TRYING TO RESTORe THE VALUE OF SOCIETY’S FAVORITE ART FORM
After almost a year of having Tidal, I thought it might be useful to pause and reflect on how it has changed my listening habits. So, here goes…
I’ve mentioned this before, but Tidal is a subscription music steaming service. What makes it different from other services, like Spotify and Apple Music is that it streams in full resolution. So, even though the listener does not have a hard copy (like a CD or album) in a player, the sound is the same. All other streaming services save bandwidth by diminishing the quality of the sound. Now, this can eat up a lot of data, so if you use Tidal on a phone and do not have a Wifi signal, the resolution is decreased, so really, Tidal gives the listener the best of both worlds.
You may recall, that, as a product of a generation that traditionally acquired music through purely material means (vinyl, cassette, CDs, etc.), I was initially apprehensive about converting my primary source of music to streaming. The idea of not “owning” a piece of music struck me as almost cheating.
Additionally, I also had concerns about how I would go about choosing what to stream. I feared I would fall into a comfort zone and stay there, never hearing anything beyond the handful of artists and composers that I already knew and loved.
So, how did it all turn out? I have to say, it was a bit of a mixed bag. Having practically any piece of music I could dream up at my disposal was pretty awesome! I was able to pay homage to some of the artists who passed on this year with miniature, private concerts. I listened to the entire available catalogs of David Bowie and Prince during my commutes to and from work. And in so doing, I discovered a lot of their music that I had never heard before. These personal tributes would not have been possible in the old days of material music. Even if I could afford to buy everything recorded by either artist, I would have struggled to part with my money for music I did not know at all. So, Tidal gave me not only the freedom to experiment, but also the ability to set certain songs or albums in the “thanks but no thanks” pile without having to feel guilty about it.
But I already knew that I enjoyed a lot of music by David Bowie and Prince. What about artists whose music I did not know? How would I go about discovering new things? A few methods helped in this regard.
In addition to our Tidal subscription, I also have a Sirius satellite radio in my car. A few channels have been particularly fruitful for helping me find new music to stream: Alt Nation and The Spectrum. If I am driving and I hear a song I like, I use Siri to make a note of the artist and title of the song. When I get home, I seek out the song on Tidal, and if the album has been released, enjoy a sampling of other tunes from the same work. This has led to some cool discoveries as well.
Other intriguing new favorites have come from Tidal’s Genre New Tracks Playlists. Roughly once per week, the streaming service updates samplers of new songs within twenty-one separate musical styles (such as Pop, Hip-Hop, and Jazz). While the Rock, Alternative, Folk-Americana, Classical, and Retro pages have shown the most promise, I find it worthwhile to peruse as many as time will allow looking for new treasures. Jason does this far more regularly than I do, and whenever he finds a song he likes, he adds it to a Favorites playlist, which then becomes like a personalized radio station featuring music of all varieties with one unifying feature – he likes it.
So what are my favorite discoveries? I recently stumbled on a band that had escaped my radar for over twenty-five years. Teenage Fanclub formed in Scotland in the late 1980s. I would describe their music as cheerful pop with an angsty edge. Their praises have been sung by the likes of Kurt Cobain and Noel Gallagher.
A fascinating project that I’m thinking of using as an assignment in my Music History classes was recorded by a sextet from the Orchestra da Camera di Mantovani. They selected a work (I this case, Arnold Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht) and recorded it an several pieces that can be viewed as having influenced the final product. As the listener goes through the album, track by track, they find the musical language growing gradually more and more similar to the eventual composition. It’s an amazing idea and a gorgeous recording!
Some things that I’ve found but not yet had the time to dig into, but I’m really looking forward to, include a pair of recordings of Rhapsody in Blue, conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas. The first is played to a piano roll recorded by Gershwin, and the second features a live pianist. I’m really curious to hear them side by side and see how they differ.
Jason turned me onto another fascinating group, Sigur Rós. This Icelandic band sounds a bit like some of Radiohead’s really atmospheric stuff but in a language that makes little to no sense (to me at least). It’s like the music of a confused and yet lovely daydream.
One thing I find kind of amusing about Tidal, however, is the list that accompanies songs as they play. The list essentially recommends other songs you might try if you enjoy the current selection. I cannot begin to explain how these songs are chosen. Any given song has roughly fifteen to twenty suggestions that go along with it. Many of them are from the same artist or another of a similar style, but occasionally, an option pops up that just makes me scratch my head and wonder. For example, last weekend, I was listening to the Drive-By Truckers. On the list was the Old 97s, Skeeter Jennings, Sturgill Simpson (all of which made sense to me), and Marilyn Manson (say what?!?!?1?). From that moment on, my eyes were glued to the lists, searching for more wacked out anomalies.
So, as you can see, despite a few shortcomings and my initial misgivings, giving up my reliance on a material musical culture has had its benefits. I still enjoy physical music media, but there is something amazing about having the world at my fingertips. I don’t know that I listen to more music now than before, but certainly, what I do here has wider variety.
Seriously, check this out!
“Sparky’s Dream” by Teenage Fanclub: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UK_CuMJJLwg
“Óveòer” by Sigur Rós : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p4rf-C_smLs
Musical fusion is a phenomenon that can be traced throughout the history of American popular music, and likely back further, if one wanted to consider art music and folk music traditions. Until recently, however, fusion artists have suffered from a few simple problems.
To begin with, by the time an artist finds a musical style (outside of his or her own preferred style) that he or she wishes to fuse with his or her own, that style has already begun to evolve. Thus, the new resulting product fuses elements that no longer capture the essence of the style in question.
