Friday, September 4, 2009

How Shuffle has Changed Music

These days, it seems shuffle is all the rage. Driving in our cars, out jogging, at work, whatever the situation, it seems a great many of us provide music for the occasion by simply putting our media players on shuffle. Some people use it less, while others I know rarely listen to music in any other way. But either way, it's here and we use it.

Shuffle is a pretty new thing. It appeared in significant fashion only once large libraries of music became easily accessible and portable, essentially developing alongside the popularization of spacious computer hard drives and especially portable media players, most notably the now ubiquitous iPod.

As recent as 10-15 years ago, if you wanted to listen to music, you popped a CD into your CD player and hit the play button. Sure, computer media players existed, but hard drives were quite small compared to the amount of space music files occupied. Computers were mainly used for downloading music and burning it to CD or burning replica or mix CDs. If you wanted to shuffle music, the options available were scant: shuffle a single CD(or maybe several if you had a big expensive multi-CD machine), take the time to make a specific mix CD, or constantly rifle through your collection and switch CDs all the time. Go back to the pre-compact disc era and even shuffling a single album becomes difficult. You had to manually find tracks with a record needle or on magnetic tape. Now, anyone can walk around with 80 gigabytes of music in their pocket and randomize all or any subset of it on demand.

This seemingly simple development is huge and has clear ramifications on the manner in which music is experienced and even created. Pre-shuffle, if someone bought a CD, the most likely and obvious manner in which they would listen to it was in order, maybe all the way through if it was good. Now, some people don't even listen to their new music until it comes up in a general shuffle of a much larger playlist.

As a creator of music, knowing the likely way in which the audience will listen to a set of discrete tracks allows one to structure them in an intentional manner. The most obvious example of this would be programmatic albums, but even aside from this, there are a myriad of albums for which it seems pretty clear the order of the tracks was carefully chosen. Pink Floyd's "Dark Side of the Moon" is a great example in my mind. The tracks aren't expressing an explicit sequence, but the album creates lulls, contrasts, thematicism, and intrigue with the track ordering. The frenetic and tense nature of "On the Run" gives way to the ominous quiet and ticking of clocks in "Time," creating a very noticeable atmosphere, for example. Listening to the two tracks out of context or order creates a vastly different experience of them.

Shuffle changes this dynamic from both the sides of the composer and the audience. The composer no longer has any reason to use album organization as part of the artistic idea of an album if listeners cannot reasonable be expected to listen to albums in a manner that keeps album ordering reasonably intact. On the other hand, listeners will listen to albums that do place importance on track order(most albums don't explicitly claim the importance of listening to them in order, but that doesn't mean that it isn't there) out of order and change that part of the experience from the artist's original intent.

From personal experience, I have actually had people tell me about listening to excerpts from Pink Floyd's "The Wall" on shuffle, and that this is an explicitly programmatic work is no secret. Musically, the tracks were not designed as singles and possess an incredible amount of interrelation. In my opinion, this is one of the biggest draws of the album: its intricacy. Regardless of whether one considers it positive or negative, it's a huge part of the experience. Listening to "The Wall" in fragmented and disordered form is what led an acquaintance of mine to describe the album to me as "'Comfortably Numb' and a bunch of bad songs."

That's the power of shuffle.

Monday, August 31, 2009

I can't get it out of my head . . .

Lately, as I have been listening to and discussing Lady Gaga's work with some of my friends, I have noticed a theme recur: her music is said to be "catchy." And I agree. I find her single, "Poker Face," to be an especially catchy song. I remember it, and to use the cliche phrase, it get's stuck in my head: I find I unconsciously remember it.

Of course not all music is catchy or gets stuck in one's head. I've never had anyone tell me that Penderecki's "Threnody" is a catchy piece, nor do I find my thoughts drifting to its musical content seemingly on their own, even though I know the piece fairly well. I have to concentrate to play the sounds in my head. I don't think it is just me either. There are certain qualities that would, in my belief, logically make a song more likely to be "catchy."

Repetition - This makes sense on a lot of levels. If you hear something once, your chances or remembering it aren't that good. But hear it over and over again, and the odds are a lot better. Additionally, repetition creates logical patterns that our brains can easily replicate and extend. Perhaps this has something to do with why songs get "stuck" in our heads.

Most contemporary popular music is strophic and thus inherently has some built in repetition. However, looking at "Poker Face," there is in fact much more repetition. The percussive beat is a constant repeated pattern, devoid of even the customary fills. The vocals are presented over a background of short, repeated melodic phrases produced by electronic instruments. There is some variation here, but not enough to stop is from all seeming like a single repeating unit.

