I’m in the middle of reading a book, This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession by Daniel J. Levitin. Levitin once worked as a recording engineer and producer and became fascinated with how human beings perceive musical sound, and so in his thirties, he went back to school to study psychology and neuroscience. I’m only about 125 pages into the book, but I am finding it fascinating.
One of the things he writes about is the difficulty of using language to describe music. He writes:
"Many people who love music profess to know nothing about it. I’ve found that many of my colleagues who study difficult, intricate topics such as neurochemistry or psychopharmacology feel unprepared to deal with research in the neuroscience of music. And who can blame them? Music theorists have an arcane, rarified set of terms and rules that are as obscure as some of the most esoteric domains of mathematics. … Yet every one of my colleagues who feels intimidated by such jargon can tell me the music that he or she likes. … Many of us have a practical knowledge of things we like, and can communicate our preferences without possessing the technical knowledge of the true expert. … It’s a shame that many people are intimidated by the jargon musicians, music theorists, and cognitive scientists throw around. There is specialized vocabulary in every field of inquiry. But in the case of music, music experts and scientists could do a better job of making their work accessible. … The unnatural gap that has grown between musical performance and music listening has been paralleled by a gap between those who love music and those who are discovering new things about how it works."
The reason I use such a lengthy quote is because I have noticed this same disconnect in my classroom. When asked something like “How many of you listen to music on a daily basis?” nearly every hand is raised. But then I ask, “What’s your favorite song?” Few people are willing to commit to an answer to such an exposed question, but if someone is brave enough to reply, I then ask, “What do you like about it?” Typical answers are things like “It’s cool.” “It’s got a good beat.” “It’s pretty.” These are not helpful responses, so I prod, “What’s cool/good/pretty about it?” Crickets usually begin to chirp in the distance. Then, even after ten or twelve weeks of class, some students will write, “I don’t know much about music…” and then proceed to write (often) ill-formed observations of concerts or recordings. Admittedly, my first response to this kind of cop-out in student writing is frustration. Of course you know something about music! You’ve been listening to me talk about how it works all semester! But once, I take my own ego out of the equation, I have to ask, how can someone who admittedly listens to music every day not know anything about it?
The problem is less one of knowledge than one of vocabulary. Many people lack the words to describe the musical experience. I can relate, but only to a point. To borrow an analogy from Levitin, something I do everyday but cannot claim expert knowledge of is eating. Can I enjoy a meal without knowing every ingredient that went into it? Of course. But, if I enjoy a steak, can I describe it? Sure. It is cooked medium-rare, it is juicy, tender, there’s a slightly charred flavor from the grill marks that sets off the savory, buttery meat. Maybe I’ve watched too many episodes of Next Food Network Star, but I think anyone can describe the food they eat, at least to certain degree.
So why is music so different? Is it, as Levitin says, the jargon? I ask students all the time to define things like melody, harmony, rhythm, etc. They know the terms. They know a melody when they hear one. But somehow, the notion of what a melody actually is gets lost along the way. So, once we can put our collective fingers on what a melody is, how can we describe one? If I say a melody is pretty, what am I actually saying? As it turns out, not much because that observation is only subjective. But, if I describe a melody as legato, with a wide range and a balance of conjunct and disjunct motion, and clear phrasing in an aaba pattern, that gives us something to go on, right? Or does it?
If I were to say that I was thinking of a specific melody while I wrote that description, is there any chance that someone could guess what it is? Doubtful, because it is too general. Many melodies feature the characteristics I just described.
So, if not to help us identify a specific piece, what purpose does it serve to be able to describe a melody using words? Well, in addition to helping you show off at cocktail parties, once you can articulate what it is you like about a specific piece of music, it makes it easier to find that same quality in other works. So a little knowledge can go a long way.
Yes, music does have somewhat of a mystique disguised in its funny words and mysterious notation markings, but if knowing just a little about how it works can enrich the listening experience, why don’t people take the time to learn? One thing I hear in my classroom a lot is, “Thinking too much about music ruins the experience of just listening.” Or, “I just like to let the sound wash over me.” Is that what music should be? Or is it something more?
Obviously, I lean toward that latter, or I would not have dedicated my adult life to studying, researching, and teaching the subject, but what does the typical person think? Should music be something that everyone can talk about in an intelligent way, or does thinking too much about it ruin the experience? Does the language that surrounds the creation and performance of music create a barrier to the common listener that causes them to feel excluded? If so, should musicians work to pull back the curtain?
