Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The Paradox of Choice, the Myth of Growth, and the Future of Music

I recently saw a TED talk given in 2006 by the psychologist Barry Schwartz where he addresses what he calls the “paradox of choice”. He essentially points out the fact that we collectively have fallen victim to the “Problem of Induction,” as discussed by the 18th-century philosopher David Hume (Vickers 2010). The Problem of Induction occurs when we presuppose that something will happen a certain way based on our observations of how it has always happened in the past, and also in generalizing properties of a class of objects based on any number of past observations. Every day of our collective lives we have seen the sun rise (or at least someone has, if you happen to have an overcast sky) and when we stand on the ground and let go of a ball from our hands, it falls downward to the ground. When we wake up tomorrow morning we will expect the sun to rise once again and when I drop the ball I hold in my hand, we will expect it to fall once again to the ground. We assume these events will happen because they have always happened in the past in our collective experiences, given the same conditions. But who is to say that the sun will not rise tomorrow (or some day in the future) or that the laws of physics will not apply (or not in the same way) the next time (or at some point in the future) when I let the ball go from my hand? How is anyone to know for sure?

As a society, and in some respects as a civilization, we have collectively made this mistake in two very important realms, in the notion of abundance of choices and in the idea of growth. When our choices are very limited, for example if I go to a ice cream shop but the only flavors to choose between are vanilla and chocolate, then I will gladly welcome more options to choose from. It doesn't matter whether I like both flavors, one flavor, or neither. If I continue to come to this ice cream shop, I will soon be bored with the selection of flavors. Imagine another ice cream shop opens up across the street, and they have eight flavors of ice cream to choose from. If I don't like either vanilla or chocolate, I now have a place where I have a greater chance at finding a flavor that I do enjoy. Even if I enjoy both vanilla and chocolate, I will soon exhaust these flavors, grow tired of them, and seek to discover new flavors. Both these kinds of ice cream eaters would now be inclined to bring their business to the “better” ice cream shop across the street that has more selection. In addition, for both of these ice cream eaters they have a very simple correlation that has subconsciously entered their head: the more choices, the better. They will probably have this correlation reinforced if another shop opens offering 25 flavors, then another offering 40, or even another with 100 flavors to choose from. The more choices, the better. This fits very nicely with what Schwartz (2006) calls “The official dogma of all western industrial societies” which is this: “if we are interested in maximizing the welfare of our citizens, the way to do that is to maximize individual freedom. The reason for this is both that freedom is in and of itself good, valuable, worthwhile, essential to being human. And because if people have freedom, then each of us can act on our own to do the things that will maximize our welfare, and no one has to decide on our behalf. The way to maximize freedom is to maximize choice.”

But at some point, perhaps it is a magic number of choices or perhaps it is different for different people, more choices cease to be beneficial. Schwartz mentions two negative effects of too many choices. First, it can cause paralysis. Back to the world of ice cream, say that you walk into the Venezuelan ice cream shop that holds the world record for most flavors of ice cream offered, with about 860 (Grant 2010). Where would you even begin in trying to decide what flavor you want? imagine they give out free samples, it would take hours or days to sample them all and evaluate your options. People in western industrial societies are living today in this world of choices. Apart from ice cream flavors, if you walk into an average supermarket in the United States, you will find 285 varieties of cookies, 175 salad dressings, and 275 cereals. (Although, if you look at the ingredients, it is clear that this wide variety is essentially a giant illusion and a trick of packaging, but that's another topic.) Then if you walk over to a consumer electronic store looking to find components to build your stereo system, you find that you could create over six million different stereo systems using the components from that store alone (Schwartz 2006). Obviously, choices in ice cream and stereos are rather trivial, but what about important decisions, such as choosing a spouse, healthcare, investments, education? The more options you have, the more time you need to devote in evaluating each and comparing in order to make the best decision possible. The biggest part of the problem is not that we have too many choices in ice cream, but that we have so many more choices in nearly every aspect of life. With all the societal “advances” in technology, which by their selves have opened up millions of new options for us, we have yet to figure out how to squeeze more than twenty-four hours into one day. (Sure, life expectancy has increased, so the average person does have more time in their life, but we also have many more decisions to make, which usually need to be made around the same age or in the same time span as before.)

