Category Archives: Popular Music

Catchiness in Music

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

The term “popular music” originated with songs emanating from Manhattan’s Tin Pan Alley and competing publishers in other major American cities. From the 1880s to the early twentieth century, these mass produced songs captured the ears and hearts of American consumers. Almost as soon as the tunes penetrated the market, another term was coined: “catchy.” An ad for A. G. Henderson’s “No More Parting, Norah Darling” (1889) hypes the song’s “easy, sweet, and catchy melody, set to pretty and effective words. A very striking and well-arranged chorus. Sing this song ONCE, and the air will haunt you.” A review of “My Jenny’s Shelling Peas” (1895), by Chicago music publisher S. W. Straub, opines: “It has an interesting story, and has a beautiful, catchy melody with a superb chorus. It will become very popular, we predict.”

Tin Pan Alley tunesmiths sold thousands of songs to fast-pace publishers, who, in turn, fed sheet music to hungry household pianos. As John Shepherd writes in his definitive book, Tin Pan Alley, “The faster the songs…could be produced, the more money there was to be made.” One consequence of this assembly line approach was that “catchiness” became the norm, rather than a quality reserved for especially well-crafted melodies. Originality fell victim to the rapid-fire ethos. For expedience, melodists turned to modifying and piecing together bits of pre-existing melodies. Lyricists returned again and again to well-worn themes and clichés. Of course, a legitimately clever hit occasionally rose above the homogenous whole. But, for the most part, every song possessed some catchiness by virtue of sharing variations of the same rhythms, verse-chorus forms, melodic phrases, and sentiments. To this day, recycling of this kind is a defining aspect of popular music.

A handful of scientific papers have sought a formula for musical catchiness. These include a study of the UK’s top-ten sing-along songs and an analysis of musical “hooks” (memorable musical fragments). These studies, which investigate why some recordings are seemingly catchier than others, tend to leave out salient factors, such as radio play and promotion from the music industry. Lesser-known or overlooked songs often have the same features, but lack the popularizing platforms.

Rather than tracing catchiness to a unique trait or set of traits, it is perhaps better to think of catchiness as a synonym for “familiar,” or even “familiar before it is ever heard.” Catchy songs trigger musical information already stored in the brain. Other elements, such as a magnetic performance or generational sentiment, certainly play a role. But a truly catchy melody—one that resonates beyond a recording or performer—requires high levels of musical déjà vu. Otherwise, it won’t catch hold of the listener.

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

Gesture Toward the Infinite

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

The gradual decrease in volume toward silence, known as the fade-out, was once a ubiquitous part of popular music. One of the earliest fade-outs took place during a 1918 concert of Gustav Holst’s The Planets. The women’s choir sang in a room offstage for the concluding “Neptune” movement. As the piece neared its end, a door to the room was slowly closed. The contrivance was effective: the celestial chorus drifted into silence, conjuring the expansiveness of the cosmos and the remoteness of the gas giant—then thought to be the furthest planet from the Sun (an honor Neptune reclaimed in 2006 when Pluto was demoted to a “dwarf planet”).

A similarly “organic” fade-out is heard on an 1894 recording of the “Spirit of ’76,” during which a fife and drum band seem to get closer and then march away. The effect was achieved by carrying the phonograph toward and away from the sound’s source. With the advent of electrical recordings in the 1920s, engineers were able to decrease amplification, a process made easier with magnetic tape recordings beginning in the 1940s. The first pop hit to end with a fade was the R&B crossover song “Open the Door, Richard!” (1946), by saxophonist Jack McVea. The technique became commonplace between the 1950s and 80s. Each of Billboard’s top ten songs from 1985 ended with a fade-out.