Perhaps more troubling, is the notion that the fusing artist is often borrowing from a style of which he or she has only a passing knowledge. As such, the elements drawn from that style of often only surface, essentialized characteristics of the music the artist seeks to draw into his or her own native musical language. When the borrowed musical style is heavily connected to a specific community of musicians, this kind of fusion can be interpreted either as appropriation or of over-simplification of a musical culture, which is racist.
I can not, of course, speak to the intentions of individual musicians who created music described as fusion. I would be inclined to assume, however, that such an act would never be intended maliciously, but rather as a form of tribute to a musical style that has influenced or been appreciated by the artist in question.
By simply looking into general styles of musical fusion, using Wikipedia’s category function as a starting point to identify varieties that we might classify as part of general knowledge (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Category:Fusion_music_genres), I find 34 distinct styles of musical fusion. Half of the styles listed can easily be interpreted as crossing racial or cultural barriers. Some styles feature white musicians drawing from styles typically associated with non-white musical cultures (for example, “Rap Rock,” “Nu Metal,” or “Country Rap”), while others are typically the domain of musicians of color fusing their music with elements drawn from styles predominantly linked to white culture (such as “Blues Rock,” “Jazz Fusion,” and “Ska Punk”). None of these examples strike me as those that intentionally “water down” or mock the styles that are borrowed, but nonetheless, in virtually all of these cases, that is what is happening.
Until quite recently, I, personally have really disliked just about any type of fusion music (with the major exception of mid-1950s rock-and-roll, which, to varying degrees fuses elements of the blues, country, and Tin Pan Alley pop music). But in the post rock era and up until the last few years, nearly every example of fusion suffers from the problems outlined above. Simply put, this kind of fusion is cheesy, outdated, and glosses over the true essence of the styles it tries to pay homage to.
The one strange outlier in all of this is 1970s progressive rock, which, drawing elements from art music, holds no illusions about modernity – though even some examples of prog rock either take themselves too seriously or lack enough of a true understanding of art music to create a genuine fusion.
A recent album that I heard is probably closer to progressive rock than any other kind of fusion. The Goat Rodeo Sessions was recorded in 2011 by bluegrass musicians Edgar Meyer, Chris Thile, and Stuart Duncan along with classical cellist Yo-Yo Ma. The album blends virtuosic performance commonly heard in both bluegrass and art music styles to create a powerhouse performance.
While the style of the project definitely leans more heavily to the bluegrass end of the spectrum, moments of Bach-like counterpoint frequently emerge from the flow, and the listener can clearly hear, that while the bulk of the timbres (mandolin, fiddle, banjo, guitar, etc.) sound more at home at a hoe-down than the formal concert stage, all of the performers have studied the masters and know their stuff. This is no back porch pickin’ party.
I suspect that one could argue that advances in technology stand at the heart of the redemption of fusion music. While in the past, limited access and the constraints of time might be to blame for the problems that plagued fusion projects, today musicians seeking inspiration have virtually everything instantly at their disposal. In fact, one might see practically all new music as one kind of fusion or another, as the purely original song, artist, or project is a rare thing indeed. In our post-modern world, nearly every new project is merely an arrangement of pre-existing elements, reassembled in new and unusual ways. With that in mind, we should be thankful that artists like Yo-Yo Ma and Chris Thile are willing to look so far outside of their respective comfort zones to create fusions that are truly unique and musically interesting.
Check out The Goat Rodeo Sessions! It is available on Spotify and Tidal as well as iTunes and Youtube.
The interplay of the instruments and well as the sheer talent of each individual performer should impress the most hard-to-please listener.
There’s this horrible commercial I keep seeing for the buffet restaurant, Golden Corral. In it, the camera pans across of string quartet playing the beginning of the first movement of Vivaldi’s “Spring” from The Four Seasons. Eventually, we discover that the person holding the cello is Jeff Foxworthy, and he soon demonstrates the fact that he can’t play the instrument to save his life. “You know what sounds better?” he asks, “[some sort of meal] at Golden Corral!” Then the music changes. Suddenly, Vivaldi’s concerto is being performed on electric guitar as the viewer is enticed by the multitude of offerings on the buffet. Heavy metal violin concertos are not really enough to make me want to eat at this restaurant, but presumably, this marketing strategy would seem effective for someone. What strikes me the most about this commercial (beyond my compete aversion to food served on a buffet) is the fact that the commercial’s producers seem to think that this familiar piece of music has to be transformed into a completely different style and genre in order for it to appeal to customers. Why?
To answer this question, I did a bit of research in a few directions. First I examined other works of art music played a popular style. Then I looked at the use of art music in mainstream advertising. I must admit, I’m left almost as confused as I was to begin with. Or at the very least, left with the assumption that Golden Corral has a rather low opinion of its target demographic.
The first example that I ever heard of a famous work of art music played in a popular style was “A Fifth of Beethoven” by Walter Murphy (who now is best known for the music behind the show Family Guy). Murphy’s adaptation of Beethoven was a disco record most likely inspired by the popularity of Wendy Carlos’s Switched on Bach project of the late 1960s. Carlos’s project simultaneously familiarized mainstream audiences with Bach’s keyboard works and the sounds produced by the then-relatively-new Moog synthesizer.
One might see projects like this as a kind of mass media music appreciation. The public becomes more familiar with history’s classics through these sugar-coated versions. With luck, familiarization leads to appreciation (and consumption). Of course, the cynical might simply interpret these projects as artists making money by recording pre-existing music from the public domain in a new style. Free music = more profit.