An album that does some really interesting things from a musical standpoint and also comments on the act of music making itself is Making Mirrors by Gotye (2011). Yes, it’s the one with “Somebody That I Used to Know” on it. I’m sure you've heard that one enough for a lifetime, but the songs I find particularly intriguing are “Eyes Wide Open” (the bass line was played by hitting a wire fence with a mallet) and “State of the Art,” which comments on how easy it is to create music with computers and software and questions whether or not such a process is really making music.
What do you think? Are there things that stand out? Things you’d like to understand better?
Cross-Generic Music and the Politics of Public Listening
Last week, my husband and I went to a concert. We saw the Punch Brothers play at the outdoor amphitheater at the NC Museum of Art. If you don’t know the Punch Brothers, their music is difficult to describe. They play bluegrass instruments: mandolin, guitar, bass, fiddle, and banjo, but their music is so much more than straight-up bluegrass. There’s an art music quality to their work; their most recent album included arrangements of Debussy and Scriabin, and an earlier album features a forty-minute suite in four movements. They are some of the most incredibly gifted musicians I’ve ever seen perform live – truly virtuosic. But, at the same time, they aren’t afraid to break it down old school with foot-stompin’ drinking songs and good old-fashioned party music. Like I said, hard to describe.
And that’s what made the concert such a strange experience, I think. Coming from a background that featured art music and popular music in more or less equal measure, I honestly had no idea how the audience would behave at a concert like this. Would people remain quietly seated and intently-focused on every note, or would they be dancing and singing along to every song? As it turns out, it wasn’t really either…
First off, let me describe the scene a bit. The amphitheater at the museum has a few seating areas. There are reserved seats down front, corporate areas for sponsors on raised platforms on the sides, and open lawn seats. We were in the latter. In that area, families had set up picnics (or in one case full-on buffets) of homemade food, most people were in folding chairs, enjoying the wine and beer sold on site, and others were on blankets or towels on the grass. The audience on the lawn was a strange mixture of families, groups of friends ranging in age from their teens to their 70s, and couples. Everyone seemed intent on having a good time, but it seemed that not everyone could agree on what that was.
Some groups seemed to be at the concert to listen. I know we were. We were dressed comfortably for an 80 degree night outside. We were armed with bug spray and sunscreen (for before evening fell). I even packed rain jackets, though the weather ultimately made it unnecessary to bring them. I was so excited to hear this music, that I wanted nothing to distract me.
Others were there for a family outing. Mom and Dad enjoyed what they could and relaxed with a beer or two while the kids did as kids do. Some children played in the grass with glowing toys. Others dragged their parents to the concession booth for ice pops and back and forth to the restrooms.
Still other groups seemed to be at the concert for a party. They relaxed in their chairs or on their blankets with six-packs or bottles of wine and chatted amongst themselves. Some softly, others, not so much.
And that’s where things got tricky. The people in the audience who came with the intent of deep, critical listening were disrupted by constant motion, loud conversation, and, increasingly as the night went on, drunken behavior.
So, was one group in the right and another in the wrong? I don’t know…
And that’s what makes this kind of music complicated to negotiate in the public space. The wide span of styles performed by the Punch Brothers makes knowing how to behave at a concert difficult. On one hand, they encourage the audience to relax and enjoy themselves, while on the other, their performance commands attentive listening. But where does one end and the other begin? That seems to vary from one audience member to the next.
Now, I don’t want you to think I’m being a stuffy, grumpy old “got-off-my-lawn” type of person here. I had a great time. I saw a lot of people who didn’t, though, and that’s what got me thinking about this. Does wanting to really experience the music in an environment such as this make someone anti-fun? Or, on the flip side, does taking the opportunity to hear such exquisitely performed music and spending it chatting with friends, getting drunk, and ushering kids around demonstrate a lack of cultural discernment?
I’m honestly not sure. This is what makes music such a complicated thing, especially when heard in public spaces. Everyone should be entitled to the listening experience that they want, right? But what happens when one person’s enjoyment becomes another’s irritation? In a possibly once-in-a-lifetime event like a concert, it’s hard to say.
And what does that say about the process of listening? Does an experience like this indicate that someone who wants to truly listen may only be able to do so in the comfort and seclusion of their own personal space? Not necessarily, but I do think that musical style plays an important role here.