The fade-out initially served a practical aim. In the 1940s and 50s, engineers often used the device to shorten songs that exceeded radio’s “three-minute rule,” or to fit them on one side of a vinyl single. The 1960s saw the fade-out as a creative avenue, especially in psychedelic and electronic music. The ending of the Beatles’ “Hey Jude” (1968) fades over four minutes of repeated choruses. Other artists, like Stevie Wonder, used fade-outs to cut loose with ad-lib lyrics and extended jam sessions.

David Huron, an expert in music cognition, appreciates the fade-out as something beyond a practical solution or creative outlet. Commenting on Holst’s “Neptune” in his book, Sweet Anticipation: Music and the Psychology of Expectation, Huron notes: “With a fade-out, music manages to delay closure indefinitely. The ‘end’ is predictable, even though the music doesn’t ‘stop.’ The ‘stop’ gesture is replaced by a gesture toward the ‘infinite.’”

The fade-out, with its impression of unresolved infiniteness, fell out of favor during the 1990s. (The only recent hit featuring the device is Robin Thicke’s retro homage “Blurred Lines,” 2013.) Popular music historian William Weir connects the decline to the development of the Need for Closure Scale (1993) and psychology’s wider embrace of the concept of closure—a goal better achieved when a song concludes with a “cold ending.” Weir concedes that this explanation may be a stretch, pointing to the rise of iPods and DJs, which have created a “skip culture” (using songwriter/producer Itaal Shur’s term), where we are accustomed to skipping from song to song before they end. Why bother with the last few seconds if nobody ever hears them? Yet, even then, we experience a kind of infinity: the never-ending medley.

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

Tastemaking

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

In The Barring-gaffner of Bagnialto, or This Year’s Masterpiece—one of several story synopses in Kurt Vonnegut’s novel, Breakfast of Champions—a government official spins a wheel to assign cash value to works of art submitted by the citizenry. The wheel lands on a painting of a house cat by Gooz, a humble cobbler who had never painted before. The simplistic portrait is appraised at eighteen thousand lambos, or one billion earth dollars. Crowds flock to see it at the National Gallery. Meanwhile, a bonfire consumes all the statues, paintings, and books the wheel has deemed worthless.

This satirical vignette highlights the disproportionate and arbitrary role of industry officials (governmental and corporate) in determining aesthetic values and tastes. The top-down model lampooned in the parable is not distant from commercial radio stations that weed out music before it ever reaches our ears. Cultural critics contend that decisions to promote or bury certain songs too often rely on extra-musical factors: image, celebrity, markets, studio backing, etc. This results in a homogenized soundscape, where listeners have limited volition over the music they hear. In Vonnegut’s hyper-cynical scenario, a completely random process shapes the masses’ artistic sensibilities. They flock to see an amateur painting of someone’s pet, and think nothing of other works—no doubt many of high quality—going up in flames.

To an extent, Vonnegut’s bleak parable was more applicable in 1973, when Breakfast of Champions hit the shelves, than it is today. The online availability of music, access to independent radio stations, and platforms for compiling digital playlists provide unprecedented opportunities to short circuit the music industry’s control. Democratization has dented the industry’s historic role in pre-selecting sounds. Individuals more directly determine what they hear and what becomes popular. Adrian C. North and David J. Hargreaves are optimistic in their essay, “Music and Marketing”: “the digitization of music means that psychological factors will become more important than economic factors in explaining the music that people listen to on a day-to-day level. In decades to come we…suspect that the importance of economic explanations [for listening preferences] will diminish” (from Oxford’s Handbook of Music and Emotion, 2010).

We are not there yet; the old tastemakers still operate. As the digital age has broadened listening options, corporate interests have narrowed their palettes. In a high-stakes industry faced with escalating costs, intense competition, and a perpetually volatile youth demographic, safe bets overwhelm the airwaves. The complaint that “everything sounds the same on the radio” seems more true now than ever before. Listeners who do not explore digital options, either by choice or by circumstance, are left wading in an undifferentiated pool of cookie-cutter consumerism. They are stuck gazing at the cat.