The same interpretations can be applied to this commercial. One one hand, it makes the commercial cheaper if the producers don’t have to pay for Vivaldi's music. In fact, or Switched on Bach Carlos openly admitted to seeking music that would be cheap to produce but easier on the ears than the experimental avant-garde music primarily being created on Moog synthesizers in the late 1960s. In addition to not having to pay royalties, using art music for populist projects like disco songs and buffet commercials gives the audience the appeal of something familiar, but it is refashioned as something more accessible to a society accustomed to popular music through the heavy metal guitar or synthesizer. Yet, somehow, I suspect there is more at work here. If one were to view the use of Vivaldi in the Golden Corral commercial as a symbol of formality and stuffiness, and rock music as being “the music of the people,” then the sudden emergence of the electric guitar disrupts that scene, providing the notion that anyone can feel comfortable at the restaurant. In essence, the Rockin' Four Seasons is a subtle cue that Golden Corral views its customers are low brow. One may agree or disagree with this assessment of the typical customer of this restaurant chain, but the evidence presented in this commercial does little to disguise the company's take on the matter.
Inversely, art music is often used in advertising to indicate a level of elegance and refinement. Just think of all those car commercials where the driver is listening to Bach or Mozart. The unspoken message says that “If you drive this car, you’ll be fancy, too.” Now imagine the driver of the expensive Lexus or Mercedes was listening to metal. How does that change your notion of the car? Also, note how rarely art music is used to advertise inexpensive models, like Kias (remember the gangster hamsters who piled into their Kia Soul?) or even Fords or Chevys (pick up trucks and art music don't really mix).
By the same token, popular music in advertising has the same effect. For a long time, Apple used songs by little-known indie bands to advertise the iPod. The idea there seemed to be that owning this device would not only make the listener seem edgy and cool but it would open the doors to new listening experiences. Popular music in advertising has become such a common phenomenon, that it is not unusual to see artists and song titles credited in a commercial, looking strikingly similar to the infographics included on MTV videos of years gone by. The website adtunes.com is geared toward helping viewers identify music they hear in commercials, so they can download it for their own enjoyment.
In essence, it seems pretty evident that advertisers use musical styles to appeal to their target audiences in predictable ways. Products typically enjoyed by younger consumers will be accompanied by edgy pop music. Ads for items purchased by a blue collar, working class audience often feature country music. Upscale merchandise is often advertised with art music. A commercial like the one for Golden Corral blurs the lines a bit, but ultimately it reinforces the cultural divides implied by an art music audience and a rock audience. I suppose we shouldn’t expect anything more from such an establishment.
While looking for examples to discuss for this essay, I stumbled upon a surprisingly large collection of heavy metal recordings of Schubert Lieder.
My favorite was from the band Nagaroth, who recorded “Der Leiermann.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FLlOMXtYY3E
Another interesting example was a version (cover?) of “Der Erlkönig” recorded by the group Hope Lies Within. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v2knik6uef8
This morning I set out for a walk, and I listened to a brand new album that had only been released today – Good Times! by The Monkees. I’ve been fond of the Monkees’ television show and music since the mid-1980s, sort of a guilty pleasure, I suppose. After all, for decades the group had largely been written off as an American rip-off of the Beatles, and, as the myth alleged, they don’t play their own instruments.
Yet, this album is strange. In addition to a number of unrecorded songs written by the stable of songwriters contracted to create the show’s soundtrack back in the 1960s (including Harry Nilsson, Tommy Boyce, Bobby Hart, Jeff Barry, Neil Diamond, Carole King, and Gerry Goffin), Good Times! features new songs written by well-known modern artists such as Andy Partridge from XTC, Rivers Cuomo from Weezer, Adam Schlesinger from Fountains of Wayne (who also produced the album), Ben Gibbard from Death Cab for Cutie, Noel Gallagher from Oasis, and Paul Weller from The Jam.
What struck me on my walk today was that so many respected young artists contributed to a project headlined by a group of men in the seventies that had been viewed by many as the anathema of rock and roll for decades. The question I asked was, “Why?”
The music of the Monkees has always been, almost without fail, cheerful, optimistic, and positive. I have long thought that this feature was partially what made the band the butt of so many jokes since the premiere of the television show, fifty years ago. At some point in America, being “happy” was no longer “ok.”
American society has become increasingly anti-happy in the decades since the 1960s. We can trace this mood shift in popular music. In the 1970s, first hard rock by groups like Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath turned rock and roll into something dark, mysterious, and moody. Eventually, that style would become associated with anger and frustration, as seen in the metal scene of the 1980s. Late 1970s punk rock also expressed the anger of a young generation.
In the early 1980s, this anger was replaced by apathy and cynicism, as best demonstrated by new wave music (“I don't know how much more of this I can take. She’s filing her nails, while they’re dragging the lake.”) We also note a broader change in popular culture’s view of happiness around this time. Programming or music that was “happy” became “childish,” or “silly.” Looking at television for children from the 1980s, shows a move away from slapstick comedy toward adventure (for example, when Looney Tunes was replaced by He-Man and the Masters of the Universe).
The 1990s and 2000s also introduced styles that seemed to wallow in negative emotion – goth and eventually emo. By this point, however, the celebration of negative emotion had become highly self-indulgent, and it began to seem as though this kind of music was being made to cater to fourteen-year-old girls and people who “only wore black because they hadn’t invented anything darker yet.” It would seem that a little cheerfulness was sorely needed.
Around 2001, we began to see music that met this need. Songs like “The Middle” by Jimmy Eat World, “Something Good Can Work” by Two Door Cinema Club, and “Believer” by American Authors all carry to positive, feel-good message without resorting to childish tropes. These songs were fun but still rocked. They represented almost the anti-emo, or, as my husband called them, “elmo,” referring to the Sesame Street character.
Now, we can fast-forward to 2016, and suddenly the writer of “I Will Follow You into the Dark” is writing “Me and Magdelena,” and the creator of “Hash Pipe,” “Dope Nose,” and “We Are all on Drugs” has created “She Makes Me Laugh” for the band that gained fame with “I’m a Believer” and “Daydream Believer” fifty years ago.
