"the uncanniness of recorded music"
March 10, 2015 7:06 AM   Subscribe

For a hip-hop fan, listening to ’60s and ’70s soul albums means regularly encountering familiar breaks. When I first heard “Are You My Woman (Tell Me So)” by the Chi-Lites, I immediately recognized the horns and drums from Beyoncé’s “Crazy In Love.” While I understand that, logically, the breaks in the Beyoncé song are really from the Chi-Lites, I still hear them as “belonging” to Beyoncé’s producer Rich Harrison.
In the first of four posts about music composition, Ethan Hein looks at sampling, hiphop, copyright, the moral rights of artists and the idea that breaks only exists once they're used by a producer, starting out from “They Reminisce Over You (T.R.O.Y.)” by Pete Rock and CL Smooth.
posted by MartinWisse (80 comments total) 35 users marked this as a favorite
 
the other day while watching chef, my husband was positive he was hearing "white lines" from grandmaster flash - turns out, it was "caravan" by liquid liquid. i love when things like this happen. i've been hunting around for a spotify playlist that is made up of original tracks and songs that sample it.
posted by nadawi at 7:16 AM on March 10, 2015


Cool to see ideas that have a long pedigree in academic critical work (see Jonathan Sterne's *The Audible Past,* or go crazy reading Kittler) and avant-grade experimental music (see David Novak's new book *Japanoise*) become musical common sense. Indeed, the area of overlap is increasing and in many ways sampling and beatmaking are at the edge of experimental compositional practice.

I keep telling my classical music-oriented colleagues that the music "theory" at the heart of contemporary music and sound art now centers on a DAW, not a piano.

Nice post.
posted by spitbull at 7:20 AM on March 10, 2015 [4 favorites]


Maybe our anxiety about sampling isn’t about ownership at all. Maybe we just don’t like being confronted so directly with the uncanniness of recorded music. While we might like to pretend that recordings are essentially documents of a performance that actually took place, sample-based music reminds us that this is totally untrue.

This is incredible and really solidifies what I've been thinking about music recently. It's not just that recorded music isn't the same as live music. It's a totally different species of supernatural artifice, and sampling (and even moreso, making 100% mashup records) just lays that out bare on the table.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 7:24 AM on March 10, 2015 [1 favorite]


Also, I want to plug an older article that remains a good starting point for thinking about the ethical issues in sampling practice. Sorry, JSTOR is only legal version I can find (ironically).

"The Ethics of Digital Audio-Sampling: Engineers' Discourse."
Thomas Porcello, Popular Music. Vol. 10, No. 1, (Jan., 1991), pp. 69-84
Article Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/853010
posted by spitbull at 7:24 AM on March 10, 2015 [2 favorites]


Its criminal that someone heard the Chi-lites, then recognised Beyonce, rather than heard Beyonce knowing this awesome track is awesome because the Chi-lites on first listen.

Also, D.C. go-go.

Now kids, get off my damn lawn.
posted by C.A.S. at 7:31 AM on March 10, 2015 [4 favorites]


uncanniness

I suspect that's not an accidental usage of what Heidegger would call the "unheimlich" feelin of "being-out-of-the-world/time".
posted by Potomac Avenue at 7:31 AM on March 10, 2015


T.R.O.Y is probably my favourite hiphop track of all time. Great post.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 7:45 AM on March 10, 2015 [2 favorites]


The specific connection of recording's aura to Freudian and Heideggerian theories of the uncanny/unheimlich is indeed a persistent trope of post-structuralist philosophical considerations of recording, in particular under the influence of Friedrich Kittler (*Discourse Networks,* or see here), and in a more Marxist lineage which Jacques Attali's *Noise* brought into widespread English language awareness among music and sound scholars, but which goes back further to Bloch and Benjamin.
posted by spitbull at 7:48 AM on March 10, 2015 [2 favorites]


T.R.O.Y is probably my favourite hiphop track of all time.

It is the best of the genre in so many ways on so many levels and the video is nonpareil.
posted by y2karl at 7:57 AM on March 10, 2015 [2 favorites]


That said, being inclined to see psychoanalytic theories as a priori Eurocentric, I prefer Steven Feld's development of R. Murray Schafer's concept of "schizophonia" as an opening onto the subject of how recording has changed our experience of music, and thus changed what "music" is as a cultural phenomenon.


