Category Archives: invention


Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

No culture is an island. The mirage of pure and “uncorrupted” languages, rituals, recipes, beliefs, and bloodlines evaporates on closer inspection. Human beings are genetically inclined toward interaction, cooperation, and mimicry. As big-brained social animals, we constantly absorb, transmit, and reconfigure concepts, behaviors, and technologies. The greater the contact, both within and between cultural groups, the greater the mixing, both culturally and biologically. Beneath the veneer of pristineness is an accumulation of elements, often with roots reaching beyond the scope of memory.

Such hybridity is a musical norm. Virtually everywhere and at every time, internal and external forces have accelerated or decelerated the pace of assimilating forms, styles, patterns, and instruments. Periods of heightened cross-cultural exposure, such as migrations and the Internet age, can both magnify hybridity and heighten the impulse for preservation. But, even when cultural walls are erected, influences inevitably seep through. Moreover, periods of intense hybridization are often followed by periods of stability, in which the new hybrids become “mainstreams” or “traditions.”

On an individual level, the process of musical creation is, almost by definition, an act of hybridization. Consciously and subconsciously, composers and performers mediate between diverse and sometimes divergent influences, intentions, methods, and emotions.

Intentional cross-cultural hybridity has a long history in the Euro-American classical tradition. For instance, Antonín Dvořák originally billed his New World Symphony (1893) as incorporating tunes from spirituals and Native American songs. He later clarified that the music contains “original themes embodying the peculiarities of the Indian music” (emphasis mine). Either way, it is a hybrid. The same goes for composers like Bartók, Copland, and Shostakovich, who meld folk, folk-style, and popular sounds with orchestral techniques.

Perhaps less obvious today are the eclectic tendencies of J. S. Bach. Part of his genius was incorporating sounds from disparate sources: North Germany, South Germany, France, Italy, ecclesiastical chant, etc. Hubert Parry notes in his classic biography, Johann Sebastian Bach: The Story of the Development of a Great Personality (1909): “[I]t must be recognised that the principles of Italian art, in its broader and more substantial aspects, influenced [Bach] considerably; and in the first few years at Leipzig he endeavoured to accommodate his church cantatas to the prevailing taste in Leipzig.” Among other works, this yielded Cantata 174 (Ich liebe den Höchsten von ganzem Gemüte, 1729), which, like the earlier Brandenburg Concertos (1721), showcases Bach’s sophisticated take on Vivaldi’s formal and stylistic signatures.

The dissection of any music—folk, classical, pop, and otherwise—discloses similar eclecticism, varying in degree. These, too, can be self-conscious, like Afro-Cuban or jazz-rock, or masked, like American fiddle music and rock ‘n’ roll. Usually, the amalgamated sounds are not easily picked apart. The organic fusion of elements, whether musical, linguistic, culinary, biological, or otherwise, rarely reveals its seams.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

Sousa’s Menace

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

“Sweeping across the country with the speed of a transient fashion in slang or Panama hats, political war cries or popular novels, comes now the mechanical device to sing for us a song or play for us a piano, in substitute for human skill, intelligence, and soul.” These dire words begin John Philip Sousa’s 1906 article, “The Menace of Mechanical Music.” Riding on anti-modernist sentiments and fears of cultural degradation, the March King warns against the nascent technologies of phonograph recordings and piano rolls (for player pianos). He predicts the demise of amateur music-making and the deterioration of human intimacy: “When a mother can turn on the phonograph with the same sense that she applies to the electric light, will she croon her baby to slumber with sweet lullabys, or will the infant be put to sleep by machinery?” “In the prospective scheme of mechanical music, we shall see man and maiden in a light canoe under the summer moon upon an Adirondack lake with a gramophone caroling love songs from amidships. The Spanish cavalier must abandon his guitar and serenade his beloved with phonograph under his arm.”