While I doubt that the societal shift represented by the sudden acceptability of happy music will result in a huge upswing in The Monkees’ popularity or restore their position in rock and roll history, it is still a nice thing to see.
I like it when performers who have worked hard for a long time are rewarded by recognition. Not necessarily by their peers, but, in this case, later generations.
I also think that making it “ok to be happy again” is a positive sign for our modern world. Life is hard. We should have the freedom to laugh and smile and not feel ashamed about it. Groups like the Monkees have helped us to do that for a long time, and now, finally, they have some help.
Good Times! By the Monkees is an album that should not work on a number of levels. The songs were written over a span of fifty years, by seventeen different songwriters. The performers are in their seventies, and their age can be heard. Nonetheless, the result is charming and nostalgic.
Rather than trying to drag the Monkees into the 21st century (a tactic attempted to disastrous results of the band’s 20th and 30th anniversary releases, Pool It and Justus), Good Times! brings the listener back to the 1960s, using jangly guitars, copious reverb, and relatable, feel-good lyrics. In fact, in a nod to the departed Monkee, Davy Jones, who died of a heart attack in 2012, one recording made in 1967 but never released has been reworked, using Jones’s original vocal and fitted with new backgrounds.
Even that recording does not feel out of place. All of the songs mesh together seamlessly, and the listener is unaware of the temporal disjunction that should plague the album.
What do you think?
As one school year comes to an end, it doesn’t take long before a teacher starts to ask herself, “Ok, what am I going to teach next year?” This seemingly simple question can quickly become highly complex, depending on an instructor’s goals for a class, available materials, preparation time, etc.
Probably the easiest solution to planning a class is to revisit materials that have been used in the past. While previously taught works often comprise the bulk of my syllabus, I think it is important to make changes every time I teach a certain course title. Some works may no longer hold a class’s attention or have the relevance it once did. Not to mention that teaching the exact same material over and over gets rather dull after a while.
Another straight-forward approach is to adopt a textbook and follow its lead in terms of musical selections. This practice simplifies matters in a number of key ways: recordings as easily available, as are listening guides to help engage students in the listening process. Most textbooks do a pretty good job of ensuring balanced and thorough cove rage of whatever musical style or timeframe is being covered by a course. The downside of this, of course, is the lack of choice. I often find myself teaching music I just don’t enjoy or cannot fully embrace as historically valuable.
Right now I am planning out a survey of American popular music, Music History I (antiquity-1800), a 20th century survey for graduate students, Aural Skills I, and Vocal Techniques. The first three of these courses offer the greatest flexibility in terms of what I can cover, so that is where I am focusing my energies first.
When weighing the value of a specific piece of music to determine whether or not it should be included on a course syllabus, I have to ask myself several things: 1) What broader idea does this piece of music represent? 2) Is the piece at a level appropriate for students in the class? 3) What can I say about this piece, and what do I expect a student to be able to hear and articulate about it to me in class discussions or exams?
Once a list of potential works has been selected, then things get harder. Is there time to cover all of this music? Do these pieces represent a broad overview of the issues I am trying to present? How important is gender and racial diversity in this class, and does this list provide examples from a diverse group of composers or performers?
The question of diversity is tricky, as one might expect. I was once asked to teach a Music Appreciation class from a textbook that presented no female composers or composers of color until the final chapter. That final chapter then proceeded to focus on how “feminine” the work of a woman sounded, how “black” an African American composed, how “gay” a lesbian composer was… I found the whole thing rather disgusting, so instead of following the lead of the book, I wrote all of the marginalized group labels on the board, arranged the musical examples in a random order and challenged the class to determine which pieces were composed by representatives of the groups. They couldn’t.
This simple exercise points to the overarching problem in creating a list of works to teach in the first place. Students assume their instructors have some authoritative knowledge about the subject we teach (at least we hope they do), and this it stands to reason that they trust us to determine the most important information to relay on our chosen subject. When the subject is music, that is problematized by the fact the new material emerges every day. What is considered new and significant today will likely be old and passé before long. As such, instructors often rely on a tried and true list of significant figures and works that any student of music should know.
This list of often referred to as “the canon,” and as gender and racial diversity in the classroom became increasingly important, it was soon observed that our canon had precious little of it. The great composers of Western classical music are largely a group of old, dead, white guys. Soon efforts began to remedy the lack of diversity within the canon. Some advocated for abolishing the canon altogether, as it seemed to privilege white men. Many teachers of music history found themselves asking, what is the right answer?
What I personally find most difficult about confronting the issue of diversity in my selections for classes stems simply from the fact that, while women and people of color clearly composed music prior to the 20th century, the examples of well-documented cases are few. The notion of tokenism is one that I try hard to avoid in my classroom, as I find the idea of presenting music by a composer from an underrepresented community but not being able to say much about it isn’t very helpful.
Musicologists have grappled with the question of canon-formation for decades. A brief glance at abstracts of papers presented to the American Musicological Society, shows that this topic first began to gain attention around 1987, and since then, at least 30 distinct papers, roundtables, and panels have focused on the topic. It did not take long for the general consensus to become that a canon was seen as a bad thing, but, best I could tell, no one really seemed very successful at finding an alternative.
Why does it matter? Well, in an age where academic standards are all the rage, music instructors often find themselves challenged to prove the value of their discipline. Often times, in an administrator's search of solid, definable data, students are subjected to standardized testing to prove they have successfully learned a subject. If 10 different Music Appreciation instructors present completely different composers in a class as being "the most important music a student should learn," this would seem to undermine our cause to those looking to justify our continued existence. In our current economic environment, having a relatively standard music appreciation/history/whatever tool box could prove to be in the best interest of underfunded departments in danger of closure. We can certainly reflect a diversity within that tool box, but not at the cost of the major players. Like it or not, I suspect, the cavalcade of dead white guys will remain at the heart of many of our syllabi.
