Tag: music theory

Confronting Our Complicity: Music Theory and White Supremacy

A photo of a wrecked classroom with paint peeling from the ceiling, desks turned over and broken.

For many students, the traditional music theory core curriculum is an undesirable and yet unavoidable part of their college music experience. It becomes something to be suffered through, survived rather than savored. A critical source of this frustration is the disconnect between their musical lives inside the classroom and those outside it. Despite the fact that the majority of our students do not listen to Western art music regularly, nearly all of the core curriculum is based on it. Consequently, as students progress through their degree, they must endure the constant friction between the music they want to study and the music they have to study, between music they value and what music theory as an institution values.

In “Teaching Inequality: Consequences of Traditional Music Theory Pedagogy,” I described how a theory curriculum devoted to a single style is inherently limited and inherently limiting. When we restrict ourselves to Western art music, we forgo the opportunity to speak about basic yet essential musical elements such as groove, timbre, improvisation, and post-production in styles where these are powerfully foregrounded.

Why then do we as a discipline remain so averse to change? Despite the passage of time, the evolution of taste, and the advent of new styles, new techniques, and new technologies of music creation, the topics we teach and the examples we use rarely reflect this. Instead, today’s leading theory texts cover more or less the same material as those we used as students, as those our teachers used as students, as those our teachers’ teachers used as students. The theory curriculum at too many institutions remains largely standardized and largely stagnant.

This is a problem.

Our unwarranted privileging of Western art music—a style constructed by white people as white, despite the historical and ongoing participation of people who aren’t—enables the dismissal of other styles of music and the people associated with those styles through unfavorable and unfair comparisons. How do we reconcile this with our many statements extolling the virtues of diversity, equity, and inclusivity? Why do we continue to rely on a deeply flawed pedagogy?

We continue to rely on the traditional pedagogy for three interrelated reasons. First, given our extensive training in Western art music, we’re reluctant and often unable to divest ourselves from its contents. Second, because institutions prioritize research over teaching, we prioritize research over teaching. Finally, we’re unwilling to confront our investment in the whiteness of the curriculum because we’re unwilling to confront our investment in the whiteness in our lives.

When we rationalize our use of the traditional pedagogy by appealing to its contents, we attempt to transform a subjective preference into an objective truth. The specific set of skills that one acquires through studying Western art music becomes the necessary set of skills for any consequential study of music. But basing an entire core curriculum on any single style requires making major concessions about the musical elements we can talk about and the informed ways we can talk about them. Being able to harmonize chorales “correctly” means nothing if you’re looking to get up, get into it, and get involved. Conversely, asking if you can take it to the bridge won’t help you avoid parallel fifths.

Any argument that centers tradition must address whose tradition and why. Simple historical inertia—the replication of what we were taught as students—isn’t sufficient. If we appeal to “art for art’s sake,” we need to be explicit about whose art and, consequently, for whose sake. We need to talk about the metrics being used to determine what counts as art, who selects these metrics, and their reasons for doing so. We need to talk about how white male identity politics has shaped Western art music.

Our decision to use the traditional pedagogy is also motivated by how this impacts our careers. Institutions place a disproportionate weight on research relative to teaching, and this incentivizes perpetuation in the classroom, rather than innovation. Because the classical style is highly codified and relatively easy to teach, we can allocate more time and energy to research while still hitting established learning goals. Unfortunately, our longstanding pedagogical dependence on Western art music has conditioned us to expect certain results without asking if they matter, much less how they do, or to whom.

Contingent faculty have even less institutional incentive—and often less agency—to challenge the curriculum at the schools where they teach. The instability of employment and higher turnover rates means that any traction for innovative pedagogy is hard to establish and harder to maintain. In general, changes to the status quo, when they occur, tend to be fairly isolated.

Nevertheless, theory’s established historical pedigree does not absolve us from the moral necessity of questioning what it is we’re actually doing in the classroom. Well-established marginalization is, after all, still marginalization, and the generation of predictable results does not in itself mean that we are teaching our students what they should be learning. The bald assertion that the traditional pedagogy provides any and all necessary and fundamental knowledge needs to be defended, and I don’t believe it can be.

We present music almost exclusively by dead white European men under neutral course titles like “Basic Musicianship,” allowing the two to conflate into a tautological definition of what qualifies as “Real Music,” and re-inscribing racial and gender hierarchies in the process. We present Western art music as an unassailable good and our teaching of it as unassailably good. We present Western art music as an intellectual art form, a high art form, a better art form, and we do this in the service of an ideology that positions white identities, ideas, and ideals as superior.

We want to continue using the traditional pedagogy without acknowledging how it upholds white supremacy because we don’t want to acknowledge how we uphold white supremacy. We consistently downplay or deny the privileges whiteness provides and we consistently downplay or deny the ways we protect those privileges.

  • Today’s leading theory texts cover more or less the same material as those we used as students.

    Dave Molk
  • Any argument that centers tradition must address whose tradition and why.

    Dave Molk
  • Listening to Western art music is not racist in itself. ... Canonizing only white composers of Western art music is racist.

    Dave Molk

Listening to Western art music is not racist in itself. Studying Western art music is not racist in itself. Teaching Western art music is not racist in itself. Canonizing only white composers of Western art music is racist. Requiring all students to use a white lens to approach, understand, and critique music is racist.

As Michelle Ohnona and I wrote in “Promoting Equity: Developing an Antiracist Music Theory Classroom,” we need to engage with music and with the social and cultural mechanisms that shape it. We need to look past individual intent and acknowledge the cumulative impact of supporting a pedagogy that holds that a core curriculum based solely in Western art music is acceptable. To present this status quo as the natural order of things, without critique, is to uphold white supremacy.

The 2020 presidential election once again laid bare the ongoing thrall of white grievance and the pervasiveness of white supremacy. We can’t be impartial about this—oppression within education is a reflection and a reinforcement of oppression within society, and when we fail to address injustice, we ensure its continuance. Let us push back against the claimed inevitability of this insupportable curriculum.

The best thing we can do for our students is to embrace an engaged, transformative pedagogy in which, as bell hooks eloquently writes in Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom, “our work is not merely to share information but to share in the intellectual and spiritual growth of our students.” This requires at least a realignment and probably a rethinking of what higher education is supposed to be.

With a transformative pedagogy, we recalibrate our classrooms into spaces where we acknowledge the humanity of our students and are explicit about how the work we do in the classroom relates to their lives outside of it. We talk openly with students and with each other about racism, sexism, ableism, classism, and other forms of identity-based oppression. That this call to arms isn’t a new one only underscores its urgency. That these discussions aren’t necessarily easy only underscores their urgency.

