Complex Adaptive Systems and Music

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The Simple and the Complex

Chapter 1 of Murray Gell-Mann’s Quark and Jaguar,[1] “Early Light”, opened the vista of Complex Adaptive Systems to the world (pp 16-21). The book is full of references and examples of such systems; this review pays special attention to Chapter 18, “Adaptive and Maladaptive Schemata”, especially its section on Cultural DNA (pp 292-294).[2]

This review, paper #14 in our scenario series, was inspired by the Music Trust’s work on opera issues (Dick Letts’s Opera in Australia as a Complex Adaptive System). Paper #14 attempts to explain these systems from the Gell-Mann treatise as a basis of outlining the Australian music sector as an extensively interactive set of such systems which can lead to very different futures. It uses opera as an example in a broad-brush way only. A list of scenario papers forming the basis for our projections of plausible 20-year music sector futures is shown at the end of this paper.[3]

While Gell-Mann’s text is the primary source, this review includes two diagrams of our own, trying to visualise in a simple way the complex interactions that exist in the real world, including the Australian music sector. They were based on Quark and Jaguar and the Letts opera paper, respectively.

Complex Adaptive Systems: Overview

Complexity is contrasted with the simple underlying principles of nature (Gell-Mann, p 16).[4] As the universe evolved, the law of gravity (simple in principle, but as Einstein’s general theory of relativity and current cosmology science amply demonstrates, conceptually anything but simple) caused the clumping of matter into galaxies, stars and planets – complex adaptive systems with their own degree of complexity, diversity and individuality.[5]

On Earth, the origin of terrestrial life and the process of biological evolution led to diversity in the behaviour of organisms in biological systems, how immune systems operate, how animals including humans learn and think, how human societies evolve, how investors in financial markets behave, and how computer software and hardware is designed to evolve strategies or make predictions based on past observations. (p 17)

The common feature is that each complex adaptive system (CAS) acquires information about its environment and its own interaction with that environment, identifying regularities in that information, condensing those regularities into a kind of schema or model, and acting in the real world on that schema. In each case, there are various competing schemata, and the results of action in the real world become feedbacks influencing the competition among those schemata.[6]

In short, there is a learning process involved, influenced by the changing environment. In a simple example on pp 17-18 “you” are trying to hail a taxi in a strange city during the evening rush hour. Taxies rush by, without stopping for you. Eventually you find out, through several steps of learning, that taxies marked “Out of service” are unavailable, and that you cannot hail a taxi unless it has only the inner part of the roof light illuminated. You also find that taxies stopping ahead are snapped up by other pedestrians, so you are impelled to cast your net wider to search for a successful schema. In those “pre-Uber” days, you finally observe that on the other side of the avenue, going in the opposite direction, many taxies have just their inner roof lights on. You cross the avenue, hail one, and bingo.

“You” are a successful CAS who adapted your schema!

Cultural DNA

Gell-Mann finds that adaptation takes place at a minimum of three different levels:

  1. Some direct adaptation (as in a thermostat or cybernetic device) results from the operation of a schema that is dominant at a particular time. Climate change may cause a community to move higher up the mountain, or it may have a priesthood do ceremonies for bringing rain. None of this requires changes to the prevailing community-based schema. (p 292)
  2. Competition among various schemata may involve changes to the schema, causing promotion or demotion according to selection pressures in the real world. If rain dances fail, a new religion may take over. Where the traditional response to climate change has been movement to a higher elevation, poor results from that schema may lead to adoption of other practices. (p 293)
  3. A society may cease existing because it fails to cope (survival of the fittest in Darwinian terms). The people may not all die; some may join other societies; but the society itself disappears, carrying its schemata into extinction with it. A form of natural selection has occurred at the societal level.

The three levels of adaptation take place, generally speaking, at different time scales. An existing dominant schema can be put into action within days or months. A revolution in the hierarchy of schemata is generally associated with a longer time scale, although the culminating event may come swiftly. Extinction of societies take even longer time. (p 294)[7]

A General View of CAS

Alt=Chart 1

The previous sections should have made it clear that a CAS can exist at every possible scale, from the universe through nations and persons to microscopic life, and comprising organisms, societies and institutional arrangements alike. The Australian economy is a CAS; so is the music sector; so are individual parts of the music sector, an orchestra or band, a venue, a singer, an instrumentalist, the way opera companies are managed, governments ranging from national to local, and from parliament to individual portfolios and departments, and so on.

Chart 1 represents an attempt to show the entire background and processes involved in the formation of Complex Adaptive Systems. It is the most wide-ranging graph ever likely to appear on the Knowledge Base.[8]

In the beginning was particles, each category such as a given type of quark identical and interchangeable. Quarks are the basic building blocks of composite particles such as protons and neutrons which form the atomic nuclei.

