Wub Wub

My brother has some dubstep on his iPod. To be honest, I’m not entirely sure why; he frequently says that the genre can be described less as music and more as ‘sounds’, and would be the first to claim that it’s far from a paradigm of deeply emotional musical expression. Indeed, to some, dubstep is the embodiment of everything that is wrong with 21st century music; loud, brash and completely devoid of meaning.

I, personally, find dubstep more interesting than anything else. I don’t listen to much of it myself (my musical tastes tend to be more… lyrical), but find it inherently fascinating, purely because of the reaction people have with it. It’s a Marmite thing; people either love it or hate it, and some people seem physically incapable of contemplating why others enjoy it. Or, indeed, why it’s considered music.

So, let’s take my favourite approach to the matter: an analytical perspective. The songs that people remember, that are catchy, that stick in the mind, that become old favourite and/or the ones that the pop music industry attempts to manufacture in bulk, tend to have simple, regular and easily recognisable beats that one can tap or bounce along to easily. Their pace and rhythm too tend to be fairly standard, often being based approximately around the 70bpm rhythm of the human heart (or some multiple thereof). Overlaying these simple rhythms, usually based around a drumbeat (strength depending on genre), we tend to factor in simple melodies with plenty of repeating patterns; think of how the pattern of a verse or chorus will usually be repeated multiple times throughout a song, and how even the different lines of a verse will often follow the same lines of a verse. And then there are lyrics; whilst many genres, particularly jazz, may have entire libraries of purely instrumental pieces, few of these (film soundtracks excepted) have ever gained mainstream cultural impact. Lyrics are important; they allow us to sing along, which makes it stick in our head more effectively, and they can allow a song to carry meaning too. Think of just about any famous, popular song (Bohemian Rhapsody excepted; NOBODY can explain why that is both so popular and so awesome), and chances are it’ll have several of the above features. Even rap, where music is stripped down to its barest bones, bases itself around a strong, simple rhythm and a voice-dictated melody (come to think of it, rap is basically poetry for the modern age… I should do a post on that some time).

Now, let’s compare that analysis with probably the most famous piece of dubstep around: Skrillex’s ‘Bangarang’. Bring it up on YouTube if you want to follow along. Upon listening the song, the beat is the first thing that becomes apparent; timing it I get a pace of 90bpm, the same rate as a fast walking pace or a fast, excited heartbeat; a mood that fits perfectly with the intentions of the music. It’s meant to excite, to get the blood pumping, to infuse the body with the beat, and to inspire excitement and a party atmosphere. The music is structured around this beat, but there is also an underlying ‘thump’ similar to the bass drum of a drumkit, just to enforce the point. Then we come onto the melody; after an intro that reminds me vaguely of something the Jackson 5 may once have done (just from something I heard on the radio once), we begin to layer over this underlying sound. This is a common trick employed across all genres; start with something simple and build on top of it, building in terms of scale and noise. The music industry has known for a long time that loudness is compelling, hooks us in and sells records, hence why there has been a trend over the last few decades for steadily increasing loudness in popular music… but that’s for another time. Building loudness encourages us to stick with a song, getting us drawn into it. The first added layer is a voice, not only giving us something to (after a fashion, since the words are rather unclear and almost meaningless) sing along to and recognise, adding another hook for us, but this also offers an early example of a repeated lyrical pattern- we have one two-line couplet repeated four times, with more layers of repeated bassline patterns being successively added throughout, and the two lines of said couplet only differ in the way they end. Again, this makes it easy and compelling to follow. The words are hard to make out, but that doesn’t matter; one is supposed to just feel the gist, get into the rhythm of it. The words are just another layer. This portion of the song takes on a ‘verse’ role for the rest of it, as it repeated several more times.

