Tag Archives: Convention

Hard (Melodic) Cases Make Bad (Melodic) Law

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

“Hard cases make bad law.” This legal maxim cautions against seeking general principles in the extremes. A case that is hard, either because it is unusually complicated or emotionally loaded, occupies disputed territory outside of the uncontroversial center. General law is derived from average situations and common concerns; difficult cases neither fit within its parameters nor contribute to them. Similarly, aesthetic outsiders offer little to normative notions of art. Duchamp’s Fountain and Cage’s 4’33” might be fertile topics for discussion, but without a basic consensus about what constitutes art, they would simply be an out-of-place urinal and a prolonged awkward silence.

Philosophers of art often give undue attention to fringe examples and provocative excursions, as if the existence of rule breakers sends aesthetics into a whirlwind of subjectivity. Who is to say whether Piss Christ is any more or less magnificent than Venus de Milo? The absurdity of this question reiterates the importance of the artistic center and its values. There is, of course, room for divergent approaches and variegated judgments; but art is generally recognized as art. (Incidentally, the outsider pieces cited above—Fountain, 4’33” and Piss Christ—have each been accused of not being art.)

The extent to which artistic conceptions are natural is demonstrated by melody. Certain elements are present in almost every Western tonal melody, from Baroque to mariachi to soul to grunge. These include repeating devices (e.g., melodic intervals and rhythms), a range within an octave-and-a-half, conjunct motion with occasional leaps (steps and skips), gravity (ascension, climax and dissension), and harmonic movement resolving to the root. These and other components are conventional to the point of being intuitive: any spontaneously imagined tune will likely contain most or all of them. This does not mean that adventures are forbidden in mainstream melodies. Standard components can be periodically stretched, as long as the overall integrity of the melody remains intact.

“Hard cases” in the world of melody are those that actively disregard this musical intuition. Twelve-tone serialism is a prime example, with its lack of tonal center, tone rows (non-repetitive arrangement of the notes of the chromatic scale), and regulated obscuration of patterns. Such musical experiments are conscious departures from the norm: they take account of the conventional building blocks, and proceed to knock them over. As with peculiar litigations, they can be thought-provoking and foster debate; but their influence on melodic standards and recognition is minimal at best.

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.

Hearing the Sacred

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

The term “sacred music” has fallen out of fashion somewhat in recent years. As a label for music used in devotional settings, it is synonymous with liturgical music, ritual music, and pastoral music. However, because “sacred” is an adjective, the term has been criticized as an attempt to distinguish some quality of the music itself. We cannot substantiate any claim of inherent sanctity, since the dividing line between secular and sacred music has never been strong and is increasingly blurred. Another problem is that when the term is expanded to performers, we get the boastful designation “sacred musician,” which may or may not accurately reflect the way a musician lives his/her life or views him/herself.

The issue lies in how “sacred” is understood. If we assume that it modifies the word next to it, then it is a misnomer. But if we see it more as a verb—something that the music does—then sacred is perfectly accurate. As difficult as it is to determine what (if anything) is holy about any sound, it is plain that sacred music is defined by its function.

A few examples from Jewish life illustrate the point. The core musical elements of the High Holy Days (called Mi-Sinai tunes, meaning “from Mount Sinai”) are derived in part from ballads and street songs of medieval Germany. A large portion of Sephardic synagogue music is essentially the same as Ottoman high court music. It is a Hassidic custom to transform popular songs into worship melodies by replacing the lyrics with nonsense syllable like “yai dai dai.” Twentieth-century America witnessed the emergence of liturgical music written in the style of 1960s protest songs; and a number of services have been composed in jazz, country, and other ostensibly “secular” idioms.

The list could go on, but the message is clear: sacred has little to do with the music itself, and everything to do with its purpose. This puts considerations like congregational preference and comfort level at the forefront. In order for the music to work (and thus be called sacred), it must be conducive and not disruptive to the worship experience. If it is sufficiently well liked and shown to succeed on a regular basis, it may earn a spot among the conventional favorites. Indeed, it is easy to forget that even the most popular and frequently sung synagogue melodies had premiere performances, and had to pass through several stages from novel to accepted to standard.

So, what is “sacred” in sacred music? The answer to this question is that it is the wrong question. Sacredness is not found in pitches, rhythms, intervals, or phrases, but in themes, intentions, and performance settings. All sorts of styles have been used in this capacity, and their suitability for worship is, in the end, a matter of taste. It is not necessary (or really possible) to apply objective measurements to sacred music. What is important is that the music helps cultivate a prayerful mood, no matter what it sounds like.

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

Radical Conventions

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Everything we accept as mainstream had a beginning somewhere in the past. It may have sprung from a single source or through gradual development. It may have appeared in dramatic fashion, parting abruptly from ideas, technologies, manners or artistry of the day. Or it may have come with a snail-paced shift in the zeitgeist. Whether or not we know from whence it came, what we now consider normal was not always so.

True, nothing is without precedent. Given the cause-and-effect nature of reality, no entity is absolutely divorced from what came before. There is continuity in the intellectual evolution of our species, even when advancements seem more like mutations than adaptations. And, with enough time and repetition, once-innovative or iconoclastic views can become prevailing norms. Mark Twain put it thus: “The radical of one century is the conservative of the next. The radical invents the views. When he has worn them out, the conservative adopts them” (Notebook, 1898).

In the vast universe of music, the transition from radical to conventional transpires in various ways. Two will be examined here, as they seem to be the most common: the appropriation of “far-out” ideas by mainstream musicians, and the discovery of older elements in novel forms.

The first involves convention through indirect channels. A good example is John Cage, hailed as one of the most influential composers of the twentieth century. Cage’s legacy is felt more in his ideals than his actual works, which incorporate indeterminacy, spontaneity, expanded use of instruments, and manipulation of electronic and recorded material. Because of his personality, creativity and the experimental ethos of his time, Cage’s name became household. But his music never caught on in a popular way. It was and will always remain in the impenetrable realm of avant-garde. Despite this, his conceptions seeped into the musical vernacular by way of Woody Guthrie, John Cale, Sonic Youth, Frank Zappa and Brian Eno, as well as the countless musicians they have inspired.

The second way radical music becomes conventional is through recognition of the past in envelope-pushing sounds. After the initial shock has worn off, new forms and styles are often reframed as unique syntheses of elements culled from a pool of established devices. This is perhaps most prevalent in the jazz community. The innovative playing of Charlie Parker has been reassessed as a fast-paced and intricate rendering of the blues. Eric Dolphy’s mold-breaking approach has been described as rhythmically similar to Parker’s, but more harmonically developed. The freeform technique of Ornette Coleman has been identified as a rephrasing of old swing patterns. These evaluations help pave the path to convention, where “outsider” sounds inform and are eventually fused with contemporary norms.

Most music is directly influenced by other music. Standards and trends do not arise in an instant or out of nothing, but through a subtle and organic flow that only becomes apparent with the passage of time. Drastic departures can also occur within this linear movement. As things progress, these too can become “normalized,” often through secondary influence or reappraisal. Thus, as Twain observed, the radical is made conservative.

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