A Case for Atonal and Dissonant Music

As a musician and music teacher, I purposely seek out new and different kinds of music. It's an important part of my livelihood.  Many people I've met, musician or not, like to make this claim as well, be it during an intense debate about music with a friend or in small-talk with a complete stranger.  But this claim has widely varying degrees of truth to it.  Sometimes people are as sincere about the statement as I am: they are constantly looking to be challenged and/or expand their musical horizons.  Other times, people make this statement hoping that 1) they are acknowledged to be as sophisticated as the company they are in or 2) that they are not forced to defend (or worse, quantify) what it is they enjoy about the music they claim to listen to.



No doubt this is at least in part due to each individual having a unique definition of what "new and different kinds of music" means and that every individual places different levels of importance on the music in their lives.  Some spectra of musical tastes are narrower than others.  However, I'm concerned about the large number of people whose arrays of musical tastes reside wholly in popular music.  I'm even more concerned about those that vehemently defend said pop music... because there are entire universes of music they will never know.



So, I'm writing about it.



In this essay/blog/quasi-rant, I aim to make the case for a mainstream shift towards more dissonant and atonal music and away from pop music.  I will attempt to explain in mathematical and practical terms why pop music (and by extension, most strictly tonal music) is actually holding back our individual and collective imaginations. I will also explain why this shift is already slowly happening.



Depending on who you are, your perspective on music and your current state of mind, you may think I'm just an old dude who's complaining about what the kids are listening to these days.  Or you may think I'm a young guy who's talking about crazy things like atonal composers whose music sounds like noise.  I'm both these things.  But the purpose of this writing is to point out the serious problems with today's music and to suggest a personal course of action.  So please consider what I have to say and then decide for yourself.  After reading through this, you'll at the very least have a window into how I perceive music even if you choose not to agree with me.



To eliminate confusion, I'll be using the term "pop music" going forward as a generic for all mainstream music found on the radio or TV (rock, country, hip-hop, alternative, commercial jingles, etc.)



Why does it matter what people listen to?  Music is culturally, emotionally, intellectually and spiritually important to people.  It's helped significantly shape world cultures throughout history.  It brings people together from different walks of life. So why then is music treated like such a disposable commodity today?  Why are there no more classic songs, albums or artists?  Why does everything seem like a "flavor of the week"?  Why do so few artists today have staying power in the industry?  Certainly the sheer quantity of music we're exposed to plays a part in this trend.  The fact that anyone can make an album and put it online for the world has opened the floodgates for real talent to be obscured.  But this path also serves as a way for musicians to bypass the antiquated major record label model and to make sure their music is heard, despite a lack of marketing or financial backing.  Unfortunately, record companies have responded to the digital music revolution with lawsuits instead of innovation or even the willingness to change their horribly outdated business model.



Is part of the reason for the decline of pop music due to today's music simply not being that good or that memorable?  And if that's the case, what's the reason?  There can be little doubt that major record labels have played a large part in the degradation of popular music.  Their emphasis on visuals over musical ability has led to the rise of AutoTune, quantization and even more lip-syncing.  The fact that any self respecting artist would use these crutches to any great degree should send up red flags that something is very wrong with the state of music today.  It seems as if record labels only look at an artist and don't ever actually listen to them.  This is a critical problem rooted in the very mindset of both the A&R types and the artists they sign:  "Can't sing?  Oh, we can fix her pitch in the studio.  Can't play to a click track?  No problem, our engineers will quantize your beats so the audience can't tell the difference. Can't write a song?  Don't worry; we have a team of songwriters working on your first hit right now."



And really, that's what it comes down to:  pulling the wool over the eyes (or ears) of the audience.  Fooling them.  In most cases this is usually easy, especially with younger audiences.  One scam the record industry has been pulling for years has been to repackage old pop music in new, exciting ways so that each subsequent generation of listeners is, at first, oblivious to the fact that the music they're enjoying has already been done before in some form or another.  Now, this doesn't strictly apply to all music that uses samples, but examples would include P-Diddy or Will Smith's music, which blatantly uses other artists' entire songs for significant financial gain, all under the guise of original music.  After the kids wise up and realize what happened, they're older and have already paid considerable money to strengthen this system.  That money is then used to fool the next generation, and on and on the dilution of original content goes.