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

Ethnomusicologizing (Book Review)

Ethnomisicologizing: Essays on Music in the New Paradigms, by William C. Banfield. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2015. 383 pp.

Reviewed by Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

William C. Banfield describes his latest book, Ethnomisicologizing: Essays on Music in the New Paradigms, as a “reader/text” presenting “a choir of voices and perspectives” (p. x). Such a multi-voice assemblage is unusual for a single-author volume. Departing from the staid format of the conventional academic tome, Banfield mixes together interviews, historical surveys, opinion pieces, travel notes, letters, social theory, pedagogical essays, album reviews, and “poem-essays.” The twenty chapters originated as separate pieces, and the impression is more improvisatory jazz than rigid composition: themes are stated and later rephrased; motifs are artfully interjected; poetic riffs spring up seemingly on the spot.

This is fitting given both the author and subject matter. Banfield is professor of African Studies/Music and Society, composition, and graduate history studies at Berklee College of Music, Boston, as well as a jazz guitarist, composer, and public radio host. The book is in some ways a chronicle of his work at Berklee College of Music, an institution founded on popular music rooted in Black music traditions. In the African Studies/Music and Society program, Banfield explores the development of Black music in America, its global reach, and the students’ place in the cultural chain. As he states on his faculty website: “You can’t know where you’re going unless you know where you are, and where you came from. When you put those three things together, you have the best formula for making a successful impact on your craft and on the world of music. When students start to sense all the connections, you can see the ‘aha experience’ in the eyes. It’s in the questions they ask, it’s in their performances. It’s a spirit.”

The book’s composite, “improvised” character has a few drawbacks. Some ideas are too often repeated (in almost identical language), a review of George Lewis’ album Les Exercices Spirituels seems out of place, and the same quotations by Margaret Mead and Jean Cocteau appear more than once. A full speech by Cornell West is included without being identified until the very end—suggesting, until that point, that the words are Banfield’s, not West’s. But these are minor quibbles about an otherwise stimulating collection of reflections on the history and current state of American popular music.

Banfield is a pedagogue and activist in the tradition of his mentor, Cornell West. This gives context to the book’s construction: Repetition is a fundamental teaching tool, and rephrasing a message in different ways helps it resonate with different audiences. That being said, the eclectic approach poses certain challenges for the reader (and the reviewer). There is much to sort through in the nearly 400 pages; it is better sipped than gulped down all at once. The unevenness is accentuated by the sporadic chapter lengths: one is close to fifty pages, another is just three pages, the rest fall somewhere in between.

Yet, despite these idiosyncrasies, the book orbits around a clear and persuasive message—namely, that the “post-album age” of YouTube, downloads, music streaming, and hyper-commoditization has led to a decline in “quality, skills, value of human expression, individuality, creative innovation, and a lack of spirit-soul” (p. xii). Banfield is no enemy of popular music. However, he contends that misguided infatuations are driving contemporary trends—e.g., markets, celebrity-obsession, sexual exploitation, producer-driven albums—and that young talent is being lost to money-obsession and concomitant cookie-cutter sounds. In short, “Popular music has got to mean something again” (p. 263).

This is the essence of the book’s neologistic title, Ethnomusicologizing: the “act of being with the common man, doing music and art in ways that connect” (p. 28). As an artist-activist, Banfield argues that artists and humanitarians must join together in demanding more from the culture we live in, both artistically and politically. More precisely, he urges Black musicians to return to Black music worthy of the name: “music made by Black people connecting with their cultural conditions in and outside Africa in diaspora” (p. 98). Past generations said/sang “‘Let freedom ring’; they were singing about freedom—they didn’t say, ‘Give me the bling, bling’” (p. 86). “Music that matters” carries a “people’s voice” and commits itself to issues and sentiments that are bigger than the artist him/herself.