What do you think? How vital is it that a student in a music class learn about figures like Mozart and Beethoven (or Elvis and the Beatles)? Is it important to represent marginalized community within a narrative of musical history in which they’ve previously been sidelined? Does that importance vary, depending on the level of the student (for example, a graduate student vs. an undergraduate general education student)?
Nonetheless, whatever challenges arise, I have no choice but to make some choices and compile listening lists for my classes. Wish me luck!
Find a piece of music by a composer or artist from outside of your comfort zone - a new style, a different ethnicity, something beyond your normal scope. Focus on the sound of the music - not just what makes it sound different from other things you know, but also commonalities. What seems familiar? Strive to put those differences and likenesses into words.
Earworms. We’ve all had them. The term refers to those tunes that get stick in your head on repeat for hours, even days at a time. I found myself wondering about earworms today when a tune stuck in my head suddenly evolved into a strange medley. At exactly the same moment with each annoying repetition, Song A kept merging into Song B. These songs are not related in any logical way, and the construction of a medley-like segue doesn’t even make satisfying musical sense, yet, there it was. My mental jukebox had definitely stripped a gear.
Usually when I find myself singing the same tune over and over in my head it is because I’ve heard the song somewhere in my recent past: maybe on the radio, in the store, on television, from a passing car… typically the situation is one of passive listening. I’m not usually even consciously aware that I’ve heard the song until I find myself humming it later, over and over again.
That doesn’t seem to be the case with today’s tunes. I can’t honestly think of the last time I’ve heard either of these (notice that I’m quite purposefully avoiding calling any particular song by name, so as to spare you from the mental and sonic contagion). I’d guess it’s been at least ten years in either case, maybe more. So, that got me wondering, where do these things come from? What causes them, and for the love of all that is holy, how do we get rid of them?
Ok, first of all, where do earworms (also known as “sticky tunes,” “musical memes” or “involuntary musical imagery” come from? Scientists have only begun to study this phenomenon in earnest within the last ten years or so. That said, there seem to be many contradictory theories. Some claim that musicians, women, and neurotics are most prone to acquire earworms (insert writer-related joke here). Others claim it to be a nearly universal experience – according to some studies even the hearing impaired apparently experience earworms.
The most common instances seem to be songs we’ve recently heard or that we hear a lot, which makes sense. A website that invited readers to contribute the tunes that had invaded their thoughts noted a sharp increase in appearances of songs that had recently appeared on television (apparently the show Glee was responsible for many instances of earworms during its time on the air, most notably “Don’t Stop Believin’”). Sometimes, though a song can become associated with a place, a feeling, or an action, and encountering that experience can trigger our mental juke boxes to begin to play. When I worked in retail, I had a tune that would pop into my head every time I had to count the cash in a drawer at the end of my shift. I still have no idea why. According to research, the most common time to experience an earworm is upon waking from a night’s sleep or a nap. It was first thing this morning that I encountered may medley of randomness. I suppose that might also explain why some people sing in the shower.
Logically, it also seems that the simpler a song is, the more likely it is to become caught in our mental processes. Even though I listen to art music all day, I rarely have symphonies or opera stuck in my head. Pop songs, on the other hand, will plague me for days. I have long held the notion that boy bands are in fact a form of biological warfare left over from the Cold War. It’s the only explanation I can think of…
So, what can we do? Is there a way to exorcize the demonic ear worm? Scientists say yes!
Often, it can be as simple as giving your brain something else to focus upon: a good book, a word puzzle, conversation.
In some instances, finding the offending song and listening to a recording from beginning to end is enough to set it free.
Replacing one irritating song with another is a tried and true remedy, but not necessarily a good one. I have an incredibly catchy song that I always go to when I need to squash an earworm, but honestly, it is just as annoying as any other I’ve encountered, and my brain jumps from the proverbial frying pan into the fire.
Among the strangest remedies I’ve seen is combatting the earworm by eating cinnamon candy. Evidently the strong flavor directs thought processes elsewhere. (Anyone tried this? I can't imagine it is very effective, but correct me if I’m wrong!)
LISTENING EXPERIENCE (Not for the faint of heart)
If you are curious about the phenomenon of earworms, the website earwurm.com has links to lots of research and a place to report your own experiences. They keep record of recurring songs and people’s responses to them, resulting in their list of the 25 Worst Earwurms. http://earwurm.com/earworst/
If you are feeling truly brave, you can click links and enjoy the 25 most common and offensive songs to those who suffer from that strange and fascinating phenomenon of the ear worm. Just don’t blame me when you find yourself singing the same song for three days straight…
It has been a strange few weeks. Between the two schools where I teach, three young people have died unexpectedly: two current students and a young alumna. While I did not know any of these people personally, from what I have heard about them from the people I know who have grieved their losses, I have truly missed knowing some remarkable people. On top of that, the news has been saturated with coverage of recent deadly terror attacks in Brussels and the Middle East.
All this has left me thinking a lot about death in recent weeks, and, more specifically, how those left behind use music as a way to commemorate, celebrate, and honor those we have lost.
Music composed to honor the dead is some of the most ancient music for which we have written record. One of the oldest relics that shows musical notation is thought to be between 2200 and 1900 years old. The so-called Epitaph of Seikolos is the name given to a series of carvings on a marble column discovered in 1883 in the area of Aydin, Turkey during an archaeological of ancient Greek ruins. The column, known as a stele, served as a headstone, and only after decades spent trying to decipher the marking was it proposed that they might be musical symbols and have since been translated.
