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Constraint in Pop Vs. Classical Music

Posted by Ben on December 24, 2011 at 2:35 AM

     **Before I say anything, please note that I love pop music just as much as I love other types of music. I am not intending anything in this post to be a commentary on the quality of pop or classical music.**

     For my latest project, I am collaborating with a senior at my college on her final project as a dance major. One of the sections in her project calls for a pop song, so I have been dabbling around at my keyboard trying to get some ideas. I have found it really difficult and have spent a lot of time speculating as to why.

     Part of the reason why I find popular music so difficult to write is that it could not be more restricted. I do not wish to rattle off all of the musical norms in pop, since doing so could be the subject of a separate post and music theory is alienating to many, but almost all pop songs have a limited harmonic vocabulary, use symmetrical phrase structure and repeating drum and bass patterns, and place structurally important events on downbeats. Lyrically, almost all pop songs are about the same few sets of issues (one of the reasons why I generally have more interest in rap lyrics than pop lyrics and why I admire Lady Gaga) and have choruses which repeat a "hook" many times. Also, though different parts of the song may make different points, the lyrics as a whole rarely feel like a "journey" where each subsequent verse expands on the points made by its predecessors in the way that they would in a Sondheim song. (That doesn't necessarily make them bad, it just contributes to the sense of limitation). Finally, it doesn't seem like many pop artists write "funny" songs. Even the ones that come close like "Stacy's Mom" and "F*ck You" seem more FUN than FUNNY. But I could be wrong about that.

     Normally, constraint is good. Igor Stravinsky famously said, "My freedom will be so much the greater and more meaningful the more narrowly I limit my field of action and the more I surround myself with obstacles. Whatever diminishes constraints, diminishes strength." However, in contexts in which the constraints are imposed externally, then the pieces are usually "about" toying with the constraints. For instance, in a haiku poem, it is obvious what the constraints are, so part of the charm of haikus lies in using that restricted form to make a point about whatever topic is being discussed. Most people who write haikus have also written other types of poems, so they must think of how to adjust to the new challenge. To bring it back to music, the opening of John Adams' opera "Nixon in China" is just ascending A minor scales, but Adams toys around with which instruments play the A minor scale at which times, at what speed each instrument plays it, etc. Most jazz solos occur in an even number of measures with a simple chord structure underneath, but most soloists do such cool stuff above all of that that the listener almost forgets that the underlying framework is so simple. Constraints like these facilitate the artistic process because they allow the artist to already know some degree of what their work is going to be "about" before he or she starts creating it, and the constrained form sparks immediate questions which help get things going.

      However, unlike classical composers, I don't think pop composers really think of any of the formulas behind pop music as constraints. I think that these constraints are just the nature of how they express their musical thoughts. While a writer of a haiku or a minuet is certainly well aware of their formal constraints, I think pop people naturally think within that constrained idiom. They eat, sleep, and breathe 4-bar phrases, I-V-IV-I progressions, and intro-verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge or instrumental-chorus out, so their music sounds genuine. In the same vein, if I gave an emotional rant to someone, I would not feel constrained by the fact that the subjects of my sentences have to agree with the verbs. I probably wouldn't even be aware that I am using subject/verb agreement in the first place unless someone else explicitly brought it to my attention, because I have internalized subject/verb agreement enough that it has become automatic. I think pop singers internalize song form in a similar way; I don't think they see their music as constrained. Unlike classical music, where the constraints are acknowledged and imposed externally, the constraints from pop music are felt internally. In the instances I've seen where pop songs go outside the traditional formulas, they seem to hold everything else constant to keep the piece from sounding too out there, making the piece still sound pretty similar to other pop songs. The few (extremely few) songs that break almost all of the formulas usually come across as pretentious and trying too hard, but that is admittedly a matter of taste.

     This discrepancy between internal and external constraint makes it a lot harder to write in the pop style than to write a minuet or any other constrained classical music style. Almost all of the attempts I've made at writing a pop song don't sound genuine in the same way that Alicia Keys' songs do. They sound like a restrained classical person wishing to do more and getting frustrated with the pop style, similar to what might result if someone was told to break up with their lover using only words beginning with the letter "A". To the person whose language does not include "A", doing so is no problem, but to the person whose language is filled with "A"s, it can get annoying.

     I think the issue of external versus internal constraint is why it in general doesn't work as well when classical composers attempt to write pop music as it does when pop musicians try out classical music. Look at the comparitive successes of Copland's ventures into jazz (the pop music of his time) versus Gershwin's ventures into classical. Look at William Bolcom's pop-influenced musical, "Casino Royale", versus Johnny Greenwood's (Radiohead's guitarist) string symphony, which served as the background music for "There Will be Blood". I think that this difference in success exists because when one is used to writing in the freer classical idiom for so long, the amount of rules in pop music feel overwhelming. However, when one comes from the rigidly constrained background of pop, their constrainted background can add a sense of clarity and "catchiness" to the classical pieces, which can sound cool, especially today when contemporary classical music is stereotyped as being thorny and inaccessible.

     Either way, I'll do my best!

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