Tag Archives: Commercial Music

Timeless and Time-bound

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Western classical music, as a generic term separate from the segmented musical chronology, has a quality of timelessness. Works spanning more than three-hundred years—from Bach to Stravinsky and beyond—are grouped together in concert halls, radio programs, and the public’s imagination. Judged as outstanding specimens of their kind, they exhibit wide stylistic variations and expressive techniques, yet reside comfortably side by side as “classics.”

Leonard Bernstein, speaking at a Young People’s Concert,  pinpointed key contrasts between classical and other types of music: “The real difference is that when a composer writes a piece of what’s usually called classical music, he puts down the exact notes that he wants, the exact instruments or voices that he wants to play or sing them—even to the exact number of instruments or voices. He also writes down as many directions as he can think of, to tell the players or singers as carefully as he can everything they need to know about how fast or slow it should go, how loud or soft it should be, and millions of other things to help the performers to give an exact performance of those notes he thought up.” Contrastingly, Bernstein argued, “there’s no end to the ways in which [a popular tune] can be played or sung.”

Variations in classical performances stem not from self-initiated diversions, but from trying to interpret what the composer meant as closely as possible. Despite nuances of tempo, mood, and accentuation, the notes and instrumentation remain largely intact. These stabilized traits departed from the Medieval and Renaissance periods, when instrumentation was flexible, improvisation was integral, and notation was under-prescriptive. The meticulous directions and normalized expectations of classical music have ensured its transmission as a repeatable and recognizable art form.

Such timelessness comes into focus when confronted with its opposite. Beginning in the late 1960s, several attempts were made to “update” classical music for contemporary audiences. Switched-On Bach (1968) by Walter Carlos (now Wendy) initiated the trend with ten Bach arrangements for Moog synthesizer. Carlos followed it up with The Well-Tempered Synthesizer (1969), featuring electric versions of Monteverdi, Scarlatti, Handel, and Bach, and her soundtrack for Clockwork Orange (1972), with synthesized renditions of Beethoven’s Ninth. Part of the appeal of Bob Moog’s instrument was its contemporariness. Space Age listeners resonated with its “future is now” aesthetic and “orchestra-in-a-box” convenience. Elites were equally enthralled, handing Switch-On Bach three Grammys in the classical category: best album, best performance, and best engineered recording.

Meco’s disco album Star Wars and Other Galactic Funk, released in 1977 (the same year as the film), is an illustrative offering from that era of classical retooling. Its showcase piece, “Star Wars Theme/Cantina Band,” topped  the Billboard Hot 100 for two weeks, owing to the popularity both of the film and of commercialized orchestral adaptations. Ironically, with his scores for Star Wars and other pictures, John Williams spearheaded a resurgence of classical film scoring, which had largely been replaced by pop soundtracks in the 1970s. Yet, as much as his writing convincingly retrieved an earlier genre of film music, it could not evade the sonic stamp of its age.

What unites these examples—and all pop treatments of classical music—is their time-boundedness. That which is “up-to-date” only remains so until that date has passed. The Moog sound is passé, disco is dead, but classical music is timeless. Its preservationist ethos—of instruments, interpretations, substances, and forms—has ensured its survival against the vicissitudes of taste.

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

Musical Consequences

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

French sociologist Émile Durkheim identified two modes of maintaining social order. The first is mechanistic solidarity, wherein cohesion develops among people who play similar roles and whose status is more or less equally valued, save for those in leadership positions. This applies to kinship-based systems (formerly called “primitive”) where the unit of organization is the extended family or clan, and the distinction between the individual and society is minimal. The second is organic solidarity, in which order is achieved through a complex division of labor and role differentiation. This is typical of capitalist societies, which rely on the integration of specialized tasks.

Both systems have their merits and demerits. In the musical realm, the division of labor allows a select group, known as “musicians,” to focus on the craft and make significant cultural contributions. However, such specialization tends to have the opposite effect on the rest of the populace, which is tacitly discouraged from making music, even as an amateur pursuit. This contrasts with the norm in indigenous groups, where an egalitarian ethos encourages music from everyone. Although lacking in notation and recording, and all the artistic expansion they afford, their music can be remarkably intricate and varied.

Ethnomusicologist John Blacking was especially critical of the Western bifurcation of “musician” and “non-musician.” From his experience with the Venda people of South Africa, Blacking concluded that music is a species-specific trait, like language, and thus a natural mode of expression available to all. A passage from his book How Musical is Man? sums up this view: “[If] all members of an African society are able to perform and listen intelligently to their own indigenous music, and if this unwritten music, when analyzed in its social and cultural context, can be shown to have a similar range of effects on people and to be based on intellectual and musical processes that are found in the so-called ‘art’ music of Europe, we must ask why apparently general musical abilities should be restricted to a chosen few in societies supposed to be culturally more advanced.”

Blacking identified division of labor rather than an absence of aptitude as the dampening force on music compulsion. In capitalist societies, where skills become professions, commercial music is a major industry. Yet music sales still depend on our fundamental musicality. The performers may be specialists, but they are no more proficient in discerning musical sounds than the listeners who support them. Thus, the musical consequence of societal evolution is not biological but sociological. The shift from indigenous to industrial societies causes a general redirection of emphasis from collective music-making to individual listening. We remain musical, but our active expression is significantly stifled.

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

Sight and Sound

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Specific sounds are often tied to specific objects. The sight of a shark conjures the theme from Jaws; “O Canada” brings to mind a hockey rink; Louis Armstrong’s raspy voice evokes photographs of the famous musician. These links are typically taken for granted until they are broken, either for humorous effect, as when a dinosaur crows like a rooster in the slapstick comedy Caveman, or with jarring results, as when the visage of a radio personality does not match the face we imagined. To borrow a term from semiotics, associated sights and sounds serve as indexes for one another: the sonic recalls the visual; the visual recalls the sonic.

The question is how these indelible connections come about. According to Joel Beckerman, a composer and author of Sonic Boom: How Sound Transforms the Way We Think, Feel, and Buy, the union exits prior to the association itself. Certain sounds and images just go together. This is why, he argues, the startup sound of Apple computers and the sizzling fajita platters at Chili’s work so well, while high-decibel biodegradable SunChip bags and the use of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Fortunate Son” to sell Wrangler jeans were abject failures.

Beckerman’s thesis has its limits. Sure, the faux pas could have been avoided. Nobody wants to be overwhelmed by the amplified crackling of a bag of chips, and John Fogerty (who does not own the rights to CCR’s songs) was peeved that his anti-war anthem was used in an ad with patriotic overtones. However, the sounds that do work are less clear-cut. As long as there is a general sentimental convergence between sights and sounds, there is the possibility of creating a lasting link.

The key, it seems, is repetition. It should be remembered that the melody borrowed for the Star-Spangled Banner began as the official song of the Anacreontic Society, a drinking club of amateur musicians in eighteenth-century London. If Frederick Scott Key’s poem had been set to another accommodating melody, it may have caught on just as well. Likewise, if the iconic score to Star Wars were completely different when the film debuted in 1977, that score would have also become iconic. It is our repeated exposure to the movie, coupled with leitmotifs in the score, that makes the music and images synonymous. In the world of branding, the incessantness of ringtones and commercial jingles fuses them with the objects they promote. The same can be said for almost any deep relationship of image and sound.

To be fair, Beckerman’s work (including his book) is geared toward advertising executives and marketing firms, and his company, Man Made Music, offers sonic branding services. In short, he has something to sell. But a more cautious assessment shows that repetition is the primary mechanism. The connection feels natural because it has been forged through experience.

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