As we teach students how to hear, interact with, and think about music, let’s also teach them to think critically, ask questions, self-reflect, and to care enough to do so. Let’s open their ears, eyes, and minds to voices and people that have been marginalized, to the stories that surround and support the notes, to the unheard music. We need to teach the humanities as a practice you take out into the world.

As with any enterprise involving the sowing of seeds, some will germinate immediately, some only after the passing of several years, and some not at all. This is okay. Now is the time for planting.

Promoting Equity: Developing an Antiracist Music Theory Classroom

Photo by Sam Balye via Unsplash of a crowded classroom from the back of the room showing a diverse group of students

By Dave Molk & Michelle Ohnona

Making Whiteness Visible in the (Music) Classroom

Teaching Inequality: Problems with Traditional Music Theory Pedagogy” described how the near exclusive and yet unnecessary reliance on Western art music, institutionalized as white and as male, upholds white supremacy within the music theory classroom. In “Promoting Equity,” we present strategies on how to begin disrupting this normalization of whiteness, starting with making it visible. We should think of this disruption as a process rather than a product—antiracist describes actions, not states of being. To supplement the ideas presented here, we’ll also suggest additional resources in the conclusion that might help you in your own practice.

Naming: A Way to Begin (some reflections from Dave Molk)

As a white man, speaking of whiteness in the effort to de-center it runs the seemingly paradoxical risk of re-centering whiteness. Even in the midst of calling out unearned privilege, I reap its benefits—the presumed authority associated with this aspect of my identity ensures that my voice sounds louder and carries further than the majority of those who do not share it.

And yet, the problem of not speaking up is a form of complicity in the face of ongoing oppression. Calling attention to an injustice forces a decision from those who practice willful ignorance: a decision between confrontation and conscious evasion. Naming is a way to begin, a way to make perceptible something that so often goes unrecognized. As whiteness becomes noticeable, it becomes noteworthy, and we can recognize its ubiquity as unnatural and intentional.

The problem of not speaking up is a form of complicity in the face of ongoing oppression.

White people are overrepresented as faculty in the college classroom. The belief that race is a non-white problem, something that affects “others,” is itself a white problem with a disproportionate and negative impact on people of color. Whites are responsible both for this ignorance and for redressing it—claimed neutrality only masks our ongoing racism. There is no opt-out.

An antiracist approach must be intersectional—meaning that race, gender, class, sexuality, and other aspects of one’s identity where oppression exists are inextricable from one another. An antiracist approach names these forms of oppression and their manifestations inside and outside the classroom.

When I talk with my students about white supremacy in higher education, I name my whiteness. When I talk with my students about sexism in higher education, I name my gender. I acknowledge that I receive unearned privileges because I am an able cisgendered white heterosexual man and I name some of these privileges. I name the pressures I feel to stay silent and the perils in doing so. If I’m not willing to do this in front of my students, I can’t expect them to be willing to do it during the course of their lives, either.

Questioning the Curriculum

The process of developing an antiracist music theory classroom begins with reflecting critically on what we are doing in the classroom and why. What exactly are we teaching, both in terms of the immediate material and the underlying messages? Why are we including this particular material on the syllabus and why are we teaching it in this particular way? Whose goals does this actually serve, and what exactly are those goals? What disciplinary habits are we unquestioningly reproducing in our syllabi, teaching, and assessment methods? What role does whiteness play in our pedagogy? What role does sexism play? Who and what is missing, and why? Ask these and similar questions at the start of each semester and continue to revisit them as the semester unfolds.

What role does whiteness play in our pedagogy? What role does sexism play? Who and what is missing, and why?

Developing an Antiracist Music Theory Classroom

I. Centering the Student

To develop an antiracist music theory classroom, we should begin by acknowledging that the classroom is not a neutral space and that each of our students is a complex individual whose background knowledge, social identity, and relationship to music and music education is unique. Being able to connect with students from different backgrounds requires a flexibility in approach, an awareness of privilege and of power dynamics, and the understanding that these things matter. We can empower our students and encourage them to be active participants in their own education when we validate their musical experiences.

During our first meeting, I explain to students that I am not the sole source of knowledge for the course and that our work together will be more successful once we all realize that everyone has something valuable to contribute to our learning community. I state that there are no guilty pleasures in the classroom and that we will not self-deprecate. Hearing these messages said aloud helps students to understand that different musical backgrounds are a source of strength and that our class will work best when everyone feels comfortable contributing.

Questions to ask:

  •   Why do we presuppose that challenging our students is mutually exclusive with validating and empowering them?
  •   What is the relationship between the work we do in the classroom and the lives that our students and we lead outside it?
  •   What is actually necessary in what we teach? How are we defining necessary and who are we considering when we do this? What do our students actually do with this knowledge?

Strategies to incorporate:

  •   Create the syllabus with intention and invite feedback from a trusted colleague. Discuss pedagogical choices with students.
  •   Continue to ask who is included and who is not.
  •   Invite students to situate themselves in relation to the course material. Create opportunities for them to tell us what they need. Listen. Respond.
  •   Build trust and community by allowing ourselves to be vulnerable. We can’t expect students to be open if we are not open ourselves. Acknowledge the hard conversations. Empathize.

In Practice: Big-picture conversations

The classroom is not a neutral space.

To help students recognize that music is, in addition to “the notes,” a social and cultural product, I devote the majority of three classes each semester to a round-table discussion of big-picture ideas. I explain that, while I will facilitate as necessary, students should engage in dialogue with each other and not with me. These topics become reference points as we continue through the semester, and we keep these conversations going via online postings and explicit connections during lectures. The final paper asks students to continue realizing the political in the personal by situating themselves more deeply within these big-picture issues.

These discussions provide a way to begin uncovering pervasive biases and various forms of systemic oppression that influence our ways of thinking and modes of interaction. Even when I provide readings ahead of time to help students begin to think about these issues, I deliberately leave space in how to interpret the prompts. This allows students to approach the material from their own experiences and allows the class to learn how these big-picture issues can manifest in different ways. My role is to push us below surface-level engagement, to make visible the underlying assumptions. Teaching only the notes is a political decision with real consequences—in the absence of interruption, injustice replicates. The following are prompts that I use:

  • What makes music good?
  • What exactly is “the music itself”?
  • What is authenticity in music?
  • Disparities faced by women in music.
  • Connections between music, race, and racism.
  • The efficacy of protest music.

