Twilight of the gods: why pop music is so darn corny

5 Deutschmark coin dedicated to Felix Mendelssohn
Five Deutschmark coin dedicated to Berlin composer Felix Mendelssohn. A tribute to German romantic music.

Back to the Future Part I

Imagine taking a trip back in time, 200 years, to be precise, and moving to Berlin. With a bit of patience, suppose you walk unseen into the studio of Felix Mendelssohn (1809 – 1847), whose eclecticism ranged from composing music, conducting, painting, and, not least, administering a concert hall.

You might witness the scene: Mendelssohn paces up and down the room, speaking in a thundering voice to two collaborators, “The audience is demanding new music!” the composer vehemently exclaims while his friends nod their heads. Yes, because amid the Romantic era, whether it seems strange to you or not, people were tired of hearing the same operas repeatedly, and impresarios’ investments risked being dry losses.

At a time when there were no recordings, to hear a symphony, it was necessary to have an orchestra. People were tired. How can you blame them? Who wouldn’t be? “We?” shouts the crowd (ed. I am optimistic about readers), “Certainly,” I would answer without hesitation. If we pick up the 1.21 GW time machine and return to the present, we can do a simple experiment.

Back to the Future Part II

One only needs to open Spotify and Apple Music (Classical) to find that, for example, there are about 630 recordings of Beethoven’s 9th. If we then consider all the unrecorded performances, the number could become so large that it could be said that, from Beethova’s departure to the present, her memory has been honored by “celebrating” a ritual based on her music regularly every week!

It is enough to put together Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Schubert, Chopin, Liszt, Verdi, etc., to arrive without much effort at a non-stop that goes on with more than religious regularity. So much for new music! We live in the age of immutability, where theaters and concert halls are more properly museums housing mummies of all shapes and sizes. Of the cemeteries, it is always November 2, and the slurry of prayers rises to the imperishable memory of the totally unknown deceased.

The Trial (without Kafka)

But far be it from me to point fingers indiscriminately! Therefore, I ask myself, “Who are the culprits in this?” The conductors? Indeed, a large cohort of them are dead-tongued cultists who enjoy, like children announcing that for the opening of the musical year, they will be conducting Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony, and it matters little if those who are going to hear it (at least, a small portion amid a crowd of model gougers who want to parade down the catwalk) know it by heart and, if they want to, can find hundreds of recordings in the comfort of their own homes.

But the fault does not lie solely with the conductors. I am convinced that many of them think just as I do. Then who to center in the crosshairs? Artistic directors? In a sense, the latter might well be candidates for the role of managers, were it not for force majeure reasons that they are forced to obey willy-nilly. If, by chance, it should occur to one of them to open the concert season with Tōru Takemitsu or Arnold Bax, immediately a profit and loss account in the red would materialize before their eyes!

Yes, because if the people of the Romantic period (and beyond) longed for new music, today’s so-called music lovers do not like surprises. They are ready to spend tens of euros to listen again to the symphony of destiny (i.e., Beethoven’s Fifth), but they would think, “Paying for these strangers? Maybe it’s not worth it“. November 2 is welcome; Christmas is always a bit risky, far too much for Puritans.

Rehearsal of a small orchestra conducted by contemporary music composer Tōru Takemitsu
Rehearsals of a small orchestra conducted by contemporary music composer Tōru Takemitsu (1930 – 1996).

Revenge is a record that needs to be played fast!

But reality is not consumed in this analysis; on the contrary, it displays a bizarreness that transcends any creative effort. If so-called (mistakenly) “cultured music” is as stagnant as a swamp where mosquitoes feast day and night, its “pop” counterpart lives and reigns in an uninterrupted succession of productions.

Oh yes, because if you thought the desire for new music had disappeared, dear friends, you were only deluding yourself. It is not only alive but is even more fierce than before. It is so fierce that it motivates many musicians to churn out new songs with every blink of an eye. With rocket-to-hydrazine acceleration, “pop” music (a deliberately collective term) has given birth to far more music from 1900 to the present than composed from the late Middle Ages to late Romanticism.

And so, if renowned concert halls continued to honor the dead with heartfelt devotion, stadiums became ecosystems where every form of living species increased with the rhythm of rabbits. “But then the problem is solved!” an incurable optimist might exclaim, and, to me, today it’s my turn to dampen spirits as well. No, the problem is not solved; it has become even more severe.

Gods and minstrels

The reason for my disappointment stems from a simple observation: so-called “pop” music is damned banal! We could also say that he paid for his vitality with whole layers of cerebral cortex. If you get used to listening to Beethoven (to mention the most-played composer ever), pop songs resemble coitus interruptus. They possess all the characteristics: catchy and singable motifs, rhythms marked by the ubiquitous drums, voices whose timbres have finally been unleashed and removed from the yoke of classical lyricism, and? A missed orgasm.