Looking at this from another angle, take the Axis of Awesome's video, "Four Chords" shown here: 






The video walks through 47 songs that all share the same chord progression.  Contrary to the name of the band, this concept is actually NOT awesome.  They have, perhaps unintentionally, demonstrated how shallow and uninteresting most pop music is at its core.



But is that what pop music is supposed to be?  The lowest common denominator?  The race to find placating music that in no way challenges us or our current definition of what good music is?  Is it only a money grab by record companies that uses music as bait to see what resonates with audiences, regardless of whether or not it's been done before?  Record companies don't care if you have a sincere, genuine connection to the music they're pumping out.  They're out to make a buck and it's all business to them.



I think there's something inherently perverse about an art form that seeks validation through money, or measures success by how many units sell versus how original and meaningful the art truly is.  I have a hard time understanding how anyone who calls themselves a musical artist would be happy relegated to playing the simple, predictable, unimaginative music of the status quo.  I'm pro-business and pro-art but when these two things come together, they turn into something septic.  The need for success drives most businesses and creativity drives most art.  You'd think the record industry would be in the "business of creativity" but they're more about the "creativity of business" to keep you listening.



This is one of my biggest gripes with popular music and personally, why I never had any interest in becoming a "rock star" at any point in my music career.  There is no sense of exploration or musical ambition in pop music because those ideals are interpreted as financial risks by the powers that be.  There is only formulaic, tried-and-true, oversimplified music that plods through the same chord progressions, the same melodies and the same mindsets.



This has to change for everyone's sake.



The human spirit will always be intertwined with innovation, imagination and exploration.  These ideals can rarely be attained in the pop medium anymore and it's time to consciously move away from pop music as it currently exists. 



There's certainly room left for the exploration and creation of original tonal music.  Especially due to the extremely large number of rhythmic permutations for melodies and harmonies to reside. But pop music does nothing to encourage that exploration or creation.  If anything, it punishes and alienates the truly original while rewarding the predictable.



To be clear, I'm not saying, "Stop listening to pop music now and forever."  I'm saying don't ONLY listen to pop music.  I enjoy certain classic pop gems as much as the next person, mainly for nostalgic reasons.  And there's nothing wrong with that.  But listening exclusively to pop music and nothing else is the equivalent to eating candy 6 times a day:  it's not really doing you any good.  You wouldn't only watch movies that have a G-rated, feel-good theme to them would you?  Of course not.  Otherwise genres like drama, suspense, comedy, documentaries, etc. would never thrive if that were the case.  So why doesn't music get that same treatment?  It's high time to listen to things that you wouldn't normally listen to and be open to the originality and creativity that comes from real music, not the industry-generated fluff that's pushed on us daily.



Another strike against pop music is its unwillingness to utilize all of the dimensions available in music.  Music can be categorized into 3 elements (melody, harmony and rhythm).  But most people forget that there are also 4 dimensions to each note:  pitch, duration, timbre (tone) and dynamics.  Unfortunately, pop music does very little to incorporate dynamic variation.  In the early days of rock, one of the things that set it apart from the other music of its time was a constant, often loud, dynamic.  There were no fluctuations in the dynamics and this has contributed to the predictability of pop music over the years. There are exceptions to the rule but now we have songs that very rarely ever change in loudness, tempo, time signature or key signature. 



Pop music is in a rut.



Here comes the math.  This video discusses in detail the topic, "Will We Ever Run Out of New Music?”  It even makes reference to the "Axis of Awesome" video mentioned previously.  Take a moment to watch this from beginning to end: 






If you're unable to watch, I'll list a few of the key points brought up in the video: 



1)  There are roughly 211,000,000 bits used on a CD to capture a five minute song.  This means there are 2^211,000,000 possible different bit states that can be represented during that 5 minutes span, each representing unique audio.  The digital format for songs is in absolutely no danger of ever being used up.