II. The Polystylistic Approach

A polystylistic approach uses the particular strengths of many different styles of music to create a sophisticated working knowledge of how music can be put together. Through a polystylistic approach, we also gain ways to talk about the social and cultural issues that are inseparable from music. Using examples from other genres within a pedagogic framework that still prioritizes Western art music is not the answer—inclusivity becomes tokenism when we reinforce a stylistic hierarchy. While including “everything” is neither possible nor productive, we must be clear that the decision not to include a particular style is not a dismissal of that style.

Inclusivity becomes tokenism when we reinforce a stylistic hierarchy.

If we restrict ourselves to a single genre, then we develop a monochromatic music theory. We forsake the opportunity to speak well about some musical phenomena and the ability to speak at all about others. Our understanding of what music is and what music can be will necessarily be limited by the aesthetics of the single style that we study, and we miss our chance to make music theory more relevant to more students.

Questions to ask:

  •   What is truly foundational knowledge and what is style-specific? How do we justify the inclusion of style-specific material in a basic theory curriculum? What is the explicit purpose of this style-specific material, is it warranted, and are we going about teaching it in the best way?
  •   If our students turned on the radio to a random station, could they engage with the music as a result of our pedagogy? Would they, as a result of our pedagogy, be dismissive of certain styles? Does our pedagogy disrupt such dismissive attitudes or reinforce them?
  •   If we require most/all majors and minors to take music theory, how can we convince them that music theory has value for what they do and who they are?

Strategies to incorporate:

  •   Be explicit about why we are teaching a polystylistic curriculum. Explain to students the traditional model and name its problems.
  •   Solicit suggestions from students for material to incorporate. Get to know what they’re into and help them to articulate reasons why they like it. Use the familiar to open doors to the new.
  •   Use moments when theory terminology breaks down to point out the shortcomings of theory, then work with students to create better ways to talk about the musical phenomena in question.
  •   Attend to inclusivity both in terms of genre and practitioners within genre.

In Practice: Sampling

To create the two-semester basic theory sequence I used at Georgetown University, I drew primarily from electronic dance music, hip-hop, jazz, pop, rock, and Western art music. These were styles I had formal training in or had devoted significant time and effort to research. When developing a polystylistic approach, the point isn’t to arrive at the optimum mix of styles, but to use a plurality of style to decenter whiteness, to make the material more relevant to more students, to give students a more realistic idea of how music works, what music is, and what music can be, and to provide an entry point for talking about the social and cultural issues imbedded in the music.

To make space in the syllabus to include a segment on sampling, during which I recreate Daft Punk’s “One More Time” from Eddie Johns’s “More Spell on You,” I don’t teach voice leading of the classical style. Sampling lets us talk about a number of important musical topics that don’t come up in traditional pedagogy, including studio production techniques, sequencing, DAWs, riddims, breaks, royalties, and questions of legality, authorship, and ethics. These are more immediate and meaningful to my students than the voice leading norms of a particular style. They’re also more applicable to their careers, and are therefore more important for me to teach.

To make space in the syllabus to include a segment on sampling, I don’t teach voice leading of the classical style.

I use the following guiding principles to contextualize our theory classroom, stating them during our first class and returning to them throughout the semester in order to emphasize their importance. Although we may find these truths obvious, we should still name them for our students—actually saying these out loud underscores the degree to which these points matter.

  • Music theory is descriptive, not prescriptive.
  • The tools we use guide our interactions and shape our interpretations.
  • We don’t have a sophisticated way to talk about a lot of musical phenomena. These shortcomings belong to the tools we use and not to the material.

Putting It Together: The Blues

Willie Dixon’s composition, “Spoonful,” offers a number of intellectually rigorous ways to engage with both the musical elements that work within it and the social and cultural forces that work upon it. What musical elements tend to be foregrounded in “Spoonful,” and how do they function? How about a tune like “Blues for Alice”—what elements tend to be foregrounded and how do they function? What are the advantages to calling both “Spoonful” and “Blues for Alice” a blues? Is it possible to identify a prevailing blues aesthetic? How might we describe it? Define it? What do we learn about the blues specifically and about the concept of genre generally as a result of this process?

We might compare and contrast Howlin’ Wolf’s rendition of “Spoonful” with Cream’s. We might talk about differences in instrumentation, in the use of space, in guitar technique and tone, in the timbres of the drums, the organization, the energy, and eventually realize we’re not even beginning to scratch the surface of the musically important material presented in these two versions of the tune. We might wonder why this type of deep and engaged critical listening isn’t what we talk about when we talk about ear training. We might wonder about biases in traditional ear training and about ways to overhaul that component of traditional music theory pedagogy.

The blues lets us engage with issues of appropriation in ways more immediate and more relevant to students than would be possible using Western art music. In light of these two versions of “Spoonful,” we might ask our students, who can sing the blues, and why? Who should sing the blues, and why? Who gets to determine this? Again, why? What does it mean that Eric Clapton built his career on the back of black music even as he espoused racist vitriol? Is this something we can reconcile? Something we should? What does it mean to separate the art from the artist? Is it actually possible to do so? By allotting time and space within the classroom for students to wrestle with these issues in a musical context, we prepare them to recognize how these issues can manifest more generally.

Talking about the blues in the music theory classroom provides an organic way to bring big-picture ideas into the conversation. Angela Davis develops a constructive framework for thinking about classism, sexism, and racism in Blues Legacies and Black Feminism as she traces the development of black social protest through the music of the classic blues era and into jazz. Sharing with students the lyrics to “Prove It On Me Blues,” “Poor Man’s Blues,” and “Strange Fruit,” encourages them to understand the work of Gertrude ‘Ma’ Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday as simultaneously musical, social, and cultural. An introduction to this history lets students re-contextualize social protest as it manifests in other, more recent styles of music in the United States, both inside and outside black communities. We can, of course, talk about form, chords, scales, improvisation, and other elements that we tend to find in a music theory classroom when we talk about the blues. Indeed, we must—but we must also push these conversations further.

Concluding Thoughts

As educators, our failure to engage the potential of our classrooms to be sites of antiracist learning and practice is not only a question of social injustice. When we omit, overlook, or unknowingly disregard the work of musicians of color, we commit disciplinary injustice, and do a disservice not only to the students in our classroom, but to our discipline writ large. It isn’t enough to study how music is put together—we should also study why it is put together in the way that it is.

It isn’t enough to study how music is put together—we should also study why it is put together in the way that it is.

We should ask how our pedagogy supports the development of critical thinking and engaging with difference, and how we might better incorporate this into our coursework. We should ask how social and cultural forces shape what we study in the classroom, how we study it, and how these forces impact our lives. We should ask how our coursework aligns with the goals of higher education, and why we remain complacent when it doesn’t.