Banfield summarizes this concept using two types of cultural relevancy. Long-term relevancy encompasses expressive art that grows out of and deeply reflects the human experience. It continues to impact people’s lives long after the moment of creation. Market relevancy, on the other hand, is art manufactured primarily for the here and now. The magic formula, according to Banfield, includes a bit of both long-term and market relevance—that is, human and commercial awareness.

At the heart of these and other discussions is the uneasy relationship between art and commerce. Today, many young musicians are driven by a short-sighted desire for money, fame, and power. But the purpose of art—true art—remains the search for meaning, purpose, inspiration, and spiritual fulfillment. Banfield is hopeful in this regard: “Young people feel they are a more integral part of their success story if they are allowed to bring to a product a piece of who they are, what their story is. I think, despite our capitalistic surges, people always return back to the basic humanistic codes” (pp. 75-76). Such nuanced appraisals make Ethnomusicologizing a provocative and profitable read.

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

Enlightened Entertainment

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

There is an assumption that art and entertainment are somehow distinct. The two classifications regularly appear side-by-side, simultaneously suggesting a family resemblance and an unbridgeable divide. The all-too-empty content of commercial entertainment reinforces the dichotomy, as does the abstraction of modernist and post-modernist styles. Especially in this day and age, when market demands push entertainers in the most generic directions and artists rebel into the remotest corners, the middle seems to be the ground least occupied. Still, this broad view ignores instances where the two categories converge in seamless harmony: a painting that moves the populace, an art film that smashes the box office, a popular song that makes us think.

Among the most profound (and vitriolic) advocates for artistic entertainment was Constant Lambert, an English composer and critic who penned the lively classic Music Ho! A Study of Music in Decline (1934) when he was just twenty-eight. A major theme of that book is the ever-widening gap between “popular” and “serious” (“highbrow” and “lowbrow”) music—a reality that has increased exponentially in the intervening decades. Lambert had a fondness for popular forms and integrated jazz idioms into his compositions, such as The Rio Grande (1927). As such, he occupied something of a center point, with vacant populism to the left and rarefied academicism to the right.

Lambert advocated “enlightened entertainment”: the joining of sophistication and accessibility. He saw this ideal abundantly displayed in the music of Duke Ellington. “[Ellington] has crystallized the popular music of our time,” he wrote, “and set up a standard by which we may judge not only other jazz composers but also those highbrow composers, whether American or European, who indulge in what is roughly known as ‘symphonic jazz.’” He placed Ellington’s “Hot and Bothered” alongside the most dexterous and dynamic works of Ravel and Stravinsky. Ellington was a “serious” composer who spoke in popular modalities; he had something to say, both musically and lyrically. He refused to cater to the lowest common denominator, or speak a musical language above the average listener’s head.

Over the years, Lambert’s captivating and opinionated tome has garnered both criticism and praise. Some of his warnings and prescriptions have panned out, whilst others have proven too dramatic. Were he alive today, he would undoubtedly condemn the formulaic emptiness of the basest popular music, as well as the unapproachable sounds emanating from the tallest ivory towers. The balance he admired remains a precious paragon. The challenge is bringing art and entertainment together.

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

Soul and Commerce

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

An issue of Esquire magazine published in 1945 (vol. 23) includes a razor-sharp quote from tenor saxophonist Greely Walton. Asked about the impact of money on artistry, Walton replied: “If he’s a musician at heart, good music gives by far the most personal satisfaction…But anyone who completely forgets what he’s doing, or does what he’s doing cheaply by selling out to sheer commercialism—such a musician is a nitwit and worthy of neither respect nor money.”

Walton’s was among the first printed references to “selling out” in the ugly sense of sacrificing integrity for financial gain. He was careful not to idealize the opposite extreme: the musician need not starve for her art. If authenticity and appeal are in alignment, then good music—in the moral sense—can bring riches. Talking Heads frontman David Byrne, who sang “Never for money/Always for love,” is a perfect example. Aesthetic-ethical problems arise when talented musicians surrender to the dark side of branding, marketing, and empty consumerism.