It seems to me that the clash of intentions I witnessed at the Punch Brothers show was one of expectations that surround musical style. Because the band blends aspects of the artistic and the popular, the audience carried the notions of concert etiquette most associated with the style they perceived most strongly in the Punch Brothers’ music. That is, the art music fans expected an audience that would remain silent and attentive, while the bluegrass fans wanted to kick up their heels or relax. In the end, lots of people seemed unsure which extreme was more appropriate, and some just went with their gut.
I have to say, I feel kind of bad for the people who got so hung up on what other people were doing that they allowed their irritation to take over. The concert was truly amazing. No, I didn’t have an uninterrupted listening experience, but I have CDs for that. I couldn’t see very much, but there was some great people watching!
Ultimately, I think this concert has simply forced me to think about people more than anything else. Blending musical styles creates a blend in audiences, which in turn creates a blending of behavioral norms and expectations. As long as everyone can relax and enjoy, maybe that’s all be can ask.
The Punch Brothers: The Phosphorescent Blues (2015)
The Phosphorescent Blues is the Punch Brothers’ fourth studio album. The group was formed in 2006 by Chris Thile, who also played mandolin and sings with the neo-bluegrass band Nickel Creek.
The group’s sound is described as “progressive bluegrass, classical music, and acoustic music.”
The album is available on CD and vinyl and digital download. It can also be streamed in its entirely from Spotify and Tidal.
What do you make of this blend of sounds? Do they fit together or do they clash? What kind of concert experience do you imagine when you hear it?
In November, 2014, Billboard Magazine changed the criteria for their Top 200 Albums Chart to account for downloads and streaming of singles. Essentially, any time 10 individual tracks are streamed or downloaded from a given album, Billboard counts that as the sale of the album as a whole. Since the change in policy, there have been three instances where the best-selling full album in the country was denied the #1 position on the chart due to individual songs that had extraordinary success on iTunes and Spotify. Taylor Swift’s 1989 had more individual tracks downloaded and streamed than copies of Now! That’s what I Call Music vol. 53 in February, 2015. In March, enough songs were downloaded and streamed (20,000 album’s worth) from the soundtrack to the TV show Empire to keep Madonna’s Rebel Heart from reaching #1. Most dramatically in April, the soundtrack to Furious 7, on the back of a Wiz Khalifa single, outsold All Time Low’s Future Hearts by 30,000 album equivalents.
Naturally, this new approach has caused a shift in how record sales are tracked and how the prestige of a #1 album is achieved. It also demonstrates the way the music industry has moved their focus from the album to the single. How has your own music purchasing behavior changed in the last decade? I’ve asked my Music Appreciation classes (always a good source for information on how “the kids” are doing things), “When was the last time your purchased an entire album?” Many say, “Never.” I find this somewhat dismaying. It would appear that we have sat quietly by and watched the death of a once beloved art form.
Now, granted, compilations like Now! That’s What I Call Music and soundtracks to television programs and movies are not really albums in their purest sense - a cohesive work of art. But, the success of albums like this, whether sold in complete form or piecemeal, are quite indicative of the change in music-buying behavior that we have observed in the last decade.
WATCHING THE ALBUM DISAPPEAR
A February, 2010 article from CNN Money reported that between 1999-2009 annual album sales plummeted from $14.6 billion to $6.3 billion. The article blames the decrease on three main culprits: 1. an over-inflation of sales during the 1990s as consumers replaced their analog recordings with CDs, 2. the recession of the 2000s, and 3. the appearance of music sharing software like Napster and Kazaa. So, just as people finished replacing their vinyl and LPs, a recession prevented them from buying more CDs, but their desire for new music was satisfied by new software. A triple-whammy for the music industry.
An interesting way of looking at this decline is be examining the sales numbers for the top-selling album of any given year. Soundscan began tracking and releasing this information in 1992. Since then, the top album of any given year has sold numbers ranging from nearly 10 million (*NSYNC in 2000) to 2.4 million copies (Justin Timberlake in 2013, poor guy…). Between that time and today, the top selling album of 7 different years topped 7,000,00 copies:
1995: Cracked Rear View – Hootie and the Blowfish
1996: Jagged Little Pill - Alanis Morrisette
1998: Titanic Soundtrack
1999: Millennium – Backstreet Boys
2000: No Strings Attached - *NSYNC
2002: The Eminem Show – Eminem
2004: Confessions – Usher
Since 2004, the highest selling album, 21 by Adele, only hit 5,000,000 copies. Vastly outselling every other album of the ten years between Usher and today. Slowly but surely, even the most successful albums are generating fewer and fewer sales.