2)  As astronomically large as this number is, it is a finite number, not infinite.



3)  This number is 63,000,000 DIGITS long.  Not the number 63 million.  Think of it as the number "1" with 62,999,999 zeros after it. To put this in perspective, the number of atoms in the Earth is only 50 digits long.



4) The number of unique measures using one octave of all 12 notes with combinations of whole, half, quarter, eighth, sixteenth, and 32nd-note durations is 123.5 * 10^33 (or 123.5 decillion) which is 36 digits long. Putting this in perspective, the age of the universe in seconds is only 18 digits long.  Keeping in mind that it usually takes 2 measures to form a short, memorable melody (and sometimes upwards of 4 or 8), 123.5 * 10^33 would then be squared or raised to the 4th or 8th powers depending on how long the melody is.  That's how many unique hooks or melodies you could derive mathematically and if you use notes outside of a single octave you're looking at even bigger numbers.



Pop music simply isn't trying very hard to inspire you or spark your imagination.  It doesn't care if you look at it in wonder or mystery.  It only serves to meet your immediate need to hear simple, comforting (possibly nostalgic) music and to keep that specific appetite sated for as long as it can.



These numbers should be incredibly humbling. The gentleman in the video almost entirely proves my point, but ends up doing a 180 at the end of it. He surrenders to the notion that the commonalities between music are more interesting than the mathematical possibilities left to express future music. 



And this is where I disagree wholeheartedly with him.



He also throws in a little tidbit at the end that tries to link our like or dislike of certain music to how easily the music can be compressed.  If it's too simple (a rising scale) or too complex (white noise) and we're not interested.  Personally, I refuse to believe we're slaves to this phenomenon.  If one day human intellect can perceive the music in white noise, I'd say that's a proud day for humanity and not something to ever shy away from.  In fact, white noise sometimes creates EVP (electronic voice phenomenon) which is partially caused by the tendency of the human brain to recognize patterns in random stimuli. Plus, white noise is already used in electronic music to create percussive sounds like snare drums and hi-hats.  Bottom line, our minds want to make sense of complex patterns (even if only on a subconscious level).



If total music potential were shown to us as the available and unavailable space of a computer hard drive, then what the human race has filled it with so far is a fraction of a fraction of its full capacity.  There's a LOT of blank canvas left for musicians to explore.



How do we unlock all that extra space?  An individual gut check is required for that step.  You have to challenge yourself and your personal definition of music. Realize that every new song you listen to could potentially be something that redefines music for you.  You have to move away from the happy and comfortable and listen to things that are frightening, sad, angry, etc. That's what it means to be human.  We're not static creatures locked in a single emotional state.  We experience many different feelings and the music we listen to and create is a reflection of that.  We reflexively push away music that doesn't automatically meet our personal criteria for "happy".  This is not good for us emotionally, intellectually or spiritually.  If you listen to something and are mildly turned off or worse, extremely repulsed by it, stop yourself from judging.  Ask, "If I don't like it, why do so many other people enjoy it?"  And try to find the answer before passing judgment.  Because passing judgment says more about you and your unwillingness to listen to "new and different kinds of music" than it does about the music itself.  When I hear someone putting down a style of music they don't know much about, I truly think it's some kind of Pavlovian response.  They've been conditioned to like pop and anything that's a subset of it.  Which begs the question, "Do you like it because it really has meaning to you or do you like it or because someone told you this is what you should listen to?"



And if you're a musician reading this, then please take this as a musical law:  "If you can't play it or don't understand it, then you can't knock it."  It's something I try to instill in all my students.  You'll be a better musician for it.  Trying to find the appeal in music that doesn't instinctively appeal to you is very valuable.  It does wonders for your empathy, it will help you grow as an individual and you will more than likely learn something new in the process.