Sousa abandons his usual charm for a prophetic voice calling out on behalf of the populace. Without the impulse to sing or play instruments, the nation’s throat will weaken, its chest will shrink, and its soul will recede. Modern critics have noted Sousa’s cultural nearsightedness and hypocrisy (his band was among the early recording ensembles). Others have shed light on personal interests underlying the essay. Among other things, Sousa worried that recordings would adversely affect ticket sales, decrease royalties and threaten composers’ rights (concerns still relevant today). The old business model relied on amateur musicians, who would purchase sheet music, learn it, and go see it performed in concert, or attend a concert and rush out to buy the sheet music. Both of these put money directly into Sousa’s pocket. Not so with the record industry’s corporate-controlled mass production.

Setting these observations aside, it is worthwhile to return to Sousa’s surface argument. Like most alarmists, his prediction was overblown. One hundred years later, the United States is home to thousands of amateur choirs and orchestras, and music teachers can still find work. Yet, although the “menace” was not as severe as Sousa warned, homegrown music-making has been in decline. Access to recordings, glitzy concerts, and aggressive promotion of selected performers have made consumption the norm. Why make music if others can make it for us (and do it better than we can)? It seems that the more technologically advanced a society is, the more passive its music culture.

In contemporary America, there are only a few social contexts in which ordinary people are expected to contribute musically. These include preschools (where song is a pedagogical tool), karaoke bars (where liquor drowns inhibitions), and houses of worship (where singing is a form of devotion). It is important to note, too, that in many (most?) congregations, the harmonized notation of hymnals has been ditched for unison song—yet another sign of dwindling musical literacy.

To be sure, consumer culture is not totally to blame for declining musical activity. There are other factors, such as the high cost of lessons and instruments, the elimination of music programs in many public schools, and the increasing value placed on specialization. Music as a hobby is no longer a cultural expectation. Still, listening to recorded music has stunted amateurism in two important ways. First, high quality recordings are intimidating. The unfiltered sounds of our own making seem inferior in comparison, and thus not worth attempting. Second, it is well established that music satisfies fundamental emotional, psychological and social yearnings. How and by whom the music is produced can have varying degrees of impact, but what is important is that music is being experienced. Thus, given the convenience and capabilities of mechanical devices, it is only natural that we gravitate toward them. We need music and they give it to us.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions. 

Musical Enough To Be Music

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 circuitry 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.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

Schoenberg vs. The People

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Arnold Schoenberg invented his twelve-tone method to replace normative conceptions of melody. In so doing, he discarded or otherwise obscured the most attractive and enduring elements of music: repetition, anticipation, and predictability. Musical satisfaction derives from our ability to identify phrases, discern tensions, predict resolutions, detect climaxes, perceive suspensions, and recognize other structural features. We are pleased when these expectations are fulfilled and surprised when anticipations are foiled or delayed. The relative unpredictability of Schoenberg’s system tosses all of this out.

According to the rules of twelve-tone technique, the chromatic scale must be organized in a tone row wherein no note is sounded more often than another. This eliminates intuitive patterns, annihilates key signatures, and contradicts millennia-old musical tendencies. When the row occurs again, as it does with mathematical regularity, its wide intervals, variation, and turbulent character do little to please the pattern-hungry ears of the average auditor.

Despite its novelty and intellectual intrigue, Schoenberg’s method has been called “senseless,” “unbearable,” “torturous,” and worse. In 1930 the Musical Times of London declared, “The name of Schoenberg is, as far as the British public is concerned, mud.” Two decades later the Boston Herald published this invective: “The case of Arnold Schoenberg vs. the people (or vice versa, as the situation may be) is one of the most singular things in the history of music. For here is a composer . . . who operates on the theory that if you know how to put a bunch of notes on a piece of score paper you are, presto, a composer” (Rudolph Elie, November 11, 1950).

