There is nothing new under the sun. Well, for the most part there is nothing new under the sun, which is the same as saying there are a few things new under the sun. The reason we so often state there isn't is because we need the reminder that whatever passion or trend is all-consuming within the world we live in, chances are we've seen its like before. We should just chill.
Within the context of the history of the species, however, recorded music is new. We finally have a history of recorded music worthy of the name, an accumulation of material with the depth and breadth to make serious study a possibility and complete mastery an impossibility. Maybe in 1900 it could have been a goal to be an Erasmus of recorded music and have heard every recording then in existence. Today it would be impossible to hear everything recorded and commercially released in even a single year, even if you devoted a lifetime to listening to just music from, say, 2012.
Recorded music has gone from being a technological breakthrough, to being a novelty and a fad, to being an art form and a form of big business, to being sown into the very fabric of contemporary life. We know there was long stretches of time when recorded music didn't exist, but I doubt very much we know what it felt like to live without it.
Really, that is what music is about for us, the feels. If you subscribe to the idea that Palto's Republic is really an examination of the ordering of the human soul more than it is a treatise on good government (which has always made a good deal of sense to me), the strictures Socrates makes on music are pretty sensible. When Socrates says the state should regulate the modes of music because if they change the entire structure of society, including the laws, will change with them, we can think of that as the reason of a person making sure they are not carried away by the music. Think of how we depict teenage rebellion so often as having a musical dimension. The adoption of a new style or mode of music signals the adolescents rejection of the old norms and the end of the old order. In such a reading Socrates understands the power of it all, he is simply counseling us to be smart about it.
Are we? Probably not according to the terms laid out by Socrates and Plato. Plenty of us "get lost" in music. We turn to it when we need solace; we use it to set the mood, whether we are looking to boogie or looking to get laid; it becomes a companion to help us fill up an empty apartment; we think about it, we read about it, we collect it. Allan Bloom may have infamously complained that modern music was little more than "[a] prepackaged masturbational fantasy," but those who live with it know it is a lot more all-encompassing than that, and not in the Dionysian orgiastic manner Bloom was fond of envisioning. Music affects us and we knowingly let it, for good and ill.
Of course, when Plato wrote about music he meant "music and poetry," as the separation we instinctively place between music and poetry didn't exist. However, of greater impact is the difference between music as the ancient world knew it and recorded music as we know it. Art has always had the potential to have political or socio-economic implications, but the world of recorded music raises those potentialities to undreamt of heights. Yet, it isn't simply the scale of mass industrial production that gives recorded music its extra power, it is also its continuity. Recorded music can have mass appeal, it can have niche appeal, and what is mass marketed today might be niche indeed in 30 years' time. And that niche musical genre just a few people loved forty years ago may be the next big thing to generation yet unborn. It endures in a way even printed music notation cannot as it is without question authentic. Is a piece Bach wrote for harpsichord authentic after it has been transcribed for a modern piano? It is a question people can argue about, but there is no question when you play Louis Armstrong's "Mahogany Hall Stomp" that you have the real deal.
It is this continuity that allows recorded music to transcend generations in a way music simply hadn't been able to in the past. We often do tend to remain firmly within our generational bubble. It is comfortable and can touch on our nostalgia and pathos for the people and places that make up our personal history. But we also can become time travelers, if we want to, or world travelers if we want to. It is so ordinary we don't even recognize it as a boon of civilization, but that is exactly what it is. There may be those who claim to long for the simplicity of life in the 1600's, but not me. I want to crank some Matthew Sweet already.