We are all racialized within this society—conservatory and non-conservatory alike. When we abdicate our responsibility as educators to do this work in these spaces, in spite of significant institutional barriers, we ensure the ascendancy of injustice. The ability to step away is itself a mark of privilege that should be brought to bear on fixing the problem, not perpetuating it. We can all advocate within our spheres of influence to advance the cause of justice. The suggestions offered here are possible starting points for critical reflection about the work we do in the classroom and the reasons we do it. All work must have a beginning—may this be yours.


Suggested Resources

Sara Ahmed’s On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life.

Sara Ahmed’s “Declarations of Whiteness: The Non-Performativity of Anti-Racism.”

James Baldwin’s “A Talk to Teachers,” The Fire Next Time.

Eduardo Bonilla-Silva’s Racism Without Racists.

The Combahee River Collective Statement (see also Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor’s book, How We Get Free).

Kimberlé Crenshaw’s “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence Against Women of Color.”

Angela Davis’s Blues Legacies and Black Feminism: Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday.

Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility (original article)

Engaging Students
Philip Ewell’s “Music Theory’s White Racial Frame.”

Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed.

Ethan Hein’s work on pedagogy, including “Toward a Better Music Theory” and “Teaching Whiteness in Music Class.”

bell hooks’s Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom.

Lauren Michelle Jackson’s “What’s Missing From ‘White Fragility’” and everything she links to.

Adrienne Keene’s Introduction to Critical Race Theory course page.

Ibram Kendi’s Stamped From the Beginning and How to Be an Antiracist.

Gloria Ladson-Billings’ contributions to the concept of culturally relevant pedagogy.

Audre Lorde’s Sister Outsider.

MayDay Group.

Ijeoma Oluo’s So You Want to Talk About Race?

The Oxford Handbook of Social Justice in Music Education is a valuable starting point for finding important conversations, contributors, and resources for bringing social justice into the classroom.

Beverly Daniel Tatum’s Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?

Teaching Inequality: Consequences of Traditional Music Theory Pedagogy

A pair of eyeglasses and a pen on top of pages of music notation.

The musical case against rap is that in my view and the view of my music theorist father who went to music school, there are three elements to music. There is harmony, there is melody, and there is rhythm. And rap only fulfills one of these—the rhythm section. There’s not a lot of melody and there’s not a lot of harmony. And thus, it is basically, effectively, spoken rhythm. And so it’s not actually a form of music, it’s a form of rhythmic speaking. And thus, so beyond the subjectivity of me just not enjoying rap all that much, what I’ve said before is it’s not music. (Ben Shapiro, 9/15/19)

During a recent episode of The Ben Shapiro Show Sunday Special, Shapiro invoked the authority of his “music theorist” father who went to “music school,” in order to dispel, in seemingly objective, fact-based fashion, the idea that rap is music. Shapiro’s criteria for what qualifies as music is absurd and his assertion that rap fails to meet this criteria is likewise absurd—but this is largely beside the point. The objective of these bad faith arguments isn’t necessarily to win or lose, but rather to perpetuate the notion that rap-as-music merits debate. Even entertaining the question undermines the legitimacy of rap by setting it apart from other musical styles about which we couldn’t imagine having such conversations.

We must reject Shapiro’s attempt to leverage the prestige of academia to do his dirty work for him. At the same time, we must consider the implications of his appeal to music theory. Shapiro wants us to focus on what music theory and music school suggest about rap-as-music—we should instead ask what his invocation of these institutions suggests about music theory pedagogy. Within these institutions, what do we learn about who and what is valued, and why?

Although the majority of undergraduate students do not listen regularly to Western art music, the standard theory curriculum continues to privilege it at the expense of all other styles.

Western art music is not a universal language. It does some things well, other things not as well, and many things not at all. And yet, although the majority of undergraduate students do not listen regularly to this style of music, the standard theory curriculum continues to privilege it at the expense of all other styles. Given this disconnect, how can we justify our near-exclusive reliance on traditional pedagogy, especially in situations where it isn’t necessary to do so? What biases do we create in our students when we declare Western art music to be mandatory knowledge for anyone pursuing formal studies in music? What biases does this reveal in us?

Let’s start with names.

Names create hierarchy. A course title like Music Theory 1: Diatonic Harmony explicitly designates harmony as the most important element of the course. Nor is this harmony in the general sense, but harmony specific to Western art music. There’s a real danger of elision, whether in perception or practice, so that music theory becomes just about harmony. Discussions of melody often come folded into larger discussions of harmony. The standard textbooks, despite grand gestures towards complete, everything-you-need-to-know musicianship, devote almost no attention to rhythm, beyond strict issues of notation. Other critically important musical elements, such as improvisation, timbre, and post-production, fail to make any meaningful appearance. This unwarranted prioritization of harmony as the essence, if not the totality, of the music theory core curriculum shapes the reality of what, within academia, is considered music, or at least music worth studying.

Western art music is not a universal language.

A myopic focus on Western art music severely distorts what music is and what music can be. The standard pedagogy relies on a value system whose metrics are based on subjective preferences but passed off as objective truths. Western art music is declared, without adequate justification, to be the necessary tool for understanding music at the most fundamental level. The construction of a musical hierarchy with Western art music at the top, until recently considered the only music that merited institutionalization, perpetuates the idea of worthy music and unworthy music.

The construction of a musical hierarchy with Western art music at the top perpetuates the idea of worthy music and unworthy music.

These are decisions made by people, no matter how compellingly they’re framed as divine decrees or natural phenomena, no matter how long-standing their historical pedigree. Teaching Western art music without acknowledging issues of canon-formation, cultural colonization, exclusion, and erasure ensures that these problems will continue. We are not exempt from interrogating the standard theory pedagogy, nor are we absolved from blame when we choose not to. The emergence of new musical styles and new technologies of music production are inconsequential—Western art music continues to be prioritized at the expense of all other modes of music creation. We need to understand this unwarranted privileging within the context of white supremacy.

White supremacy is the systemic centering of whiteness. It builds on an incorrect assumption of white racial superiority and functions to uphold white privilege. Whiteness is defined as the standard against which and on whose terms all others are measured and invariably fall short. When white is designated as normal, those who are not white are forever deemed not normal, no matter how hard they work or what they accomplish. Restricting the definition of white supremacy to a collection of bigoted individuals overlooks the myriad ways that institutionalized power in this country, whether social, political, legal, economic, or cultural, reinforces the primacy of whiteness.

Western art music is not a universal language.

A curriculum based nearly exclusively on the music of dead white European men is not politically neutral.