While this is not the place to ponder the controversy surrounding the conversion of a notation system that has virtually no similarity to modern musical writing and thus can only be transcribed using extensive guesswork, the point of mentioning Seikolos is to point out that music that marks death is as old as our knowledge of music itself, thus making it likely that humans have always used music for this purpose.
As we trace the history of music in the Western world, we find music of this kind recurring again and again throughout history. The Catholic Mass for the Dead, the Requiem has been set to music since the earliest notated church music, Gregorian chant and other plainchant traditions. Other notable settings of the text from the funeral service come to us from DuFay, Josquin, Mozart, Berlioz, Brahms, Verdi, Dvorak, Faure, Britten, Stravinsky, and numerous late 20th century composers, such as Schnittke, Penderecki, Ligeti, Lloyd Webber, and Rutter. The most recent published example I could find (in an admittedly brief search) is the Phoneme Requiem by Ehsan Saboohi, which premiered in 2015. Again, this historical survey demonstrates the continuous use of music as a tool for grieving.
These settings of the Catholic Mass are far from the only examples of music composed in response to grief or to mark someone’s passing. From arias from operas, dating back to the earliest examples of the genre, such as “Tu se morta” from Monteverdi’s Orfeo to pop songs like “Candle in the Wind” by Elton John, examples of musical mourning abound.
Much of this music is quite lovely. I actually just finished performing Gabriel Faure’s Requiem with my local church choir. Our performance was designed to mark Good Friday. I have also sung in performances of Mozart and Rutter’s Requiems. Stunningly beautiful music…
Then I find myself thinking about music composed to mark deaths that take a different approach. These examples most come from the late 20th century or later, and rather than bring comfort to the listener, these works confront the listener with the grim realities of death, often in a violent way.
The first time I heard a piece of this sort was in my college Music History class. We listened to Krzysztof Penderecki’s Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima. The premise of this work is an attempt the recreate (through musical language) the actual sounds of the explosions of the atomic bombs that fell in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Obviously, I cannot speak to the accuracy of these sounds, but they are certainly abrasive and horrific. I remember the instructor from the class stopping the music at one point to say, “The represents the sound of people burning.” The image that her statement induced in my imagination has never left me when I hear that work.
Anti-war movements from the late 20th century brought other examples of music that depicted death in violent, uncomfortable ways as a kind of political protest. Luigi Dallapiccola’s Canti de Prigiona sets the final texts written by political prisoners facing execution as a statement against the brutality of Benito Mussolini. George Crumb’s Black Angels was composed in 1970 to oppose the violence forced upon young men during the Vietnam War.
What these three pieces have in common is their reliance on what the average listener might hear as noise: violent dissonance, throbbingly irregular rhythms, and dense structures. These techniques combine to leave the listener practically incapable of logically understanding the music they hear. It confronts the audience with discomfort by ways of music that does not seek to bring consolation but instead forces the realities of death upon them.
When I teach this music to my students I often begin by asking them to describe what kind of music they think of when they imagine funerals or death. Some students suggest that moody, depressing music (like emo music) would allow the mourning listener to feel less alone in their grief. Other students point out that uplifting music might help to lift the sadness. Once I have judged the opinions of the room, I ask them if they think it is a fitting tribute the mark a violent death by recreating the circumstances of such a passing. Then I play one of these works.
The responses I have gotten in the past have varied widely. Some students find it appropriate to pay tribute to the dead by forcing the living to hear (a musical translation of) the sounds of their pain. Other students have noted that this kind of tribute reduces the memory of someone’s life only to the moment of their death, thus diminishing their achievements and value.
I certainly don’t have all the answers, but allowing my classes to discuss these ideas in an open, accepting environment may help them deal with losses they endure in their own lives.
As I think about this topic, I remember that several members of my family have asked me in advance if I would sing at their funerals. My typical response is, “I’ll have to learn all the words to ‘Ding, Dong, the Witch is Dead’ from The Wizard of Oz.” I also remember attending a funeral where a series of songs was being performed on the organ. One of the songs played was “Que sera, sera,” which I recall finding a strangely flippant idea for a funeral.
What do you think? How should music remember the dead? Is it better to comfort one’s survivors or to impose on them a sonic facsimile of a violent act? How would you want to be remembered by your family and friends?
I would be curious to hear people’s thoughts on Krzysztof Penderecki’s Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima. Recordings are available on Youtube, iTunes, Spotify, Tidal, and certainly any other listener service out there.
Can you imagine the events as they unfold in the music? I hear screaming, and running, and fear. And of course, I hear “the sound of people burning.” Shudder. Then remember.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about cover versions of songs: when it is and is not needed, what it means to do a cover, how such a recording impacts the meaning of the song, etc. Given that I recently listened to Ryan Adams’s cover of Taylor Swift’s entire 1989 album, and Taylor Swift then proceeded to win the Grammy award for Album of the Year, it would seem to be an opportune time to put my thoughts into writing.
First off, the basics. A cover is a recording of a song that has already been recorded by someone else. Back during the Swing era, in the 1930s through the 1950s, it was common for lots of artists to record the same songs over and over again. Such songs are often known as “standards,” and they don’t really count as covers, simply because no one artist is typically associated with any given song. The copyright laws of the time were such that songs were more or less fair game, and there might be fifteen different recordings of a given song available for purchase at any point in time. As such, the idea of a cover doesn’t really work.