And then, we hit the meat and drink of the song; with the word ‘Bangarang’, everything shifts into a loud mesh of electronic sounds passed several times through an angle grinder. However, the beat (although pausing for emphasis at the moment of transition’) remains the same, carrying over some consistency, and we once again find ourselves found by repeated patterns, both in the backing sounds and in the lyrics that are still (sort of ) present. It’s also worth noting that the melody of the electronica pulses in time to the beat, enabling a listener/partygoer to rock to both beat and melody simultaneously, getting the whole body into it. This is our ‘chorus’- we again have repeating stanzas for a while, but we return to our verse (building once again) after a while so we don’t get bored of the repetition. Then chorus again, and then a shift in tone; another common trick employed across all genres to hold our interest. We have a slight key change up, and our melody is taken over by a new, unidentified instrument/noise. We still have our original sound playing in the background to ensure the shift is not too weirdly abrupt, but this melody, again utilising short, repeated units, is what takes centre stage. We then have another shift, to a quiet patch, still keeping the background. Here the muted sounds offer us time for reflection and preparation; the ‘loud soft loud’ pattern was one used extensively by Nirvana, The Pixies and other grunge bands during the 1990s, and continues to find a place in popular music to this day. We have flashes of loudness, just to whet our appetites for the return to chaos that is to come, and then we start to build again (another repeating pattern you see, this time built in to the structure of the song). The loudness returns and then, just because this kind of thing doesn’t have a particularly natural end, we leave on some more unintelligible, distorted lyrics; because finishing on a lone voice isn’t just for ‘proper’ bands like, just off the top of my head, Red Hot Chili Peppers.

Notice how absolutely every one of those features I identified can be linked to other musical genres, the kind of thing present, admittedly in different formats, across the full spectrum of the musical world. The only difference with dubstep is that, unlike using voices & guitars like more traditional genres, dubstep favours entirely electronic sounds made on the computer; in that respect, combined with its way of being unabashedly loud and partying, it is the perfect musical representation of the 21st century thus far. In fact, the only thing on my original list that it lacks is a strong lyrical focus; in that respect, I feel that it is missing a trick, and that it could use a few more intelligible words to carry some meaning and become more recognised as A Thing. Actually, after listening to that song a few times, it reminds me vaguely of The Prodigy (apologies to any fans who are offended by this; I don’t listen to them much), but maybe that’s just me. Does all this mean dubstep is necessarily ‘good’ as a musical type? Of course not; taste is purely subjective. But to say that dubstep is merely noise, and that there is no reason anyone would listen to it, misses the point; it pulls the same tricks as every other genre, and they all have fans. No reason to begrudge them a few of those.

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Finding its feet

My last post on the recent history of western music took us up until the Jazz Age, which although it peaked in the 1920s, continued to occupy a position as the defining music genre of its age right up until the early 1950s. Today’s post takes up this tale for another decade and a half, beginning in 1951.

By this time, a few artists (Goree Carter and Jimmy Preston, for example) had experimented with mixing the various ‘black’ music genres (country and western, R&B and a little gospel being the main ones) to create a new, free rocking sound. However, by the 50s radio, which had been another major force for the spread of jazz, had risen to prominence enough to become a true feature of US life, so when Cleveland DJ Alan Freed first started playing R&B intentionally to a multiracial audience even his small listenership were able to make the event a significant one. Not only that, but the adolescents of the 50s were the first generation to have the free time and disposable income to control their own lives, making them a key consumer market and allowing them to latch onto and fund whatever was new and ‘cool’ to them. They were the first teenagers. These humble beginnings, spreading ‘black’ musical experiments to the masses, would later become the genre that Freed himself would coin a name for- rock and roll.

Rock and roll might have originally been named by Freed, and might have found its first star in Bill Haley (the guy wrote ‘Rock Around The Clock’ in 1955), but it became the riotous, unstoppable musical express train that it was thanks to a young man from Memphis, Tennessee, who walked into Sun Records in 1953 to record a song for personal use. His name was Elvis Presley.

’53 might have been Presley’s first recording experience, but his was not a smooth road. In eighth grade music he is reported to have only got a C and be told that he couldn’t sing, a claim that was repeated when he failed an audition for a local vocal quartet in January 1954. However, in June of that year he recorded a 1946 blues hit ‘That’s All Right’, totally altering what had been a lovelorn lament of a song into a riotous celebration. He, Winfield Moore and Bill Black (the guitarist and bassist he was recording with) had created a new, exciting, free-flowing sound based around Presley’s unique singing style. Three days later, the song aired on local radio for the first time and calls flooded in demanding to know who the new singer was. Many were even more surprised when they found out that it was a straight laced white boy playing what was previously thought of as ‘black music’.

