Sunday, December 28, 2008

The Rise and Fall of Melody in 5.1 Surround Sound

 IAtlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand describes a scene in which the music of Richard Halley is heard on the radio in an altered form, where it has been cut and rearranged into a distortion of the original. The melody had been hacked, and the carefully constructed form had been disintegrated. Rand wrote this decades ago, and I am not familiar with the examples that would be typical of that time; however, she anticipated a very real trend in today's musical landscape, the art of the "remix," which is a result of the decline of melody alongside the rise of technology.

 There is a little joke at the expense of technology in music:

"Q: What is the difference between army food and stereo?
A: One is canned spam, and the other is panned scam."

 The claim is that while hi-fi stereos added realism to recorded music, stereo only added aural "tricks," but less realism. Music is heard binaurally, but the sound source is usually monophonic. Stereophonics refers to the source of the sound, which is really just a doubling of the sound source. Sounds can be panned around the spectrum; envelope filters increase the width and pitch of a tone; tones can now slide from one pitch to another without a break; but melodies cannot be built this way.

The argument is that—with the ever increasing technology of stereo and now surround sound—what's suffered is the music, and more specifically, melody. Keyboardist Keith Emerson confirms this claim. Emerson is known for his piano chops as well as his experiments with the Moog synthesizer, and his experiments led him to claim that while certain sounds produced by synths can be interesting, they are not up to the task of being useful in melodic structure, so he found himself using the recreation of acoustic instruments to perform melodies.

Bill Martin, in his book 
Listening to the Future, refers to the current trend in contemporary use of electronic instruments of "layering," or "verticality:"

In postmodern music, the key is not linearity or the counterpoint of temporal development, but instead a principle known best in terms of ... verticality ... the key is vertical stacking. As with postmodern architecture, the idea in this stacking is just that, in principle, any sound can go with any other sound. Just as, however, even the most eclectic pastiche of a building must all the same have some sort of foundation that anchors it to the ground, vertically stacked music often depends on an insistent beat.

Martin sums this up as "Cage with a beat."

Martin remarks that this detemporalization of music is not innovative, because the verticality approach "accepts the idea the music ... is now simply a matter of trying out the combinations, filling out the grid." These are not composers or musicians, but "people who are clever with technology, who paste together the material generated by the 'content providers' [read: real composers]." 

This idea of verticality is an example of Rand's description of art that brings the mind down from the conceptual level to the perceptual level. In this case, melody is broken down to its elements, and the emphasis changes from the integration of tones into melodies to the tones themselves.This would seem to justify accusations of "pomo" wankerism!

(Another example of "grid composing" occurs when a composer juxtaposes one musical style with another, creating a hybrid. This can lead to interesting possibilities, but must be a vision behind it if it is not to be mindless juxtaposition for the sake of exoticism?)

 Is it right to condemn these techno tricks at the expense of melody? Or is it an argument of Luddites afraid of change? And if one accepts their criticisms, is it possible to reconcile the Objectivist celebration of technology with the appeal to traditional forms of melodic structure in music?

Objectivism is not against employing new technologies. Prime examples are Roark's unconventional buildings, which caused the old school of architecture to make baseless claims that they were unsound, or that they didn't meet the classical standards. "Rearden Steel" in 
Atlas Shrugged faced the same reception. But the key fact to remember is that form and function are intertwined. The new material enabled the construction of new forms, and the new forms required new materials (for example, a skyscraper could not be built of wood). In the case of music, synthesized sounds can go beyond the mere imitation of existing acoustic instruments, so it's possible that they will lead to new forms. The non-melodic tones can be considered more akin to percussive non-melodic instruments like cymbals, drums, and such. Yet there are more than that as well, so it may be that those sounds can have a role to play, if only a limited one.

If the form and function of music requires the organization of sound to invoke contemplation and emotions, the new sounds will have to follow the same basic laws of physical perception and cognition. This may mean that the younger generation, like Roark and Rearden, may be able to perceive their benefits more readily than the older generation raised on acoustic instruments. As Rand (and Robert Jourdain, incidentally) point out, it is not the ear, but the mind, which needs to be conditioned; so it may be that the traditionalists are too set in their mindsets to see the possibilities. But let it be said that Howard Roark was not expelled from school for refusing to study the principles; nature still has to be obeyed to be commanded. And the warning to the postmodern advocates of technology, who stand on the shoulders of Cage and Varese, those "liberators of sound from the clutches of the Western white male heirarchy of form," is not to abandon the principles of what defines music. (A very urgent warning at a time where technology has enabled anyone with a computer to engage in the musical equivalent of "paint-by-numbers.")

Let the next generation play with the new toys, but all this begs the question: Does music require melody, harmony and rhythm? Are all three required, or can we muse with only one?