In the early days of rock and roll, while America was still heavily burdened by the weight of segregation and legalized racism, pop radio and record stores in mainstream, white America felt that playing and selling music written and performed by African-American artists would be problematic. Thus, songs by artists such as Little Richard and Big Joe Turner were frequently covered by white artists like Pat Boone and Bill Haley. The African-American songwriters were usually paid a flat fee for the use of their song, rather than a share of the sales of the recording. The white versions of these songs, often extensively “cleaned up” (i.e. stripped of any hint of sexual innuendo and lacking any swing that might be interpreted as “too Black”), frequently outsold the original recordings and received much more airplay on nationally syndicated radio programs. Nowadays, it is easy to perceive this system as having taken advantage of the creators of songs like “Tutti Frutti” and “Shake, Rattle, and Roll,” but one might also view this controversy as having brought the music of Little Richard and his contemporaries to the attention of the broader American public, making his eventual fame possible. It’s a sticky topic, and it is one that I enjoy debating with my Rock History classes every year.
However, that isn’t really what I’ve really been thinking about lately. Like I said, I was really intrigued by Ryan Adams’s cover of Taylor Swift. It is hard to imagine two more different artists in today’s music scene.
Taylor Swift certainly enjoys greater fame than Ryan Adams. She is 25, while Adams is in his early 40s. Swift’s style began in country and them evolved to pop. Her songs have long been seen as anthems for young women dealing with their earliest experiences with romantic relationships. Her songs are written in a comfortable style. It is difficult almost not to relate to them. They speak to universal issues, such as unrequited love, failing relationships, the thrill of young romance, and the heartbreak of its collapse.
Adams, on the other hand, represents a style known as alt-country. His music has a colloquial familiarity, tempered with a slightly angry edge. His voice ranges from a whisper to a Neil Young-like whine. His songs’ accompaniments range from sparse acoustic guitar to full-blown distorted electrics with steel, fiddle, and banjo. At first blush, the obvious question regarding his cover of 1989 would be, “Why was he listening to Taylor Swift in the first place?”
It actually took Adams’s cover album for me to figure out the pure and simple answer to that question. Taylor Swift is a hell of a songwriter, she just disguises her well-crafted tunes and thoughtful lyrics behind a pop-radio friendly package that makes her music undeniably attractive to young audiences and positively ignorable by mature fans of “sophisticated music.” Only in hearing what Ryan Adams was able to create out of Swift’s song was I able to appreciate how really good her songs actually were. Her lyrics are clever and insightful, and her melodies are catchy and adaptable to songs that work really well in Adams’s musical style. I see now why she won the Grammy.
So, what happens when a 40-something man begins recording songs intended for an audience of teenage girls, eager to relate to Taylor Swift’s widely reported dating troubles? Something quite curious. In Adams’s hands, songs like “Bad Blood” and “Blank Space” become spacious and relaxed. The frantic, poppy sound created by Swift becomes lyrical and calm. Adams transforms Swift’s biggest hit from 1989, “Shake It Off” into a song that strikes me as quite like an old Eagles hit from the 1970s (like “Peaceful Easy Feeling”) with a distant drum sound and steel guitar replacing Swift’s cheerleader-like clapping, synthesizer, and saxophone riff.
Adams reveals with his cover of the 1989 album that the issues Swift entertains in her lyrics are not the exclusive property of teenage girls and young women, but, in fact, everyone who has ever tread the waters of love and romance. Anyone who has endured a failing relationship can identify with a lyric like, “People like you always want back the love they gave away/ And people like me wanna believe you when you say you've changed/ The more I think about it now the less I know.” I might even dare to suggest that if Taylor Swift would consider maturing her sound, even at the risk of abandoning her core audience, that she could successfully compete with some of the great singer-songwriters of rock and roll history. I’m imagining her songs retooled in the style of figures like Carole King, James Taylor, Neil Young, Carly Simon, Joni Mitchell, Elton John, etc.
So, do yourself a favor. Listen to Ryan Adams’s cover of Taylor Swift’s 1989. If you really want to make an adventure out of it, listen to both. I first listened to each album all the way through, back to back. Then I alternated back and forth, comparing each song, one by one. It was fascinating in both methods, and I really came to appreciate both albums in this way.
I want to say a lot more about covers, but I suspect this is plenty for now. Next time, I’ll look at some of my favorite cover version comparisons and examine contextual shifts in meaning brought about by a change of artist. Until then, happy listening!
Anyone who’s been paying attention since the new year began can clearly see that it has been a tough time for musicians. We’ve lost Lemmy, Natalie Cole, David Bowie, and Glenn Frey within a few weeks. This is, of course, very sad, and it’s truly a series of great losses for music and its fans.
What has caught my attention in the midst of this; however, is the response to these events on social media. Being a (ahem…) mature adult, I only have accounts on Facebook and Twitter, but I have found it rather astonishing what a wide variety of people have seen fit to respond to the deaths of these iconic figures. I have to say, the one thing I cannot help but wonder is how much the music of these artists figured into the daily lives of all of the people who felt compelled to join in the collective mourning experiences that their deaths inspired.
I can say, for myself, that the passing that hit me the hardest was that of Bowie. I would not have considered myself a huge fan, though I’ve always enjoyed his music. Truthfully, I’m not sure why I was so taken aback by his passing, but nonetheless, I was. I was inspired by his passing to reintroduce myself to his music, and I saved all of his albums on my phone and systematically listened to them during my daily commute. I found myself re-struck (or newly realizing – I’m not sure which) by what a brilliant lyricist he was and admiring the broad range of styles he slipped in an out of, not unlike one of his lycra costumes. He was truly a remarkable artist (we’ll just ignore the “Blue Jean” phase…).
Although it would smack of adhering to a fad to go on about how the death of David Bowie had changed my life, and that would ultimately prove to be untrue, I will say that I was strangely preoccupied by it for several days. I suppose I had never considered what an important figure he posed for young people in the 1970s struggling to come to term with questions about their sexual identities. I found it really heartwarming to see so many people publicly thanking him for easing their coming out. I cannot imagine what that process must have been like, especially in the 1970s and 80s, but that anyone could make that process easier is clearly a good thing. I also found myself noticing Bowie’s influence in contemporary music. The Killers, Panic at the Disco, Muse, Coldplay… lots of modern bands owe a considerable debt of gratitude to Bowie’s sound.