Sorry to be pedantic. It's a subject close to my heart.
posted by spitbull at 7:59 AM on March 10, 2015


An appropriate playlist for reading and thinking about this is this Sample/Song playlist (URI: spotify:user:itsthereal.jeff:playlist:4CqX3Zq1NQbAFjSlGA3Vgg) [this is not my work]. It also makes for a fun game, playing the source and trying to guess what sampled it.


As a bonus the person that did/is hosting that playlist is following another playlist called The Kanye Samples (URI: spotify:user:123859018:playlist:37IcEvqvrQ5XlCpZuhJxLq) which I look forward to exploring!
posted by mountmccabe at 8:04 AM on March 10, 2015 [2 favorites]


I had a similar experience recently, listening to Organized Konfusion for the first time (after the recommendation from Andrew Noz on Bullseye). "Releasing Hypnotical Gases" started and I had this odd feeling of familiar-but-not-quite-the-same. As the song progressed, and about a second before the actual sample started, I realized that DJ Shadow sampled the track on Endtroducing....., which I've listened to about a thousand times.

And then I remembered that whosampled.com exists, and I had to close the browser tab an back away, lest the rest of my day disappear.
posted by Vendar at 8:12 AM on March 10, 2015 [3 favorites]


As a musician and composer, this sentence bothers me:

Among sampling musicians, discovery has the same creative status as invention.

I'm willing to concede that there is an artistry to sampled music. I would say it's analogous to mixed media or found object art in the visual context. We wouldn't say that a visual art piece wasn't art just because it's a collage of pre-existing material, but at the same time, it employs a different set of skills from someone painting on a blank canvas.

Most popular music is moving farther and farther away from traditional composition. To the extent songs even have a chord progression any more, that progression tends to repeat for the entire song, not changing for the chorus or bridge. Rather, much of popular music is a sort of pastiche of found sounds, with occasional singing or rapping.
posted by Ben Trismegistus at 8:12 AM on March 10, 2015 [6 favorites]


Most popular music is moving farther and farther away from traditional composition

Or, you could say, "progressing".
posted by Potomac Avenue at 8:16 AM on March 10, 2015


Or, you could say, "progressing".

I suppose you could, but why?
posted by Ben Trismegistus at 8:20 AM on March 10, 2015 [6 favorites]


You could also say "devolving"
posted by ReeMonster at 8:21 AM on March 10, 2015 [6 favorites]


You could say that about silent film too. And some people do. But that doesn't make them correct.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 8:23 AM on March 10, 2015


Let me make a different analogy. Composition is like Euclidean geometry. It's fantastic, beautiful, foundational and flat. Recording music brings it into 3d space, where Non-Euclidean approach opens up a whole new realm of experiment and understanding. That's what we stand on the brink of. You can be grim about the dearth of new triangle shapes if you want. I'm bullish on the remix.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 8:32 AM on March 10, 2015


Rather, much of popular music is a sort of pastiche of found sounds, with occasional singing or rapping.

You could say that the story of popular recorded music in the twentieth century, even before sampling, was about sonic novelty.

Lots of the melodies and changes and harmonic and even rhythmic devices in pop have been borrowed or from a limited vocabulary, but the impact of the recording and new sounds and effects (gated snares, Spector wall of sound, Beatles double tracking vocals) have had as much to do with cultural/commercial impact as musicality. This just takes it to its logical conclusion
posted by C.A.S. at 8:36 AM on March 10, 2015 [2 favorites]


I'm bullish on the remix.

I'd be more bullish on the remix if people didn't think the Chi-Lites ripped off Beyonce, if the "composers" paid homage (or money) to the originators of the content, because without that content, they got nothing.
posted by kgasmart at 8:37 AM on March 10, 2015 [2 favorites]


[A couple comments removed; let's keep this to music and away from a more general 'is society today degenerate' line.]
posted by LobsterMitten (staff) at 8:39 AM on March 10, 2015 [1 favorite]


In a world saturated with recordings, creating more music ex nihilo is not the valuable service to humanity that it once was. I make sample-based music because I feel like it’s more worthwhile to identify existing sounds that have been overlooked, to bring them to fresh ears, and to give them fresh meaning in new contexts.

This is the crux of the argument: that we have essentially solved the compositional space and are now better off mining and recombining the existing recorded catalog to find newness than to continue to plug along farming the increasingly barren fields of the "original."

