Reciprocity in Music

Those of you who remember film in cameras will recall, perhaps, the notion of film reciprocity and the associated attribute of reciprocity failure; that quality whereby film, upon being exposed, started to lose its sensitivity to take in photons at the stated speed. The ASA of the film as it was called is just like its modern-day digital counterpart known as ISO.  ASA 64 was pretty slow, ASA 1600 was super fast and grainy. Usually, reciprocity wasn’t much of a problem, unless you did time exposures as in astrophotography; then, the on-going loss could be considerable. A good introduction to reciprocity and reciprocity failure can be found here.

So what has this to do with music? In an high-level way, I believe it has a lot to do not just with musical instruments, but with the progression of musical creativity in general. Let me explain the concept of reciprocity as it pertains to music.

Each generation is known for the music of that age. The 1920s with Jazz, the 1950s with rock, the 1960s with the British Invasion (among other genres), hard rock of the 1980s, the insipidness of the 2010s, and on and on. Each of these, I would state, was driven by the necessity to find new outlets for creativity due to the previous genre being ‘used up’.

For example, in our own domains of Bluegrass and Folk music, do you see many new songs being written with the basic elements of, say, a fiddle tune like Cripple Creek? Or an early Rock song with just your basic G, C, and D chords? Of course, there are the occasional exceptions, but as a trend, this seems to not be the case.

Stylistically further afield, The American composer and conductor Aaron Copeland refers to this same phenomenon in his book ‘What to Listen for in Music’ when he discusses contemporary music (this is in the context of Classical and Jazz music). From an historical music perspective, this seems to be a familiar peculiarity and, I would argue, the same reason for why ‘modern’ Classical music is unlike, say, Bourque music. Or why Elvis Presley is different from Elvin Bishop. Concerning why Contemporary music is unlike 19th century Romantic music, Copeland states:

“… the self-evident truth is that the romantic movement had reached it’s apogee by the end of the last century and nothing fresh was to be extracted from it.”¹

So then, this is what I think is going on here:

Each instrument and musical style in its present, static state can only produce so much innovation before diminishing returns overtake further efforts. At that point, creative efforts extend the useful life of the creative genre, but even that eventually narrows, forcing artists to look further afield for new sources of creativity. 


About Phill Gibson

I'm from Huntsville, Alabama where I work as a Software Engineer and part-time banjo instructor. My wife Miiko and I worship at Rivertree Downtown. I've been playing various instruments since my teen years. I started mandolin and dulcimer at about age 17 and banjo at 20. I love just about all kinds of music. In terms of banjo styles, I play and teach Scruggs, melodic, clawhammer, and 2-finger styles. I'm also very keen on theology, being a Trail Care Partner with the Land Trust of North Alabama, photography, urban planning, architecture, astronomy, ATM (amateur telescope making), birding, martial arts, and about 30 other distracting hobbies to a (mercifully) lesser extent.
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