We have a finite amount of time each day to spend on evaluating our choices, yet more and more choices to evaluate. For instance, look at the Beatles growing up and the music they were exposed to. In the 1940's and 50's in England, recordings were new and the Beatles' music education consisted of the music their family played, the other musicians they could hear live in Liverpool, and whatever new record came into their local record shop. They didn't have the internet where they can hear hundred's of thousands of bands' music on MySpace or SoundCloud, or online streaming libraries, Wikipedia, or Amazon. This lack of choice focused them to learn from only the music they could get their hands on and sharpen their early skills as songwriters and performers (and of course, after they had established themselves as the most popular band in the world, then new musical possibilities were opened up for them such as Indian music, studio recording techniques, orchestral instruments, etc.). Moving into classical music, Stravinsky (1947, 66-68) himself wrote, in his Poetics of Music, about his paralysis when starting a composition and his need to put limits on his possibilities in order to free himself:

I experience a sort of terror when, at the moment of setting to work and finding myself before the infinitude of possibilities that present themselves, I have the feeling that everything is permissible to me...My freedom thus consists in my moving about within the narrow frame that I have assigned myself for each one of my undertakings. I shall go even farther: my freedom will be so much the greater and more meaningful the more narrowly I limit my field of action and the more I surround myself with obstacles. Whatever diminishes constraint diminishes strength. The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees oneself of the chains that shackle the spirit.
Stravinsky's view of constraint producing freedom is the exact opposite of the official dogma of Western industrial societies where more choice equals more freedom.

The second negative effect of too many choices is that even if we break through this paralysis and make a decision, we are very likely to be unsatisfied with our choice. Knowing that there are so many choices out there, we set our expectations very high figuring that out of these many choices one has to be perfect or the best we could possibly think of. Then when we find faults in our chosen option, we feel that we should have and could have chosen better, as naturally our expectations will rise when we are provided with more options. We also tend to blame ourselves if our option is not satisfactory, as we could have chosen better, unlike if we had few options where it is easy to blame the people who created them.

The other realm in which we have been victims to the Problem of Induction is the idea of growth. Since the beginning of human history, growth has been, and rightly so, beneficial to humans in many aspects. Population growth was very important to the survival of early humans. Growth in the size of empires and civilizations meant more natural resources at their disposal. Economic growth provides more wealth and a higher standard of living for a country. We have also just discussed how beneficial moderate growth in the number of choices can be for us. But the problem arises when we have finite resources, such as twenty-four hours in a day, or one planet that we can live on. Because growth has always been beneficial to us in the past, it is ingrained in our societies' unconscious that growth will continue to always be good. Dr. M. King Hubbart, in an address to a committee of Congress in 1974 (15-16) explained that “The exponential phase of the industrial growth which has dominated human activities during the last couple centuries is now drawing to a close...Yet during the last two centuries of unbroken industrial growth we have evolved what amounts to an exponential-growth culture.” This culture that is obsessed with growth is easy to see. Just look at a newspaper or listen to any news show that will discuss economics and you will hear the obsession with economic growth, and this extends beyond the USA. The Wall Street Journal in 1992 wrote that “The Japanese are so accustomed to growth that economists in Tokyo usually speak of a recession when the growth rate dips below 3%” (Kanabayashi, Chandler, and Roth). Much of this obsession has to do with humans general inability to understand the simple arithmetic of exponential growth, as University of Colorado-Boulder professor emeritus of physics Albert Bartlett wonderfully explains in his lecture “Arithmetic, Population, and Energy” (2002). He explains how global population growth is the overarching problem and biggest challenge the human race faces in the rest of the twenty-first century. Through simple arithmetic, Bartlett (2002) reaches his first law of sustainability, which states that “Population growth and/or growth in the rates of consumption of resources cannot be sustained.” The biggest dilemma with population growth is that all the aspects which contribute to population growth, and subsequently the problem of overpopulation, are the good humanitarian efforts of medicine, public health, peace, clean air, and accident prevention, to name a few, while the things that would help control the human population and lower our growth rate are horrible things such as war, pollution, disease, and famine. Not only does infinite growth cease to be good at some point, but infinite growth cannot sustain itself when there are finite resources. Now more than ever we are aware that oil reserves in the world will run out in the near future because of the exponential growth in the global demand and consumption of the world's finite oil reserves. As Bartlett (2002) says, “You have to wonder what life will be like after this point!” Growth like this cannot be sustained, and will end in the near future and subsequently change all of our lives in significant ways.