When everything seems ready to explode in a pyrotechnic development, the last refrain marks the premature end of the relationship. To hell with Beethoven and his majestic art of elaboration! All it takes is a singable melody over a harmonic rug (generally so simple that legions of strummers gaudy ape). Why complicate life? Well, I would say that, first of all, it’s because the composers don’t know how to do it! Second, because industrial standardization wants to sell songs like fast-food sandwiches.

Will texts save the world?

“But the lyrics are beautiful!” shouts the ecstatic crowd as if listening to a Schubert Lied. Then again, the bar was not lowered. It’s been taken out of the way! Triviality must have no boundaries: all too simple music must be matched by equally meaningless lyrics.

To no avail was the lesson of Fabrizio De Andrè, who composed dozens and dozens of songs that were all different. “Beautiful!” the crowd shouts, except to dissolve the moment someone should shyly ask what “Canzone del padre” (ed. “Father’s Song”) means. That is a territory where it is better not to set foot, too complicated, hermetic, esoteric, cryptic, crazy, …, you go ahead. Much better was the late Micheal Jackson setting a stadium (and his bank account) ablaze by repeating like a sick, obsessive-compulsive “Annie, are you okay?

I would thunder, “Hell yes! I’m fine, now continue the song!” but this is not part of the social dynamics that hold up the whole scaffolding. As mentioned above, pop music must be mundane; otherwise, one risks an untimely death and the bitter discovery that curators of Egyptian concert hall museums have waiting lists too long to hope for an audition.

Poster of a concert by musician Marya Delvard featuring lieder by author Marc Henry. Lieder music was always highly sought after, but, in a way it can be considered the ancestor of modern song.
Poster of a concert by musician Marya Delvard (1874 – 1965) based on lieder by author Marc Henry. Lieder music was always highly sought after, but, in a way, it can be considered the ancestor of modern song.

The trial resumes, the court enters.

But is there a person in charge who can at least help us justify this phenomenon? I think so, but I leave it to my (Manzoni, do not be offended, but I hope more than twenty-five) readers will analyze reality and come to their conclusions. As I have already highlighted in other articles, “cultured” music faced a chasm after the late Romanticism.

With questionable motives, many composers suddenly discovered that poor Debussy was covered in cobwebs and that Stravinsky was just a visionary madman prey to a nostalgia that needed to be treated in an asylum. Yes, it is true that the French composer had experimented with hexatonal scales and was seduced by jazz and ragtime, but how do we forgive the severe fault of still referring to tonality?

In an era marked by unspeakable horrors (the two world wars, the rise of fascism in Italy and Nazism in Germany, the extermination of the Jews, etc.), one soon concluded that if art was to represent reality. Reality is also ugly (how can one deny that?). One could infer that art should be able to “steal” some of the horror of history and make it its own.

Of course, this pseudo-syllogism is all too simple. What does it mean that music must also be able to be ugly? An aesthetically ugly work of art deserves no further analysis. Is this then the meaning pursued by the composers? Certainly not. Without getting into very technical territories, it can be said that if “classical” harmony demanded that dissonances be resolved into consonant chords (i.e., were moments of transient tension), the theorists of the new music extolled the emancipation of dissonance as an entity that does not need to fade into something else.

Yet Bach, a few centuries earlier, Bach had extensively used chromaticism (i.e., notes outside the key) and dissonance (including the infamous tritone – diabolus in music). He certainly had not gone to too much trouble to modulate either gradually (i.e., by following the circle of fifths) or by jumping flatly from one tonality to another (e.g., in the D minor Chaconne of the second violin partita, the middle part begins candidly in D major). So, why so much eagerness to abolish tonality?

Frankly, I don’t know. The only thing sure is that this choice served only to free itself from a cage, whose bars were so broad as to let elephants walk, to lock itself up in a labyrinthine set of techniques that, as the composers’ shyness faded, even came to use combinatorial mathematical techniques, I Ching reading and, who knows, even raffle number draws.

Original Chinese version of I Ching
An original Chinese version of I Ching, a divination book, was used by John Cage (1912 – 1992) to compose his experimental music.

Come on, people, it’s off to experiment!

Not satisfied with an already difficult enough choice to manage, many composers (while the pop music war raged in the East) decided to expand their genius through an idolization of conceptual-intellectualistic music. In Darmstadt, Germany, and at RAI’s phonology studio (ed. RAI is the national Italian Television), there have been high-sounding names (Stockhausen, Berg, Kagel, Nono, Berio, Maderna, etc.) whose notoriety, however, fades day by day, like those posters left at the mercy of sun and rain.

