Tag Archives: Musicality

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.

Is It Musical?

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

British mathematician Alan Turing (1912-54) was among the first to propose that computer programs would someday simulate human creativity. He argued that the hardwiring of computers and human brains were essentially the same, and that the “thought processes” of both could be reduced to mechanical calculations. This concept of disembodied cognition gained enthusiastic support in the initial wake of the computer revolution. Among other things, it spurred predictions that programs would be able to compose pieces and improvise jazz in a way indistinguishable from human musicians. Some even anticipated a machine that would match Bach or Beethoven.

These conjectures failed to recognize the embodied nature of the musical arts. Phrasing is structured on patterns of breathing. Articulation and tone length are imitative of language. The functional morphology of hands informs the range of a musical line. The emotional mind directs melodic movement. Many of us intuitively discern human performances from computer-generated music, even when a digital creation uses samples from live instruments. Our humanity detects the unhumanity of the piece.

Computers cannot, by themselves, generate the musical in music. They may excel at translating a sequence of symbols into audible information, but they do not grasp or communicate structural or affective musical meanings. They produce precision without spirit.

In a similar fashion, human performers can be judged by their musicality, or the feeling they bring to a given piece. As listeners, we make connections between the music we hear and extra-musical images, ideas and sensations, such as drama, poetry and passions. If we do not sense these layers in a performance, we withhold the label of musical. An assiduous player can master instrumental technique and conquer challenging literature. But unless something of that person’s interior life is heard, the playing will come across as dull or dry. This is largely what sets impassioned artists like Jascha Heifetz apart from many other skilled musicians.

In contrast, popular singers often lack the dexterity and tone quality typically looked for in Western music. If assessed exclusively for their voices, they would be deemed mediocre or worse. However, they possess what might be called a musical soul. Their innate sense of sound—and their sense of self projected in that sound—is both palpable and seductive. Their instruments may not be conventionally beautiful and their music may not be objectively artful; but their presentation is thoroughly musical. Singers fitting this description include icons such as Bob Dylan, Rod Stewart, Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen and Janis Joplin.

Impressive range and technical acumen do not always amount to musical music. Meticulous performers who convey little emotion are akin to exacting computers: the notes are polished and the passages precise, yet the essence is wanting. In the end, it is difficult to articulate or quantify exactly what this essence is. But we know it when we feel it.

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