I don't really agree, but I can see his point. Even the recent Sam Smith / Tom Petty incident is relevant here, as one could argue that the set of possible pop melodies and chord progressions have essentially been exhausted and the only path forward is to repurpose.
posted by grumpybear69 at 8:40 AM on March 10, 2015


I'd be more bullish on the remix if people didn't think the Chi-Lites ripped off Beyonce, if the "composers" paid homage (or money) to the originators of the content, because without that content, they got nothing.

You're talking all that jazz.
posted by cashman at 8:42 AM on March 10, 2015 [2 favorites]


if the "composers" paid homage (or money) to the originators of the content

It's a nice intent, but, if there is any paying to be done, it's going to be made to the legal owners of sampled recordings, regardless of whether they had anything at all to do with writing, recording, or producing sampled music.
posted by thelonius at 8:44 AM on March 10, 2015 [1 favorite]


Let me make a different analogy. Composition is like Euclidean geometry. It's fantastic, beautiful, foundational and flat. Recording music brings it into 3d space, where Non-Euclidean approach opens up a whole new realm of experiment and understanding.

Are you getting at "there are more possibilities if musicians allow themselves to sample other works"? Euclidean spaces may be of any number of dimensions. When people talk about Euclidean spaces being "flat", they don't mean that they're two-dimensional; they mean that those spaces are not curved (which affects how distances and angles work).
posted by Jpfed at 8:45 AM on March 10, 2015 [1 favorite]


(I'm speaking of paying money. You can't retire on homage).
posted by thelonius at 8:46 AM on March 10, 2015


if the "composers" paid homage (or money) to the originators of the content

It is very likely that the composers and performers on the Chi-Lites song got paid for the clearance of that sample--that's how it often works now. But objecting to the unfairness of capitalism and the status of music as a product isn't the same as delineating why sampling is somehow lesser than original recording.

Are you getting at "there are more possibilities if musicians allow themselves to sample other works"?


I am not very smart, so all I meant was: recorded music is different from composed music in a similar way that Elliptic geometry is based on but wholly different from Euclidean geometry. This could actually be a terrible analogy. I haven't done any geometry since 2001.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 8:50 AM on March 10, 2015


It's an interesting idea, and one that a few others have touched on (a precursor for me is the essay by Borges on Kafka (the title of which escapes me and I haven't read in a very long time) in which he talks about how only Kafka could have put together his set of influences.) Of course, I'm a little depressed that the author didn't know the Chi-Lites tune as it's great, but hey, what can you do?
Last, I'm not sure that, between sampling, and creating something afresh it needs to be one or the other. I'm not sure the former being so prevalent means the latter is dead, indeed I think it rather means that sampling has had a radical influence on how we listen to things which might feed back into the whole spectrum of composition.
posted by ob at 8:51 AM on March 10, 2015


What's funny about this is that I'd never heard T.R.O.Y but immediately recognized the sax line from this Lupe Fiasco song, which apparently pissed off Pete Rock.
posted by zempf at 8:53 AM on March 10, 2015 [1 favorite]


Casual reminder that there is nothing new under the sun, and that sampling merely makes the fact perceptible in a slightly different way than others.
posted by ead at 8:57 AM on March 10, 2015


I am not very smart, so all I meant was: recorded music is different from composed music in a similar way that Elliptic geometry is based on but wholly different from Euclidean geometry. This could actually be a terrible analogy. I haven't done any geometry since 2001.

C.A.S. said it better than I could, but this is a false dichotomy. The advantages of sound recording can apply just as well to composed music as to sampled music. To the extent recording technology brings a third dimension to music, that expansion applies to all kinds of music.

I would postulate that, by removing the compositional aspect (in the sense of writing a melody and accompaniment using the tools of musical composition), you're removing a potential dimension of that music.
posted by Ben Trismegistus at 8:57 AM on March 10, 2015


a precursor for me is the essay by Borges on Kafka (the title of which escapes me and I haven't read in a very long time) in which he talks about how only Kafka could have put together his set of influences.)

iirc it was called "Kafka And His Precursors" (so you kind of did remember it). It was a very cool little essay. Borges takes three or so little passages from world literature and argues that they seem "Kafkaesque", but that, without Kafka as a point of reference, we would not think of them as having anything in common.
posted by thelonius at 9:00 AM on March 10, 2015 [2 favorites]


Of course, I'm a little depressed that the author didn't know the Chi-Lites tune as it's great, but hey, what can you do?

