Thursday, May 20, 2004

Are you listening?

In the comments to this post, Chris Mealy points to this article: The Transformation Of The American Musical Ear.

It's interesting in a general way, as it raises the issue of the cultural construction of the ear, without leaning too heavily on the "this is better than that" crutch.

There are now two generations of Americans who have grown up after the rock revolution of the late 1960s, for whom classical music and the old style Broadway/Hollywood songs are largely marginal. As a result, today's typical American ear is attuned more to rhythm and vocal emotion — the strengths of rock and rap — than to melody and harmony, the strengths of classical music and Golden Age pop. This is true not just of teenagers but of people roughly fifty and under, and has been the most seismic shift in musical sensibility since the advent of ragtime introduced the American ear to syncopation a century ago.

I would argue that rhythm and vocal emotion (in which I would include melodic playing on instruments) are actually the most important aspects of most musics around the world. For example, most folk/traditional musics tend to be based on modal melodic playing and insistent rhythm (whether in sub-Saharan Africa, Bali, Cuba, Spain or Greece). In America, pop music has, as far as I can see, two main ancient sources: the blues (and gospel, I guess) and Tin Pan Alley. While Tin Pan Alley has always been looking towards the Classical world (cf. Gershwin's transition from Broadway to the concert hall), the blues is a folk music. Further, despite its basic 3-chord structure, it fits into the modality/rhythm matrix, as you can play it with just the 5-6 notes of the familiar blues scale throughout the 12 bars. Tangentially, McWhorter seems to forget that some American Classical music (i.e. Minimalism) also abandoned the quest for more sophisticated harmony in favour of, you guessed it, repetition and rhythm.

The blues thread (blues, rock'n'roll, rhythm'n'blues, jazz, soul, hip-hop) may have taken the ascendant over the songwriting thread (the descendants of Tin Pan Alley), as the article suggests, but I think that it is more the case that they have intertwined in various ways. This is quite clearly the case with jazz's reliance on standards for melodic and harmonic (but, crucially, not rhythmic) material and in certain strands of pop music, as McWhorter sort-of describes:

I once attended a screening of a concert video from the mid-1960s in which Sammy Davis, Jr., who occupied the transitional point between the old and the current sensibility, sang Cole Porter's "I've Got You Under My Skin" first "straight", and then without accompaniment, eventually moving into scatting and riffing rhythmically to the merest suggestion of the written vocal line for a good few minutes

McWhorter also says that

A catchy beat is not just one element, but the sine qua non in most pop today, opening most songs instead of the instrumental prelude of the old days.

(As soon as I read that, I thought of the opening of Andre 3000's The Love Below (winkingly kitsch old-fashioned string arrangements)). Here, he is claiming that a catchy beat is not "instrumental," which is rather odd since the beat is made with instruments. This is a telling point which I return to below.

Certainly folks liked a good beat before Elvis, but much of even the most crassly commercial dance music before the 1950s was couched in melody and harmony to a degree largely unknown in today's pop.

Leaving aside the question of whether or not today's pop is melodically and harmonically poorer than pre-1950s pop and whether or not other elements have have come in to shore up that supposed loss (as it's not a question I'm equipped to answer), it's interesting to note that he associates rhythm with the "crassly commercial," implying a musical hierarchy along the way and an appeal to the listener's basest instincts. Actually, I have always read that the more commercial (which may partially be read as white) bands of the big band swing era tended to "water down" rhythm rather than ramp it up. This backhanded compliment expresses a similar sentiment:

Yet what pop has lost in craft it has gained in psychological sophistication, and the focus on vocal emotion is part of this.

So a good beat takes less craft than a good melody or set of chords? I think that this assumption rests on two things. First, it rests on the idea that rhythm is natural. Well, we've heard that before and we know it's not true. Further, I would argue that harmony is no less natural than rhythm. Dissonance and consonance depend largely on the natural overtone series, with intervals encountered early in that series (octave, fifth) sounding more consonant than intervals encountered later. To this natural acoustics explanation can be added a cultural one. I recall trumpeter Dennis Gonzalez saying that when he was learning the instrument, he would play along with his piano-learning sister, both reading from the same piano score without realising that the (Bb?) trumpet needed to transpose, hence making a dissonant racket, but one that sounded good to him. So much so, that when he, later, came across the music of Ornette Coleman, it sounded perfectly natural. More generally, one could also say that the listener's ear has become progressively more used to dissonance (or rather, progressively tolerated greater levels of harmonic complexity) and to high volume (cf. the progressive rise of the tuning frequency and instruments (violin, piano) being made more powerful, not to mention, of course, amplifiers turned up to 11).

Second, I feel that McWhorter's assumption springs from harmony being considered a more sophisticated craft because it is more easily and meaningfully expressed theoretically than rhythm. Thus, advanced harmony is more easily taught in an academic - hence, sophisticated - setting than advanced rhythm.

To sum up, I am not disputing McWhorter's description of the changing American ear, nor am I responding to every topic he raises. Rather, I am attempting to point out some of the prejudices and misconceptions of his analysis. I am more inclined to seeing pop music today as a broad mixture of folk and Tin Pan Alley, while trying to