Steady Well Defined Beat - The idea of a steady pulse seems to be hardwired into us. Heartbeats, for one, are a steady pulse and have been very consciously cited as an influence on music throughout written history. Secondly, ministry of silly walks aside, people walk evenly at and a steady pace naturally. So, music with a regular pulse feels natural. A piece with alternative measures of 5/8 and 7/4 with constant eighth notes feels unnatural, just like taking different sized uneven steps while walking. As for definition, the stereotypical pounding bass associated with nightclubs isn't necessary per say, but it is impossible to perceive a beat as natural if you can't tell where it is or if it moves around.

Simplicity - I'm not saying full on minimalism, but if the content is very complicated in its various aspects, it becomes too difficult to remember easily, or even at all. "Poker Face" fits this well in my opinion. There are no bizarre rhythms, no jarring changes of tonality. The various melodies and melodic fragments move primarily by steps and common chord intervals such as thirds, fourths, and fifths. Due to the way western music has developed, these intervals are the easiest for us to hear in our minds, as well as sing.

Familiarity - While there are trends, there is also much disparity in what different people find catchy. A lot of this has to do with what we have become accustomed to. I tend to find this overrides the other factors. Personally, I can perceive Frank Ticheli's "Vesuvius" as catchy despite the fact that it consists largely of an irregular 2+3+2+2 rhythmic pattern. I've played in wind bands for so long and dealt with 5/8, 7/8, 11/8 and other sorts of uneven meters involves 3s and 2s that it no longer seems so irregular.

Another example is a story told about an indian musician(I have heard Ravi Shankar but I am not sure) who was brought to a western orchestra concert. When he was asked what his favorite part was, he answered the beginning of the concert, when the instruments were tuning. Having spent all his life in a musical environment where microtonal music was the norm, this was what resonated with him. In line with this, "Poker Face" has a lot in common with the other music someone listening to pop stations would hear.

These are just a few ideas from me. Additions or contentions? Throw something in the comments section.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Projects in the works . . .

While my intro post talks about some attitudes toward music, it doesn't really say much about what I plan to do with this blog. Here's a brief post about some of the projects I am planning

-A journey through pop: I'm planning to spend some quality listening time with many of the pop artists of today: Katy Perry, Lady Gaga, Kanye, Taylor Swift, etc, and see what I notice about their music. I'm not so much aiming to praise or criticize the music on abstract merit. I'm planning to see what I find interesting, where I find value in the music and what I think some of the appeals are, as well as my general like/dislike of the material and why. My goal is to try and listen to the music for content, both musical and lyrical. I am going to refrain from consulting other analyses or reviews, in an effort to make this primarily a listening journal. I will allow myself resources like wikipedia for general information about the groups, and lyrics transcriptions. This will be the first time in years that I will have really payed attention to modern popular music, and hopefully the musical skills I have acquired combined with my lack of too many prior experience and entrenched opinions on the subject will lead to interesting insights.

-general ideas: When you spend a lot of time with music, you often come up with some ideas of a more general nature concerning music. I plan to post about some of the ones I think are interesting.

-classical music in Cleveland: While I'm a poor grad student who doesn't have money to blow on the excellent Cleveland Orchestra every week, I will be performing in or attending various concerts of amateur, student, and professional natures. I'm definitely planning some posts on these experiences.

And of course, anything else that strikes my fancy might end up on this blog. You can expect to see occasional material about the Cleveland Cavaliers, especially come playoff time. The blog will primarily remain musically oriented, but expect a few posts on other topics now and then,

-Matt W

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Don't Let Me Get Me(Why does pop music hate itself?)

"L.A. told me/You'll be a pop star/All you have to change/is everything you are."

-Pink, "Don't Let Me Get Me"

Pop music has often been, as a concept, disliked and criticized for a perceived lack of authenticity, conformist nature, and derivative content. You'd think the pop musicians would want to defend their art, or else just laugh all the way to the bank, but in reality, pop musicians are among the most frequent critics of pop music. In addition to the line from Pink above, here are a couple more examples.

"I'm in my room it's a typical Tuesday night/I'm listening to the kind of music she doesn't like . . . But she wears short skirts I wear T-shirts/She's cheer captain and I'm on the bleachers"

-Taylor Swift, "You Belong With Me"

Joe Jonas, in the Disney Channel movie, "Camp Rock," plays a pop singer who decries his own "cookie cutter pop music" in favor of . . . yet more pop music.

There is certainly something to be said for the content of the criticisms in general. A lot of pop music is very similar, and many of the stars do serve as fronts for songwriters and handlers who create the content and image. Still, it's not like derivative music or handling is a new thing. Stax Records, back in its glory days, was literally a factory that churned out hits and stars. Even Led Zeppelin, a band almost universally considered great today, debuted on an album that was famously(and in my opinion accurately) described in Rolling Stone Magazine as yet another generic blues rock LP.

The trend of pop criticizing itself seems to be fairly new though. Expression and individuality are old themes, but in the 60s, 70s, and 80s eras of pop music, I have not encountered many examples of these themes being expressed through the lens of pop music criticizing itself as a genre(though I am certainly not an expert). If anyone knows of some prominent instances, let me know in the comments.

