Music has always been created with a specific venue in mind. The composer may not know who will be in the audience or how it will be received but they know it has to be played on an instrument or sound system in a place. Throughout all of history, whether it was a church, a ballroom, a dance hall, an opera house or a dive bar, music was written to fill that location.
David Byrne, of Talking Heads fame, gave a Ted Talk in February of 2010 where he outlined how he believes architecture has shaped the evolution of music. He asserted that “we make things with a… context in mind.” Consider the great cathedrals of the middle ages and the Renaissance. The plainsong or Gregorian chants of the monks were perfectly suited for the large reverberating stone halls in which they were performed.
The cantatas and organ preludes of J.S. Bach filled the protestant sanctuaries of the baroque. These smaller venues allowed for the lines of intricate counterpoint to be heard clearly.
This march towards clarity continued with Haydn and Mozart. Their symphonies, concerti and chamber works were composed for the ballrooms and parlors of the aristocracy.
Wagner wrote his operas for his own special opera house, designed to envelope the audience in the action and the sound.
The massive symphonies of Gustav Mahler could only have been created for the large symphonic halls of the late Romantic era. The space the music is written for is as important as the instruments that play it.
This is also true in the world of jazz and popular music. The styles of Dixieland, ragtime and the blues were ideal for the small clubs and dance halls in which they were played. Later, with the advent of the radio and recording technology, musicians and engineers were able to manufacture a musical experience for anyone with a receiver. New tools, like the microphone and the recording studio, allowed even greater flexibility to create sounds no single venue could ever reproduce. With this technology came sound systems, mixers, speakers and amplifiers, all made for the purpose of enhancing the acoustics of a given space. Musicians began creating works that were meant to be played on these systems and practically couldn’t be performed live. In the clubs and discos of the late 20th century it was no longer necessary to have musicians; you could just hire a DJ. By the end of the century, live musical acts were filling arenas and sport stadiums with music designed to cover the multitude in a wall of sound.
Today, this principle still holds true, music is written for a venue. However, our methods of accessing and consuming music have changed. Today, we have vast libraries of recordings in small devices we carry in our pockets, and we play them on personal speakers we place in our ears. Modern music production takes this into account. Today’s popular music has been compressed and optimized for the earbud, meaning for the solitary experience of the listener. This isn’t good or bad, it’s just the new venue and who can say what new genres of music will be written for it.