The New ‘Old’ Fashioned Way

‘Insert genre here’ now sounds like ‘insert genre here’ then.

Claims like this get bounced off modern artists all the time. Often it is in lament, a cry for the creative to replace redundancy. Is this a fair assumption?

There is a zoological concept called neoteny. As Stephen Jay Gould describes in The Mismeasure of Man, neoteny is when the “rates of development slow down and juvenile stages of ancestors become the adult features of descendants.” Animals of many stripes are neotenic, including humans. “Many central features of our anatomy,” Gould writes, “link us with fetal and juvenile stages of primates: small face, vaulted cranium and large brain in relation to body size, unrotated big toe”, etc.

Music can be neotenic too. In music, it could range from symphonic form to distorted guitar, from a funk groove to opera. These are early characteristics that remain a part of a vein of a genre or style.

Neoteny in nature can be an evolutionary plus. The retardation of features allows an animal capabilities and opportunities that an otherwise mature form would not. Gould implies this in regards to our mental state: “In other mammals, exploration, play, and flexibility of behavior are qualities of juveniles, only rarely of adults. We retain not only the anatomical stamp of childhood, but its mental flexibility as well.” One could argue that our mental flexibility has lead to being able to type out these thoughts in the first place.

Benefits abound in a similar manner with music. Neoteny allows music the same expansion of capabilities and opportunities. Take hip-hop. One of its neotenic traits could be its tried and true use of samples. This retention comes at the expense of babel: “Hip-hop is not original. Why don’t they play their own instruments? Why use music that has already been used?”

But sampling, as a neotenic trait, allows flexibility for artists. For one, without the hassle of getting a band together, sampling makes production swift and efficient as need be. There is also the chance for one to stake his or her own claim: take from any second of any track and edit accordingly. The possibilities are endless. Sampling can even allow a more steady focus on cultivating unique talent as a rapper.

One can try this exercise for any trait of any music deemed neotenic. More often than not, its presence is there for a reason: to create space for other capabilities and opportunities. It is just a matter of finding them.


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