So why do artists such as Taylor Swift and Pink feel a need to criticize the genre of music to which they belong? One possibility I am sure that someone must have suggested is the rise of the music video. Combining the music with visuals makes a marketable image more important, or so the argument goes. YouTube only makes music videos more accessible. The official video for Lady Gaga's "Poker Face" has over 11 million views.

Still, I am hesitant to buy into this theory too much. Fans in older eras of popular music still talk about how they identified with the music and used music tastes as a way of expressing themselves. Also, it's easy to find artists for whom image became an important aspect of their musical identity: Billy Joel, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, et. al. Even if image has become more important, I think it is still only tangentially related to the main question.

Another theory, and one I personally think gets more to the heart of the question, is the idea that anti-pop ideas were ushered into the mainstream by the rise of music that originally was not a part of pop. If you are going to compete with established mainstream bands who already have millions of entrenched listeners, you have to use every angle at your disposal. So, a natural choice is the powerful nonconformity angle combined with the idea of one's choice of music as an aspect of personal identity, which leads very quickly to using pop's status of popularity against it. "How can you be a nonconformist if you are listening to the same music as everyone else? Come listen to us and you'll really be different from everyone. Look how few fans we have."

Eventually, groups using these ideas found their way into the mainstream. More radio stations, cheaper recording technology, and very recently the internet, made it easier for lesser known bands to gain exposure. After all, how many top 40 stations does one city need? In order to compete, music offerings branched out. The ultimate result is that some of the anti-pop groups became pop, and their ideas became a part of the mainstream.

Today, the whole sentiment seems to have reached an absurd level. If you think about it, who really believes that Avril Lavigne isn't a pop artist? We're either in denial, or we have just accepted the whole anti-pop attitude of pop music as a quirk of the culture. To me, it's kind of like when politicians promise to fund every program, cut taxes, and balance the budget. Just not going to happen.

At some point the pendulum is going to swing back, and I think there is already some evidence that this is starting to happen. I'm hearing more of Lady Gaga's burlesque embrace of the star culture, and less of Avril Lavigne's teenage rebellion on the radio these days. The state of contemporary hip-hop/rap shows similar signs. This is a topic I plan to revisit once my personal listening journey through contemporary pop music gets started in earnest.

-Matt W

Monday, August 10, 2009

Come Sail Away With Me

Music is a part of everyone's life. We all live in an environment filled with it, a great many of us at least find something we like and take enjoyment in it, some latch on to a specific subset and culture and establish part of an identity through it, and a minority devote themselves heavily to formal training in creating, performing, and understanding some type of music. As someone who studied music in college for four years, I belong to that last category.

On one hand, it is kind of nice to think of myself as a trained expert in the field, but on the other, the vast majority of my training focused on studying and preparing me to deal with music written a long time ago by people in Europe and the United States, a small sampling when compared to the totality of music. It is definitely an amazing collection, filled with many great works of completely divergent styles, but still a tiny sliver of what music as a whole offers us.

More to the point though, it isn't such narrow training that really makes anyone a musician or musical expert. Understanding music is first and foremost about listening to it. It is a medium that is meant to be heard. And one doesn't need any training or expertise at all. Anyone can understand music. All it takes is the willingness to pay attention and listen. Instead of making music a backdrop against which we live our lives, we have to bring it to the forefront, give it careful attention. Then, we begin to notice things. We hear things we didn't notice before. And we can begin to ask ourselves: what makes the music we listen to what it is?

Formal training is by no means useless. It provides ways to quantify and normalize, exposes us to ideas that we probably wouldn't come up with in a vacuum. It gives us a context in which to understand how the music we listen to in a sort of abstract did or would have been expected to fit into the world around it.

Still, everyone's understanding and valuation of music is ultimately going to be a bit different. Of course, that is what makes music, as well as the rest of the world, so diverse and interesting.

So, this is where the idea of "The Three Musics" comes in. The concept dates back to the medieval ages and is associated with a philosopher, mathematician, and musician named Boethius. He specified three branches of music. Musica Universalis was the music of the spheres. It was a theoretical music created by the perfect proportions formed by the various heavenly bodies(at this time a very conveniently proportioned geocentric universe was very much the belief). Musica Humana was the music of humans. It referred to the music of the human body. Finally, Musica Instrumentalis was music as we think of it: the sounds produced by singers and musical instruments.

This model seems bizarre to us today, but at the core is an interesting concept: music existing in relation to the world around it. This isn't quite how medievalists would have looked at it, but it is how I plan to approach this blog. Primarily, I'm going to be exploring music and musical topics, but I know I will get into other things as well. I have a few listening projects for myself that I plan to write about in the near future.

I hope the experience is enjoyable and enriching for both myself and those of you who decide to read on. I'll always be interested and appreciative of feedback, ideas, and suggestions, so if you have something to say, post a comment.