- Reader reactions and update on "Where's Today's Beethoven"
By Holden Karnofsky 12 min read

Reader reactions and update on "Where's Today's Beethoven"

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There were a lot of great comments on Where's Today's Beethoven? and followup pieces, from the comments, Twitter, and other places. There were too many to share them all, but here are some of the broad themes that came up, with quotes and thoughts below:

  • I think I undersold the "bad taste" hypothesis - that "innovation stagnation" has a lot to do with critics' biases toward the past, rather than the actual quality of ideas being produced today. More
  • Some readers hypothesized that we just don't know who today's Beethoven is yet - that's the kind of thing that comes with distance and perspective. I think this is possible, but doesn't explain most of the "innovation stagnation" observations. For fun, I outline what I think we'll be saying about today's innovations 50 years from now. More
  • Some readers hypothesized that it's hard for someone to stand out as much as Beethoven today, since there is more total art to consume and critics aren't able to process it all. I think this is an important part of the picture, though not all of it. More
  • I'll also quote and respond to a few other interesting takes. More
  • Finally, I'll revisit my previous comments about the implications of innovation stagnation and talk about updates based on these points. More

I think I undersold the "bad taste" hypothesis

A number of reactions emphasized that the "critical acclaim" data I'm analyzing - likely for both science and art, but especially the latter - is from critics that are "out to lunch" in various ways.

At a high level, I agree with this. A significant part of my answer to "Where's today's Beethoven?" is "Ehh, there's lots of music today that's as impressive/enjoyable/both as Beethoven's - it just doesn't have the same august reputation for a variety of ultimately silly reasons." (I feel this way more about Mozart and Shakespeare than about Beethoven, but it ultimately seems pretty plausible across the board.)

I think I underplayed this point partly because I felt awkward about saying that, and because I expected a lot of people to violently disagree, with no data to settle the dispute. But I think we do have some hints that critics think about the quality of art (particularly music) in pretty warped ways.

One such hint comes via Matt Clancy of New Things Under the Sun, a great "living literature review about academic research on the economics of innovation, science of science, creativity, and discovery." He writes:

I thought this tweet (part of a longer thread) was interesting:

I've always suspected people have a hard time separating how original art actually is from how original it felt to them when they first encountered it, and that means people have a perpetual bias towards thinking the best work was from when they were younger. The tweet is about comparing the Rolling Stones list of top 500 songs when they did it in 2004 and 2021. You can see in the linked tweet (1) that both groups think the quality of music peaked a few decades ago and mostly declined thereafter; (2) that the distribution of best songs shifts forward in time for the 2021 group.

Caveats: the shift forward isn't a full 17 years (closer to 7), and Matt has also been looking at another data set (the Sight and Sound lists released each decade for film) and finding that the average release year for the top 10 films stays around 1945 (if he posts more analysis on this, I'll link it in the future).

Nostalgia is just one kind of cognitive bias that could pump up the reputation of older music. Jeff Sackmann is among the readers who pointed to another:

It's impossible to imagine western classical music without Beethoven, in part because such a significant amount of it is Beethovian. Had some very talented and charismatic musician come along at the right time from the Balkans, maybe that foundational slot would be taken by someone/something else. If this is correct, there's bound to be some historical figures that are considered head-and-shoulders above the rest, and they must be quite old. A contemporary person cannot fill this role, though it's conceivable that a contemporary person would fill this role for people 200 years down the road.

My own guess is that critics are affected by both of these things and simply by peer pressure, so that an initial critical consensus (possibly affected by both of the above dynamics) has a lot of staying power.

With those mechanisms in mind, here's an interesting, plausible quote from Luke Muehlhauser:

I think I’d also place significant weight on “people with fancy music tastes overrate Beethoven relative to Beefheart or Mingus for reasons that I think are worth calling mistakes / bias.” Like, praise for Beethoven is ubiquitous, but if people with fancy music tastes knew a lot of music theory and also the composition date for every piece of music and had listened to damn near everything, they would realize that Beefheart and Mingus are in the same league as Beethoven, but because they are ALSO exposed to lots of cultural and peer signals, they’ve been tricked into thinking that Beethoven towers above them, and they might not have even heard of Beefheart ...

Once rock music was a format, people started innovating like crazy within that format, or at least they did starting around 1965. Some of that innovative sophisticated stuff is unlistenable Beefheart, but some of it is highly listenable, e.g. Robert Wyatt’s ‘Rock Bottom’ or Miles Davis’ ‘Bitches Brew’ (a mega bestseller, and which I’m counting as equal parts rock and jazz). Is Beethoven’s 5th really so much more innovative, sophisticated, or listenable than Bitches Brew? Maybe a bit on each dimension, but not a ton, I claim. And the fancy music listeners are just biased and mistaken when they fail to rank Rock Bottom or Bitches Brew in the same league as Beethoven’s 5th.

