Why is Post-1650 Music More Popular Today than Pre-1650 Music?

by colekorponay

Of the 1000 years of music that we study in our class, why does it seem like mainstream culture of the modern era only makes room for music from about 1650 onwards? While certainly not a centerpiece of contemporary music, we still quite frequently come across music from the great Baroque and Classical masters like Bach, Handel, Vivaldi, Mozart and Beethoven, among many others through the 1800′s and 1900′s. Yet, we are hard pressed to find a commercial or movie with a soundtrack that includes Gregorian Chants or madrigals or works from the great composers from the first half of the millennium like Josquin, Palestrina, Weekles and others.

What is the reason for this? While it’s difficult to come up with an exact explanation, there are a few factors worth considering.

Could it be that composers from 1650 onwards were simply better than their predecessors, such that their works were able to withstand the test of time? Or, alternatively, is it just that this music is more chronologically recent, and thus more accessible? And in addition to mere temporal proximity, maybe differences in technologies for preserving and disseminating music contributed to their modern-day accessibility. The eminence of Josquin’s music did benefit from the advent of the printing press during his time, but this technology only increased in efficacy later on. The notion of which composers were objectively better is not really an answerable question, though it is possible that differing technologies played a role in promoting the popularity of more recent music.

Another relevant factor could be the original setting that the different types of music were played in, and what their subject matters were. The predominant topic of music pre-1650 was religion, and much of the music was played inside the Church. Modern culture has become drastically secularized, and thus the more secular feel and setting (much of it was played in theatres or public concerts), may resonate more with modern listeners.

A third factor that might be relevant is differences in the degree and accuracy of emotional conveyance in the two periods of music. The rigorous study of how music can embody various emotions was not begun until the science-rich Baroque period. When T.V. commercials and movies want to set a scene to music, they choose a piece that evokes the same feeling as the scene. Thus, it makes sense that they choose from Baroque and later pieces