The Popular Music Dilemma: What John Cage Can Teach Us about Listening
The Popular Music Dilemma
We often hear popular music spoken of with disdain. We accuse rappers of promoting poor values and condemn pop stars for being too provocative. While those types of arguments often have plenty of merit, it is important to consider the other side of things as well. We need to remember that popular music is a business. Producers think of their music as a product, and seek to form it into something easy to digest and immediately entertaining for the listener. Other types of music, the kind composed by artists who are more likely to be intrinsically motivated, require much more work on the part of the listener. The marketability of the former pushes other genres out of the limelight, listeners hear and anticipate a certain type of “sound” after a while, and the cycle continues.
Anyone seeking to enjoy contemporary or post modern music will have to forego popular music streaming services like Spotify and Pandora and search for hours for the kind of music they like, all while cultivating their musical ears to a degree that allows them to be comfortable with non-traditional sounds. It is my hope that after reading this article, you will have a fresh perspective to give the next time your friend or family member, caught up in the nostalgia of the 60’s says, “music these days just isn’t good anymore”. Maybe the type of music that becomes popular says something about us. If that is true, maybe there is also something we can do about it.
One reason we worry about the content in music is that art is in some ways viewed as an educational tool. When songs like “Take me to Church” play on the radio, we hail them as progressive because they promote social change. When songs promote violence or drugs, we condemn them for advertising poor values, which can lead us to the opinion that artists should stop writing music like that. It is also important to realize that imposing restrictions on the content of music is somewhat like telling fast food chains their french fries can only have a certain amount of calories. Maybe the problem really lies in the fact that we like french fries way too much. We will play songs on the radio over and over until our ears are weighted down by the redundancy and even our favorite songs have lost their luster. Technology has brought us to the point where we can instantly gratify our cravings with almost anything we want, and we are beginning to realize that this might not be so healthy for us. No easy answer presents itself when we look at what responsibility companies or music labels have in promoting social change. However, when we look at what responsibility consumers have in this arena, some practical options arise.
One option is to shift our focus away from being consumers towards being more adventurous in our exploration of sound. Social messages are only one small part of what makes something art. There are contemporary composers out there right now writing music that is high quality, but it is not advertised and honestly is hardly even recognized as art by many music lovers. These composers use radical techniques like atonal melodies, nontraditional instruments, and complicated rhythms in their music. While there has been a disappointing divide between popular music and contemporary classical music in the past years, these two sides can come together beautifully and there are ways that we can continue this trend in the future.
You can hear hints of these techniques in the soundtracks of the Lord of the Rings where Howard Shore brings the melancholic dissonance of Arvo Part to the big screen, Lost where Michael Giacchino creates an ensemble of great sounds using PROPS FROM THE PLANE CRASH SCENE (sorry for yelling, I’m still geeking out about that), and Sherlock Holmes (Robert Downey Jr’s film) where Hanz Zimmer uses an invention he discovered on YouTube called the “Experibass”. In fact, most of the music you hear in films draws from contemporary music. The Star Wars soundtrack was not composed out of the blue. John Williams relied heavily on The Planets by Gustav Holst for inspiration.
Sadly, anything relying too heavily on contemporary (often atonal) methods is deemed only fit for horror or drama like the scores in The Shining (Wendy Carlos, and Rachel Elkind-Tourre) or There Will be Blood (Jonny Greenwood, guitarist from Radiohead), in part because the uncertain or uncomfortable reaction these sounds elicit from most people complement the style. As an interesting side note, the main theme of The Shining soundtrack uses a motif from Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique, yet another example of classical music influencing popular music. It might not be appropriate for me to label soundtracks as popular music because, as I have shown, in many cases the lines are fairly blurred. These bridges between contemporary and popular music are rare because the two areas have become sadly polarized in recent years. Many people who listen to well-known contemporary pieces such as “Pierrot Lunaire” by Arnold Schoenberg, or Schubert’s “Der Erlkonig”, are somewhat put-off, and because of this fail to pursue further contemporary classical music.
Much of the contemporary classical music world is difficult to listen to, and the absence of an emotional connection to foreign sounding music leaves listeners with lingering discomfort. Music lovers want to listen to something that sounds “good”. “Good” music is supposed to immediately inspire us with feelings like triumph or sadness. This is the popular view, at least. When we hear something that makes no sense at all, we assume there is no sense of which to make. The expectation is that music should immediately entertain, as if it is some sort of product. However, before we can really tell if it resonates with us, we first need to make sure we are listening correctly. We can think of this as being a radio stuck at one station, versus a radio with a working dial. Once we know how to adjust our ears, we can “tune into” different styles that are just as enjoyable as popular styles.