Another thing that has moved me toward the "bad taste" hypothesis is an extensive project I undertook to listen repeatedly to, and try to understand the genius of, the #1-rated modern music album of all time from the Acclaimed Music data set: Pet Sounds, by the Beach Boys. More on this in a future short piece!

Maybe we just don't know yet who today's Beethoven is?

I saw a few sentiments along the lines of this comment:

We can't tell who the Beethoven's are because we don't understand them, and cannot judge. Maybe in 200 years, in hindsight, it will be obvious who they were, but right now, us plebs can't recognize their genius, because we are not geniuses.

I think this is a good potential answer to the literal question, "Where's today's Beethoven?", but less satisfying for explaining the very long-running "innovation stagnation" patterns in the many charts here (e.g., innovation stagnation occurring over the period of 1800-1950).

Still, maybe this is a good time to comment on what I think we'll actually think about the "where's today's Beethoven?" question, 50-100 years from now:

  • I think sometime in that range, civilization will probably (though not definitely) be taken over by digital people, misaligned AI or something even stranger.
  • If beings from that time talk about the time we live in, in terms that roughly resemble this topic, they'll say things along the lines of: "The field of AI really took off in the 2010s. This was of course the far-and-away most important innovation in the whole history of human civilization, similarly to how the most important 'innovation' of apes was evolving into humans. It was the most important innovation for music (we now have a near-infinite amount of music more brilliant than Beethoven's by nearly any definition you can come up with), literature, advanced sandwich art, etc."
  • If they bother to read about old debates bemoaning the "golden age" of innovation sometime between the 15th and 20th century, they'll just find it kind of funny, if humor is still something they do.

See also: The Great Depression, Recession and Stagnation in Full Historical Context.

Anyway, back to the topic at hand.

Fields are getting more crowded

From reader Vadim A.:

even though the number of people producing innovation in every field has increased drastically, the audience evaluating each field has always been a single, highly correlated group with limited bandwidth. So let's say there were 100 serious books produced in some year a few hundred years ago. Maybe 50 of them would be read and discussed by a fair number of the intellectual class, and five would be deemed worthy of extended discussion. Maybe one would maintain its reputation and become influential enough to make a greatest book list.

Then, let's say today there are 10,000 serious books produced in a year, maybe 500 of them get enough initial marketing or momentum to be read by a fair number of people. Once some people read a book and talk about it, other people will use their advice to read it, and base their opinions on the early reviewers. So even if there are now 5,000 books of equal quality to 50 books of a few hundred years ago, there is only enough bandwidth for 500 of them to take off. Then, there might only be room enough for extended discussion of 20 (because again, there are network and correlation effects). And maybe only a few survive to become influential.

(Emphasis mine)

I saw similar themes well put in comments from:

  • Anton Howes: "Given the focus on acclaim, what we are most likely seeing in the data presented is just that there are *too many* Beethovens today, spread across far more and ever growing fields, and we have only limited attention spans in which even critics can appreciate them."
  • Stuart Carter: "If someone solved the riemann hypothesis tomorrow, I doubt the average person would hear much about it"
  • Calion: "I am not sure we'd notice a new Shakespeare. We'd simply lump him in with all of the other really good playwrights we have. Nothing would make him stand out as the best."
  • Josh Achiam: "If there are a million geniuses producing Beethoven-level work right now, who could even learn all of their names?"

I think this is probably a big part of what's going on. It seems like an especially nice fit with patterns like "output of acclaimed ideas is constant or increasing, but is decreasing when adjusted for 'effective population increases.'" And in some sense it is a further component of the "bad taste" hypothesis, being about limitations of critics rather than of artists.

However, if this were all that were going on, I'd expect to see something we don't seem to see. I'd expect that the very most-acclaimed works from today would be more acclaimed than the very most-acclaimed works from longer ago. The basic idea:

  • Say that the number of musicians goes up by 100x.
  • It might be the case that critics aren't able to keep up with all the music, so the number of "acclaimed works" doesn't rise at all.
  • But in theory, the compositions that rise all the way to the top in the world of critical opinion - which almost certainly would penetrate public consciousness as well - should be better by whatever metrics critics are using, since they're coming from a 100x larger population.

