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Where did the melody go? (2017) (keyboardmag.com)
29 points by grimoald 69 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 47 comments

My issue with this article is that it elevates the ‘melody’ dimension as somehow more worthy than the ‘sonic texture’ dimension.

I think both have equal merit and I enjoy complexity along both dimensions.

Modern music seems to have the highest sonic texture complexity of any music so far and is enjoyable for that.

Bach has high melodic complexity but low texture complexity.

I suspect high complexity along all 4 dimensions simultaneously is too much for the average listener. Artists like Squarepusher and Aphex Twin get close to being high complexity along every dimension but are regarded as ‘challenging’.

I wouldn’t say modern electronic music has a higher level of ‘sonic texture’ than orchestral music, or any music using traditional instruments. The difference is that in modern music ‘sonic texture’ is an explicit mode of “authorial expression.” The sonic textures creates by acoustic instruments are arguably richer, as they are capable of much more subtle modes of expression as playable instruments.

It’s just the case that the development of novel acoustics instruments is a whole separate craft, subject to the annoying vicissitudes of the sonic properties of physical matter. The instruments were developed over centuries.

As soon as instruments became electrified artists began using the ability to express themselves directly by manipulating the sounds themselves.

The sonic experimentation dominating modern pop music is entirely the result of the complete digitization of the sound generating chain.

I also think another factor is that digital synthesizers are woefully impoverished as instruments capable of expression through musical performance. Outside of the voice, modern pop is devoid of real-time musical expression. It’s become a non-real-time process, closer to writing, animation, the visual arts.

This forces the composer to rely on the native capacities of the instruments to express ideas, and the one that is completely unavailable in the acoustic realm is to chain the fundamental timbre of the instrument.

I’m a producer, recording engineer. The author of the original piece is missing that the only reasons a composer could imagine they were working primarily with the modes or melody, harmony, rhythm is that there is highly developed tradition of musicianship and instrument design to fill in the most fundamental aspect of music, which is the actual sound.

Edit: there is another huge factor in the decline of melody which is the product of two interrelated technology developments. The first is the use of loop based sequencing techniques for compositional work, and the second is that the random-access editing techniques made possible by modern digital audio workstations extended the loop based composition process to all sounds, including the voice.

Loops are basically short compositions. If you spend a lot of time in this mode or composition, your ideas will tend to be short. The actual mechanics of how the music is made disincline the composer from constructing both traditional harmony and melody.

The DAW has fundamentally disconnected music from the strict relationship with linear time that was inherent before the age of recording. To some extent musical notation allowed composers to work around this, but the end result was always an expression that had to have a thought out beginning, middle, and end.

I wrote an essay on this subject that I think is pretty good. https://dnamusiclabs.com/harmonic-distortion/daw-and-end-tim...

>> "The sonic textures creates by acoustic instruments are arguably richer, as they are capable of much more subtle modes of expression as playable instruments."

Synths are slowly catching up. You can pack quite a lot of expression into Serum with two wavetable oscillators, a noise and sub oscillator, modulating anything by note or velocity, alternate tunings, and a wide range of modulatable adjustments.

It's not a viola, but you can make some very unique instruments with it. Most people use it to make yet another dubstep bass or hypersaw, but the potential is there.

I like Serum a lot, but it has the same set of issues that make all of these digital synths limited as performance instruments compared to, say, a piano.

The issue starts with the low resolution of MIDI. Most instruments implement only velocity connected to keys, with max 128 layers of resolution.

A real piano has near infinite resolution on velocity alone.

This exacerbates the issue that digital synths are generally deterministic, meaning for the same input they produce the same output.

Because the resolution of the controller is so low, attempts to introduce variety rely on randomness. In an acoustic instrument the same sound cant ever be produced twice. But this is a result of a complex, chaotic system, not randomness.

A major factor in the inherently chaotic sound is that each note is exciting the same physical object, even a note played with the same velocity (like a disklavier piano system could) will sound different every time based on the state of the whole large object. As notes are added to a chord or arpeggio, they are not just superimposed over each other, instead they each contribute their energy to the whole object.

The use of mod wheels definitely helps with expressiveness in the hands of a good player.

But my sense is that even “players” are forgoing using these instruments as performance tools, and instead loop the sections, and piece through the whole song, listening carefully, modifying the midi data directly based on what they a hearing.

This has definitely resulted in some very imaginative and striking work, but, to my ear anyway, it has a very different feel as a mode of artistic expression. It’s more “cerebral” in some way.

MIDI 2.0 will likely improve the situation. 4,294,967,296 possible values isn't enough to match a real instrument's range, but it's quite a bit better than 127! Serum has two chaos oscillators that help avoid deterministic-y music. Too many preset designers skip them.

Take a look at Sphere from Echo Sound Works. They sampled a bunch of real instruments and used them for wavetables and noises for Serum presets.


