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Wednesday, March 10, 2004
A brief, possible illuminating exchange centering around ideas from this post, talking about "pop musicology."

Message 1:

I don't think you need more "music theory" in the sense of tools for understanding harmony and rhythm; I can't think of any pop music (except maybe Don Ellis, which isn't really very pop unless you lived in SF in the '70s) that uses theory beyond basic Western harmony; even Norah Jones' jazz-influenced pieces stick to basic chord and root structures. The big innovation in "serious" composition since 12-tone is "minimalism," in its broadest definition: Terry Riley, Steve Reich, John Adams, et al. But I don't think those techniques, in the sense that they're "techniques" that can even be systematized, have crossed into pop music yet, or if they ever will.

Only because music theory focuses so rigidly on melody and chord structure and ignores the building blocks of modern pop, rhythm and arrangement

Message 2:

Your use of the word "arrangement" is kind of vague, but I think I get your meaning: the Spector "wall of sound" or the "colored girls" actually singing "doo-be-doo-be-doo" become distinctive and important parts of their songs; to use "classical" terminology, the orchestration is more critical to the work than its harmony. "Music theory" doesn't ignore this; it's quite integral to criticism of sound painters like (Ravel, Stravinsky, and Respighi), who don't really work under older schools of harmonic analysis.

First off, would love to have some recommendation of good examples of that.

Secondly, though: yeah, I sorta mean orchestration, but I sorta mean arrangement, because I think it works differently for modern pop. There is a harmonic backdrop, but as you say, that's pretty simple, and easily sussed out. What's far more interesting, and what gives pop its flavor, is the particular flow of those bits, and, as we're discussing with the rhythm stuff below, HOW it's played. The fact that there's a V chord being played doesn't matter so much as whether it's being played distorted or in the upper register or outlined on the bass or flanged or chopped up or gently strummed. This is very much done by feel, as you say, so the lack of notation is a problem, but I think it can be dealt with. In other words, music theory addresses some aspects of arrangement, but not adequately.

My contention is that pop music takes a small swath of the possible melodic and chordal spectrum, a swath that would seem to currently have the greatest potential for pure pleasure, and subdivides it, as you say, into micro-bits. What real difference is there between "My Back Pages" and "Reign in Blood"? Not much, from one perspective, but most people would see a big difference there, and I think that's accurate. Pop music seems to be made up not of a series of flowing lines, but a series of discrete bits, and these bits are actually used again and again and again in different songs. These bits are characterized not by their melodic and chordal structure but by their timing, their rhythm, their volume, their effects, their placement in a mix, etc. And so I think you can identify these bits and clarify the variations of them and, in this way, come to an understanding of how pop music is made analogous to the way music theory describes how classical music is made. But it's just a theory.

As for rhythm, that's the proverbial bitch. Music notation doesn't really work on enough of a micro-scale to convey the rhythmic "feel" between or inside beats - there's some jargon about this ("straight-eighth," "swing," "bebop swing," etc.) to describe these micro-rhythmic phenomena, but most rhythmic nuance is communicated sonically, through performance or recording, so notation hasn't really sprung up to describe it. It'd be cool to quantify this somehow, though: I'd love to have a description of how e.g. Steely Dan's "swing" rhythm differs from Thelonious Monk's.

I was actually thinking about this when rereading my own post last night (yeah, I know, shaddup), and it occurred to me that a lot of modern electronic music-making equipment will have a dial on it labeled "swing" which varies the degree to which is plays on-the-beat. Now, this usually produces what can only be termed an "asstastic" swing, but the feature has been much improved in recent years, and now I can go in on a sampler or sequencer and fuck with the offset of individual notes to give it a very fine-tuned swing. The point is, you can actually MEASURE how much swing there is; I'm sure a dedicated nerd could put together some stat that's an average of the swing for each individual element and then quantify the swing for any given band or element thereof.

Additionally, my mind turns to the program csound which allows you to, using purely blocks of text, program in instruments and then "write" compositions by setting the parameters for each individual note. So you can also quantify melodic lines by their duration, amplitude, pitch, and a number of other parameters that advanced sound synthesis has discovered. In this way, you can actually quantify music. I'm not saying it's desirable, but it is possible. And this might lead to an objective way of comparing sounds, as opposed to melodies or harmonies.