A friend made a recent book recommendation that started me thinking about the nature of musical advancement. That book, the highly influential Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, popularized the nearly clichéd use of the terms “paradigm” and “paradigm shift” in its promulgation of a new way of understanding scientific progress. Kuhn’s main thesis is that such progress is not the mere accumulation of data and facts, but rather expands from changing modes of thought.
But, applying these terms to the gangly timeline of music history, what role has revolution actually played? I’m not convinced it’s much of one. Musical progress seems to me to be evolutionary rather than revolutionary—no mouse ever gave birth to a bat, and sonata form didn’t beget indeterminacy. It’s an organic, branching process, and even those ideas that seem radical at the time can be traced back through history. There’s no comparative “grand idea” that starts a shift as drastic as the Copernican ideal of a heliocentric universe. A similarity could be drawn with, say, dodecaphony, but where would that have been without Tristan und Isolde, Bagatelle san tonalité, or Pierrot Lunaire? The fact that Schoenberg and Webern came up with nearly the same system independently highlights its evolutionary nature.
The application of the Kuhnian approach to the arts breaks down even further. While discarded scientific paradigms become footnotes in history, the merits of centuries-old art forms can still be appreciated by modern audiences, albeit in a new context. Also, the old paradigms maintain their relevance by continuing to be influential on those who are responsible for the new ones. What composer, regardless of genre, claims only one’s contemporaries as influences?
Kuhn’s ideas are attractive for use in the arts due to its stress on the import of cultural climate, but the author himself cautioned in the postscript to subsequent editions of Scientific Revolutions that his approach was not intended for other disciplines, including music. Nevertheless, its cross-disciplinary applications have proved both interesting and far-reaching. Have there been any revolutionary leaders in music, rather than evolutionary benchmarks?