Music Writing and Science Writing

No, this isn’t another blog post lamenting the fact that music writing gets far more attention than science writing. If anything, it’s a bit of an argument that science writing ought to be less like popular music writing.

On Twitter this past weekend Jim Henley, one of the few bloggers I consider “old school” (the name of this blog was influenced by his Unqualified Offerings, though he’s mostly stepped back from that) had a long series of tweets about pop-music writing, responding to some arguments that music criticism has degenerated and hardly has anything to do with music any more. Jim provides a link to some attempts to apply music theory to pop, and later to an entire blog full of that. I also threw him a link to this detailed analysis of a nuclear-powered earworm:

(That’s from a music prof at Williams, and I found it via a link from one of the college’s many social-media feeds.)

Jim’s main argument, though, which apparently comes from a book I haven’t read (I think it’s this) is that a big part of the reason why music criticism doesn’t do more with music theory is that music theory isn’t especially well suited to dealing with rock/pop music. The tools of classical music analysis and criticism are built around a particular type of music, arising from the Western classical tradition, and don’t work that well for rock and pop music that grew out of a very different musical tradition. As a result, as Jim puts it, the best you can hope for is “dancing about architecture”– fumbling with an inadequate analytical toolkit to give impressionistic descriptions of what’s really going on, or else falling back to talking about social and cultural issues that aren’t all that closely connected to the content of the music.

It’s an interesting argument, not just because I’m a fan of rock music and very much not a classical music fan, so it speaks right to my personal biases. (I’m currently obsessing on the new Hold Steady record, and really looking forward to seeing them play live on Friday). But I also wonder if there aren’t some parallels to the eternal scientists vs. journalists thing.

That is, in the blogs linked above that do apply music-theory analysis to pop music, you can see them struggling with the familiar issue of communicating to people who don’t share your technical vocabulary. You can see where it would be a lot easier for the writers to explain what’s going on if they could use their normal jargon, but they have to define things as they go. In the first of Owen Pallett’s Slate pieces there’s even an element of the disparaging “You think you want jargon but really you don’t” thing that happens when journalists deliberately write “bad” pieces in what’s supposed to be the style of a scientist. (To his credit, the later ones get better.)

It’s definitely a tricky problem, and I think it’s a contributor to the “degeneration” of music writing that people point to. You can’t count on a typical pop-music fan to have any idea what a “tonic” refers to, or a “V chord” or any of the many other terms that show up in those pieces. I only have the very sketchiest idea of most of this stuff myself, as I never took music theory– I played in the band all through high school, so I can basically recognize when a key change happens in a song that I’m listening to, but I couldn’t begin to tell you from what to what. (On the one hand, I vaguely wish I knew more of the technical terminology here, but on the other, learning it would probably require an awful lot of listening to classical music, and I don’t really care to do that…) So a classically educated music writer is in some ways in the same situation as a scientifically trained writer trying to communicate technical results without being able to use technical language

I also wonder, though, if there’s a way to bring the analogy in the other direction; that is, a sense in which the oft-cited failure modes of science writing are partly due to applying technical and analytical tools to a subject they weren’t really designed for. That is, it might be that in some ways writing about science is different than writing journalistically about other subjects, in the same way that writing about rock music is different than writing about Western classical music, and demands the creation of different tools.

Of course, I’m so fried right at the moment that I haven’t really gotten any farther than that, and the next few days are going to be utterly brutal, so I’m not likely to produce any really deep and useful insights. But I didn’t want to let this slip too far into the past, so I’ll throw up this inconclusive post and see if it prompts anyone else to anything great.

14 thoughts on “Music Writing and Science Writing

  1. The tools of classical music analysis and criticism are built around a particular type of music, arising from the Western classical tradition, and don’t work that well for rock and pop music that grew out of a very different musical tradition.

    Well yes, some of the tools don’t carry over all that well. You rarely, if ever, encounter a twelve tone row or a cadenza in popular music. But many of the other tools have been around since Bach’s time if not earlier, and they apply to any piece of music that uses the even-tempered tuning which has dominated Western music from Bach’s time onward. A C major chord is a C major chord, no matter whether Bach or McCartney[1] wrote it. (Some 20th century concert hall pieces deviate from this scheme, and some hip-hop does as well, but most Western music, whether classical or popular, uses those same twelve notes or a subset thereof.) Twelve-bar blues, for instance, is defined by a certain chord progression.

