Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Unoriginal or Extremely Limited?

     It seems like every time you turn on your tv, listen to the radio, or even hear your favorite artist’s new album, something in their song sounds strikingly familiar to you. Have you heard the song before? Is your favorite artist unoriginal or is it possible the artist is actually just musically limited?

“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” – Bert Lance

     We live in a time where instant gratification rules every single aspect of our livelihood. In addition, Western music (the music our culture is accustomed to) is based on seven notes in the diatonic scale. That means we essentially have twelve notes to work with in music. This means possibilities for melodic composition are broad (this does not even consider chords, progression, texture, instrumentation etc.).  But what we do not take into consideration is our tendency to want to listen to the AABA and verse/chorus/bridge song form.  AABA is one of the most common song forms according to About.com, and it is most used in pop, gospel and jazz music.

     If song forms and other traditional processes to create music create great music, why steer away from it (besides to be an innovator or evolutionary artist, which sometimes doesn't create the biggest fan base)? Simply put, we live in a society that wants its artists to push out music now and to do so often (because of instant gratification i.e. the microwave age).  The fans value simple melodies just as much as they value the painstakingly difficult melodies, harmonies and chord progressions. So why would an artist want their music to go unappreciated when they spent so much time on the complex melodies and instrumentation? No artist wants to go on unappreciated. Prince spoke on this issue and gave his honest opinion. He said "I personally can't stand digital music. You're getting sound in bits. It affects a different place in your brain. When you play it back, you can't feel anything. We're analogue people, not digital". Prince has since stopped releasing his recorded music because it will only profit “Apple and Google” in his opinion (from artistdirect.com). A great example of the “analogue” sound Prince speaks of is Morris Day and The Time (a band Prince worked often with in the 1970s and 1980s). Here's their song “Walk”.  The riffs and intricacies of every instrument truly created a great track and you can hear a very different sound in this music and the music we buy today.


     Sampling is too often said to be unoriginal most often by people who value the music sampled.  Many baby boomers hear songs like “We are the Champions” by the Diplomats, “Otis” by Jay Z and Kanye West, “Music” by Erick Sermon, or “Fantasy” by Mariah Carey and feel as though music artists today have no originality. (These examples include samples from Otis Redding, Marvin Gaye, the Tom Tom Club, and Queen.) In reality, many artists sample because they respect the music/artist sampled or they want to pay homage.  If all a rapper heard blasting in his mom’s house as a kid was Marvin Gaye, those memories are forever imprinted in that rapper's mind.  They hold that music close to their heart.  It reminds them of family, of childhood, and of good times.  Believe it or not, music artists and producers do endure a lengthy process to “clear” a song for creative use according to Nolo.com.

     In all honesty, the instances of similarity amongst popular music today are numerous because we collectively have allowed them to be.  If we praise and buy the albums of artists who use a four chord progression in every song, other artists may feel our culture does not want to hear complex music. So they “give the people want they want” so to speak. Maybe it is a never ending cycle. 
Bottom line is music should evoke feelings.  As long as it does, people will listen, regardless of its complexity, its writer, its recording quality, etc.  To end lightheartedly, get lost in the Axis of Awesome’s music video on pop music’s common four chord progression: I V vi IV.

check out Axis of Awesome here!


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