Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Campbell's Theory of Music



In order to write music, you need to have a theory about what music is. Since I dabble in songwriting, I have my own theory, and here it is....
  • Music is the subcarrier of language. Like songbirds, humans have learned to follow and produce a melodious pattern of sounds because it is essential to their communication. You may think that words are the basis of our communication, but before there can be words there are sound patterns. An infant hears and mimics the “music” of his parents’ speech long before he learns the words. Without a music sense, he wouldn't be able to follow speech. This music skill is innate and preprogrammed. We don’t really have to “learn” music; it comes to us automatically as part of our language firmware.

  • All of the music we appreciate in adulthood is derived from the musical patterns of language. Even if we are listening to a symphony without words, we are processing it through our language circuits. Instrumental music is essentially language with the words and specific meaning stripped out. We listen to language the way an infant does, without necessarily knowing the meaning, and this is naturally pleasing to us.

  • Some sound patterns are more pleasing than others. No one really knows why certain patterns appeal to the ear and others don’t, but there are universal standards that can be understood. For example, no one knows why the diatonic scale is pleasing to the ear, but all our Western instruments are now tuned to it. Certain tones are harmonic and others are discordant, and this probably has more to do with physics and the design of the ear than with culture. You don’t really need to know “why” to be able to produce good music. You just listen with your own ear to what sounds right.

  • Every coherent piece of music has a “melody”. Even if there are many instruments and notes being played, the listener is focused on one of them in particular. This is the “singing voice” of the piece. Even if there are no words, the listener is following this voice as though it was singing meaningful words. This is the part of the music that you can hum afterwards. All the other notes and instruments are icing on the cake. They can certainly contribute to the texture or pleasure of the piece, but they are not essential. Take away the singing voice, and the piece becomes boring and meaningless, while if you leave the singing voice and take away the rest, you still have a comprehensible tune.

  • The melody can switch between instruments and is not always contained in the singing voice. The melody is defined as the primary thing the listener is following at the moment.

  • When composing a piece of music, melody is your top priority. It is the skeleton upon which everything else in the piece is hung, including the words.

  • Every piece of music must have repetition. There must be a pattern of sounds that is established at the beginning and repeated throughout the work. This repeated pattern provides the foundation of the whole piece. Without it, the piece is chaotic and hard to follow, and you can’t really call it “music”; it is more like a person who rambles on about what he is thinking without sticking to the point of the conversation. Everything in the piece is built upon this repeated pattern. Over the course of the piece, there will be variations on the pattern and expansions of it, but before any of that can happen, the pattern has to be firmly established with at least two or three unmodified repetitions. Once you have established the pattern, you can modify it, but you have to come back to the original pattern from time to time to affirm it.

  • The pattern established at the beginning of the piece essentially asks a question, and the job of the rest of the piece is to answer that question. It is almost as if the whole song is preordained in the first 10 seconds.

  • Even if a piece of music is purely instrumental, I consider it a "song". It is processed by the brain in the same way. The listener hears "words" even in an instrumental song, but like a song in a foreign language, they have no distinct meaning.

  • The standard unit of composition is a song of 3-4 minutes. This is a coherent unit with a beginning, middle and an end. If the song is successful, then the listener goes away satisfied, feeling that a question has been asked and answered. As when rising from a good meal, he feels neither hungry or bloated. He may want to hear the song again, but he doesn't want to hear a longer song.

  • No one knows why 3-4 minutes is the optimal length for a song. It may be cultural, but I suspect it is more neurological. In any case, it's a fact of life. If a song is much shorter, the listener feels cheated. If it is longer, he starts getting bored. Even though a symphony can be much longer, it is essentially a series of 3-4 minute songs strong together in “movements”. You can separate these movements from the rest of the symphony, they still made sense and stand on their own. 3-4 minutes seems to the optimal length for the modern listener - the mouthful that he can chew and digest. While some famous songs and many classical movements go on for much longer, nothing significant is lost in a “radio edit” of 3-4 minutes.

  • Whether or not there are words, a song still conveys emotional content. There is conflict, development and resolution. There are emotional highs and lows. You don't need words for this, because the human language circuits can convey emotion by tones alone. (For example, you know when someone's voice is unhappy even if they are speaking a foreign language.) Instrumental music assumes that you can hold a long emotional conversation without any words at all.

  • In a good song, there are moments when you get an emotional thrill—which I call "goosebumps". This is an orgasmic reward that the user gets for listening to the song, and it makes him come back to it again and again. It's very hard to design a "goosebump" moment. It mainly comes about by trial and error.

  • Most songs follow a structured pattern of verse and chorus. The chorus is the strongest and most memorable part, repeated several times during the song. The verse provides the lead-up to the chorus and puts it into perspective. While the chorus is the part everyone remembers (and usually provides the song's title), it can’t exist on its own. You need the verse to provide substance to the song and support to the chorus.

  • All songs have structure; they aren't just pleasing patterns of notes. The most common structure of songs (both sung and instrumental) is Verse-Chorus-Verse-Chorus-Bridge, followed by some combination of Verse and Chorus, then an exit. Again, there's no clear reason why this pattern is successful, but it seems to be what the listener wants and expects.

  • The Bridge is a different pattern of music from the Verse and Chorus but one that is built upon them in some way. It provides a shift in perspective, so the Verse and Chorus are seen differently when they return. Again, no one really understands why a Bridge is necessary, but if it is missing, the song seems incomplete.

  • What happens after the bridge is highly variable, but it is usually a return to the previous patterns of the Verse and Chorus. Whether or not there are words, the Bridge represents a shifting point in the story. When there are words, the Bridge often provides the most meaningful part of the message, putting the whole rest of the song in perspective.

  • Every song has “meaning”, even if there are no words. It sounds cliched, but a song has to "have something to say". It's not just a series of pleasing sounds, but a useful philosophical observation about life. Even if a song has no words, it needs to have meaning. It needs to teach us something about emotions if nothing else.

  • Although there must be meaning, the best songs are vague about what it is. The meaning is metaphorical, not specific. A song must be symbolic enough that the user can read his own experience into it. It's not a song about "Roxanne" or "Maggie" but about the user's own experiences that fit the situations described. A good song should "seem" to know what it is talking about, yet if you analyse the words, you don't really have a clue.

  • A good song is one you can listen to again and again and get something different from it every time. It is a riddle without a solution but where the solution seems just out of reach. A good song is one that ten people can listen to and get ten different interpretations, each of which resonate with them and seem meaningful.

  • The responsibility of the songwriter is to create a compelling riddle to draw in the listener, then keep quiet when people have interpretations different than what he intended.

  • The purpose of a song is to serve the listener. It's not just a please assembly of sounds or the artist expressing himself. The song serves the listener's needs in the same way a plumber or chef does. If the listener is not compelled by the song, it is not his fault. It is the composer's job to make the music accessible to the listener.
[I may add more observations to this list as I think of them.]

No comments:

Post a Comment