John Cage, a famous American composer, has a lot to say about how we listen to music. Throughout his career, he experimented with non-traditional styles such as chance, indeterminacy, and unusual instruments. Eastern thought and philosophy heavily influenced his avant-garde musical style. He composed 4’ 33”, his most famous piece, just before the peak of his career in 1952 . John Cage explains his philosophy behind 4’33” seconds here. For those of you who are not familiar with the piece, it is originally for piano but it can be performed by many different ensembles (which, for those of you who have listened to the piece, is not quite as irrelevant as you might think). It is always exactly 4 minutes and 33 seconds as the title implies. For the purposes of this discussion, deciding whether this technically counts as music or not is pointless. What we need to look at is how this makes us think about what music means to us and how that relates to what we hear in popular music.
Like working ourselves up towards reading difficult books, we have to work towards being able to understand and enjoy more complicated music. Just like exercising or eating better, the onset can be the opposite of rewarding but the long term benefits are worth the work.
Listening to 4’ 33” can be quite baffling at first. The performers sit motionless as the conductor keeps time with almost mock seriousness. Coming from a stereotypical perspective of music, the entire piece seems ridiculous. This is because we assume that what we should be listening to is the sound given to us by the performer. Yes, this is one way we can listen to music, but it is not the only way. Audience members in those performances who really keep an open mind during this piece might start to become hyper aware of the sounds around them. Lights buzzing, seats creaking, confused whispering, and air conditioners humming are all sounds that are ignored normally, but can come together in a beautiful way. Listeners realize that they are not listening to silence at all. Cage’s piece is hailed as revolutionary, not for its aesthetic value, but in its ability to challenge current perspectives of music. If we could treat all sound with this much respect, we could find as much beauty in the sounds of a busy street corner as we could in our favorite pop song.
The Four Chord Song
Relinquishing preconceived notions of how things should be allows us to savor what simply is. What happens when we don’t do this? Holding onto expectations of quality condenses and limits the potential sound available for us to hear. We crave originality but demand familiarity. Basically, we want to have our cake and eat it too. Popular music has identified and maximized on what could be considered the most popular way of writing music; the notorious “four chord song”. The problem with this lies in the fact that there are only so many ways to write a song with four chords. If you haven’t already, take a listen to the YouTube video by the Axis of Awesome (warning, the f-bomb is dropped). They compile a chain of famous choruses in succession without changing the key, tempo, or chord progression. What this is intended to show is just how many different songs, even our cherished classics, use the very same techniques. With these limitations set in place by the demanding audience, it’s no wonder we can’t be satisfied!
What Happens Next?
John Cage would encourage listeners to withhold immediate judgement when listening to music. Sometimes it takes a few listens to get into an album. That is when you know your mind has found brilliance. When the complexity is just too much to make sense of, or the meaning to deep to grasp during the first listen. Try this right now with a piece by SO Percussion. Remember, the point is to listen with an open mind.
The “fault” of a “declining” music industry lies nowhere in particular. Artists bear as much responsibility for creating originality as we have in putting forth effort to interpret it. It is important to note that songs on the radio are not inherently worse than any other type of music. Who hasn’t jammed out to Katy Perry at least once? Something about four chord songs seems to immediately hit us with a direct and intense sensation. How else could songs we don’t even really like get stuck in our heads? This is no better or worse than savoring a cheeseburger or enjoying our favorite reality TV show. The state of the music industry today shows us just what can happen when we have too much of a good thing. With our busy schedules and hectic lives, it is just as difficult to take the time to learn about contemporary classical music as it is to maintain a healthy diet. It takes time, energy, and sometimes even outside guidance.
However, if music is really important to you, instead of complaining about how bad music is these days, listen to a contemporary song you haven’t heard before. Consider it auditory calisthenics. Start off with a an earlier piece like Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, then move towards more modern challenges to classical styles like “The Unanswered Question” by Charles Ives, until you get to the postmodern period with composers like John Adams (start with “Shaker Loops”). You probably won’t like everything you hear but neither do the pros! Make a commitment to listen to just one piece each day, and your musical world will expand wonderfully. Dear readers, I leave you with a quote (falsely attributed to Nietzsche) that says, “those who were seen dancing were thought to be insane by those who could not hear the music.”
What do you think? Leave a comment.