    It’s true that your average popular music listener doesn’t know musical theory, any more than he knows much about science. It’s also true that people can enjoy popular music without knowing theory. But it’s also possible to enjoy classical music without knowing theory. What theory does for some people is give them an additional level at which they can enjoy (or not) a given piece of music.

    [1]McCartney didn’t have any formal musical training before joining the Beatles, but he eventually did listen to some classical music–he got the idea for the piccolo trumpet part in “Penny Lane” from Handel’s “Water Music”. He also did make at least one attempt to write a classical piece, the Liverpool Oratorio.

  2. I’d make three points:

    – I feel like the better analogy is that trying to discuss classical sitar music of India with Western Music Theory is like trying to write about some of the latest biochemistry results as a physicist. There are several concepts (Gibbs free energy and rhythm), concepts that can be easily stretched, and those that require specialized knowledge in the appropriate subfield. Which isn’t to say that the technical vocabulary isn’t there, we’re just less familiar with it.

    – While Jim made a very interesting point about the limits of mechanical reproduction of music (with player pianos) I’d also argue that we were far more limited in how we could transmit musical information–now that we can accurately reproduce sound (we’ve made recordings) we’ve just hit a point where discussions about timbre are more relevant, since that’s information that will be reproduced instead of being much more tied to a particular musical performance. As such, we’re still in the process of codifying vocabulary to discuss some of these issues.

    – I also wonder if part of this is not sociological. After all, the advice I’ve heard of good popular science writing, from Ouellette to Zimmer to Mlodinow, is that in order to really hook people into the science, you often need some element of human interest. There is, however, a strong countervailing feeling in science that “what we’re building is agnostic to the scientist, it’s absolute” to balance this. Pop music seems to be much more tied to the creator/primary performer, and perhaps lacks this as a balancing force.

  3. Eric, the point I made in my Storify sequence, picking up from a book on prog titled Rocking the Classics, is that common-practice musical theory came poorly fitted to characterize the central features of rock-and-later popular music. Yes, chords still exist. Keys endure. Modes make a comeback. When I write songs I absolutely advert to commonly understood principles of harmonic analysis, for instance, and even before that, my ear is guided by the history.

    But there’s a compelling case – I’m not the only one who argues this – that what makes “rock” rock, the new thing about it, is that it privileges explorations of rhythm and especially timbre over explorations of harmony and melody. Vocal timbre and the vast sonic space open to the electric guitar, especially. And rhythm and especially timbre are aspects of music where common-practice theory, guided and limited by the Western notation system, has less or no vocabulary than it does for harmony and melody.

    So when you write, “Twelve-bar blues, for instance, is defined by a certain chord progression.” I read a dangerous oversimplification. 12-bar blues is partly specified by a certain (set of) chord progressions, yes. But it’s also specified by a couple of different blues scales, none of which can be “spelled” according to common-practice dictate. (That is, using each letter from A-G exactly once over an octave.) And it’s characterized by bent notes that hit pitches not precisely even on the blues scales. (e.g., if you bend the fifth note in a G-Major blues, you’ll likely bottom out at a bitch below D-natural but above G-flat.) And it gains its power by the variation among clear tones, muffled tones, fuzz tones, etc. that have as much or more to do with timbre and attack than simple harmonic analysis can convey.

    Perhaps someone could extend common-practice theory to include a well-specified vocabulary for discussing timbre. After all, Western theory has made great strides in finding ways to discuss polyrhythms. But I don’t think anyone thinks common-practice theory has completed this work, or necessarily really begun it. Instead, there’s a temptation to say, “Hm, 12-bar blues is a pretty simple progression of 3 chords that aren’t quite diatonic to each other, so it’s harmonically impoverished and devoid of interest, except when these jazz guys over here throw in a bunch of substitutions.”

    Is that clearer? It’s just an elaboration of the argument in the Storify story, but maybe more useful.