A curriculum based nearly exclusively on the music of dead white European men is not politically neutral. The only reason Western art music is the benchmark by which other styles are validated or repudiated is because whites made it so. When Beyonce’s triads are as legitimate as Beethoven’s, reproducing without critique a system that excludes black music from the basic theory sequence is a political choice. This denial of the legitimacy of black music contributes to the ongoing denial of the legitimacy of black people. Injustice unchecked remains injustice.

We need an antiracist music theory classroom, one that de-centers Western art music in favor of a polystylistic approach. Students need a broad musical foundation to prepare for advanced studies in the particular styles relevant to their interests and projected career paths. An antiracist approach to music theory recognizes that Western art music is not the pinnacle of human achievement, but simply one among many equally valid forms of artistic musical expression.

The stylistic evolution of any language depends on whose voices are seen as legitimate, on who is allowed to participate. That many of us have only recently become aware of just how pronounced the disparities in representation are within music theory testifies to the extent we have internalized the biases behind them. We who are white, who hold a disproportionate number of jobs in academia, tend not to notice whiteness because it is what we expect to find. This is a problem. Our condemnation of Ben Shapiro’s racist words does not absolve us of our own participation in and perpetuation of a racist pedagogy that normalizes whiteness. We must divest ourselves of the false conception that music can exist in a vacuum, devoid of context, independent of the people and the processes integral to its production. We must do better.

Western art music is not a universal language.

We need an antiracist music theory classroom, one that de-centers Western art music in favor of a polystylistic approach.

As educators, we must be able to speak not just about what we teach, but also about why we teach it. We must ask ourselves who benefits from the current system, and who is harmed by it. A diverse student population in the classroom is not a prerequisite for concern about diverse student experience. Education is never politically neutral. As teachers and as students, as mentors and as mentees, our job is to question, to engage, to grow. We must all participate in our own education. We must all point out the ways that inequality and oppression manifest in what is presented as objective truth. The way things are is not the same as the way things have to be. We are each accountable for disrupting this narrative.

This is the first in a two-part series. The second essay will provide resources and suggestions for ways that we can begin incorporating justice initiatives into our music theory pedagogy.

Let’s Get Critical

Popcorn
Unless you’ve been hiding from the internet lately while you completed that commission or struggled to get that project grant application in on time, you’ve probably crossed paths with the great debate going down between the defenders of current pop music criticism and the champions of more rigorous analysis. In all truth, this is not a new discussion but, like many perennial debates, it is still hard to look away when a fresh volley is lobbed.
For as much as it stirs the pot when a “serious music” review mentions the soloist’s hem line, it turns out things get even more heated when pop goes under the cold lens of the theoretical magnifying glass. In this Twilight Zone, considering suspensions in the construction of a Miley Cyrus hit is perhaps more controversial than viewing and commenting upon Miley Cyrus’s naked breast.

For as entertaining as I’ve found Owen Pallett’s Slate contributions playing the “what do we talk about when we talk about pop music using Western music theory,” what I believe it was meant to ultimately drive home is that, as with much in life, there is a serious benefit to moderation. Swing too far one way and get mired in the vacuous TMZ gossip mill, yet swing too far the other and end up lost in a realm of IKEA instructions feeling like you’re short two screws and a hex wrench. But while there is plenty of room on all sides of published musical discourse for improvement and that’s important to explore, this is largely a false drama. In my experience, music writers across genres rarely live firmly affixed to either pole. They publish anthologies of the Best in Music Writing (well, they did) that demonstrate such things if you’re short on research time. There is plenty of bad music writing out there, just as there is plenty of bad music. Yet your definitions will probably vary from mine to whatever degree, so I value the diversity of that continuum. As music fans, we’re all hunting the good stuff, no?

The piece of this argument that I’m hung up on is the idea that pop writing is too “lifestyle” oriented, implying to me this unstated idea that the heavy theory crowd is above all that silly nonsense. You can fetishize anything, whether that’s an artist’s row or an artist’s body. Mixing up lifestyle with artistry is not just a pop phenomenon, though it’s easier to dismiss, I suppose, when the words are smaller and the pages glossier.

So we’ve each made music lifestyle choices for better and for worse, and we might all be improved if those choices felt less like fences. Perhaps I would be a better critic if I took the time to consider the output of Justin Bieber on the critical scoring points that matter to me, independent of the mainstream media through which I disregard him, but you won’t convince me of that. Talking about music by talking about that slick industry 1% is just a neat distraction in these critical conversations. To my mind, what’s important is that I try and understand work—any and all work—that says something remarkable to my ear and to share that with others on whatever terms I might best rest it.

So let’s talk about love and let’s talk about chord structure. But don’t make me talk about network reality shows involving music performance. Because dear god, that’s just not okay.

On Lying To My Students

Music on blackboardSince I last wrote about four-part voice leading, questioning its educational value, I’ve had to eat my words a little bit. Now that I’m teaching this material, I’ve begun to see its immense utility as a teaching tool. I still have some of the same issues with how the material is usually presented but, more often than not, I find myself taking the same shortcuts my teachers did.

One of the most difficult things for me right now as a teacher is learning how to tell the expedient lie. For example, saying that parallel fifths are disallowed in order to maintain the independence of voices is a half-truth at best that elides over huge swaths of history and scholarship. But a diversion into this background would be completely inappropriate in the context of an intro course. Even worse, it could very well muddle the students’ understanding of the basic material. So in most cases, it’s best to stick to the simplified version, with maybe a metaphorical asterisk hinting at the larger issues.

The best thing about four-part voice leading is that it is an efficient and objective way to measure fluency in a field where objectivity is hard to come by. If a student can write a coherent chorale, I know that they also have a solid grasp of a host of other things including keys, intervals, chords, melody, and tonality. A more open compositional assignment would not necessarily reveal these things.

How We Learn Now: Education Week

Looking for more Education Week content? Go to the index.

But the limitations of chorale writing can make it very, very dry stuff, especially compared to the vividness and expanse of what’s possible in music. It can be, let’s face it, downright boring. Kyle Gann talks about being fed up with the rise of the professor-as-entertainer ethos, and I’m extremely sympathetic to his argument—it’s also something I worry about a great deal. But I do think we have a duty beyond simply teaching the material. We must also justify it and show how the knowledge we’re imparting is vital, interesting, and beautiful. Music theory, and the fascinatingly intricate way it interacts with actual music, is all three of these things. Four-part voice leading exercises are often none of these things.