With these concerns, shortcomings, and trends in mind, I now offer up some predictions for the future of music, particularly for new “classical” music that will be composed in the remainder of the twenty-first century.

1.Increased specialization for musicians. This trend has been happening throughout the twentieth century. With the global population boom and the growth of western music education throughout the world, the competition within the music world (industry) for jobs has pushed musicians to spend more time in developing their talents in one area, such as performing, composing, or conducting, in order to win the limited number of jobs. This has also raised the level of excellence in these areas, such as performing, to new heights, which necessitates even more time in devotion to refining skills. This trend across all disciplines has lowered the value of any college degree. In addition, the immense increase in choices in the modern world eats away at more of a musician's time that he/she can even devote to music. Today it is quite rare to find a composer that is also a virtuoso performer, or a performer who is also highly recognized for their composing, or a conductor that also performs solo concerti.

2.The world will continue to be flooded by more and more mediocre and bad music. Another affect of the global population boom and more music education is that, while there are more and more people trying to be professional musicians, there are more who are creating mediocre music. Of course, this boom has created more great music, probably more than in the whole previous history of the world, but the prevalence of mediocre or just plain bad music is greater than ever before, and I'd venture to say that the proportion of good music to bad music today could possibly be more in favor of bad music than ever before. This is complete speculation, but the sheer volume of music being created today without a significant increase in the percentage of good music, has probably jaded more people from discovering great works from different genres than ever before. How many people say that they hate an entire genre of music such as Country and Western? This is most likely because all the Country music they have heard is simply bad or mediocre, despite the fact that there is probably some very good Country music out there, but it has been flooded and hidden by all the rest. This is the same situation with classical music listeners who love Beethoven yet cringe when they see a composer on the program who has no death year listed next to their birth year. They have only heard contemporary works that they couldn't stand and, even if they have given several chances for contemporary music to impress them, they don't want to risk their precious time or money on another “bad” modern piece, yet I know that they are missing out on lots of wonderful music being composed today. This also connects to the tendency I mentioned before about too many choices causing expectations to be high and blaming oneself for not making a perfect decision, such as someone trying to decide which contemporary classical CD to buy. (Yes, we may even have “too many” choices in recordings contemporary classical pieces.)

3.Dramatic decrease in new sounds and more drawing upon the musical past. In the twentieth century, the growth in terms of new sounds exploded like never before. Today, any sound that can possibly be made by an instrument in any way, any sound from nature or everyday life, and millions of computer synthesized sounds are potential sound material for composers' use. This density of discovery of sound possibilities in the twentieth century dwarfs the previous sound innovations of the past millennium, such as Monteverdi discovering string tremoli and pizzicati. The result from this growth of new possibilities is that it cannot be sustained. I do not count out that new sounds will be discovered, but it will be as infrequent, and probably less innovative and seismic, than the discoveries before 1900. The trend to draw on the musical past has already begun with more and more composers today turning back to tonality, and I predict that this will continue and become more common.

4.Listeners, composers, and performers will rely more on quick judgments of music. With the overload of choices in all areas, people will have less time to actually listen to music, which can only be fully experienced in the time the composer/performer has/have allotted for it to happen. Musical works cannot be condensed, at least not in a convenient and quick way without losing or greatly changing much of the experience, into a shorter time period (excepting reasonable tempo fluctuations). This is one effect that has been seen as a result of the prevalence of iPods and MP3 players. People tend to listen to a few seconds of one song, and if it doesn't hold their attention, they can easily move to the next one. Quick judgments can already be seen in the actions of many performers and ensembles that have lots of living composers send them their works for consideration in programming. They simply don't have the time to carefully look at and listen to all the works they receive to make a completely thoughtful decision for programming, nor do a lot of ensembles actually want new music to take up more than a tiny fraction of their concert programs. (When was the last time you saw an orchestral piece by a living composer played by an American orchestra that was longer than fifteen minutes? Or even heard of a half-hour symphony being composed by a living composer older than a seventeen year old?) For all these negative effects, this trend may not entirely be bad. Malcolm Gladwell (2005) in his book Blink argues that occasionally the instant conclusions that one jumps to in the first two seconds of perception are much better than when we wait and evaluate. This trend may also lead to an increased use and exploration of improvisation in musical compositions, which I have seen happening in my own musical interests.