WHY IS THIS HAPPENING?
Sure, CNN’s theory that these numbers stem from an earlier over-inflation, a recession, and new software certainly point to part of the problem, but I’m not sure that it explains everything. It seems to me that there are a number of factors that have contributed to the demise of the album.
We have seen what happened to file sharing companies like Napster and Kazaa. While the notion of sharing music is a nice one in principle, it ultimately was doomed to fail. Making music is expensive, and if no one is willing to pay for it, the quality of the product is bound to suffer. Plus, you get angry people like Lars Ulrich trying to sue everyone on the planet… not cool.
Enter the age of the iTunes and internet radio. Downloading, of course, makes it easier and cheaper to purchase a single song. And streaming makes it possible to hear endless music for only a small flat fee (or no fee at all, if you’re willing to put up with commercials). It is this kind of consumer practice that led to the change in Billboard’s album charts, and it certainly points to a shift in fans’ interaction with music. In January, 2015, The Atlantic reported that both sales of CDs and digital tracks had dropped, while on subscriptions to streaming services and (ironically, but not surprisingly) the sale of vinyl had risen in 2014. So, if we disregard the hipster movement for a moment (who still comprise less than 2% of today’s music sales), we find that people again are still less likely to pay for a specific work that they enjoy, but would rather pay for unlimited access to a service that allows them to listen to whatever whenever they want.
This is not the first time in music’s history that this phenomenon has shaped the industry. During the Depression, musical styles that catered to those most hard hit, i.e. country-western music and so-called race music (primarily the blues), were kept alive through radio broadcasts. When economic times are hard, music is seen as a luxury. The pleasure of owning a recording is less important than simply being able to hear a song, and a single device (or subscription) that allows you to hear an endless stream of music is certainly a more economical investment than a playback device that constantly requires new recordings to hear a variety of music. I would certainly never mean to imply that our modern economic environment compares to that of the Depression, but it is intriguing to me that services that move consumers away from the lasting, tangible musical object have again given way to the ephemeral experience of songs, whether on an AM/FM or an internet radio.
Also, it seems that a lot of artists rely on the success of one or two songs for a given project, and if they do release an album, most of the tracks are “filler,” so why should a consumer spend their money on an entire album when the artist only puts effort into a small percentage of its contents? Conversely, why should a band or artist take the time and cost of creating an album when typical music fans will only purchase a song or two? We have found ourselves in an artistic catch-22. Only when artists commit to making more substantial albums and fans return to purchasing works as a whole will this situation reverse itself. Will that day ever come? I honestly don’t know.
Another factor, I think, is the “Shuffle mentality.” It seems to me that the last 15 years or so have witnessed a fetishizing of “the random.” Radio stations with names like “The Blend” and “The Spectrum” promote themselves as broadcasting a wide variety of music with little or no unifying features. Mp3 players and programs like iTunes afford listeners the experience of drifting through their music collections, never knowing what will come next. I admit, I enjoy this practice myself. The strange juxtapositions to arise in a collection such as mine often point out unusual musical qualities I might not otherwise notice. But, this notion of a continuously shuffled music experience definitely removes us from the art of the album. While albums were once crafted to create a certain flow from one song to the next, today they are rarely heard in the order for which they were intended. Rather than a 45-60 minute cohesive work of art, many of today’s albums are compilations of 3 minute micro-works. I fear that to break apart and rearrange the contents of an album denies it of its continuity and in general cheapens the product as a whole.
This is not to say that no one makes quality albums anymore. Artists that have a certain cache with the hipster crowd not only release albums, but they do so on vinyl LPs. And acts that have a somewhat more elevated sensibility and sense of “artsiness” about their work create thematic works similar to the concept albums common in the 1970s. But are these genuine musical expressions or just sales gimmicks? I suppose that depends on the work in question. Most likely a little from Column A, and a little from Column B.
HOW CAN WE REVALUE THE ALBUM?
Last Spring, my husband and I began a project designed to enhance our music collection, encourage more intense music listening, and help us discover new musical styles. Every week we buy a new (to us) album. Sometimes we download high-resolution albums from websites like HD Tracks or Linn Records, other times we purchase CDs (occasionally new ones, but more often used ones from the local used book store). Either way, we have a few rules: the purchase must be full-resolution (i.e. no mp3s), and it must be an actual album or EP – no compilations, greatest hits packages, or anything like that. We each keep a list of albums we want, and if we find them at the used bookstore, we get them. If we really want something specific, we will download it. So far, we’ve bought about 70 new albums, in all different kinds of styles: Black Sabbath to Billie Holiday, Mozart to Joni Mitchell. We’ve added new music, classics from the 1960s and 70s, country, jazz, choral music, and chamber music to our collection, and it keeps growing.