I don’t have an easy solution for this. It’s simple enough to flip back and forth between the “here’s what you need to know” and “isn’t this cool?” modes, but I wonder if this doesn’t send the wrong message, that theory is more interesting…well, in theory. Better to infuse the material with interestingness every step of the way. I suspect this will be an eternal challenge.

Material Witness

Paint Swatches

It is an uncanny experience to encounter an earlier version of yourself. I recently did a book reading at which the presenter introduced me using an old biographical blurb, obviously culled from some vintage corner of the internet. I know it was old because I had, when writing it, spent a fair portion of it advertising myself as a composer, which is something I stopped doing a while ago.

But, suddenly, there was that younger, aspiring-composer version of myself onstage with the current version of myself, the one who writes criticism and books, who talks about music more than he creates it. Obviously, I’m a different person than the one I was trying to promote with that obsolete bio. But how am I different?

It turns out there’s at least one way I’m very different, musically speaking. I’ve stopped worrying so much about material.

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Lately, I’ve been reading Full of Noises, the new book of conversations between composer Thomas Adès and critic Tom Service. Among the many opinionated assessments—Adès is nothing if not deeply, thoughtfully opinionated—this exchange, about Giuseppe Verdi, caught my attention:

Verdi… is very difficult for me. It’s such poor material and it’s often badly put together. I’m talking about the operas as whole works. Simon Boccanegra is like a bad joke. It’s catastrophic from the point of view of plotting and artifice and pacing. Everything about it is wrong. It could hardly be worse. Yet it has this strangely powerful effect if it’s done well…. The drama’s very ineptness seems to force him into being inspired.

Is there a damage-limitation side to writing opera?

To doing anything. The line is very thin. Verdi does have a raw native cunning, more in the better operas. And that means that the poverty of the material is exposed, and I hate it all, and it is inessential. But I look at it in fascination, and I think: why is it that, despite everything, he can make a single moment that is so incredibly strong?

That is, I realized, a very composer-ish thing to say.

It’s fair to say that my own estimation of Verdi is several orders of magnitude higher than Adès’s—I love even the most dramatically ludicrous of his operas. But the fascination that Adès talks about: I recognized that immediately from that time I first become enamored of Verdi’s music, a time when I was still pouring all my effort into composing. Because there are plenty of passages in Verdi’s operas where the material not only seems pedestrian, but almost filler: Verdi isn’t even doing anything to the material. It churns along, a conveyor belt of basic harmonies for the libretto to ride. It does nothing except move forward in time. It just goes.

As a composer, those sections baffled me—because, as a composer, the wherewithal of musical material occupied a lot more of my headspace than it does now. But Verdi, after all, knows his best material, and the audience does, too: it’s always framed and spotlighted in total and solitary focus. As for the rest—that has a lot to do with the operatic traditions that Verdi initially mastered. Italian opera had fairly strict patterns of how things should go: the recitative-cavatina-cabaletta scene constructions, the progression of solos and ensembles and choruses. Once you stop paying attention to the actual material, you hear how Verdi is manipulating that, modifying and otherwise recombining the way the opera goes in order to alternately amplify and paper over the dramatic events into a convincing flow. If the going is what makes the dramatic effect, then the material is secondary—even a distraction. (If you’re trying to slip an outrageous plot contrivance past an audience, the last thing you want is for them to be paying too much attention.)

This is important: I’m not criticizing Adès. He’s actually demonstrating how good a composer he is. One of the most important tools for a composer to develop is an intuition about material, about its possibilities for manipulation and development. If you don’t have that, you’re just stumbling around a dark house every time you sit down to compose. Adès is right: a lot of Verdi’s material is, from that standpoint, pretty weak. But Adès is primed to notice that because he spends so much time evaluating and manipulating material. Verdi had that intuition, too, but, from the beginning, he was also working in an environment that forced him to develop a theatrical intuition as well. He knew when he could substitute in one for the other. In a way, he had an intuition for when he could get away with ignoring his intuition about material.

Critical intuition is not unlike compositional intuition, but the polarities are reversed. It’s reactive. One notices whether or not one is having a worthwhile experience, and then tries to hone in on why. It’s still a matter of analysis, of breaking down information and extrapolating from it, but more in the manner of an autopsy than a diagnosis. (This is in no way disparaging the critic’s profession. I was a huge Quincy, M.E. fan as a kid.) And, besides, I will still turn on the materialist-intuition part of my brain in a concert sometimes, often when presented with new music. It’s a convenient shorthand for a mismatch between means and ends: the piece goes on longer than the material can sustain, things like that. It’s just that, now that I’ve had enough practice turning off that intuition, I can see and hear how it’s not necessarily the material, or even the choice of material, that makes or breaks a piece of music.

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Cloth Swatches

I’ve also started to notice how much that compositional selection bias favoring material has shaped the past century’s worth of new music and attitudes toward it. For instance, I don’t think it’s accidental, or contradictory, that I am a fan of both Verdi and hardcore serialism. In terms of material, they both exist in a provocative gray area, very often deliberately de-emphasizing the material: Verdi by diluting it, serialism by making it so ubiquitous, in the form of the rows that permeate every aspect of the music, that it becomes a neutral ground for other musical events. I was reminded of the musical critique that, somewhat disorientingly, turns up in the prologue of Claude Lévi-Strauss’s The Raw and the Cooked:

In the case of serial music, however, such rootedness in nature is uncertain and perhaps nonexistent…. It is like a sailless ship, driven out to sea by its captain, who has grown tired of its being used only as a pontoon, and who is privately convinced that by subjecting life aboard to the rules of an elaborate protocol, he will prevent the crew from thinking nostalgically either of their home port or of their ultimate destination…. It is not a question of sailing to other lands, the whereabouts of which may be unknown and their very existence hypothetical. The proposed revolution is much more radical: the journey alone is real, not the landfall, and sea routes are replaced by the rules of navigation.

This is interesting because it is both too materialist, in the musical sense, and not materialist enough. It ignores the increasing care with which serialist composers chose their base materials, constructing rows based on their potential for varying levels of perceptual absorption into the experiential whole. (See: late Schoenberg.) But it’s also one of those criticisms that’s largely true, but only pejorative because of a particular set of assumptions: in this case, assumptions about the necessity for musical material to be in and of itself musically communicative. Serialist music is, at least on a basic level, all about the journey. But, then again, existing and unfolding in real time, isn’t all music?