  1. There's plenty of good [acoustic] music that employs glissandi (typically string and vocal works... at least one of the Bartok string quartets, as well as Stockhausen's Stimmung and some vocal works by Kurtag come immediately to mind), and portamenti have been employed for a ridiculously long time. I'm not really sure what you mean by "melody cannot be built this way", unless you're using a really strict definition of melody. One of the problems with electronic dance music, as I see it, isn't that it sacrifices melody, but it trivializes music by emphasizing and repeating simple, catchy melodies to an extremely simple, unchanging beat. Of course, dance music isn't meant to listen to, it's meant to [crudely] dance to... just as classical music isn't meant to be danced to, but attentively listened to. These genres have their separate purposes.

    Also, what exactly is wrong with Varese?

  2. Hi, Trill.

    Regarding melodies: you're not sure what I mean by "melodies can't be built this way?" Can you name any complete compositions that are built on unbroken scales, as opposed to momentary glissandos or portomento? And if so, would you say that, if they are not "mainstream," that the failure to be so is the result of being unlistenable or the fault of the listener?

    What exactly is wrong with Varese? Well, beyond the scope of my piece, but depends on who you ask, I know Frank Zappa really, really liked him.

    I wrote this essay a few years ago, before I read Theodor Adorno, whose ideas I find interesting in a Socratic way, even if I don't agree with them. My old argument against Varese needs updating. But in a nutshell, I have a problem with statements such as this:

    "And here are the advantages I anticipate from such a machine: liberation from the arbitrary, paralyzing tempered system."

    (Varese's full context can be found here:

    A lot of his claims SOUND interesting to me, in theory, but when I hear the result, not so much. I think composers like Varese or the 12 tone composers throw out musical hierarchy at the expense of listenability. At least I can't listen to it. People like Zappa claim to love it, so I leave open the possibility that it's possible. But I object even more strongly for political justification given to their methods, when throwing out musical hierarchy is symbolic of "equality" in society, that no note should be more important, or the abandonment of form altogether.

    I side with Ayn Rand, ultimately, in this matter. Even if Zappa can listen to it, but abstractly speaking, I agree when she says"They spout a great deal about the necessity of "conditioning" your ear to an appreciation of their "music." Their notion of conditioning is unlimited by reality and the law of identity; man, in their view, is infinitely conditionable. But, in fact, you can condition a human ear to different types of music (it is not the ear, but the mind that you have to condition in such cases); you cannot condition it to hear noise as if it were music, it is not personal training or social conventions that make it impossible, but the physiological nature, the identity, of the human ear and brain."

    Because I am NOT qualified to say what others are capable of, I will leave the admirers of Varese to determine for themselves what they can integrate. But I do believe the mind, in order to function, has to deal in heirarchy and form, .

  3. Incidentally, while I am not a fan of Varese, I am a big fan of Pink Floyd, including their earlier works like A SAUCERFUL OF SECRETS. They did pick up on a lot of the experimentation of the avant garde, especially in the "noise" section of SAUCERFUL and the middle part of "Echoes." This is why I don't rush to judgement of those who claim that they can listen to Varese, etc..

    But there are a couple of things that I have to add: I think Floyd is an exception to the rule for me because they DID impart some form to their experiments, albeit in an unorthodox manner. As former architecture students, they approached these compositions as architecture, plotting out the peaks and valleys ahead of time. (So they claim.) I'm inclined to believe it, because even though they employ the sirens and mechanical techniques that Varese championed, they do so in an "orderly" way as opposed to a purely anarchic improvisation.

    The other poing: it seems that most of what I've heard in this vein, Floydian or otherwise, is a limited emotional range. For the most part, it comes off creepy, scary, spacy, or mysterious. Listening to Varese or Boulez, I find it no wonder that it lends itself to PLANET OF THE APES or such. Now it can be argued that our "western minds" have simply been "conditioned" as such, but I have to wonder about the reaction of children who seem to naturally be scared by such music (the example I'm thinking of is an "avant gard" musical performance of Dr. Seuss's GREEN EGGS AND HAM that I bought for my baby brother years ago.) To be fair, it was an extreme form, but the cartoon versions, as well as some of the Looney Tunes/Tom and Jerry cartoons of the sixties, use a similar approach but milder.

    This is not, of course, conclusive evidence, but does point to the proof that certain musical combinations inherently provide certain emotional cues.

  4. I'm listening to a sample of "Metastasis" at the moment...I need a longer clip, have to search it out. But it does make me think of some "new age" music that is more ambience than melody. I wouldn't call it "melodic," BUT I do find some of it "musical." When I say that, I mean that the progressions of sounds make me "muse." I do think I get what your saying earlier, about "melody" being strictly defined. Rand called it an "entity." If taken as a whole, a progression of sounds, even if not "thematic" or "tuneful," can still be called an entity, I suppose. It DOES require activity on the part of the listener to turn it into music, otherwise, it's really just "noise," and that applies to all kinds of music, which is why my grandfather calls anything not "country" some kind of "Spanish" music. Sigh.

    On that, keep an eye out for a couple of blogs coming up dealing with the Gestalt theory of music. :)

    And I'll have to check out that "Roaratorio" and see if I get a happy feeling. :D