Sunday, September 6, 2015

Fear of change and its influence on the practice of music composition


In this blog entry I will formulate some thoughts about how fear of change can explain a number of principles in music composition. It's very well possible that all this has been written before, and much better explained than I will ever be able to do, but I'm in philosophical mood today, and perhaps you'll start to think differently about some things after reading this text. If you experience a feeling of skepticism while reading this article, and feel like it's written by an internet crackpot theorist, rest assured that this is in complete correspondence with what the article predicts will happen :)

Fear of change as an organizing principle in the universe

Fear of change, while sounding specific to human psychology, really permeates the universe. In Newtonian physics, any action will cause a counter-action that resists the original action. If you push your table top down, the table top pushes back and cancels out your intention to change it (until you hit it so hard that it breaks or deforms). Dynamic processes strive for equilibrium, that is, a state in which all changes canceled each other out perfectly and nothing happens anymore. Exactly why all things strive for minimal energy to the best of my knowledge is not known to anyone but it's an empirical observation that has held together science for a few centuries already and has been observed over and again in experiments and observations.

In psychology, “fear of change” is a well-known topic. When Copernicus found that the earth rotates around the sun, it caused massive resistance from the world population. When confronted with the implications of quantum theory (that he helped to establish), Einstein resisted the change in world view it would bring about and declared that "God doesn't throw dice". Announcements for big changes in an organization, e.g., are typically met with skepticism, and quickly resistance and conservatism will pop up to cancel out the announced change. Just google for “change management” to find a myriad of books explaining how to reorganize a corporation. As I will argue in this blog entry, this same mechanism of fear of change (or better "resistance to change") also permeates music theory. 

At the same time the universe doesn't appear to like complete rest. Quantum physics (a revolutionary theory that of course was met with a lot of skepticism at first!) predicts that there's no such thing as complete “rest”. The Heisenberg uncertainty relation necessitates that even at a temperature of 0 Kelvin (the lowest possible temperature in the universe) there must still be a small rest energy. In nature and technology we also observe constant evolution. Change is inevitable it seems. Similarly, in music, listening to a piece that consists of a single note without volume or rhythmic variation that lasts forever is not a pleasant experience. Ask anyone who's suffering from tinnitus what it's like...

Finally, I want to stress that this fear of change is not a bad thing per se. After all, it has helped us survive since the stone age. It was probably safer to eat the berries that your parents ate than to try new berries every day. And it continues until today, since not all big changes or revolutionary “new insights” really have the merit they claim they have (and that may well apply to this blog entry too!)

Fear of change in music

In this section I will list some places where I see fear of change in action in music composition. If you know about more examples, by all means, comment!

3.1 Music style

In modern classical music, certain experiments have been branded "interesting", whereas other experiments have proved to be wildly successful with wide audiences. 

The “12 tone” music style, that resolutely throws away the organizing principle of “sounding good” and replaces it with a different organizing principle of “using all available notes and treating them without differences”, as introduced by Schoenberg, results in music that has many leaps and bounds and, let's face it, has failed to attract a significant audience. On the other hand, “minimal music” with composers like Philip Glass, Steve Reich, Brian Eno, Michael Nyman, Terry Riley and a myriad of others, makes slowly evolving music and continues to be wildly successful with wide audiences. Compared to the 12-tone music, minimal music minimizes change. It also offers just enough changes to keep it from being boring. As such it avoids complete rest.

3.2 Writing melody

When writing melody, e.g. in the context of counterpoint, or in the context of a song, it is advised to avoid big leaps. The reason given by ancient theorists is that smaller leaps are easier to sing. What makes a bigger leap harder to sing accurately than a smaller leap? Is the larger change of pitch a cause for distress in our brains? At the same time, I also took an introduction to counterpoint class, in which I was warned to avoid “turbulence”, i.e. writing a flurry of notes that doesn't seem to go anywhere. Minimize the change, while avoiding complete lack of direction (lack of direction would be a form of equilibrium or rest).

3.3 Voice leading

When moving from chord to chord, voice leading is the principle that makes you do these movements while minimizing the changes in notes. Voice leading is an important topic in many courses on harmony and jazz theory. It is perhaps the most common principle that governs modern music styles (apart from those styles that avoid it on purpose, like the 12-tone music mentioned earlier). Voice leading is a direct application of minimizing change between chords. The fact that you move between chords and don't just stay on the same chord all the time, is a direct application of avoiding complete rest. 