Last week, pianist R. Andrew Lee, a specialist in minimalist and post-minimalist music, had an article with the nicely contrarian title “Minimalism is Boring (and That’s OK).” In it, he talked about the experience of performing Jürg Frey’s Klavierstück 2:

The bulk of the piece consists of 468 repetitions of a perfect fourth, E4-A4, which takes nearly 7.5 minutes to complete. This, by all accounts, is boring, but practicing this piece and working so very hard to maintain a steady tempo and dynamic has rewired my ears. In playing 468 fourths (with the pedal held down), a swirl of overtones becomes audible. The immediacy of the attack fades out of consciousness and overtones become steady drones, fading in and out with the subtlest changes in my playing.

Suddenly, I can no longer avoid the complexity of sound that surrounds me. Before, I was able to focus and listen this way when desired, but now sounds seem to leap into my awareness. The portable air compressor I own produces a shocking number of pitches, and when I’m upstairs and the house is quiet, I can hear a rather low hum, the source of which I have yet to discover. I am surrounded by complex, beautiful sounds, and while that has always been the case, I couldn’t avoid them now if I tried.

I like this because it encapsulates how minimalism and other process-music is inextricably linked to serialism, even as much of it was posited as a direct reaction against it. It’s getting at the same effect serialism was getting at: shifting your attention away from the communicative content and potential of the material to all those other parameters of music. Serialism does it by constructing the material into a self-effacingly complex canvas, minimalism by stripping away everything but the material, to the point that it disappears in plain sight. (And, yes, I think there’s compositional intuition behind Frey’s choices, as basic as they might seem: Why that interval? Why that octave? Why that many repetitions?)

The comparison also hints at the strange nature of compositional intuition about material. Neither serialism nor minimalism comes about without some type of intuition on the part of the composer, yet that same intuition would find fault with the opposite style: a minimalist might criticize serialism for burying the material under so much permutation, a serialist might criticize minimalism for not recognizing the material’s developmental potential. And yet, from outside such intuition, both styles, when realized with well-developed intuition, arrive at oddly similar perceptual landings.

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Wood Swatches

The long dialogue between composer Adrian Leverkühn and the Devil at the heart of Thomas Mann’s novel Doctor Faustus is much concerned with compositional intuition. The Devil, noting that the advent of modernism has created a context in which traditional musical harmonies are as shocking as any dissonance, posits that, in terms of material and intuition, the tail is now wagging the dog: “[T]he right of command over all the tone-combinations ever applied by no means belongs to you.” Leverkühn sticks up for intuition, “the theoretic possibility of spontaneous harmony between a man’s own needs and the moment, the possibility of ‘rightness,’ of a natural harmony, out of which one might create without a thought or any compulsion.” The Devil will have none of it: “It is all up with it.”

What to do? Cut a deal with the Devil. His bait? A new, fully formed intuition, one with the immediacy and power of madness:

This is what I think: that an untruth of a kind that enhances power holds its own against any ineffectively virtuous truth. And I mean too that creative, genius-giving disease, disease that rides on high horse over all hindrances, and springs with drunken daring from peak to peak, is a thousand times dearer to life than plodding healthiness.

Is the Devil’s pitch only a sophistic ruse? Even the most mathematical of musical developments would still require that the composer make a fit between the material and the method. But I think that Leverkühn and the Devil are also dancing around something else: the fetishization of compositional prerogative, the notion that compositional choices come from a privileged place. Might composers put faith in their intuition about material as a bulwark against obsolescence, or even commodification? Would they even know that they were doing it? I admit that, even to me, the idea is counter-intuitive, but maybe, at its core, all that focus on material, on its evaluation and winnowing, quietly intersects with another, more basic intuition: survival.

Sounds Heard: Anatomy of a Truth-Bender

21Adele

Adele’s album 21, which swept the 2012 Grammy Awards earlier this month, includes the song “Someone Like You”

It’s not often that an article about science and music gets as much attention as “Anatomy of a Tear-Jerker,” a column in the Wall Street Journal that purports to explain why Adele’s hit song “Someone Like You” makes people cry. The story circulated widely on the internet and was even picked up by NPR’s All Things Considered. It’s easy to understand the appeal of an article like this; naturally we’re curious about the origins of our emotions. And it gives people a rare chance to feel objectively “right” about their musical preferences: it’s not taste, it’s science!

Unfortunately, the article is marred by a number of scientific, musical, and aesthetic misconceptions, some glaring and some more subtle. I know I’m not the only musician who is frustrated to see errors like this in a major publication. The scientific and music theory mistakes are fairly easy to quantify. The aesthetic issues are actually larger and more urgent, but harder to pin down. Let’s start with the quantifiable errors.

Appoggiaturas, Tears, and Chills

The article makes much out of appoggiaturas, as if they were some kind of magic bullet for generating tears. But the term appoggiatura has different meanings depending on context, and the article confuses and conflates them. It’s true that the appoggiatura is a term for a specific kind of ornament, with a particular method of notation, that appears most often in Baroque and classical music. But while the article continually refers to appoggiaturas as “ornamental notes,” the study by John Sloboda it references—”Music Structure and Emotional Response: Some Empirical Findings” (Psychology of Music, October 1991, 19:110-120)—is actually discussing another kind of appoggiatura altogether. What Sloboda calls a “melodic appoggiatura” is a more general term for a certain kind of dissonant note, or non-harmonic tone. Non-harmonic tones are omnipresent in Western tonal music. Without getting too far into detail, the melodic appoggiatura differs from most other non-harmonic tones because the dissonance occurs on a strong beat and therefore receives more emphasis than usual. (For more information, see Edward Aldwell, Carl Schachter, and Allen Cadwallader. Harmony & Voice Leading, 4th Ed. Cengage Learning, Boston, MA, 2010.) But the article doesn’t even assert that “Someone Like You” contains appoggiaturas; instead, it “is sprinkled with ornamental notes similar to appoggiaturas.” In other words, it uses non-harmonic tones, just like nearly every other melody in Western music.

In a recent addendum to the NPR piece, Rob Kapilow purports to correct the definition of appoggiatura, and points out a few accented dissonances in “Someone Like You.” However, the main problem is not with the definition, but with the implication. If we generalize the appoggiatura to mean simply “a fleeting dissonance,” I question whether something this commonplace can really be considered a meaningful feature by itself. It’s a little like singling out a letter of the alphabet for similar properties. In fact, Sloboda himself questions the meaning of his results. I’ll dig into this more later, but first let’s look at a few more points from his study:

1) The study’s participants were only asked to specifically identify which passages caused an emotional response, so we have no idea how many passages containing appoggiaturas didn’t cause an emotional reaction.

2) Since the appoggiatura is a fairly common musical device, it’s an almost absolute certainty that there were many similar passages that didn’t elicit an emotional reaction.