5.Composers' unique “voices” will take longer to develop. With access to so many different kinds of music, not to mention knowledge across all fields and disciplines, through the internet, recordings, and easier travel, composers that have grown up in the last half of the twentieth century have much more music to sort through, learn from, and be influenced by. In contrast, 250 years ago Mozart only had access to the scores he could get his hands on and the performances he could physically attend, which were essentially limited to the music of a handful of composers from a few European countries from the past 200 years or so. With more choices to sort through and limited time, composers are taking and will take more time to assimilate and develop their voices.

6.Less focus/time afforded for the Arts and more on Science. Ask any high school music teacher in the United States and they will tell you of the battles to keep music and the other arts funded and in their schools systems. But as the crises of overpopulation, climate change, and the depletion of the world's oil supply grow more conspicuous by the day, the focus of education around the world has been to train people for jobs in the sciences in order to find a “cure” for these problems by the same thinking that brought the problems about while simultaneously continuing to try and grow the global economy. The more these problems press on the world, the more people are going to throw the arts aside as a waste of time and money (which I obviously think is the wrong way to go about it, as the same thinking that got us into these problems is not going to get us out of them).

7.Music will, as our entire way of living will, change drastically. Around the year 2050 the world population is estimated to peak at around ten billion people, with about two billion more people than today living at the standards that Americans live at. This immense growth in consumption of the limited natural resources of the world, such as the inevitable depletion of the world's oil, combined with the growing effects of climate change, will bring about huge changes in all people's lives, whether this is by our own choice or not. In terms of population, the reality we are facing today is that we are rapidly reaching an unprecedented point where, if we do not stop our global population growth and reduce our overall consumption rate, we will soon exhaust our finite resources, no matter how much technology tries to help in our efficiency. Global population growth will stop at some point in the future (because of the world's finite space), whether it is by our own choice to create less new humans or if nature decides upon ways to end many existing human's lives. Whatever happens, the current way of living for the western world simply cannot be sustained indefinitely and will change drastically in positive or negative ways. As the arts are always to some extent a reflection and a product of the world and society around us, whether through available technology, commentary on current events, or the effects of an education system, the music created, and music's role, throughout the remainder of the twenty-first century will change along with the world it is created in. This new music and its role will either be seen as a waste of time and energy and be pushed to the fringes of existence during our civilization's demise, or take on a prominent role in the birth of a sustainable world through inspiration, reflection, catharsis, beauty, and perhaps even education. My greatest hope is that music is not forgotten, but is honored for the necessary role it will play in the salvation of the earth and humanity.


Bartlett, Albert. 2002. “ Arithmetic, Population, and Energy” Lecture, University of Colorado-Boulder, Boulder, CO, December 7, accessed October 14, 2010,

Gladwell, Malcolm. 2005. Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking. New York: Little, Brown, and Company.

Grant, Will. 2010. “The Venezuelan ice-cream parlour with 860 different flavours,” BBC, January 16, accessed October 20, 2010,

Hubbart, M. King. 1974. “M. King Hubbert on the Nature of Growth,” In National Energy Conservation Policy Act of 1974, Hearings before the Subcommittee on the Environment, U.S. House Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs, Subcommittee on the Environment, 93rd Congress, 2nd Session, June 6, 1974: 51-78. Washington: U.S. Government Printing Office, June 4, copied into electronic website September 14, 2003, accessed December 19, 2010,

Masayoshi Kanabayashi, Clay Chandler, and Terence Roth. 1992. “Economic Giants Feel Recession's Bite --- Japan's GNP Falls at 1.6% Annual Rate; German GDP Also Posts Drop.” Wall Street Journal, December 4.

Schwartz, Barry. 2006. “Barry Schwartz on the Paradox of Choice.” TED Conferences, LLC. Posted September, accessed October 4, 2010,

Stravinsky, Igor. 1947. Poetics of Music. Translated by Arthur Knodel and Ingolf Dahl. New York: Vintage Books, Inc.

Vickers, John. 2010. “The Problem of Induction,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, June 21, accessed November 9, 2010,

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