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As we know, the question of what progress is, and whether it exists at all, is a vexed one. This goes also for the arts, and specifically music. Music, particularly our Western classical tradition of music, certainly develops through time. The music of Wagner sounds very different from the music of Palestrina, and in turn the music of Stravinsky sounds very different from that of Wagner. But an important part of the question of “progress” (from Latin progredi, “to step forward”) is whether it implies improvement. Music and musical taste change and develop through time, surely. But does it progress, in the sense of getting better or greater?

First, we might consider the question of the material means of producing music. Musical instruments have changed a good deal through time. There are those who disparage old instruments like the harpsichord under the belief that the piano is either technically or artistically an “improvement” over the harpsichord. Such a claim is highly debatable, to say the least. But in other areas pertaining to the material conditions of music, I think there can be progress in a limited degree. Adding valves to brass instruments allowed them to play particular notes more accurately; but even here, it can be argued that there are corresponding artistic losses. It’s naïve to think that there is a completely unmitigated “progress” even on a material level. This is a lively subject for debate in the area of performance practice, or how we perform older music.

But I’d like to focus the discussion here toward musical composition rather than musical performance. I believe that even a little thought on the subject will convince most people that musical progress in an absolute sense is nonsense. Otherwise, we would have to say that, for instance, Debussy is a better or greater composer than Bach, which is not a claim anyone would seriously make. One may well prefer a particular composer or style, but it is exactly that—a personal taste or preference. Different musical periods have different aesthetic qualities but are not better or worse. But is there progress in a more limited sense? While the development of music history is not completely linear and does not embody an overall trajectory of improvement, I think there are small lines of “improvement” within the broader stream, where music acquires greater coherence or expressive power through the labor of composers perfecting a style.

Nevertheless, the presence of greatness in all the eras of Western music, from the Middle Ages to the present, makes us hesitate to argue that music has evolved to a particular culminating point of greatness. Rather, greatness and genius appear to exist in every era and style. As for the idea of music evolving in Darwinian fashion, I would answer that music isn’t a utilitarian tool like a screw driver or a vacuum cleaner.

Music has changed through time, and it has changed for the better in some cases. Some instrumental music of the very early Baroque sounds as if it seeking tonal and structural coherence and hasn’t arrived there yet; in the next generations, composers found solutions to many of these problems and the music becomes more satisfying and cohesive. C.P.E. Bach’s pieces, likewise, often sound as if they are working their way toward the mature Classical style.

Of course, sometimes we are dealing purely with matters of taste. Some musicological writers from before the 20th century disparaged Gregorian chant as primitive because of its supposed bareness and lack of harmony, and later medieval and Renaissance music because of its lack of harmonic direction in the modern tonal sense. A case of modern bias clouding aesthetic judgment? Certainly, it reflects an excessively progress-based view of music history. Few commentators today would argue that harmony is an “improvement” in absolute terms over unharmonized chant or that anything is “lacking” in the earlier form. Now we live in a pluralistic age, when all forms of music are appreciated on their own terms and invidious comparisons are not made.  We understand that music of different eras is created according to different creative principles and aesthetic ideals, and that such variety is what makes the historical repertoire of music so rich and a never-ending source of exploration.

It’s important to stress that artistic progress, even if it sometimes exists, is not the be-all and end-all of music. There are composers who have had a strong influence and changed the course of music history: Palestrina, Monteverdi, Bach, Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, Wagner, Debussy, etc. Then there are creators who had a more modest effect, who did not invent a new style or develop new musical genres but instead worked within established conventions and added to the tradition in their own individual way. Their work is also of value despite not adding to some putative musical “progress.”

We have mentioned “better” or “greater” as qualifications. But what constitutes “better” in the realm of music, anyway? Is it true that, as Duke Ellington said, “if it sounds good, it is good?” And in that case, what does it mean for music to “sound good”? In short, what is the standard for musical value?

And, on the next level, what constitutes greatness in music?

These are questions deserving an entire treatise. As a starting point I would say that some sort of union of passion and reason, of emotional and intellectual factors, is a sign of greatness in music. I would also say that universality and timelessness constitute another factor. The best, the greatest music transcends its time and place of origin. Beethoven’s symphonies are not merely products of early 19th-century Vienna. (What constitutes this universality would be a whole other discussion.)

Great, or even good, music also possesses the quality of harmoniousness or wholeness, of different parts working together—harmony and counterpoint being one of the great achievements of Western classical music. Here we come up against two different aesthetic views. There is on the one hand a concept of music as harmony, order, and beauty. On the other hand, there is a concept of music as expression. Broadly we might characterize these as the classicist and the romanticist views. I think each has validity, and they are not necessarily opposed. Much music is purely musical, embodying ideal beauty and harmony. Much music is also expressive, evoking emotions, ideas, states of mind, etc. In some music the expressive dimension may even outweigh the beauty dimension.

Is it admissible for music be ugly, then? Surely a composition can express ugliness, the grotesque, etc. along the way of its emotional journey—through musical means, such as dissonance, not through mere noise. I would say, though, that even when being highly expressive of tragedy or strife or volatile emotions, music should seek some sort of higher beauty. It’s no secret that modern avant-garde music (which I distinguish from mainstream or traditionalist modernism) has been devoid of beauty as understood and felt by the vast majority of listeners. And then one is entitled to ask whether such music compensates by expressing anything worthwhile.

It might seem that we’ve strayed from our central topic of progress in music into questions of aesthetics. Then again, perhaps not. For music, although it can progress in a limited sense, can also devolve. When aesthetic standards are lost—standards like the union of reason and emotion, or beauty and expression—music will deteriorate. This reminds us that progress, in artistic as in other matters, is not inevitable but is sustained by the human will allied to the best values and ideals.

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