Writing History Backwards

Posted by Ben on February 9, 2014 at 9:15 PM

Since I just graduated college and am now at the next "chapter" in my life, it is often fun to look back and divide everything else into "chapters" based on school, meeting certain people, being introduced to certain ideas, etc. Once these periods are established, it is fun to think how the lessons acquired from one period showed up applied in the later ones in a kind of linear way. However, the more I think about it, the more I feel like the big changes that have happened in my life kind of came out of nowhere. For instance, I used to think that my decision to write children's music started with loving the music I sang as a kid, leading into a composition teacher who always taught me to think outside the box, leading into arts administration internships that stressed that I should be thinking about what there is a market for, etc. But in reality, I hated the songs I sang as a kid, lots of children's composers don't think outside the box (and lots of composers of adult music do), and wanting to write children's music had nothing to do with marketing. I just randomly decided to try it as an experiment, and it stuck.


I think the reason I was in denial about this is because once you already know the end result of something, it is tempting to make everything seem neat by writing history backwards and selectively picking out "stepping stones" in a way that gives the final result a justification. This approach makes your life story seem like one of continuous progress.


In music history, this also happens all the time. Historians love to see a feature of one time period/composer as foreshadowing a feature of a future time period/composer. Academics go nuts talking about how Wagner's hardcore dissonance inevitably led to Schoenberg's atonal 12-tone method. In reality, though, Wagner's dissonance depended even more than normal on tonality, as his huge delays of resolution made the oppositions of consonance and dissonance that defined tonality even more intense. Getting rid of the ideas of dissonance and resolution altogether has nothing to do with that. The same thing can be applied to hip hop moving away from hour-long free jams to shorter, more deliberate "songs"; it's more of a function of rap adapting to settings besides a background soundtrack to street parties than a function of rap artists evolving and learning the art of resourcefulness or anything.


I understand why people try to rationalize their own lives into a way that follows a linear path; otherwise, you have to admit that a lot of it was an ultimately unnecessary stream of "false starts" (though a separate discussion could be had about the educational value of that process.) But doing this in a historical sense to art forms like music seems to me to be a result of the culture of academia, which always tries to lump an enormous range of topics into a single, all-encompassing narrative. Academics can be so annoying!

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