What Will Music Be Like in 100 Years? Much the Same As It Is Now
Who's your tip for the top in 2013?
You know what? Nevermind.
Let's you and me help each other out. This is an uncertain time of year for many of us -- the new year. A new start, a new end: a new frame within which to plot and imagine our future. It's a fucking drag, if you ask me -- made no better by prognostications of the coming year in music in every nook and cranny of the music press. So let's try to make the best of it; let's have some fun. Let's learn something a little more useful than who the most hotly tipped bands are for the next twelve months.
Let's leave 2013 to others to play parlor games with. Instead, let's you and me imagine what it will be like to hear music in the year 2113.
Okay, then! [Stares befuddled into a 4 p.m. sunset. Bing Crosby's Merry Christmas album stuck in lockgroove on the turntable in the corner.]
So how do we begin to see 100 years into the future? (Excellent question, and thanks for asking it.) We begin, as the late sociologist Elise Boulding wisely inferred in her 1988 essay "The 200-Year Present," by thinking about the future as an extension of this moment -- essentially, we broaden our perspective.
The question to ask then is: What is permanent about now? What is it about music in this moment that we can project onto the future, any future, with near certainty? In other words, what are music's constants? Not from last quarter's sales figures. And not from the "digital age." But for all times.
I can think of three. First, it's a social art, in the way it draws groups of people together (and these days, those groups tend to be larger than ever -- despite what music's increasing portability in these past 100 years have suggested should've happened to the medium's sociability). Second, music is an unavoidably philosophical art, in the way its lack of "thingness" tends to draw our attention to matters of pure spirit.
But lastly and most helpfully to we junior futurologists, music is an immensely proceative art; as neuroscientists are discovering more and more this century, and as an Emory University researcher named Sarah Earp found in a recent study by which she observed the brain patterns of sparrows as they responded to birdsong.
This elan vital is the essential quality of music I'd like us to project onto this future we're imagining together. Earp found the sparrows heard some calls discordantly, and they rejected those. Others the sparrows embraced. Those calls that gave the sparrows pleasure were felt more keenly during mating season. "The neural response to birdsong appears to depend on social context, which can be the case with humans as well," Earp reported. "Both birdsong and music elicit responses not only in brain regions associated directly with reward, but also in interconnected regions that are thought to regulate emotion. That suggests that they both may activate evolutionarily ancient mechanisms that are necessary for reproduction and survival."
So what will listening to music look like in 2113? The technology that brings it to us might seem impossible to imagine right now. But we can begin to picture the future of listening by pushing the implications of Earp's study a little further and agreeing music's purpose and greatest constant is, in part, aphrodisiacal: out of life, music teases more life. At least this was Darwin's conclusion in The Decent of Man in Relation to Sex. And it's a theory that's been revived in the past five years or so by evolutionary biologists, after nearly a century-and-a-half in the scientific wilderness.
If you want a scoop on what music will look like in 100 years, I can provide two gauzy pictures from which to start. The first is science fictional. It's the kind of future that writers as diverse as Walter Van Tilburg Clark (in his 1941 short story "The Portable Phonograph") and J.G. Ballard (in his Vermillion Sands stories) proposed. It's an exotic future, one of strange alloys and as-yet unthinkable epistemological breaks. It's the kind of future projected onto our own present, nearly five centuries ago, when the real Cyrano de Bergerac wrote of little wooden boxes encasing all manner of springs that would one day play recorded sounds for our pleasure and edification.
But the second picture is more spectacular still. And yet it's more native to us. In fact, it's the future within us. This picture is the one I'd like your help conjuring. Imagine with me again Earp's sparrows. Try to animate them. Picture these birds wooing one another with their songs: life begins there, in those melodies. A good tune is like love that way. We've always known this innately. And now we're mining the data to back it up. Imagining the future of listening turns out to be much easier than we might have guessed, because music is the future, enfolded into now.
How do we begin to see a hundred years into the future? We begin, in fact, by listening. Because when we listen to music, the future is always present.