I went to a 21st birthday party last night. A few weeks before attending, the host had emailed me with an invite, but I already knew I was coming and so I disregarded it. I discovered via snapchat just before I arrived that the dress code was black tie and so subsequently I was the only person out of 200 or so not wearing black tie. Perhaps due to the inherent social discomfort generated by my attire I subconsciously nudged conversation to subjects I felt the most comfortable in; one of which being music. My partner in conversation was suggesting that he might enter into a type of music consultancy where he would be required to investigate plagiarism claims, like those made against Pharrell and Robin Thicke when it was alleged that their ‘Blurred Lines’ had unlawfully taken content from Marvin Gaye’s ‘Got to give it up’. What the comprises the job I have no clue although I was left with one particular insight. The person I spoke with informed me that such is the structure of the western musical tradition that select chords are very frequently used, like I (1 (the tonic)) and IV (4 (the subdominant)), and that they are very frequently used in a select set of sequences. Now if one begins to craft a melody, he explained, above the harmony, the structure of the notes beneath would naturally persuade the composer to use certain idioms, so with the multitude of songs composed nowadays, you’d almost certainly find another with the same compositional structure. And it becomes the music consultant’s job to work out whether cases of alleged plagiarism are due to the intent of the offending party, or just the way that the ‘universal grammar’ of the western canon has influenced each composition.

This got me thinking about the nature of notes themselves, and the way we experience notes in relation to beats, and the harmony which surrounds them. When I say “harmony” I’m referring to notes that are sounded simultaneously to produce a chord and also to the relation between the chords and the melody. Already we come across an ambiguity: that which fails to distinguish between chords and melody. You could be incredibly literal about it and claim that whatever hits your eardrum at a particular slice of time can be decomposed into notes of a chord, or even frequencies of a spectrum. This would be an interesting point of view but to me seems absurd and technical, and diminishes the nuances of the western classical tradition. Aside from that, it’s a pretty dull point of view.

The comment made in conversation had suggested that even in the absence of notes themselves, perhaps there exist single or multiple ‘suggested notes’ or placeholders; places in music where notes are suggested over others due to the harmony that already exists. And perhaps even in the absence of notes, when we experience music the shell of a melody exists in our mind: in other words, melody exists before itself. This of course requires an individual to be versed in music at all, given that no prior experience of music would give no suggestion as to what notes should be above a harmonic accompaniment (apart from, as some might claim, inherent emotional responses to major/minor keys amongst other rudimentary musical features) and that the music follows some kind of formal structure.

But this way of thinking about melody as caused by harmony allows for no interaction between the two. This is not the case. In many pieces notes the melody ‘causes’ a harmonic change. For example the composer may want to modulate (change) into a different key, and to do this uses the melody to suggest the key desired. So perhaps experiencing music is experiencing an interplay between suggested causes and effects between melody and harmony; most simply evidenced in the age-old musical devise of call and response, i.e. the use of a calling phrase which prompts a responding phrase which will often prompt the following call etc. etc.

This is all nice and good within the formal structures of western classical music, but it is only nice and good because it is within these formal structures. As many a classical scholar will know certain pieces and conceits are truly great because they escape from formalism; they break the rules. To anyone experienced in the western classical tradition, as everyone is, any violation of the rules could potentially be seen as dissonant. The reason, I would say, that these infractions are accepted as great or even necessary is that they are experienced by people who are aware of the violation and can indulge in the anti-aesthetic.

Another way one can smudge the rules is by changing the beat. The beat is a regular pulse, and is the basic unit of time in music. In the western tradition the beat was modified first by expressions marked on the page of music then by the interpretation of the particular player with the invention of rubato. I would put, however, that the most daring transgression of the classical concept of the beat is with certain techniques in hip hop and jazz where the instrument or sound principally invented to keep a regular beat interprets it more loosely than would be expected by our experienced ears. Beat producers in hip hop use slightly off-set drums to make a piece seem unexpected and organic; just listen to the intro to ‘Hoe Cakes’ by MF Doom or any Reggie Watts song. Another particular instance of this effect in play is in small jazz ensembles where the drums and bass push and pull on the beat antagonistically against each other.

With every new transgression, a wave of demi-transgressions following the form of the original appears until inevitably transgression becomes rule, and is tired and used; calling for a new break in tradition unlike in form to the original but similar in its act. Transgressions having become catalogued are used ironically until the irony itself tires.

But enough thinking: enjoy your music, but stray from formalism every once in a while. Let your music hurt and surprise you. Push yourself to a boundary of tolerable transgression.

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Photograph by Alex Theaker

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