Our favorite part of the process is deciding what to buy. If we have differing ideas, we open up a good, old-fashioned debate. The winner must convince the other that their choice offers quality music, a unique and rewarding listening experience, cultural significance, and high-quality audio. It seems that the harder one of us fights for a given album, the more the other tends to be surprised by the music they hear.
Friday nights are listening nights. We curl up on the couch with a cocktail and listen to at least one album from start to finish. During that time, we focus on nothing but the music. If we pick up our phones, it is only to look up information about the artist and album that is playing. No checking Facebook or playing games – just listening. Sometimes we stop the music and talk about what we hear – to point out interesting aspects of the recording or novel musical techniques, other times we just listen straight through. While at first it was hard to resist the urge to “do something” while the music played, we’ve come to really value the opportunity to just give ourselves time to immerse ourselves in new musical experiences.
What have we learned? Some of the more recent albums we’ve purchased, like those from Artic Monkeys and Royal Blood, tend to have one or two primary sounds that carry throughout the entire album. They get a bit repetitive after a while. The sound was catchy enough to draw our interest from the one or two singles we’d heard on the radio, driving us to invest in the album, but overall, they just got a bit boring by the end. By contrast, generally speaking, rock (in all its guises) from the 1960s and 70s is considerably more adventurous in scope. Some of the things we’ve picked up have astonished us with their beauty, while some have been a struggle just to sit through. There have been a few albums that we bought, not because there are a lot of songs we loved, but simply because they had a certain cultural significance: Blue by Joni Mitchell and Songs in the Key of Life by Stevie Wonder fell into this category. If we recognized any song titles from the listing, it was only one or two, but we’d heard so much about the works, we figured they were worth a try. Both were amazing!
While we hold no illusions that our project is going to restore society’s recognition of the value of albums and return them to their once proud position of musical achievement, we have reached the conclusion that digital music consumption has robbed us of something really great. And while some artists seem determined to help restore the glory of the album, convenience and economic considerations appear to have won out over artistic creation.
What do you think? When was the last time you purchased an entire album? Was it on CD? Downloaded? Something else? Conversely, when did you last download a single song? Did you check out the rest of the album, or just go right to the song you knew you wanted?
I thought it might be interesting to run a little comparison. I wanted to look at how the approach to the creation of an album has changed over time, so I thought we might look at a current rock album in contrast to one of an earlier age.
Lunatic by Kongos was released in 2012, though it did not become successful in the US until 2014. The band is comprised of four brothers from Johannesburg, South Africa. They identify their style as a fusion of hard rock, alternative rock, and kwaito (a South African style of hip hop dance music). What makes their sound unique is the inclusion of the accordion and their hard-hitting drums. According to their website, they cite Indian, Middle Eastern, and African music, Miles Davis, The Beatles, Nusrat Fateh Ali Kahn, Salif Keita, Arvo Pärt, Coldplay, Pink Floyd, Joni Mitchell, Jackson Browne, Bob Marley, and Stevie Wonder as influences. Such an enormously varied list does make one wonder what musical qualities of this kaleidoscope of artists have been most impactful on the Kongos’ sound.
I’d like to wait to hear what others think about this album before I make any comments about it myself. What do you think? Do you like the tunes? Does it create a cohesive unit? Does it draw you back, wanting to ear more?
The trickiest part of this has been to identify an album with enough similarities to make for a logical comparison. I think what works best from my perspective is Led Zeppelin III. Both albums share a hard, rocking sound and some out of this world drumming. Both also share a hint of exoticism. That said, I think there are some profound differences between these two projects.
So, here’s the $25,000 question, which do you prefer? What makes them different? Of course, one of these is a classic, and one is more like the source of a one-hit-wonder, but if we set that aside for a moment, and just focus on what we hear, how do these albums compare?
Molly M. Breckling holds a Ph.D. in Historical Musicology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Her areas of research interest are the songs of Gustav Mahler, popular music, and music history pedagogy. Her goal is to help others listen to music more actively and to develop a greater appreciation for the music that surrounds us every day.