Completely unintentionally, Elvis had rewritten the rulebook about modern music- now you didn’t have to be black, you didn’t have to play the seedy venues, you didn’t have to play slow, old, or boring music, you didn’t have to be ‘good’ by classical standards, and, most important, your real skill was your showmanship. Whilst his two co-performers in the early days were both natural showmen, Presley was a nervous performer to start with and his legs would shake during instrumental sections- the sight of a handsome young man wiggling his legs in wide-cut trousers proving somewhat hysterical for female sections of the audience, and worked the crowd into a frenzy that no previous performer had managed.

Elvis’ later career speaks for itself, but he lost his focus on writing music in around 1960 as, along with the death of Buddy Holly, the golden years of rock ‘n’ roll ended. However, the 50s had thrown up another new innovation into the mix- the electric guitar. Presley and his competitors had used them in their later performances, since they were lighter and easier to manoeuvre on stage and produced a better, louder sound for recorded tracks, but they wouldn’t come to their own until ‘the golden age of rock’ hit in the mid 60s.

By then, rock n roll had softened and mellowed, descending into lighter tunes that were the ancestors of modern pop music (something I’m not sure we should be too thankful to Elvis for), and British acts had begun to be the trailblazers. British acts tended towards a harder sound, and Cliff Richard enjoyed a period of tremendous success in the USA, but even then the passage of rock had eased off slightly. It wasn’t new any more, and people were basically content to carry on listening- there wasn’t much consumer demand for a new sound. But then, the baby boomers hit. The post-war goodwill in the late 40s and early 1950s had resulted in a spike in the birth rate of the developed world, and by around 1963 that generation had began to grow up. A second wave of teenagers hit the world, all desperate to escape the dreary boredom of their parents’ existence and form their own culture, with their own clothing, film interests, and, most importantly, music. The stage was set for something new to revolutionise the world of music, and the product that did was made in Britain.

Numerous bands from all over the country made up the British rock scene of the early 1960s, but the most prolific area was Liverpool. There rock and roll once again underwent a fusion with subgenres such as doo wop, and (again) R&B, formulating itself into another new sound, this time centred around a driving, rhythmic beat based upon the electric guitar and drum kit. These beats formed a key part of the catchy, bouncy, memorable melodies that would become the staple of ‘beat’ music. This had taken over the British music scene by 1963, but by 1964 a British song had made number 1 in the US charts. It was called ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand’, and was written by four Liverpudlians who called themselves The Beatles.

To this day, the Beatles are the most successful musicians ever (sorry fellow Queen fans- it’s true). Their first appearance on the Ed Sullivan show in 1964 set a new record for an American TV audience (over 70 million)- a show they only did because Sullivan’s plane had been forced to circle Heathrow Airport in the middle of the night so that this band he’d never heard of could land first and wade their way through their screaming fans. Sullivan decided then and there he wanted to interview them. Along with other British acts such as The Rolling Stones and The Kinks, beat took the US by storm- but they were only the first. The Beatles’ first and greatest legacy was the structure of a rock band; all band members wrote their own songs based on the drums & electric guitar. All that was left was for acts like the Stones to cement singer/lead guitarist/bassist/drummer as the classic combination and the formula was written. The music world was about to explode; again

And this story looks like taking quite a few more posts to tell…

NMEvolution

Music has been called by some the greatest thing the human race has ever done, and at its best it is undoubtedly a profound expression of emotion more poetic than anything Shakespeare ever wrote. True, done badly it can sound like a trapped cat in a box of staplers falling down a staircase, but let’s not get hung up on details here- music is awesome.

However, music as we know it has only really existed for around a century or so, and many of the developments in music’s  history that have shaped it into the tour de force that it is in modern culture are in direct parallel to human history. As such, the history of our development as a race and the development of music run closely alongside one another, so I thought I might attempt a set of edited highlights of the former (well, western history at least) by way of an exploration of the latter.