  4. *There are several COMMON concepts. (edit to above)

    I also think Jim’s comment about Drop-D tuning is going a bit too far–I’d think the scientific analogue would be someone going on about optical glass quality and the merits of sapphire vs silica in a piece on some new result on BECs–it’s too technical, and of limited public importance. But that doesn’t mean that discussions of more accessible things (like rhythm and harmony) are right out. It’s possible to stick a bit of explanation of what’s scientifically interesting about the Eagle Nebula along with just an eye-catching graphic.

  5. I would note that I’ve heard exactly the sort of argument Jim mentions– a long time ago now, I had an argument at lunch with a post-doc who was claiming that pop/rock music was inferior because it has less dynamic range than classical music. A full orchestra encompasses a much wider range of frequencies from high to low than you usually hear from pop music, which is generally restricted to what you can easily get out of a guitar. To him, that meant that rock music was inherently boring because of the reduced bandwidth, while to me, it seemed largely irrelevant– while the range of chords occurring may be smaller, there’s a rich variety of stuff going on that lets you distinguish between pop musicians, in the way that they play those chords. A fan of guitar-based pop will instantly be able to distinguish between, say, Richard Thompson and Eddie Van Halen (to take fairly extreme examples) not because one plays a different range of notes than the other, but in the way they play them, and subtle variations in how they process the music. Even people who write about this stuff for a living sometimes struggle to find a vocabulary to describe it, though.

  6. a long time ago now, I had an argument at lunch with a post-doc who was claiming that pop/rock music was inferior because it has less dynamic range than classical music.

    You and that postdoc may well have been talking past each other: in music “dynamic range” specifically means the contrast between the soft and loud parts. That’s one of several ways to make a piece of music interesting, and the postdoc was correct that popular music, on average, makes less use of it than does classical music, mainly because it’s easier to vary the force with which you are blowing air or pushing a string with a bow (as well as varying which and how many instruments are playing) than to adjust a volume knob while playing an instrument. But it’s not the only way to make a piece of music more interesting. Rhythm, modulation, and timbre are also available. Jim is correct that rock music makes greater use of timbre than classical music does, but again, that’s something that’s easier for electric instruments (where there are knobs you can adjust) than for acoustic instruments (especially wind instruments–string players can pluck the strings or use the wood rather than the usual horsehair side of the bow); it’s still there in classical music, where you might have violins playing a theme here and an oboe playing that same theme at other points. I may not be able to tell you on a blind listen whether Yo-Yo Ma or Mstislav Rostropovich is playing that cello part (though someone more knowledgable than I might), but I can tell you it’s a cello and not a violin or trombone.

    As for frequency ranges: They really aren’t that different between a given pop music instrument and a given classical music instrument. The standard piano (used in both genres) can cover a bit over seven octaves. Depending how it’s built, an electric guitar will typically be able to cover up to four octaves; the best wind instrument players might, depending on instrument, get about 3.5 octaves (some instruments less). If an orchestra has an advantage in frequency range, it’s because you have a piccolo and a tuba available at the same time (as well as several instruments in between), but it’s still about the same range, or less, as a piano. So in that sense, your postdoc friend was definitely wrong. Popular music may not always use as much of the range as a typical classical piece would, but it’s there for songwriters who want to use it, and some do.

  7. That misuse of “dynamic range” is my innovation; the conversation back in the day was about pitch, because it started from the observation that scanning through the radio dial in an unfamiliar station had made him realize that all pop songs fall in a narrow-ish range, while orchestral classical music covers a wider range. And I think that observation is true in a statistical sense, at least. That is, the average pop/rock tune falls in a band of pitches around the middle of the range of a guitar, with only occasional excursions outside that. I just don’t think it’s terribly meaningful.

  8. Well, I count myself as the average music listener and I know a little bit about music theory, though I don’t have the training the recognize the relevant pieces unless somebody tells me. I mean, I vaguely know what a D7 or a chord inversion is, but I need to see the chords written down to be able to tell what’s going on. That having been said, this applies to classical music as well as to pop music, just that pop music tends to be dramatically simpler and makes up for this by building in other elements.

    And since I’m typing anyway, I entirely fail to see the appeal of that song. And the video of that music prof is truly terrible.

