Music is searching for itself, and we’re the observers.
I’ve heard a few assumptions about music recently—now I’m sure these don’t apply to everyone, but they’ve come up often enough that I feel the need to talk a little about them.
First, I’ve heard a great deal from many people about how, throughout the ages, we’ve changed and created new forms of music; we’ve used new technology to create new sounds; and that we’ve set rules and theories to represent something WE created. People seem to think that we have total control over the music we make and the direction it takes.
Second, people have told me that the radio and other broadcasters have always stuck to playing what’s ‘hot’ and all the new pop tracks that sound like all the others before, and that this has dulled our musical senses. People are being forced to enjoy something horrible when they should be enjoying something else, something better…Jazz fusion maybe…
There’s this idea among people with expansive musical tastes that popular music is ‘bad,’ and that you’re not a true music fan if you enjoy it; you’re only a true music lover when you enjoy more ‘creative’ music.
It seems that most people think music goes where we want it too, that it ‘s man made, an art that skilled musicians decide the direction of; but if that’s true, how would it have been created in the first place? Did we decide that we wanted to enjoy the sound of a rhythm by beating a drum? Did we decide that we should like the sound of a string vibrating? Or the air flowing through a horn? No, the enjoyment of music was already inside us, we simply found it, and have since been exploring it.
Music has been changing as people learn what works and what doesn’t—we’ve learnt how to produce pleasing sounds using different materials; we’ve learnt how to layer sounds into chords; and we’ve learnt how to play different chords along to a rhythm. This did not happen because we wanted it to, it happened because that’s what music wanted.
Of course there are many different types of music out there, from different genres to different cultures and exotic lands; and everybody has slightly different tastes and preferences. So, if that’s the case, how can there be a perfect song? and how can I say that music tells us what’s right and wrong if we decide what’s personally good or bad?
Well, to what extent do we decide what we like? When we hear something new, do we say “hmm, I’ve decided to enjoy this.” Not really—when we try something new, the decision of whether it was good or bad is something that happens beyond reason and logic, it happens subconsciously.
I can play a new song and within the first 30 seconds tell you whether I like it or not—I don’t need to think about this, I can do it in the background while I read a book or make dinner, it’s a process that does not require my active attention.
We can however change our perceptions, we can and do use reasoning to find fault or beauty in something that we initially had different feelings for, but this is usually due to new, outside information, and this new information changes the items representation to us. Assuming that we do not find outside information that alters our thoughts, that initial response is what’s most important; free from logic and reasoning, the art or experience is only that, there’s nothing to get in and obscure the view.
Rhythm is the basic building block of music, and while the majority of western music is in 4/4 timing, you can find some very different rhythms in other musics. But, they’re still rhythms, and they’re still based on repetition and timing, which means that they’re not as different as you think.
If music went wherever we decided it should, and if we didn’t come with these predefined musical underpinnings, then theoretically I could play a rhythm whereas each beat is a differing amount of time apart, and that would constitute music. Trust me, that wouldn’t sound so good, and I doubt many people would class it as music.
We need a timely, precise and repetitious rhythm to propel the song along, you could think of it as a metaphor for walking, an act that would feel—and look—rather strange if each step took a different amount of time.
This link between music and walking (or running) is stronger than you might think. Your ability to track a rhythm is maintained in the cerebellum, the same area of the brain responsible for movement. Notice how when you run to a song, you eventually find your footsteps following the beat; and most songs with a strong beat will make you want to get up and dance—this is not a coincidence.
Everybody has different preferences, and if you ask me, that has a lot to do with personality and underlying psychological makeup—but these differences are not as big as many people think. If one person likes jazz while another likes country, they still both enjoy music that uses harmony, rhythm, and a melody of some sort; the same goes for the guy that likes metal, classical, techno, and flamenco.
Western music uses scales of clearly defined notes at different pitches, music from different cultures don’t use the same scales—but the majority of them do use scales, and the interesting part is that most of these scales consist of a similar number of notes! Most cultures have identified what anoctave is, and most of them have separated the distance between them into a similar number of segments.
The differences between musical genres are small. Despite the glaring differences when we listen to them, we all know music when we hear it, good or bad—we understand the bits and pieces that are present in virtually all forms of it.
Not to get into many technical details, but suffice to say that those chords and harmonies that sound ‘good’ together, also share many physical similarities—for example, when playing a chord, the vibrations sent out by each note fit snuggly together with those of the other notes.
There’s also the issue that arises when we have two notes played simultaneously that are too close to each other in terms of pitch. Our ears need a certain distance between pitches for us to perceive them as distinct, within this ‘frequency band’ the sounds will be muddled and unrecognizable, which could be why we tend to chop an octave down into a certain number of parts—so it’s easy for us to discern each note.
We didn’t design this, the math and physics of it would be there with or without us to identify it. These similarities serve us in helping to better understand why it sounds good or bad, they weren’t created by us in order to sound good.
No, at least not alone. No matter how many times I eat burnt toast, I don’t think I’ll start enjoying it—in fact it will likely have the opposite effect—you can get very tired of some songs when you’ve played them over and over, even if you love them.
What can happen however, is that you change your perception of it—certain tastes can ‘grow on you,’the same goes for music. This doesn’t happen automatically, and certainly not by forcing yourself to listen to it over and over; it happens when you change your perspective, when your expectations of what the song will or should sound like are changed or removed entirely, then you leave yourself open to experiencing it differently.
This also ties in with what I mentioned above—that you’re perception of something can change through outside information. Maybe I enjoy a song the first time I hear it, but my friend tells me that the singer is Justin Bieber—I won’t like it anymore, because it now contains with it a connection to…well to you know. Anything could change your perspective—you find the singer used autotune, they plagiarized another song, they support your rival sports team…
Really, these attributions shouldn’t effect the song, music is music whether you know who made it or not. But they do effect us, it comes down to the feelings and memories that pop into your head when you hear the song— while it might sound good, if it’s been associated with something negative, that’s going to sour the taste (Of course it can go in the other direction).
We all have different tastes, but pop has taken the most common features of different genres to create music that pleases the masses. That doesn’t make it everyone’s cup of tea, but it does mean that it uses some of the most widely enjoyed aspects of music together to please as many people as possible.
While the basic makeup of music is understood by all of us, the devil is in the details—The perfect song is unique to the individual, and can change at any given time in relation to the persons emotions and the situational context.
But to say that pop isn’t ‘good’ is to undermine music itself. People seem to think that it’s bad because it’s generic or too commercial; but really, people don’t like it because it’s commercial, it’s commercial because people like it, and therefore buy it. It had to be good enough for a lot of people to like it before it became generic and commercial.
To say something is good or bad is also just an opinion, a point of view.Whether you enjoy it or not does not factually make something good or bad, it’s only an expression of your inner tastes. Pop music is enjoyed by millions, not because that’s all they know; not because they’ve been forced to like it; and not because they don’t appreciate ‘good’ music. They enjoy it because it is music and it plays the right notes for them to want to listen to it. That’s it. There is no inherently good or bad music, only music catered to different individuals.
Music is a beast that hides in all of us. He has the same basic shape in you as he does me—But when we get close, the face and the small details are slightly different. And he tells us what we like, not the other way around.
The search for the perfect song is a personal exploration, people are forever making music that’s fed to them by a voice in their head. Musicians are not creating music, because they do not decide for themselves; They’re following the instruction of this subconscious ‘being,’ they’re chiseling away the wall and the rock that’s obscuring it, in order to see more clearly what it truly is.