Music provides a challenging system for the analysis of cultural evolution. The dialectical approach to music seeks to identify the internal stylistic tensions and contradictions (in terms of thesis and antithesis) which give rise to new musical forms (synthesis). The Darwinian alternative to dialectics, which in its most reductionist form is becoming known as memetics, seeks to interpret the evolution of music by examining the adaptiveness of its various component parts in the selective environment of culture. This essay compares the memetic and dialectical approaches with special reference to the development of jazz in the era of recorded sound, in the light of Benzon’s classification of musical styles into evolutionary Ranks (Benzon 1993). It is concluded that the basic postulate of memetics is falsifiable and therefore that memetics qualifies as scientific in the Popperian sense, rather than being simply a pseudo-scientific metanarrative for cultural evolution. Some suggestions for empirical analysis are provided. In contrast, the dialectical perspective is not scientific in the Popperian sense, but does provide a good explanatory framework for the history of jazz in the years 1900-1970, and shows how transitions between Ranks may be generated. However, dialectics is considerably less successful in the construction of a model to explain the period since 1970
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