Critics bemoan the depletion of meaningful music in the “post-album” age of YouTube, digital downloads, and television competitions. The manufactured, market-driven sounds of pop music are incessant reminders of the dysfunctional relationship between corporate capitalism and the arts. This does not mean the talent pool is any drier than in periods past. However, the pressure to “sell out” is far greater than it was in Walton’s day, and continues to trend in the wrong direction. As a result, creativity is curtailed in favor of monotonous conformity.

One of the loudest critics of this apparent cultural degradation is Berklee College of Music professor William C. Banfield. He sees profit-obsession as a kiss of death: “death of quality, skills, value of human expression, individuality, creative innovation, and a lack of spirit-soul.” Instead of an expression of one’s innermost being, music becomes a superficial vehicle for pursuing material rewards.

Banfield draws a contrast between songs with enduring socio-cultural value (which can be financially successful) and the largely formulaic and vapid offerings of contemporary pop. He calls the first category “long-term cultural relevancy,” or expressive art that deeply affects and influences the lives of people. This would include folk-derived traditions, like spirituals and the blues, as well as “banner songs,” like the protest anthems of the 1960s. The second category is “market relevancy,” or the manufacturing of sounds and personalities for wide audiences. This is “music industry” in its most negative connotations.

Banfield is an unabashed scholar-activist, but his idealism is not unrealistic. As a working musician, he knows the importance of resonating with the marketplace. Balancing short-term and long-term relevance is a worthy goal. Yet, he argues, “the wrong people are at the table, and they drive the industry and make the bad decisions. It’s all a game of dollars and greed, which again is a disastrous formula for art.” The key, it seems, is to sell without selling out.

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

Gestural Aesthetics

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

“Gestures should be minimized during training in order to heighten awareness of interior, involuntary muscular movement.” Thus reads the entry on “Gesture” in Cornelius L. Reid’s A Dictionary of Vocal Terminology. As a Western vocal pedagogue, Reid was ever concerned with the aesthetic standards and norms of European classical music. His recommendation is in keeping with a long-held view that music should speak for itself. An early example comes from Franchinus Gaffurius’ Practica musicae (1496). The chapter on “How a Singer Ought to Behave When He Performs” warns that an “extravagant and indecorous movement of the head or hands reveals an unsound mind in a singer.”

These rules of conduct have been reiterated in various ways within the “proper” world of European classical music. However, they do not apply to the opera subgenre, where theatrics are essential, or to many music-cultures outside the classical sphere. A global view of gestural aesthetics would place subdued movement alongside two other options: ritualized gesture and free bodily expression.

The union of gesture and melody is normative in many cultures. Melodic knowledge is embodied in gesture, such that one reinforces the other. For instance, Hindustani Khyal singers incorporate stereotyped and quasi-spontaneous hand motions resembling the tracing lines in space. Mothers in rural Uganda sing and sway ritualistically during pregnancy. In these and other public and private settings, vocal action is “co-performed” with bodily action. It would be improper and unnatural to sing the repertoire without the accompanying physical display.

In the less regulated arenas of popular music, there is an array of genre/style-specific singing movements, both spontaneous and choreographed. These include rock and roll gesticulations, punk aggression, pop diva arm flails, funk dancing, and many others. Audiences expect such exhibitions, which provide a visual analog to the audible content. The absence of visceral antics would be perceived as inauthentic.

The three gestural options—minimal, ritual, and freewheeling—engage musical expression in different ways. For the classical purist, expression is housed in the music alone; unimpeded inward focus is central to a song’s interpretation. In settings where gestures are traditionalized, song and movement act as mutually reinforcing modes of expression. In the heterogeneous realm of popular music, movements are employed to complement and enhance musical expressiveness. The contrasting conventions also imply differing ideas of what constitutes music—specifically, music as sound, sound plus choreography, or sound plus free (or seemingly free) bodily expression. What is crucial in all cases is that the performance conforms to expectations.

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