Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.
Irving Berlin once conceded, “There’s no such thing as a new melody. There has been a standing offer in Vienna, holding a large prize, to anyone who can write eight bars of original music. The offer has been up for more than twenty-five years. Thousands of compositions have been submitted, but all of them have been traced back to some other melody. Our work is to connect the old phrases in a new way, so that they will sound like a new tune.” Like other songwriters of Tin Pan Alley, Berlin freely borrowed rhythmic, harmonic, and melodic patterns from well-known sources, shaping them in clever ways for associative effect. Drawing upon the cultural knowledge base and collective memories of his audience, he concocted songs that were not only familiar upon first hearing (and thus favorably received), but also reinforced what music sounds like.
As Berlin seems to imply, the difference between deliberate musical quotations and inadvertent use of existing phrases is intent. Whether the writing process is consciously market-driven or unconsciously informed by prior exposure, the music is invariably built upon conventions. It is not just that musical sounds exhibit controlled pitches, intentional structure, organized rhythms, and expressive content—all true—but that these elements are given to us in culturally shaped and relatively consistent ways. The composer pulls from a pool of customs and norms, and the listener discerns those customs and norms in the music.
This is obvious with Berlin’s calculated appropriations and the presumably diatonic eight-bar melodies submitted to the Viennese commission. But what about abstract music? Can the rule-breaking feats of the free jazzer, electronic manipulator, or avant-garde noise maker be considered “musical” in this general sense? The fact that these adventures in sound are even called music points to the affirmative.
No matter how far one strays from musical normalcy, there is no escaping convention’s influence. The musician’s artistic aim might be departure and new frontiers, but the musician’s instinct is to create works that fit preexisting formats. This tension manifests in curious tones and timbres that still somehow sound like music. The envelope is stretched but not destroyed.
An illustration is the landmark score for Forbidden Planet (1956), composed by the husband and wife team of Louis and Bebe Barron. It was the first soundtrack created entirely by electronic means, and was pieced together from sounds activated by cybernetic circuits. Louis Barron described the circuity as “a living thing . . . crying out, expressing itself . . . [with] an organic behavior going on.” Yet, while circuits produced unusual musical building blocks, they were not responsible for the finished product. As James Wierzbicki explains in his comprehensive guide to the score, Bebe Barron “scrutinized the sonic output and served as the ‘emotional yardstick’ for the resulting music.” Ostensibly random fizzes, pops, buzzes, beeps, swooshes, and sizzles were arranged into repeated patterns of short duration, creating leitmotifs of a psychedelic, but still detectable, kind.
Wierzbicki concludes that the score “works” because, despite its odd exterior, it basically holds to Hollywood norms. The pitches are strange, the instrument is innovative, the concept is groundbreaking, the method is novel; yet the patterns, forms, and repetitions bear the clear imprint of the Barron’s Western musical background. So it is with other unorthodox projects. The ingredients and techniques are out of the ordinary, but the product is musical enough to be music.
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