2012-10-01

Some Musical Yin and Yang

In the composer's mind, there are two competing forces in writing music, and perhaps also in other branches of art. The first is the tendency to intellectualize, and the second is the tendency to popularize.

Since the times of the ancient Greeks, composers of Western music have been deliberately organizing their thoughts around music compositional theory in an endeavor to make music as much a mental achievement as an emotive tool.

Here, let me inject a brief disclaimer: I am not one of those to whom the intellect is some separate object from the pathos. To me, mind and heart are all one thing. So in other words, it takes some mental power to be able to translate one's feelings into a statement (verbal, musical, or whatever), just as it requires emotional investment to deliver a remarkable intellectual achievement.

So when the old composers developed and honed the intellectual side of music, they were not working at odds with their hearts or their emotions, they were using every tool at their disposal to make the music as beautiful and emotive as possible. The same holds true of every composer of Western music.

Zoom way out, and it becomes obvious that music composition in the Western world has been a steady march toward greater and greater intellectual achievement. First, modes were developed culturally, then they were applied to convey specific meanings within a composition. From there, harmonic development became more complex, and orchestral music steadily developed toward ever-more complex harmonic arrangements. When the deliberate compositional framework started offering more boundaries than avenues, artists began exploring the 20th Century sounds: harsh, unconventional harmonies, atonality, and so forth. When even that became exhausted, those sounds started being incorporated back into more traditional compositional approaches: a hybrid methodology.

More recently, jazz music experienced the same evolution, albeit at lightning speed. Originally introduced as a simple form of folk music, it was steadily injected with more traditional theory and ever-increasing improvisational complexity, right up to today's most avant-garde jazz.

It is our human nature to discover new forms of artistic exploration, and exhaust them in our tendency to intellectualize.

Working against that intellectualization, however, is the desire to popularize. What I mean is that the most intellectual music out there is never the most intellectual. What's popular is what appeals to the broadest base and, quite obviously, the less intellectual something is, the greater number of people who will be able to appreciate its artistic merits.

This occurs for a variety of reasons. At the simplest level, some people haven't studied music to sufficient extent to comprehend certain things. But it's not just that. Some people are only just discovering a particular musical style and need additional exposure to understand. Some people have only a casual interest in listening to music, so for them, there is no added listening benefit beyond a certain level of complexity. Some people only have an ear for rhythm or for simple melody. Some people believe strongly that simpler music is better. Some people listen to music so that they can dance - and who can dance in an 11/16 time signature? And so on...

Whatever the reason, more intellectual music can safely be said to have narrower appeal. Thus, intellectualization and popularization work in opposite directions. This presents an obstacle to any composer seeking to earn an audience.

Some composers have been able to overcome this obstacle. For example, Danny Elfman began his career writing pop songs, before ultimately transitioning into film scoring and orchestral work. His compositions are complex, but his use of recurring and repeating riffs and themes grounds the broader audience as he takes the composition through more exploratory territory. Frank Zappa was able to earn his audience by tapping into 1960s "freak" culture, appealing to the audience's sense of humor, providing extended jazz-fusion jams in live performance situations, and by developing a strong business model that worked. Modern artists like Derek Sherinian or Tony MacAlpine have been able to leverage their position as side-musicians to draw an audience toward their more intellectually weighty solo projects.

But every step of the way, writers of music are torn between greater intellectualization of their art, and greater popularization of it.

One of the great contributions modern information technology has made to the artistic world is to enable more intellectual artists to reach a greater number of people more easily, while retaining ample access to music that is simply popular.