Exactly how and when the various instruments as we know them were invented and developed into what they currently are is largely irrelevant (mostly since I don’t actually know and don’t have the time to research all of them), but historically they fell into one of two classes. The first could be loosely dubbed ‘noble’ instruments- stuff like the piano, clarinet or cello, which were (and are) hugely expensive to make, required a significant level of skill to do so, and were generally played for and by the rich upper classes in vast orchestras, playing centuries-old music written by the very few men with the both the riches, social status and talent to compose them. On the other hand, we have the less historically significant, but just as important, ‘common’ instruments, such as the recorder and the ancestors of the acoustic guitar. These were a lot cheaper to make and thus more available to (although certainly far from widespread among) the poorer echelons of society, and it was on these instruments that tunes were passed down from generation to generation, accompanying traditional folk dances and the like; the kind of people who played such instruments very rarely had the time to spare to really write anything new for them, and certainly stood no chance of making a living out of them. And, for many centuries, that was it- what you played and what you listened to, if you did so at all, depended on who you were born as.

However, during the great socioeconomic upheaval and levelling that accompanied the 19th century industrial revolution, music began to penetrate society in new ways. The growing middle and upper-middle classes quickly adopted the piano as a respectable ‘front room’ instrument for their daughters to learn, and sheet music was rapidly becoming both available and cheap for the masses. As such, music began to become an accessible activity for far larger swathes of the population and concert attendances swelled. This was the Romantic era of music composition, with the likes of Chopin, Mendelssohn and Brahms rising to prominence, and the size of an orchestra grew considerably to its modern size of four thousand violinists, two oboes and a bored drummer (I may be a little out in my numbers here) as they sought to add some new experimentation to their music. This experimentation with classical orchestral forms was continued through the turn of the century by a succession of orchestral composers, but this period also saw music head in a new and violently different direction; jazz.

Jazz was the quintessential product of the United States’ famous motto ‘E Pluribus Unum’ (From Many, One), being as it was the result of a mixing of immigrant US cultures. Jazz originated amongst America’s black community, many of whom were descendants of imported slaves or even former slaves themselves, and was the result of traditional African music blending with that of their forcibly-adopted land. Whilst many black people were heavily discriminated against when it came to finding work, they found they could forge a living in the entertainment industry, in seedier venues like bars and brothels. First finding its feet in the irregular, flowing rhythms of ragtime music, the music of the deep south moved onto the more discordant patterns of blues in the early 20th century before finally incorporating a swinging, syncopated rhythm and an innovative sentiment of improvisation to invent jazz proper.

Jazz quickly spread like wildfire across the underground performing circuit, but it wouldn’t force its way into popular culture until the introduction of prohibition in the USA. From 1920 all the way up until the Presidency of Franklin D Roosevelt (whose dropping of the bill is a story in and of itself) the US government banned the consumption of alcohol, which (as was to be expected, in all honesty) simply forced the practice underground. Dozens of illegal speakeasies (venues of drinking, entertainment and prostitution usually run by the mob) sprung up in every district of every major American city, and they were frequented by everyone from the poorest street sweeper to the police officers who were supposed to be closing them down. And in these venues, jazz flourished. Suddenly, everyone knew about jazz- it was a fresh, new sound to everyone’s ears, something that stuck in the head and, because of its ‘common’, underground connotations, quickly became the music of the people. Jazz musicians such as Louis Armstrong (a true pioneer of the genre) became the first celebrity musicians, and the way the music’s feel resonated with the happy, prosperous feeling surrounding the economic good times of the 1920s lead that decade to be dubbed ‘the Jazz Age’.

Countless things allowed jazz and other, successive generations to spread around the world- the invention of the gramophone further enhanced the public access to music, as did the new cultural phenomenon of the cinema and even the Second World War, which allowed for truly international spread. By the end of the war, jazz, soul, blues, R&B and all other derivatives had spread from their mainly deep south origins across the globe, blazing a trail for all other forms of popular music to follow in its wake. And, come the 50s, they did so in truly spectacular style… but I think that’ll have to wait until next time.