This is in fact not what we're seeing: the acclaim level of the "top" works also seems to follow an "innovation stagnation" pattern.1

Some other interesting takes

Note: I am leaving out most takes along the lines of "Here's a specific reason that the Golden Age died (people today aren't as intellectual, don't think as big, etc.)" I don't think we have a good evidential case that there's a "golden age" in need of explaining, and don't find most of those theories compelling.

Fernando Pereira: "[Holden] fails to take into account scale change in culture: as culture grows, domains split, fame becomes localized, effective domain pop much smaller than his estimates."

I definitely think there is something to this - there are a lot more musical genres than there used to be, so the "number of artists" in a given genre may be lower than in the past. But critics still tackle questions like "What's the best music/literature/film, full stop?", and I think the total "effective populations" of people trying to be musicians or authors have risen, not fallen.

Ben Todd hypothesizes that maybe we just have a dynamic something like: "1 in 10 million people is a top innovator, and more widespread education/urbanization/etc. doesn't change this."

This is tough for me to believe intuitively: things like adequate nutrition and exposure to cultures of innovation seem like they really ought to be important, and the latter seems especially clear when you look at how concentrated innovation was in particular geographic areas for a lot of our history.

hippydipster hypothesizes that we are less impressed with people when they don't "tower over their peers" as much (because their peers are better, as they are in today's world): "rather than there being A Beethoven, there's 3 dozen. Yawn. We fail to recognize, partially because Beethoven's uniqueness is literally one of the primary aspects of him, without which we don't have this conversation. The actual skill level still exists today, but the uniqueness doesn't."

Is it in fact the case that the difference between the 1st- and 2nd-best performer should shrink as the number of competitors goes up? This isn't obvious to me either way.

Michael Nielsen: "I think this classification is incomplete. Golden ages can be opened up, by new fields. Turing was working in what must have seemed an esoteric, obscure branch of logic; he discovered an important new field, with tonnes of low-hanging fruit."

I think Turing is a bit of an outlier here - he's arguably the founder of modern computer science, one of the only major new scientific fields of the last 200+ years. If you ask the question "Are we seeing 'innovation stagnation' when it comes to creating new fields of comparable stature to computer science?" I think the answer is yes, and the "innovation as mining" thesis seems a good explanation for why (see footnote for a rough illustration).2


A lot of what I've covered above comes down to different reasons to think that critics being underinformed, overwhelmed, confused, nostalgic or otherwise wrong is a major factor in the "innovation stagnation" we observe when we look at critically acclaimed works.

I don't think this is the whole story (it can't explain all of the technological innovation story, for example), but I do think it's a fair amount.

I think the conclusions I laid out previously (as well as the high-level description of how artistic ideas get harder to find) hold up reasonably well if we increase our emphasis on "bad taste"/"confused critics":

  • At a high level, it's still the case that earlier innovators have an advantage in achieving critical acclaim (a lot of the above hypotheses are giving different reasons for this). And it's still the case that there isn't much case for a "golden age" worth trying to explain or get back to.
  • We should probably expect further "stagnation" by default, though this stagnation may (continue to) be illusory.
  • To the extent we see special value in works that have broad cultural and critical resonance, my earlier comments (about how we should think about artists and their intellectual property) still seem applicable.

But here's a point that seems stronger to me than it did before, and that I didn't make in previous pieces: if we can put aside the trappings of acclaim and reputation and enjoy art on its own terms (not necessarily possible), we might find there's no stagnation to explain at all, and no need to hope for a growing number of artists. That is, we might find that we're swimming in impressive art and aren't necessarily in need of more.

(Science/technology is different, though - I think the case that "we need more innovators, or growth is going to fall" is unaffected.)

Next in series: To Match the Greats, Don’t Follow In Their Footsteps

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  1. The charts in my main piece mostly do not address this, but I also looked at a lot of measures of innovation weighted by the level of acclaim, and they also show "innovation stagnation." It's also just generally the case that the very top performers on most of my lists tend to be from early in a field, not late. 

  2. Rough demonstration of this: if we just look at Wikipedia's list of academic fields and focus on natural sciences and formal sciences, we see six fields (biology, chemistry, earth sciences/geology, physics, astronomy, mathematics) that have been around ~forever and reached their "modern form" in the 1500s or 1600s (arguably earlier in the case of mathematics), and only 3 or 4 - computer science, "modern logic," space sciences and maybe "systems sciences" - dating to the 1800s or 1900s. This seems like the kind of "innovation stagnation" pattern I discussed previously - more recent "output" isn't as high as you'd expect given the rises in "effective population." Intuitively, the "innovation as stagnation" hypothesis seems pretty strong here: you can only "discover modern physics/chemistry/biology" once, and there don't seem to be a huge number of fields out there as fundamentally important as those.