Minimizing changes between chords historically probably also has a second reason: when playing chords on a keyboard it is easiest to play chords that are close together, i.e. where you minimize the changes in required hand and finger movements. Minimizing unneeded movements is absolutely required when learning to play an instrument at the level of a virtuoso. This synergy between physical minimization of change and pyschological minimization of change probably has led voice leading towards the huge role it plays in music composition.

3.4 Fugue construction

While constructing a fugue according to the classical rules, the composer first states the theme, then restates the theme a fifth away from the original theme (but without introducing new accidentals, a so-called modal transposition), then returns to the original theme. This is the so-called “exposition” part of the fugue. During the exposition, the listener is taught the theme that will return in all kinds of variations later on. The theme is taught three times (minimize change), but the second time a fifth away compared to the first and third time (no complete rest). Why a fifth away? At first sight, a fifth seems like a large jump. Why didn't the composer just write the theme a second higher?

There's again an application of the principle here and it requires some explanation. If you transpose all notes from the C major key a perfect fifth up, you get the notes from G major. If you compare the notes of C major and G major, you will notice that they share all the same notes, except for the note f (in C major) compared to a note f# (in G major). G major therefore represents a key that is as close as possible to C major (since it differs in only one accidental) while not being completely the same (since it differs in at least one accidental). A theme written in C major that is modally transposed from c to g will therefore sound maximally the same as the original theme (minimize change). Next time you wonder why moving along the circle of fifths is so popular, fear of change may be the answer you look for.

3.5 Modulation

Modulation is the art of moving from musical key to musical key. When you move from one key to another, you want to gently guide the listener towards this change. When you read about modulation, you will often be advised to modulate to “near” keys, that is, musical keys that do not differ in number of accidentals too much. This is a direct application of minimization of change. 

One can also modulate to more distant keys. In those cases a sudden change, known as direct modulation, is frown upon by composers and theorists. To modulate between keys, especially to distant keys, several advanced techniques have been invented and they involve clever voice leading, sometimes going as far as substituting chromatic notes for enharmonic equivalents, towards a cadence to confirm the new key. These techniques incrementally introduce small changes to the audience so they are guided from the old key into the new key without sudden changes.

3.6 Writing hit songs

Commercial pop music often reuses the same chord progressions. During the 1980-ies, these chords where typically I, IV, V (think: C F G). Nowadays, the new chord progression used in virtually all hit songs is (I, V, vi, IV) (think: C G Am F). Why is that? Why exactly those progressions? Why did I,V,iv,IV come after I,IV,V?

Look at I, IV, V. Remember from the section about fugue construction that transposing a theme a fifth up will maximally retain the existing melody notes. The same is true when transposing a theme a fifth down (note “c” transposed a fifth down gives an “f”. This can just as well be thought of as transposing it a fourth up). When transposing something a fifth up, you need an extra sharp (or one less flat) to completely preserve the same melody. Similarly, when transposing a theme a fifth down, or equivalently a fourth up, you need an extra flat (or one less sharp) to completely preserve the melody. This means that by playing with the chords I, IV, V you have minimized the changes in the set of notes that need to be recognized by an audience, and maximally preserved the possible melodies that can be written on top of these chords.

Complete rest is still not desirable, and so after 20 years of I, IV, V the time was ready for a new chord progression that finds a way to minimize change while avoiding complete rest. And this new chord progression appears to be I, V, vi, IV. It's an evolution from I,IV,V in that it introduces an extra chord. Because the audience is already very used to I, IV, V, this extra chord can inject a bit of much needed change into the music again. The new chord of course is not chosen arbitrarily. It's chosen in such a way that it minimizes change with respect to the old chord progression. 

As before, when going from I to V, you need only one extra accidental. When going from V to vi, you need one less accidental (since vi is the minor equivalent of major I). Then when going from vi to IV, you need one less accidental again, and finally when going back from the final IV to I to sing the next verse, you need a single extra accidental again, making the circle round. Changes have been minimized between every two consecutive chords, and total rest is avoided by moving between different chords.

I'm afraid we're still stuck with I, V, vi, IV for a while, but if you want to define the future, grab your chance, and design a new chord progression that minimizes change while avoiding complete rest :) Unfortunately, you may have trouble selling it to the music publishing companies, since they will probably resist these sudden changes you try to introduce ;) “Never change a winning team/theme!”

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