The empty space that represents music potential is where the future of music is.  Because if you're going to stick with tonal, pop music, you're going to be covering that small sliver of used hard drive space, over and over again, listening to things that have already been before, things that aren't genuinely original and (if you're a musician) things that don't really qualify you as an artist.



We either need to shift our own personal focus away from tonal, pop music or somehow infuse pop music with dissonance and atonality to add variation to our musical palate.



Technically, this shift already began at the turn of the 20th century.  The Second Viennese School (Alban Berg, Arnold Schoenberg, and Anton Webern) and composers such as Claude Debussy, Béla Bartók, Sergei Prokofiev and Igor Stravinsky began writing music that has been described as atonal.



And you can't really blame them.  What preceded their rise was hundreds of years of tonal music dating back to medieval times.  Think about that for a moment.  Tonal, diatonic music only uses 7 of those notes at a given time. These 7 notes comprise a key, a grouping of notes to be used over and over again.  Strict diatonic music does not make use of all 12 notes like the composers above were attempting to do in new ways.  The more notes used means the more combinations of melodies and harmonies and more possibilities.  These composers realized the inherent limitations of a 7-note tonal system because they were already bumping up against them.  They likely also realized that harmonic progressions and resolutions would become extremely predictable because the large body of music that existed before their time had already covered that ground.



Luckily, music in general is moving (slowly) in an atonal direction.  Arnold Schoenberg put forth an important idea called "the emancipation of dissonance".  Here are two timelines that illustrate the concept: 












These timelines show the periods in music when intervals that were previously considered dissonant actually broke through to mainstream use.  All 12 notes are fair game in a composition today and should be fully explored.  This realization in part led to the rise of jazz and the development of improvised music.  Other composers have looked even deeper and explored micro-tonality with quarter tones or other divisions between pitches, like a note existing between B natural and C natural (there actually isn't one in western music).  Unfortunately, the dawn of atonal and microtonal music created a schism that still exists today because it continues flies in the face of the established music practices.



Little by little, this is changing though.  Atonal music occasionally intersects with pop culture.  A perfect example is Stanley Kubrick's "The Shining" which uses 6 of Krzysztof Penderecki's compositions.  This music was not composed for the movie but existed beforehand.  Kubrick made the decision to cut the scenes around the building tension in those pieces.  And it works very well.  The music in "The Shining" is terrifying and sets the tone for the film perfectly.  Can you imagine if Kubrick only listened to and chose music from the 10 most popular songs of 1980?  Here's the list in case you were wondering:



1          Blondie                         Call Me



2          Pink Floyd                    Another Brick In The Wall



3          Olivia Newton-John        Magic



4          Michael Jackson           Rock With You



5          Captain and Tennille      Do That To Me One More Time



6          Queen                          Crazy Little Thing Called Love



7          Paul McCartney            Coming Up



8          Lipps, Inc.                    Funkytown



9          Billy Joel                      It's Still Rock And Roll To Me



10         Bette Midler                 The Rose



Somehow, Jack chasing people around with an axe doesn't work too well with the Captain and Tennille...



And that's the essence of the argument:  If you only listen to pop music, your musical point of reference will be extremely narrow and your appreciation of all things musical, emotional, intellectual, spiritual and cultural won't extend beyond the scope that the record industry has pre-defined for you.



I'll finish this very long statement by offering one more perspective on listening to atonal and dissonant music:  Pop music is new and exciting for infants and young children because EVERYTHING is a new experience for them anyway.  And it's fine for teens too because most teens usually find their musical identity as a part of adolescence.  They will take their first steps away from pop music during this process.  For adults though, pop serves as link to the past and it's very easy to get caught up listening to old music over and over again.  I really think this is why so many adults get "stuck in the 60's" (or 70's or 80's or 90's) or even on current music that reminds them of that time.  Unlike infants, children and teens, adults have many more obligations to contend with and they tend to stop growing musically, emotionally, spiritually and culturally if the search for "new and different kinds" of music comes to a halt.



Thanks for reading,






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