3) Even within the study’s small sample size of 38 passages, there were two tear-causing examples that didn’t contain appoggiaturas.

Therefore, while we see a general tendency for appoggiaturas and tears to be associated, we can’t say that appoggiaturas are a necessary or sufficient condition for causing tears.

The article also discusses “chills” caused by sudden changes in register, timbre, and harmony, and equates tears and chills as if they were part of the same emotional response:

Chills often descend on listeners at these moments of resolution. When several appoggiaturas occur next to each other in a melody, it generates a cycle of tension and release. This provokes an even stronger reaction, and that is when the tears start to flow. [emphasis added]

A quick glance at a table of music-structural features from Sloboda’s study reveals a more complicated picture:

This result seems to confirm that chills (or “shivers”) tend to be associated with sudden changes in harmony or texture, though again, we don’t know how many sudden changes didn’t trigger an emotional response. However, tears and chills are categorized as completely different physical reactions, generally triggered by different musical features. Another study referenced in the article (Martin Guhn, Alfons Hamm, and Marcel Zentner, “Physiological and Musico-Acoustic Correlates of the Chill Response,” Music Perception: Vol. 24, No. 5 (June 2007), pp. 473-484) deals only with chills, and doesn’t mention tears or crying at all. So, even if the octave leap in Adele’s voice at the chorus of “Someone Like You” causes listeners to experience chills, there is no evidence this would have anything to do with making people cry.


Emotional Responses to Music are Learned

So if appoggiaturas and surprise shifts don’t account for the tearjerking qualities of “Someone Like You,” what does? Unfortunately (for journalists) or fortunately (for musicians and researchers), the answer is not easily summarized. First of all, it’s important to state the obvious: not everyone has the same reaction to the song! In the wake of the article, discussion on websites like Metafilter revealed not only agreement, but also substantial bemusement and dissension:

“Huh…it doesn’t really stand out to me as a song.” —droplet
“There’s something trite about the melody that irks me.” —timsneezed
“I’d like some scientific explanation of why that song does nothing for me.” —Wolfdog

I bring this up not to disparage the song but to point out that the emotional reaction to it is far from universal. Are these people just cold, emotionless robots? Well, no. They just have emotional reactions to different songs. This suggests something more complex than a hard-wired biological reaction. It suggests a network of cultural and personal factors; in short, it indicates that our emotional responses to music are learned. This is confirmed by the backgrounds of the respondents in Sloboda’s study, who were mostly experienced performers. Sloboda himself acknowledges this quite directly:

It is clear that the ability to experience these responses in connection with specific musical structures is learned. This is because (a) the responses are not shared by young children and people from different musical cultures; (b) the structures mediating these responses are often only perceptible in terms of a musical syntax…and (c) the emotional response to a piece of music can grow during repeated exposure to the same piece, as one discovers more of the subtle structural features….For these reasons, the present results can lead to no strong claims about the extent to which the pattern of response reported here will be replicated in less experienced musicians. [emphasis added]

(One wonders why Sloboda doesn’t address this in the NPR piece; possibly, it didn’t fit into a soundbite.)

What kind of learned musical structures do we possess that would help us understand “Someone Like You”? Well, as a culture, we are well-versed in popular music from the 1960s to the present. “Someone Like You” uses a looped chord progression (I-V-vi-IV) that is very common in popular music, and often associated with other melancholy songs, as another Metafilter user pointed out:

“When I hear the chord progression in the chorus, my brain makes a mental segue to U2’s ‘With or Without You,’ another singalong anthem.”—carter

It’s interesting that the prominence of this chord progression is fairly recent; it’s not hugely important in Western classical music, for example. The Beatles’ “Let It Be” is one early example of a pop song built on this progression. Another thing that lends this progression a bittersweet quality is its ambiguous tonality, constantly shifting between a major key and its relative minor. But it’s important to note that the association of major and minor keys with “happy” and “sad” feelings is culturally learned, too.

Typical vs. Exceptional

There’s one final piece of the puzzle missing. Experiments like Sloboda’s are effective when identifying structural features that are typical, that is, features that are commonly found in a large variety of musical examples. What they are not capable of is locating unusual features: that is, what makes a piece of music unique or special. But great songs, songs that we love, are by definition exceptional—there’s something about them that other songs don’t have. Otherwise every song with the same basic features would evoke the same exact reaction, which is clearly not the case.

If “Someone Like You” were just a rote rehash of an old chord progression, it’s unlikely that it would have the same impact. But there are a number of subtle structural features that stand out on further inspection. One Metafilter user discusses some of these features:

“The song is in 4/4 time and this pre-chorus starts with 4 bars, as most pop songs would normally unfold. But it ends with an extra bar of 2/4 added on to it, where Adele appropriately sings ‘it isn’t over,’ thus yearningly stretching out the phrase. [At the end of the chorus] the missing half of the earlier bar that should have been 4/4 but was changed to 2/4 is ‘paid back,’ at which point we hear the piano linger on for an extra inserted bar of 2/4 just before she starts singing the next verse. Time lost and then remembered.” —colie

In other words, the song deftly plays with our expectations of rhythm and time. But these expectations are malleable; if every songwriter picked up on this trick and made it utterly commonplace, it would no longer be quite as effective. Music is always a moving target.

This brings me to the aspect of the article that I find most offensive, the implication that music is like a science of emotional manipulation through sound, and that it’s as simple as applying a “formula” to achieve commercial and artistic success. Not only is it belittling to musicians and listeners everywhere, it also implies a very narrow view of musical craft. I want to strenuously argue for the value of music that doesn’t necessarily cause tears or chills. The burden on music to communicate certain, specific emotions can be oppressive. Composers like Igor Stravinsky and John Cage, for example, found it so inimical that they rejected the idea of self-expression entirely. Cage in particular describes an artistic situation where a lack of shared cultural context seems to preclude any kind of communication: “No one was understanding anybody else. It was clearly pointless to continue that way, so I determined to stop writing music until I found a better reason than ‘self expression’ for doing it.” (Richard Kostelanetz, ed., Conversing with Cage, New York: Limelight, 1988.)

Of course, not everyone will want to follow Cage’s uncompromising path. But this is all the more reason why we should want an open musical world. I suspect that everyone who makes music has an individual, personal goal for what they hope their music will accomplish, and this is why we create in the first place. The kind of music we want to hear doesn’t always exist yet, and no formula already known to us will bring it to life.

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Isaac Schankler

Isaac Schankler is a composer and improviser based in Los Angeles, California. He is the artist-in-residence at the University of Southern California’s Music Computation and Cognition Laboratory, and an artistic director of the concert series People Inside Electronics.