Nonetheless, it was the social media response that I didn’t quite understand. I am still perplexed by society’s incessant urge to jump on a bandwagon and add their two cents to a topic that probably would not warrant more than a moment of conversation in real life. I keep finding myself reminded of a stand up comedian named Anthony Jeselnik, who in his show “Thoughts and Prayers,” discussed the typical American modern-day response to tragedy.
That said, I have also seen some fascinating positive things emerge from David Bowie’s death. Some friends of mine who have a blog dedicated to cultural studies and popular society have been listening to all of Bowie’s albums in chronological order and writing about each one. I’ve loved seeing their ideas about the music and meaning behind it, and I really hope they continue through the entire catalog. See http://schenkeriangangsigns.blogspot.com.
Another up side to the tragedy was seeing the huge variety of music clips and videos people posted on social media in tribute to the fallen icon. I will admit that I didn’t watch them all, but I did partake of any clips I saw of songs I didn’t know or live performances. I was fascinated by the different songs that people chose to share. I found it intriguing to see what resonated with friends from different backgrounds and tastes. I found myself wondering whether those clips had more to say about the artist who created the music or the people who posted them as a symbol of their grief. Ultimately, I decided the truth was likely a little of both. While I didn’t post a clip, I did find myself walking around the the chorus to “Starman” running through my head for several days (I even used it as an example in my newly begun classes to explain earworms and how a melody can stick with you for days on end).
When all was said and done, I think the deaths of David Bowie and the other rock legends we have lost in the past few weeks have opened a fascinating window into popular culture. Not only do these moments inspire a shock, followed by mourning and nostalgia, but also an almost reflexive response of self indulgence, as we reflect on what this music has meant to us and partake in the communal process of sharing our musical memories. In fact, it has allowed me to learn more about a figure I always knew to be profoundly influential but never took the time to fully appreciate. If nothing else, that has been the true upside.
Thank you to all those who have dedicated their lives to expressing themselves for the entertainment of the masses. You bring us together in ways beyond our own understanding. You music lives on in us, as it should be…
Obviously, the appropriate example for today would be to select one of the artists who has recently passed away and to take some time to enjoy their music. My recommendations:
The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust – David Bowie
Hunky Dory – David Bowie
Hotel California – The Eagles
Desperado – The Eagles
Unforgettable: With Love – Natalie Cole
Unfortunately, I don’t know the music of Motorhead well enough to even offer a suggestion, but if you have one for me, please let me know!
I’ve have ambivalently been pondering my dedication to streaming audio since we began our subscription to Tidal at the end of last year. While I truly love having practically all of the music I could imagine available with the press of a button, there is a tiny part of me that feels like I’ve lost something by bidding farewell to the CD. I guess as a product of a material age rather than a digital one, I feel as though something is missing when I no longer have that trophy-like object to place proudly on my shelf.
That said, my unease was finally put to the test at Christmas when something quite unexpected took place. I got a CD as a gift. And not just any CD, but the latest release from one of my all-time favorite bands. At last, I had to make a choice. Since I’d already been listening to the album in full resolution on Tidal, did I actually need to hold on to this artifact? What purpose would it serve? I found myself to be really torn.
The question becomes one of values. Is it better to be able to simply listen to the music, or is there something inherently valuable in owning a physical copy of that music? Where does the object of ownership begin and end? I imagine this is a question innately tied to one’s age. For someone of my age, who came of age in a physical, analog culture, the musical object possesses meaning. I can look at it. I can show it to others. I can touch it. The digital object provides all of the audio satisfaction, but is that enough?
Am I setting too much value on the physical object? Possibly. Certainly I would not feel this conflicted if I had simply received two identical copies of the same disc. I’d be returning the extra copy in a heartbeat. And, yet, that is more or less what actually happened. I already had the music and access to all of the cover art, all I lacked was a piece of plastic and some cardboard that boldly made the claim that “I own this.” And, given that all of my CDs are sitting in boxes in a spare bedroom, the pride associated with such a statement would go unheard anyway. So, what’s the big deal?
Somehow, this silly decision of whether or not to return a CD has become deeply symbolic of the state of people’s listening habits in a world that is changing perhaps a bit too rapidly. For me in particular, as a person who has, in one way or another, always defined herself with and through music, the evolution to an invisible medium for presenting that identity feels strange.
That said, one pleasant side effect that I’ve observed since the primary mode of listening for many people has evolved from that physical object to the digital one is that young people tend to identify with a wider variety of music. For example, today is the first day of a new semester, and I just had my first meeting with a new Music Appreciation class. After introducing myself and my expectations for the term, I had them write down a few things to get a feeling of who my students are. First, I asked about their musical experience. Second, I asked about their listening preferences. Third, I had them define music. I’ve done this same exercise for years, but more recently, I’ve begun to notice a change in responses to the second question. Whereas, five to ten years ago, most students self identified as being frequent listeners to one or maybe two styles of music, now they tend to list several. Any these styles are a lot more varied, as well. I suspect, the lack of a financial investment has encouraged young people to experiment with new and different sounds and allowed them to expose their ears and minds to a much wider musical palette than they would have when music had to be hand selected and individually purchased in order to be “owned.” I can’t help but see this change as anything other than positive, if only because it makes my job easier.
So, in the end, I guess the most important aspect of music is the listening experience, and anything else that comes along with that is nice, but ultimately distracts us from the music itself. With that in mind, I returned the CD that I got for Christmas. I can still listen to the music whenever I want, and that is the important thing.
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.