Witty attacks like these are far too numerous to begin listing here. But are charges of misanthropy warranted? According to psychologist David Huron, Schoenberg’s system is less atonal (without a tonal center) than it is contratonal: it deliberately circumvents tonal implications. If the twelve notes were put into a randomizing computer program, they would occasionally occur in sequences resembling melody as we know it. But Schoenberg and his twentieth-century disciples meticulously avoided even hints of such patterns. As such, they expunged from their music precisely that which human ears have evolved to enjoy.

Lest this seem an overstatement, Huron and his colleague Joy Ollen found that roughly ninety-four percent of music contains clear and verbatim repetition within the first few seconds. This figure derives from examples spanning five continents and inclusive of styles ranging from Navajo war songs to Estonian bagpipes to Punjabi pop. It is probable that Schoenberg’s music wouldn’t even be recognized as music in many of these cultures.

This does not, of course, mean that twelve-tone serialism is without its admirers, or that Schoenberg’s name is unanimously considered “mud.” Some of his works even approach accessibility (in their own way), notably Moses und Aron and A Survivor from Warsaw. But general responses echo those of the Boston Herald, which went on to state: “[His music] never touches any emotion save curiosity, never arouses any mood save speculation on how the conductor can conduct it and how the musicians can count the bars.”

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

Creativity’s Conditions

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

“Necessity is the mother of invention.” This handy phrase, attributed to Irish dramatist George Farquhar, reminds us that human inventiveness is not purposeless or entirely self-generated. Creativity in any enterprise is spurred on by some perceived need, the type and magnitude of which are usually proportional to the issue being addressed and the field in which the innovation is taking place. Anthropologists point to a slew of social and environmental factors that determine the presence and rate of innovation in a given society. Among them are population density, area of inhabitance, natural resources, inter-group interaction and societal organization (bands, tribes, chiefdoms and states). Certain combinations of factors encourage invention, while others do not. As Jared Diamond writes in Guns, Germs, and Steel: “All human societies contain inventive people. It’s just that some environments provide more starting materials, and more favorable conditions for utilizing inventiveness, than do other environments.”

This rule applies equally to inventions that are practical, artistic or a combination of the two. Where necessity is absent, so is ingenuity. This is why, for example, slow technological development is a hallmark of indigenous hunter-gatherers, while rapid advancements characterize post-industrial societies. Hunter-gatherers are continually on the move, following the animals on which they depend and migrating to where the plants they use are available. These small and mobile populations lack the motivating circumstances to devise new and potentially cumbersome tools, and have little of the downtime necessary to experiment with technologies. In contrast, producing new ideas is the main way to grow the diverse, globally connected, information-rich and service-based economies of the post-industrial world.

Musical innovation follows a similar pattern. Societies that are small, isolated and relatively uniform generally do not demand fresh musical styles or forms. Their music is almost entirely of a functional sort, serving practical aims such as warfare, ritual and storytelling. There is room for improvisation, but musical customs tend to be conservative, operating within longstanding and typically limited musicways. In other words, their music is consistent with the rest of their lifestyle.

The opposite occurs in first-world societies, where everything seems in constant flux and there is seemingly unlimited access to the world’s music library. With endless musical influences comes virtually endless musical possibilities, particularly in (sub)cultures that demand continuous output. Moreover, larger populations produce larger numbers of musical innovators, as well as larger audiences to appreciate the innovations.

The crucial role of human and natural environments in musical creativity is not just evident when we compare radically divergent populations, like hunter-gatherers and denizens of an American metropolis. Historically and cross-culturally, those climates most conducive to musical creativity have yielded the greatest inventive flourishes. It is no coincidence that chronological lists of famous Western composers are heavily represented by a few countries, or that certain performers living in certain places are more popular and prolific than others stationed in similar societies elsewhere on the globe.

This discussion and its supporting examples could go on and on. The specific ingredients favorable for musical creativity or non-creativity vary from cultural setting to cultural setting. However, there is a simple formula that can be used to make the broader point: Creativity has conditions; innovation has inducements.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.