How can modern music mix with traditional theory?


This question originally appeared on Quora.

Response from NYU M.Sc. candidate, composer, teacher, versatile musical dork, Ethan Hein:

The world of academic music is slowly taking over the way in which conventional teaching of music theory serves practicing musicians rather poorly. The pop music pedagogy movement, led by lucie green, does creative work aimed at aligning music education with the way people experience and understand music today. Rather than trying to identify a canonical set of works and a limited set of rules defined by that canon, we should take an ethnomusicological approach. We should ask ourselves: what do musicians do that sounds good? What patterns can we detect in the great mass of music created and enjoyed around the world?

I have my own set of ideas about what constitutes mainstream practice music in America in 2014, but I also come with my own set of biases and preferences. It would be better to have solid data on what we all collectively think makes valid music. Trevor de Clercq and David Temperley bravely attempted to construct such a data set, at least in one specific area: the harmonic practices used in rock, as defined by rolling stone the magazine’s list of 500 greatest songs of all time. De Clercq and Temperley transcribed the top 20 songs from each decade between 1950 and 2000. You can see the results in their article, “A corpus analysis of rock harmony.” They also have a website where you can download their raw data and analyze it yourself. The whole project is a masterpiece of descriptivist music theory, as opposed to music theory prescriptivist kind.

Of course the rolling stone top 500 has some issues as a dataset. First, there is no common agreement on what the word oscillate even refers. De Clercq and Temperley identify two main meanings of the word. There is the meaning rolling stone uses, a generic term for the late 20sandAnglo-American popular music of the last century. By this definition, rock includes soul/R&B standards, disco hits, in-between pop, and some iconic country, jazz, and hip-hop songs. On the other hand, there is the narrower and more descriptive meaning of the word oscillate which includes Led Zeppelin and Aerosmith but specifically excludes jazz, hip-hop, etc. From this point of view, the rolling stone list is not really a list of rock songs; it is a list of the “greatest songs of the rock era”. De Clercq and Temperly do not get too bogged down in semantics; the rolling stone The list is as comprehensive as a consensus mainstream pop collection, so it’s a good place to start.

A few results emerge from the study. As you can imagine, the toned i is the most commonly used tuning in the rolling stone corpus. However, the most common next chord is IV, and it most often precedes I. Right away we have a conflict with traditional classical theory, where the most fundamental tonal building block is the Cadence VI. Rock uses a lot of VIs, but he uses even more IV-Is. And the third most common pretonic chord in rock isn’t ii, as you’d expect if you went to music school; it’s bVII, reflecting rock musicians’ love for mixolydian mode. These same three chords – IV, V, and bVII – are also the most tonic-following in rock, again very much at odds with classical practice. De Clercq and Temperley observe:

In the light of these data, one could conclude that the rock is not at all governed by rules of “progression”; rather, there is an overall hierarchy of preference for certain harmonies over others, regardless of context.

In common practice music, conventional theory dictates that certain root patterns are preferred over others: ascending fourth motion is particularly normative (much more so than descending fourth motion); descending thirds are preferred to ascending thirds and ascending seconds to descending seconds (Schoenberg 1969). Are these principles also observed in rock? We immediately see that the standards of common practice music do not hold. For each interval, the ascending and descending forms are approximately equal in frequency. The ascending perfect fourth is almost exactly as common as the descending perfect fourth; for other intervals as well, a similar trend is observed. The frequency of the intervals decreases very regularly as the distance from the circle of fifths increases.

Blues is a central pillar of rock, and the blues violates quite a few principles of mainstream classical harmony. Most important is the distinction between major and minor. The sound of the blues is largely the sound of minor melodies and chord extensions over major chord progressions. The more blues-oriented flavors of rock are also ambiguous in their major/minor identity. Most of the time, rock chords are neither major nor minor, like the famous power chordwhich is just root-fifth root.

The harmonic situation becomes even more complicated if you include hip-hop in the data set. the rolling stone the list includes “Bring the noisefrom Public Enemy, which has no triadic harmony. De Clercq and Temperley solved this problem by simply not including the track in their analysis, which is unfortunate. A real theory of contemporary music would have to deal with hip-hop, which may not have triads but has strongly melodic vocal lines, modal harmonies, and sometimes very crisp and dissonant dissonances. microtones.

In my opinion, the most intriguing idea advanced by de Clercq and Temperley is the superfashionthe collection of pitches most frequently used in rock melodies.

Temperley explains:

The supermode could be thought of as the union of the Ionian (major) and Aeolian (natural minor) modes; it could also be thought of as a set of adjacent scale degrees on the line of fifths, extending from scale degree 6 to scale degree 7. In enharmonic terms, this collection excludes only two scale degrees, scale degree 4/scale degree 5 and scale in a row. degree 1 / degree flat 2 – precisely the same degrees that are outside the “global” scale collection of common practice music.

I like the idea of ​​supermode. Classical music’s obsession with the major scale runs counter to most Americans’ intuition. Sure, we like the major scale, but it doesn’t sound like the One True Generative Scale that classical music claims to be. The flat sevenths seem to me as “natural” as the natural sevenths. (In fact, seventh-flats are much lower in the harmonic series; you could argue that the mixolydian should be the One True Scale.) I think the best idea would be to just teach kids supermode, rather than to hit them with the confusing idea that you have to change the major scale to get the sounds you’re used to.

The original version of this post appeared on Ethan Hein’s blog. See the follow-up post to find out if science can make better music theory.

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