> 4,294,967,296 possible values isn't enough to match a real instrument's range

I don't think this is true -- I doubt our ears can recognize a 2^-32 difference in anything, and there's no way physical instruments can be played with that kind of precision either.

As I've improved as a songwriter and composer over the years, it's been frustrating that the area in which I have least skill (sound design) has become the primary mode of expression in popular music

(As a listener though I find new music as engaging and exciting as I ever did)

Does the author mean mainstream "on the radio" pop, or the plethora of music we not explore and listen to on music services? I've venture to say the Top 100 lists occupy a smaller proportion of today's listeners thane ever before. We are unconstrained. And melody is out there.

My apologies for the plethora of smartphone typos in the parent comment.

> While nobody knows for sure, it is believed that when music began, the most dominant if not the only element was rhythm. No melody, no harmony – just rhythm. At first it may have been random objects, and later drums. This may have been thousands of years ago, but at the time, that was it.

What is the evidence for this theory? People sing in all sorts of societies all around the world. Are there even examples of human societies without singing?

It’s hard for me to imagine some time “thousands of years ago” when there was no singing or other melodic music of any kind, but only drumming on “random objects”.

If there are direct examples of 35,000 year old flutes, https://www.nytimes.com/2009/06/25/science/25flute.html then presumably this “thousands of years ago” referred to is considerably older than that.

> Melody was probably the next element that came into play, mostly through the various religious chants; in most cases with little to no rhythmic or harmonic context.

Chanting and singing are two significantly different forms, and chanting does not necessarily have much if any melodic content. It does not seem to me that one is obviously primary; people continue to do singing and religious chanting side by side in many cultures.

Maybe there’s some better evidence about this somewhere? It would be nice to see something more convincing.

For those interested in prehistoric instruments, I suggest the research by Dr. Lana Neal. It is a book (based on Dr. Neal's Ph.D. thesis) on the Paleolithic flute. The evidence includes, quite naturally, radiocarbon-dated instruments and fragments, but most interesting to me where the cave paintings that include quite clear depictions of flute players.

[1] https://www.amazon.com/Earliest-Instrument-Fertility-Paleoli...

IMHO there can be no direct evidence, only speculation.

My thought is that it's easier to make sounds in a rhythm (on/off) than it is to control the pitch of those sounds (relative to previous sound).

Also thousands, I think, is probably an underestimate by a couple orders of magnitude.

It is very weak to say “it is believed that ...” and then make some very large (frankly implausible) claims without describing who believes this or why.

I would maybe give this idea some credibility if it were changed to “millions of years ago before the evolution of vocal anatomy capable of complex speech”.

But even then... completely speculative.

I recall reading an article on the algorithmic complexity of popular music by Knuth in 1977. It is really quite funny! See [1].

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Complexity_of_Songs

Modern music has regressed into something primitive and tribal. In other words, completely mind numbing garbage. And it just gets worse every year.

Post Malone is a good indication of just how fast Western society is falling.

"My only deep sorrow is the unrelenting insistence of recording and motion picture companies upon purveying the most brutal, ugly, degenerate, vicious form of expression it has been my displeasure to hear — Naturally I refer to the bulk of rock ’n’ roll. It fosters almost totally negative and destructive reactions in young people."

Frank Sinatra, 1957

You should hear what my dad had to say about Elvis!

Not really the same. Rock & roll still had melody and lyrics. Both are continually being simplified every year.

You should read this: https://science.slashdot.org/story/18/01/15/231230/is-pop-mu...

5. A researcher put 15,000 Billboard Hot 100 song lyrics through the well-known Lev-Zimpel-Vogt (LZV1) data compression algorithm, which is good at finding repetitions in data. He found that songs have steadily become more repetitive over the years, and that song lyrics from today compress 22% better on average than less repetitive song lyrics from the 1960s. The most repetitive year in song lyrics was 2014 in this study.

Conclusion: There is some scientific evidence backing the widely voiced complaint -- on the internet in particular -- that pop music is getting worse and worse in the 2000s and the 2010s. The music is slower, melodically simpler, louder, more repetitive, more "I" (first-person) focused, and more angry with anti-social sentiments. The 2010s got by far the most music quality down votes with 42% from people polled on which decade has produced the worst music since the 1970s.

It kind of sounds like you're having a hard time finding good new music. It's out there if you look.

Snarky Puppy - Lingus (We Like It Here) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L_XJ_s5IsQc

Hiatus Kaiyote - By Fire https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-Ilr1AY41AA

Alina Engibaryan - We Are https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i-dusz1TyD0

These seem like exactly the type of music the article was complaining about. Lots of repetition of short phrases without the kind of melodic structure the author preferred, and a focus on “sonic-texture”.

Except the conclusion isn’t scientific at all. It’s 100% based on opinion. The author identified trends, yes, but that’s about it.

Simpler and more repetitive doesn’t mean worse — it means simpler and more repetitive. Never once have I listened to a song and thought, “Wow, this sucks, these lyrics would compress really easily.”

