with the three big orchestras holding principal auditions — New York, Chicago, and Cleveland — all within the last few years, the discussion often turns to whether or not the three men who held those positions would be able to win it back if they were auditioning blindly in today’s scene. The general consensus is “not likely” because of the technical demands and perfection expected. Is it because of mediatization? I think so. I think it is also because of the sheer number of applicants; you have to start with a baseline somewhere.

    I will be interested to see, in another 50 years, if the musicians leading the scene today will have the career longevity of people like Menuhin and what their music sounds like after literally half a century of soloing.

    On a pop culture note, I will at least say that while I don’t listen to Taylor Swift, I can recognize her signature every time I’m in a store or restaurant. At least there, in all the same-ness, certain individuals will stand out.

  14. I am a classical clarinetist and while we are taught to “play for auditions” in a way that may sound the same, when we solo and play chamber music, our originality is highly sought after! Those that do something different or sound different are going to have a lasting effect. I do like a lot of other music including some pop music. I watch “The Voice” and even those musicians- Ferrell Williams, Adam Levin, are on the lookout for those voices that are recognizable, that stand out, that upon first hearing you know are special, and will be recognized immediately upon a 2nd hearing. They repeatedly say they want “artists” – those that can do something different with songs that have been beat to death with covers. I think we all should be striving for our own unique sound, it just may take awhile to find it!

  15. I should also say that I don’t feel that this is the case with soloists. Orchestra players are being flattened out as students, but I feel that today’s soloists are a million times better than the ones from yesteryear. I remember going on a weird “Paganini-24” hunt on YouTube once, and I could tell the difference between Hahn, Hadelich, and Pine in my sleep. When I listened to the oldies, they were robotic and uninteresting in contrast, at least to me. Hahn, Hadelich, and Pine were incredibly unique, and each put their own very distinctive spin on the thing, but honestly, most of the message I got from the so-called “Golden Age” guys was “aren’t I great look how fast my fingers can go.” It seemed to be enough to just play it back then and wow people with how hard it was, whereas now, when YouTube is full of little kids that can play that thing at age seven, just being able to play it isn’t enough.

  16. Yes, I think we’ve sacrificed character and individuality for a little more volume in our instruments as well- at least string players. Steel strings with extreme tension have narrowed our tastes. It is all debatable but it does seem to bear resemblance to pop music trends. This is my favorite cellist, he actually does use steel strings haha, but his tone and style are still highly unique.

  17. To give the thought a turn, consider this. A perceived lack of differentiation among performers’ expressive personalities may be more the responsibility of listeners than performers.

    To the uninitiated, most red wines taste remarkably similar. In World War 2, Allied codebreakers applied such great time and attention to their work that they could distinguish unique German radio operators. For myself, I can’t tell you by watching a game the differences of style that distinguish two basketball teams, but I can with two soccer teams. Such differences lie less with the number of distinctive observable features, or even their minuteness, than our willingness to observe them. No two phenomena are ever exactly alike. But, if one is fascinated, she can always find differences and assign value to those differences.

    Classical music performance is a highly refined skill set, but so is classical Indian music performance or composing isorhythmic music. In each case, the perceived refinement is more accessible to highly skilled and involved listeners than to casual or passive listeners. An argument could be made that modern instrumentalists can produce performances with more expressive content and nuance than (particular) audiences are willing to devote time or attention to discover.

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