Gravity made the universe infinitely more complex, from galaxies to the Earth’s living organisms. Gravity caused particles to become part of larger complex adaptive systems at any level we might care to contemplate. All functioning systems, whether living or associated with societies and communities, natural ecosystems and the rest, have their own CAS, each with its own schemata for interacting in the real world. All complex adaptive systems in principle influence all other systems (obviously most if they are closely related), and are influenced in turn by them. The “system of complex adaptive systems” is in a state of continuous flux, though the degree of turbulence is likely to vary with the relative power of the schemata of each CAS, and with the level of adaptation that Gell-Mann described in his section on cultural DNA.

In this sense, the CAS model explains “everything” – to call it a powerful concept may be one of the understatements of the century. And we now find that it is valuable for understanding the dynamic development of artforms such as music.

What Might a Music CAS Look Like?

Alt=Chart 2

The Letts paper on Opera in Australia as a Complex Adaptive System was written independently of this #14 paper and contains some attractive classifying concepts which the Knowledge Base wishes to retain because they resonate in the arts sector and makes it special. Each has its equivalent in the Gell-Mann model but the terminology is different. Furthermore, it fits hand-in-glove into the scenario model we have developed.

Dick Letts deals with three levels of interrelated aspects of the system (Chart 2):

  1. The basic complex adaptive system for any activity originates in what he calls “evolutionary agents”. They are exemplified in the blue boxes at the top of Chart 2 as demographics, history of culture and musical taste, Australia’s competitiveness in international opera, and how “democratic” Australian culture is. These agents directly affect the “ecology” of the CAS, helping to form the green “ecology" boxes in Chart 2. There would be many more, and these examples may not be among the most prominent ones. They are just examples illustrating the CAS model and its structure for an artform that happens to be opera.
  2. “Ecology” in environmental terms refers to a natural ecosystem, from which it has been extended to describe cultural, institutional and social systems. Again, the four green boxes in Chart 2 would be quite inadequate in describing the ecology of the Australian opera sector (as is abundantly clear from the details in the opera paper itself). Again, they are just examples, chosen to be government and private-sector funding, Australian orchestras and music conservatoriums. All these depend on first-level “evolutionary agents”, which may or may not themselves overlap with those directly affecting the opera sector.
  3. Because artforms are directly affected by their current “ecology” but may also receive general influences from the "evolutionary" agents, they are subject to a “double whammy”. Like in this dreamt-up opera example: Australian culture (evolutionary agent) affects government cultural policy reinforcing the impact on opera ecology. Australian cultural development for various other reasons may be increasingly bypassing or neglecting some forms of fine music. Despite Australia’s recognised position in international opera[9], opera audiences keep declining, opera is seen as elitist, expensive and irrelevant by many people, public funding is static and barely adequate to provide any support to progressing the artform, and private funding declines for a variety of reasons not necessarily associated with general economic conditions.

Where does opera fit into the three CAS levels of Gell-Mann's "cultural DNA"?

  1. Directly adaptable - no call to change its schemata — definitely not
  2. Affected by competition among schemata — very much so
  3. At risk of death or at least life-threatening reduction — yes, unless effective modification of opera's schemata is somehow made to change the competitive pattern.

Opera does appear to be at risk of suffering the fate of the Maya empire – near-death of the unfittest. Mayan people remain a cultural influence from the Yucatan to Guatemala, but the empire is long past. The issue for opera in Australia is: Can it still turn itself around to survive despite not being the “fittest” in natural and cultural selection terms, and how can it be helped in this?

That question takes us to the “scenario” group at the bottom of Chart 2. It proceeds from what Dick Letts calls the current equilibrium level in his opera paper (large orange box in Chart 2). He calls the opportunities “basins of attraction” which takes us towards the future we are attempting to describe in terms of four scenarios from the best-case “culture prevails” to the worst-case “sliding inexorably”. No one can predict in advance what scenario is most likely to occur; we are dealing with an unpredictable nonlinear system.

But we can prepare for it by asking a sufficient number of adequate “what-if” questions, with associated plans. It is difficult, and it involves every Australian with a stake in our national cultural future. We have to coexist with a multitude of different interests and preferences, and every sector whether cultural or not has to be actively involved in promoting their respective futures.

Ultimately it all comes back to basics: Are we a first-world nation and want to remain one? How does culture help us there? How do we allocate the budget and give a proper share to cultural activities including opera (which connects with other cultural activities in CAS terms)? And, of course, what is the proper share – a question that stretches far and wide into all complex adaptive systems that are in any way associated with Australian culture, and becomes intimately associated with the basic issues of how cultural activities benefit the economic future.

These questions cannot be asked without providing the framework in which they are asked. The CAS structure is built to provide such a framework, reinforced because it is oriented towards the future by definition.

In summary, music is just an example but Opera in Australia as a Complex Adaptive System represents the first time any attempt appears to have been made to describe an artform as a CAS. Dick Letts’s paper contains some creative original concepts which could serve as a model not only for other music artforms but far beyond. The paper is firmly based on the Gell-Mann treatise and has the special merit of being capable of incorporating scenario-planning which has become a major topic in the Music in Australia Knowledge Base.