I do. Something like Hotel California that invokes a vivid imagery in one's mind seems unthinkable today. I don't know whether this affects the imagination or lingual abilities of the listeners, but it certainly can not produce the same emotions.

I honestly don’t know whether you’re praising or criticizing Hotel California.



Think what you want about the song, but the lyrics are descriptive yet metaphorical. I made this example because I assumed everyone is familiar with it. The point is: the lyrics don't just consist of "I did this, I did that, yeah yeah yeah".

Are you saying no recent music contains "descriptive yet metaphorical" lyrics?

No, but it hardly exists in the mainstream and most indie music I've heard is mainly ambience stuff.

The bottom line is that older music seem better because time is a filter - we remember the good stuff. People have always complained that "music nowadays" is crap.

There is a hypothesis that older music seems better because it is cherry picked, and is being unfairly compared against a random selection of new music.

That hypothesis is, unfortunately, starkly false.

Music nowadays really is crap; time is not helping it. If we use our 20/20 hindsight and pick the best music of, say, the past 50 years, it will be heavily weighted toward the first 20 of those years.

Thirty years ago, sure, I thought that a lot of "music nowadays" was crap; but, unlike today, I also thought that a good deal of it wasn't.

> That hypothesis is, unfortunately, starkly false.

OK...why do you think is it false? That you don't care about contemporary music doesn't really disprove it.

Simpler and repetitive does mean worse.

Simpler and repetitive does mean worse - for you. I actually agree with you, but I know plenty of people that love club/dance music, which is about as simple and repetitive as you can get. I think it's important to take the context of the music being played/performed as well: a simple, repetitive piece would likely not be received well in an orchestra hall, while a song with complex melody, deep lyrics, and rich harmony would likely be skipped at a football tailgate party. Music serves several functions in many different environments, and labeling a piece or style as universally worse is almost never true.

Apologies in advance, there must be something wrong with my browser. The link to your source isn’t working.

Try again, this time by reading the page with your eyes open.

>> "Modern music has regressed into something primitive and tribal. In other words, completely mind numbing garbage. And it just gets worse every year."

The blending of hip hop into everything has been a huge boon for the evolution of western music just like the merger with jazz was in the '50s.

"Primitive"/"tribal" people had some good ideas that sometimes get lost in our panicked attempts to set ourselves ever-further above our roots.

> panicked attempts to set ourselves ever-further above our roots.

I honestly don't know what you're talking about here. What's an example of such an attempt that you think was/is misguided?

See: the quote in my comment.

codesushi42 frames tribalness and primalness in music as a regression.

Yeah, who needs sophistication anyway? Let's go back to painting caves and naval gazing.

From time to time one can stumble upon music like Joanna Newsom, and suddenly it all seems not so bad. Just burried under a mountain.

It is getting simpler in terms of melody and rhythm.

However, it is getting far more complex in terms of orchestration. There are far more kinds of sounds and textures in an average song today than there were 40 years ago.

Whether you like this or not, of course, is another matter.

The author has a lot of good insights about the tends in mass media. However, there are lots independent artists who support themselves through live performances and selling cd's.

Another route is youtube and patreon. A good example is the young drummer Sina, who has over 600,000 subscribers and definitely makes melodic music. https://www.youtube.com/user/sinadrumming

Just saw a great youtube video about this.


Every Frame a Painting has a video talking about how big budget movies tend not to have recognizable melodies, as well:


Although the author points to the 17th and 18th centuries (Bach et al.) as the age of polyphony, polyphonic music and counterpoint were certainly highly developed in the 15th (Josquin) and 16th (Palestrina) centuries as well.

When melody was at its apogee, not only did songs have interesting melodies, but they also had a bridge -- a second section melodically different from the first. The best songs had seemed to be the ones with the most distinctive bridges. Somehow, Tin Pan Alley managed to exemplify this artifact from classical music. Sousa's marches, typically in 3 parts in different keys, with one foot in the classical tradition and one in the new world stand as a memorial bridge to melodic non-monotony connecting Brahms to Broadway.

I've tried to introduce my kids (who are college age) to the pleasures of classical music, mostly to no avail. I just recently rewatched the movie Amadeus (a 1984 masterpiece on Mozart) with my daughter, and she liked it.

I highly recommend it. It was nominated for 11 Academy Awards and won 8.

It's a very enjoyable movie, but it's almost pure fiction, just so you know.

Yes, Hollywood isn’t very good at presenting the unvarnished truth.

I felt that the movie and particularly Salier’s (fictional?) role as a competitive observer of Mozart in the movie reifys the absolute genius of Mozart in a particularly effective way.

I notice that my daughter and her friends now really like Queen’s music because of Bohemian Rhapsody. In addition to Amadeus I’ve suggested The Buddy Holly Story, Ray, Coal Miner’s Daughter, and Le Bamba to her—all movies that I really enjoyed that might widen her appreciation of music outside of what she hears most today.

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