Aesthetic Theory / Aesthetics / Cognitive Science / History / Music / Philosophy / Sounds

The “Growing Complexity Effect” in the History of Music

In both the classical music tradition and the jazz tradition there has been a trend towards increased complexity. In both cases, earlier pieces tend to follow a more regular “grammar”, with relatively regular harmonies and rhythmical patterns. In both traditions there is a trend towards more and more complex forms, complex rhythms and more complex and finally “atonal” harmonies. The same general trends can be observed in some other musical traditions as well. What is going on here?

In On Beauty I argued that the experience of beauty arises when we successfully discover some order or pattern in a stimulus. If the stimulus is too ordered, it becomes boring. If it is too complex, on the other hand, it becomes confusing. Between these poles is an area where there is a mix of order and disorder. If we can discover regularity, we are rewarded with the experience of beauty. In the most beautiful works of art and music, order and disorder are balanced in a way to enable us to discover some order, some correlation or structure between elements of the stimulus again and again.

However, when we listen to the music (or look at a work of art) we get to know it. Elements that where surprising initially become familiar. And this shifts the point of beauty towards complexity. Parts that were interesting initially may first become familiar and finally even boring. Parts that were initially confusing become more familiar and we begin to discover their structure. If we listen to music of a certain stile, we learn the typical structures of that style. It is like learning the grammar of a foreign language. As a result, some aspects of the music will become expected and familiar. The effect is the same as the effect of getting to know a particular piece: when we know the order already, we can no longer discover it. The emotion of reward for discovering structure fades. On the other hand, structures that were initially too complex to grasp are now becoming perceptible. As a result, the degree of complexity at which we experience beauty is shifting.

So the beauty of a piece of music or a work of art is not fixed; it depends on the knowledge of the listener or viewer. Beauty is not a property or predicate of the perceived structure but a result of the perception process; and this process is variable since it is part of a learning system.

For the adept, something that a less educated person perceives as chaotic may sound or look absolutely beautiful, and something that sounds or looks beautiful to the less educated might seem bland and boring to the adept. In the history of musical styles, it is this effect, I think, that, bit by bit, is shifting at least a part of the audience and some of the musicians towards higher and higher complexity.

The following are examples, from the classical tradition and from the jazz tradition respectively, that are somewhere half through this transition. One is an orchestra version of Charles Koechlin’s “Paysages et Marines”, composed in 1917 (I have posted a piano version of this work in an earlier article). The other is John Coltrane’s album “Giant Steps” (1959). As different as these examples of music are, both show an increased complexity of musical forms in comparison to the more “classical” forms of their respective traditions, although both retain some order as well.

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