It is evident from the history of the scenario project for the music sector outlined by the list of papers below that the process of developing the project has been highly explorative, treading new paths not always visible in scenario-planning projects, occasionally running into seemingly blind alleys but always finding light at the end of the tunnel. It may seem surprising that the relevance of complex adaptive systems for music sector scenarios dawned upon us so late in the project, given our prior knowledge of Gell-Mann’s book and Dick Letts’s The Arts on the Edge of Chaos which became our first e-book on the Knowledge Base in December 2015.

Our “excuse”, if any is needed, is that the entire project from its start in 2014 has been a pioneering effort, apparently the first-ever published scenario plan for a major artform. We trust that with this added dimension of the scenario model we can travel towards the goal: to provide plausible stories with numerical projections for each of four defined scenarios from 2015 to 2035 as a potentially powerful policy-making tool.

Papers in this Series

  1. Putting Numbers on Our Cultural Assets: Not Yet Possible (27.3.2014)
  2. How to Explore the Cultural Future (7.4.2014)
  3. Cultural and Creative Activity in Australia (15.4.2014)
  4. Global Risk Factors and Music in Australia (17.10.2014)
  5. Scenarios, Virtual History, and Chaos (20.10.2014)
  6. Ideas from Other Global Scenarios (8.12.2014)
  7. Four Global Scenarios Set the Stage (18.12.2014)
  8. Music Sector Structure for Scenarios (28.2.2015)
  9. Valuing the Invaluable (5.3.2015)
  10. Some Big Possible Positives - Or? (20.6.2015)
  11. A First Set of Music Sector Scenarios (23.6.2015)
  12. Global Leadership Challenges: A Missing Link in the Scenario Planning (31.10.2015)
  13. Present and Future Changes and Their Role in the Scenarios   (20.12.2015)
  14. Complex Adaptive Systems and Music   (9.1.2016)


Hans Hoegh-Guldberg, 9 January 2016


  1. Murray Gell-Mann (1994), The Quark and the Jaguar: Adventures in the Simple and the Complex. Henry Holt and Company, LLC. The book is available new or used online; two prominent publishers checked on 7 January 2016.
  2. Gell-Mann’s book goes vastly beyond what this paper tries to convey – there are close links to quantum mechanics and chaos theory (not to mention cosmology, biology, meteorology, pure mathematics and much more). The chaos concept does enter some Knowledge Base papers including Dick Letts’s e-book The Arts at the Edge of Chaos which was greatly influenced by Quark and Jaguar, and my own Scenarios, Virtual History, and Chaos in the scenario series, but this paper focuses on complex adaptive systems as such, without getting into Gell-Mann’s analysis of their background and application through what is now recognised and extensively applied as complexity theory.
  3. The four scenarios are scheduled for publication as a Knowledge Base e-book in the second quarter of 2016, in a self-contained form including updated scenario stories, projections and analysis. The series of 14 scenario papers will be retained on the Knowledge Base to show how this unique arts-related scenario-planning project developed, and for their additional content. All 14 preliminary papers will influence the e-book, including paper #11, A First Set of Music Sector Scenarios, dated June 2015. But all the papers, including #11, will remain preliminary, steps on the way.
  4. The title of the book comes from a line by Santa Fe-based poet Arthur Sze: “The world of the quark has everything to do with a jaguar circling in the night”. In the book, the elementary type of particle called the quark “symbolizes the simple basic physical laws that govern the universe and all the matter in it. The jaguar stands for the complexity of the world around us, especially as manifested in complex adaptive systems.” (p 11) The actual boundary is not quite as rigid between the simple and the complex – Gell-Mann himself says on p 27: “Simplicity refers to the absence (or near-absence) of complexity.” We are not physicists but can safely follow Gell-Mann in making the distinction absolute as far as the CAS model is concerned.
  5. One of the consequences is that complex adaptive systems at any level are nonlinear by definition, which makes them virtually impermeable for conventional numerical forecasting.
  6. Gell-Mann’s terminology is retained here. “In fact the term “schema” has long been used in psychology to mean a conceptual framework such as a human being always uses to grasp data, to give them meaning.” (p 17) Other complex adaptive systems like economists or musicians may have to adapt their own schemata to grasp the full meaning!
  7. The roughly coincidental fate of Norse settlements in Greenland and the Maya empire in Central America come to mind as examples. Both concluded around the year 1500.
  8. Chart 1 might be incorrectly called “the theory of everything”, but that term refers to esoteric cosmological hypotheses like string theory, developed by other renowned physicists including Stephen Hawking, featured in a 2014 film of the same name starring Eddie Redmayne as Hawking.
  9. Australian Classical Musicians Successful Abroad at a High Level
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