Saturday, December 19, 2015

Is there a conspiracy to make popular music suck? Part I

Yes. Yes there is. There is an actual and active conspiracy to make sure that popular music is bland and terrible. This is a provable fact.

But first let's look at what's been going down in the world of songwriting.

There have been many "Tin Pan Alleys" in the history of the last 150 or so years of popular music. Their working methodologies have changed over the years. For the longest time there were teams of lyricists and songwriters. The lyricists wrote, well, the lyrics, and the writers came up with the melodies.
Now note that traditionally in copyright law the lyrics are half the publishing and the melody is the other half. There's nothing for other parts of the song. At one time this sort of made sense as "arrangements" are non-copyright-able and more difficult to define in a legally protect-able way.
And up until the Beatles the performers of songs were divorced of the composers of songs -- almost exclusively. So there was a brief period there where the "public" considered "artists" to be composers and performers of songs. In the so-called "rock" world this is still true. Even when artists have extra folks there in the studio (typically called "producers") who, in any sort of non-fictional universe would be considered co-writers of the music but keeping up appearances is the rule of the game so we won't worry about that now will we?

So where are we now? In most pop music there are numerous writers. They are divided now into the guys (and they're almost always guys) who write the "tracks" -- the chords and the beats, and the "top liners" who write the melodies and usually the lyrics.
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Let me back up for a minute. Ever since Schoenberg we've sort of realized that there's no "new" music. It's impossible to write a melody in a tonal system that hasn't been heard before. I mean there's a real limited number of them. I don't know how to do the math but if a phrase is as long as 8 bars and a note is as long as 6 beats in 4/4 and as short as a 16th and we have 11 tones to choose from... there's gotta be a calculator for that. So there's theoretically some septillion number of melodies possible but for all practical purposes many of those melodies sound similar enough that they're "the same".
It could just be 79 billion unique melodies.

But I'm going to go ahead and say that tonally we're looking at only about a few thousand melodies.

That's not particularly relevant to the conversation at hand.
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Okay, so pop music is created slightly differently than it used to be. That's no biggie. And it really all sounds very similar -- especially because we're using tonal scales with mostly blues progressions in 4/4 with accents on the 2nd and 4th beats. We've been doing all that for about 60 years now.

But why does pop music deliberately suck? Well, that's a matter of marketing and promotion. And it's also a matter for the second part of this essay.

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