Tag Archives: David Huron

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 the 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.

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.

Seeking Patterns

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

We are pattern-seeking mammals. We are uncomfortable with unanswered questions, and discontent with the apparent randomness of the world around us. We look for familiar images in clouds, stereotype groups of people, categorize things of nature, see faces in inanimate objects, latch on to conspiracy theories, match objects and colors, decode languages, and find comfort in easy resolutions in literature and film. The impulse to locate (and fabricate) order can be traced to the formative stages of humanity. Our ancestors’ survival depended greatly on their ability to detect patterns in sense data. Snap judgments of hunters and other tribespeople determined whether they would pursue or flee, explore or hide.

Rather than leaving us, the hunter instinct has expanded into all conceivable areas. Nearly every moment of our waking life is spent making quick decisions, classifying information and uncovering (or inventing) structure in observable phenomena. We derive safety and stability from the order we discern, and are attracted to things displaying overt patterns. This is partly why we are drawn to music.

According to science writer Philip Ball, around ninety-four percent of musical selections lasting more than a few seconds contain recurring material—and that only includes verbatim repeats. This calculation applies to music as disparate as electronica and Inuit throat singing. Repetition is among music’s most defining elements, and one that helps us distinguish musical sounds from other audible stimuli. Far from being a source of boredom or irritation, repetitious phrases, relentless rhythms and recurring melodies can be an endless source of enjoyment. They satisfy a primal need.

David Huron, a researcher in music cognition, has connected the pleasing patterns of music to instincts implanted in us by evolution. As noted, the ability to develop and act upon expectations is fundamental to survival. In all animals, survival rate is proportional to accuracy of anticipation: the more correct the assessment, the more advantageous the response. When accurate, gut feelings lead toward prey and away from danger. We have acquired this mechanism of rewarding good predictions. With patterns comes predictability, and with predictability comes pleasure. Guessing right is utterly gratifying. Musical repetition caters to this tendency.

The fact that repetitious music gives us satisfaction is evidenced in the genres that become popular, as well as those that linger on the margins. In the West and elsewhere, tonal music—in its multitudinous forms—is the most agreeable branch of the art form. It encompasses blues and rock, Baroque and Classical, folksongs and lullabies, ragas and marches. Such genres have almost universal appeal. In contrast, atonal music, avant-garde jazz, noise music and other postmodern approaches reach far smaller audiences. They deliberately dispose of conventions and challenge musical expectations, thereby eliminating most of what attracts the average listener to music in the first place. These styles are not without internal logic or a degree of self-styled repetition; but they do not pander to our evolutionary longings.

It is possible to overstate the delight gained from musical patterns. Pleasure is accentuated or diminished depending on one’s affinity, disdain or indifference for specific music. But the general assessment holds: we desire the predictability music provides.

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