    Be that as it may, pop music is only partly about the music. It’s to a large extent about the story that’s being told, about the person, about the message. Take as an example this thing:

    Now remove the context and replace the lyrics with something irrelevant (you know, some boy meets girl whatever thing) and nobody would have listened to this.

  9. Regarding the pitch range, it’s one thing to write tunes for an orchestra with a professional choir and another thing to write a tune for some guy who can only hit three tones. Also, people like to sing along. You can shift a full octave, but if the vocal range of the tune is too large you have to skip in the middle which is awkward. Take Gotye’s song “Somebody that I used to know”. It has this awesome interlude with Kimbra, which is a full octave higher than the verses (guessing). I doubt that many people can sing the whole thing start to end.

  10. You can shift a full octave, but if the vocal range of the tune is too large you have to skip in the middle which is awkward.

    An example which almost all Americans would be familiar with: “The Star-Spangled Banner”. The vocal part covers an octave plus a fifth, which is roughly the range of a decent (but not operatically trained) choir singer. Unlike most songs, this one is performed in different keys, according to the convenience of the performers: a marching band will usually play it in B flat, while an orchestra will usually play it in G. I can sing it without shifting octaves in the former key but not the latter: the low G is a little too low for my voice, but the high (for a tenor/baritone) F is no problem if I am in good health.

    There are popular music singers with wider ranges. Peter Gabriel, at least at his 1980s peak, had a vocal range of at least three octaves and wasn’t afraid to use it. And there are some popular songs I don’t like because it is too clear the songwriter didn’t respect the limitations of the singer (who may be the same person). I put most of Led Zeppelin’s work in this category: Robert Plant has a good singing voice in its natural tenor range but an annoying falsetto (which most of Led Zeppelin’s songs call for), and I have heard orchestral versions of that music that I liked better because they didn’t feature Plant’s falsetto. Beethoven made at least one similar mistake after going deaf: in the finale of the Ninth Symphony he asks the soprano soloist to sing a high B (almost two octaves above middle C) with a German Ü sound, which is almost impossible even for the best-trained soprano to pull off (this is not coincidentally in the most tedious section of that movement). Other songwriters are, shall we say, more aware of the limitations of their instrument.

  11. Funny you mention Peter Gabriel. I’m a longtime fan – I picked up his second solo LP when it came out – and I just covered “Here Comes the Flood” at, basically, piano recital. (I’m a late bloomer…) And there was no way I was getting up to the high G# at the end of either the first or final chorus. Like most men who cover the song, I did the first chorus an octave lower, roughly, where even Gabriel does most of it these days. For the second time through, I decided to take the “It’ll be those who gave their islands to survive” part up by…a third. And still didn’t quite nail it in the throes of mid-performance jitters. πŸ˜€

    But! My lifelong fandom notwithstanding, for the top end of his range Gabriel relied on some fairly strained head tones and then falsetto. So I’m surprised to hear you compare him favorably with Plant on that score. To be sure, Gabriel’s music has a much bigger place in my heart than Led Zeppelin music, but I’d have a hard time crediting that to Gabriel’s superior pipes.

    Besides, all us snobs know that McCartney basically anticipated Plant’s entire bag of tricks in the Let It Be sessions. (Remember, those were in the can for considerable time before coming out, so don’t go throwing the release timing of LZ I vs. Let It Be at me. πŸ˜‰ )

  12. We’re getting into matters of taste here, but of course each singer has his own pattern of overtones, which is how we can tell them apart. The overtones shift a bit depending on what part of the range a singer is using. I don’t have a spectrum analyzer handy, so I can’t quantify this, but I suspect that Plant’s overtones shift more rapidly, and not in a good way, than Gabriel’s when each goes into falsetto. And some people (I am certainly one) find some voices more annoying than others. It’s the same reason most classical music aficionados prefer a Stradivarius to an ordinary violin: the overtones from a Stradivarius are particularly pleasing to most of the people who listen to classical music.

  13. As an aside, one lesson my piano teacher bubbled with delight that, “I told my mom one of my students was learning a Peter Gabriel song and she got really excited.”

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