City noises, screaming, hissing, “broken” quartets with musicians forced to play in the cabins of as many helicopters in flight, and a fierce use of all sorts of electronic instruments, from synthesizers to wave generators, etc., made it possible to mold an impressive amount of works whose common characteristic is only one: the public did not like them. I would like, in this regard, to know your opinion.

To make a long story short, “cultured” music has been amputated outright, demanding that fans of Satie and Puccini willingly accept this extraordinary new creativity. But alas, things did not go as planned. Artistic directors, often enthusiastic, once again ran up against the bottom line, discovering (perhaps, reluctantly) that Berio’s sublime sequences were grossing little more than they needed to offer free peanuts at the buvette.

People skinned their hands applauding Beethoven’s 9th for the umpteenth time but were bored listening to experimental music. Ignorance? Insensitivity? I don’t know. What is certain is that aesthetics leaves no survivors. “If I’m going to listen to a synthesizer used poorly to boot, I much prefer the din of pop music!

Of course. The reasoning does not make a wrinkle. Why be masochistic when pop singers can offer a refreshing listen that even an illiterate person understands perfectly? We have, therefore, come to the crux of the matter. Pop music is mundane, without development, based on first-grade harmonic progressions (with exceptions such as jazz, which often exaggerates in the opposite direction). Still, it gives more satisfaction than music that has traded the adjective “cultured” for “mindless.”

The Arabian phoenix in a performance by Friedrich J. Bertuch. Just like the phoenix,
The Arabian phoenix in a depiction by Friedrich J. Bertuch (1747 – 1822). According to mythology, the phoenix could always rise from its ashes.

Can “cultured” music rise from its ashes?

I want to end this article on an optimistic note. I am convinced that it is possible to finally hear contemporary music combining pop’s engaging power with the technical structuring of a Beethoven sonata. But to do so, considerable effort is required, not so much from a compositional point of view, but more importantly from an economic-managerial point of view.

With the same “flamboyance” as Stockhausen & co, it is possible to compose, for example, contemporary versions of Bach’s cantatas. That is, instead of ending a song (the theme of which may also be worthy of praise) after three minutes, a first part can be interspersed with an instrumental interlude based on real elaborations of the themes (again, Beethoven rules), followed perhaps by a small chorale (polyphonic, why not? After all, “We are the world” has been at the top of the worldwide hit parades), and then, perhaps, close, with another song based on a reworking of the opening theme. All of this, of course, is accompanied by meticulously crafted lyrics, not gut-wrenching love nonsense.

In short, contemporary music has all the makings of satisfying the Romantics’ eagerness for novelty by pursuing quality at the expense of quantity. The only “small” problem to be solved is to depower the industrial “assembly line” ideals to revive the more “artisanal” lines of thought that, in their genuineness, preserve the unbreakable seed of true art and are looking for nothing more than good soil where they can plant it to make it grow lushly!

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Atonality: the aesthetic dilemma arising from an artistic revolt

a blurry photo of a person doing a trickWe want to ask how pleasant, aesthetically appreciable, and ultimately beautiful atonal music is. First, clarifying that “atonality” does not imply using serial or similarly contrived compositional patterns is helpful. In our understanding, it represents only the choice not to compose with alterations in key and, therefore, to give up the presence of tonal centers with attracting power from which it is challenging to move away.

Tonal music is primarily characterized by melodic and harmonic choices that always revolve around the tonic or fundamental. If, for example, a piece is composed in E major, it will frequently return to the E-G#-B triad, representing a reference point from which to start and return to give the piece a sense of resolution and completion. Even in the case of modulations, the new tonics will always play the same role, the only difference being that they are inherently transient and generally subject to fading out either in the planting key or, quite often, in other neighboring tones.

In the atonal sphere, the composer renounces any constraint dictated by the presence of a privileged pair of chords (of tonic and dominant) to take refuge in a flow of what are no longer mere chromaticisms but rather exact compositional choices aimed at making particular atmospheres or sound images vivid. In a sense, one could speak of atonality even when many composers choose non-diatonic scales (such as, for example, hexatonal or pentatonic). Of course, there is always a tonal reference in the latter case, even if its structure is foreign to the classical-orthodox harmonic culture.

A pure atonality takes away the listener’s ability to anticipate a “homecoming” sooner or later. Still, unlike seriality (or other similar avant-garde choices), it does not necessarily give up classical compositional syntax. In fact, according to music composition theory, a piece should be imagined with syntactic properties similar to those of a narrative. The motifs represent words, while the sentences, with a balanced trend in antecedent and consequent, are the counterpart of the linguistic namesake.

In particular, these should be composed with a semicircle or parabola in mind. From the beginning, the phrase can evolve freely until it reaches an acme, from which it descends to a resolution on the tonic through a cadence. This approach complements the phrase and offers our ears a satisfying sound experience. To understand the above, baasti thinks of the short line in the song “Happy Birthday to You.” The evolution seems to move away from the center of the word “best wishes” (precisely, with the syllable “day”). Still, it then quickly plummets toward it with the pattern associated with the words “to you.” To further realize what I am saying, it is helpful to try playing a scale (possibly provided with chromaticism) and singing the song following the ascending progression. The effect is unsatisfactory as, to the “narrative” conclusion that would like all emphasis focused on the words “to you,” an escalating sequence is associated that escapes unchecked.

So, atonality that respects classical syntax, as unbold as it might seem, provides the listener with the perceptual tools that promote memorization and, ultimately, understanding of the piece. Many pop music, jazz, rock, etc., fall into this category (even without being fully aware of it often). On the contrary, the decrease of tonality accompanied by the renunciation of classical syntax has been considered by many to be the authentic product of artistic evolution, but, at the same time, it ends up being an experiment that leaves one speechless (if not replaced by whistles).

To understand what I am asserting, I invite you to listen to Arnold Schoenberg‘s Variations for Orchestra Op. 31, which we might describe as the main theorist and composer using this approach:

YouTube player

The composition is lovely. I don’t think you can say otherwise too lightly, but what impression does it provide? What stands out immediately is the sequential aspect of the sentences. A “movement” is not followed by a return action whose purpose should be to balance the tension with a subsequent relaxation. On the contrary, the piece evolves continuously, with no (or very few) returns to previously presented material.

Syntax is wholly disrupted, and the listener is “forced” to accept a musical experience without the prerogative of content anticipation. If classically, the competitive “game” relied on the continuous contrast between correct prediction and surprise (e.g., now the sentence closes with a cadence and returns to the central theme?), in this case, there is no alternative to surprise. Regarding information theory, this kind of music has a very high entropy, far beyond the limits to which most early twentieth-century audiences inhabited.

But while a syntactic disruption is often intolerable in literature (indeed, it is generally marked as a serious error since it affects semantics), in music, comprehension does not rely on explicit transfer of meaning. A correct sentence such as “John went to the movies and had a good time” clearly informs us of a subject (John), an action (going to the movies), and a consequent emotional condition (having a good time). The semantic impact could be devastating if I altered the structure without respecting the basic syntactic rules.

However, in music, this kind of meaning is not pursued. So, the listener, though displaced, could not say that he or she did not “get it.” At most, he might claim that he did not enjoy the music or could not follow its unfolding with due intellectual and emotional involvement. From this, we infer that a syntactic change in music is never as “dangerous” as in literature. The absence of a consequent in a phrase, the missed expectation of a cadence, the shift from a movement that would suggest a modulation to a leap to a series of chromaticisms, etc., can disturb the ear but not the brain.

What Schoenberg said (supported by many contemporary and later musicologists) is accurate. Habit is more robust than any syntactic or harmonic rule. It is absurd to pretend that a listener from the Baroque period could accept such music (although Bach, for example, made exemplary use of chromaticism). Still, the contamination that took place at the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries made it possible to learn about “exotic” sounds that would soon become very popular.

At this point, the crucial “problem” is only aesthetic. Is the most driven atonality, good or bad, without syntactic or classical harmonic footholds? Beyond the (often questionable) ideological and philosophical choices, are the artistic results worthy of attention, or is it better to erase a piece of music history by covering it with a veil of shame?

I think the latter assumption is wrong. Despite the disagreement of ideas, no one should be allowed to devalue art too lightly. I am convinced that the 21st-century man’s ear is still unaccustomed to this kind of sound, primarily because of the spread of pop music, which makes extensive use of “classic” (albeit with ever-changing instruments, shapes, and timbres) and effortlessly catchy structures. However, many atonal compositions that are not overly cerebral (e.g., based on mathematical structures or matrices of permutations) continue to give emotions and evoke very intense atmospheres. I dare say he succeeds even more than many classical and Romantic composers, who either took refuge in natural imitation or, often, contoured particular motifs with complex harmony, creating a stunning but sometimes less evocative work than expected.

I conclude by inviting readers to listen to several pieces by atonal composers, such as, for example, Schoenberg, Webern, Berg, etc. (I also include Leo Brouwer, being a classical guitarist myself), to read the titles (often essential for the correct decoding of the sound content) and, finally, to come to one’s conclusions. I would be delighted to read your comments along these lines and perhaps start a fruitful discussion that can only enrich each of us and broaden our cultural horizons!

Photos of Hulki Okan Tabak


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