Rather, he was one of the lucky 10,000 that day he discovered that tune.

And it is a great feeling to recognise the source of a sample, but you also get that mixed feeling, like when you hear Under Pressure but were secretly hoping for Ice, Ice Baby.
posted by MartinWisse at 9:00 AM on March 10, 2015 [2 favorites]


I think there is a stark difference between Diddy's/Stings "I'll Be Missing You" and, say, The Pharcyde's "Yo Mama"', where J Swift (a genius) samples freaking Al Koopers organ cover of Donovan's "season of the which" as the harmonic theme of the song.

Relying on a sample for harmonic movement, or to do "theory" for you, is lazy. using samples as texture is a bit more clever.

And I wouldn't be so quick to slag off simple chord progressions as devolving. Lou Reeds "walk on the wild side" is two chords, the Tonic and Sub-dominant . Heck, Miles Davis' "So What" is Two chords with some noodling in the Dorian mode for 8 minutes.
posted by remlapm at 9:08 AM on March 10, 2015 [4 favorites]


The Shook Ones sample is one of my favorites. I still get chills listening to that short YouTube video.
posted by cashman at 9:19 AM on March 10, 2015 [1 favorite]


But objecting to the unfairness of capitalism and the status of music as a product isn't the same as delineating why sampling is somehow lesser than original recording.

Because the samples provide the blocks with which the sampling artist creates the recording.

Whereas the likes of the Chi-Lites actually created the blocks.

Maybe that's the analogy. Look at this awesome thing I built with Lego! No, look at how awesome Lego is that you were able to build that thing.
posted by kgasmart at 9:20 AM on March 10, 2015 [1 favorite]


Maybe that's the analogy. Look at this awesome thing I built with Lego! No, look at how awesome Lego is that you were able to build that thing.

It's a dessert wax and a floor topping.

Funky drummer is a nice bit of drumming, but would've remained an incidental bit of genius without somebody having liberated it from its context and used it as a building block for new neat stuff.
posted by MartinWisse at 9:27 AM on March 10, 2015 [1 favorite]


And I wouldn't be so quick to slag off simple chord progressions as devolving.

I meant, pop music moving away from traditional composition is devolving. Pop is so bland nowadays, it could USE more chord progressions, more harmony, more structure. Yeah yeah yeah, I know you're all gonna spit out a few examples of pop musicians who go above and beyond, but I'm not buying it. Miles and co. can noodle in Dorian mode for weeks, because they understand harmony, melody, and improvisation as a continuum, music which somehow tells a story with a beginning a middle and an end. Even if the song sticks to one mode, their improvisations outline different harmonic structures and progressions layered above that mode. It's extremely simplistic and naive (dare I say ignorant) to say what they're doing is noodling. I mean, a rap girl nominated for multiple Grammys can't even "noodle"over a generic beat without sounding like a kindergartner, and she didn't even have to worry about musical concerns. Oh well.
posted by ReeMonster at 9:43 AM on March 10, 2015 [2 favorites]


If you're comparing current Grammy nominated teen pop to 40 year old underground geniuses it's pretty easy to see devolution. Why don't you compare Kanye to the The Chipmunk Song instead?
posted by Potomac Avenue at 9:48 AM on March 10, 2015 [3 favorites]


Classical music composition isn't just designed for sounding good though.

It's also designed to display the prowess of the composer and the performer. In many ways Classical is intentionally "brittle", and by being so hard to pull off, and showcasing the difficulty in performance, it adds a frisson for a live audience. The fact that an artist dares to attempt that piece. The edge of the seat when you wait to see if they really pull off that run or high note or chord.

Recording, even without editing, eliminates this thrill, and alters the stakes. A patient enough ensemble can record 100 unedited takes, and publish the one that was performed flawlessly. If they are willing to indulge in a bit of studio trickery, they can pull off anything. The charm of the technical loses much of its shine. That frisson of the difficult is lost.

Much of the prestige of more complex compositions isn't held just in the experience itself. The compositions are also signifiers, signifiers of the taste, erudition, and class of the listener. Its nearly universal across the cultures of the world, that there is one traditional music that is more complex, "cooler", less visceral, and allotted to the upper classes, and another that is simpler, "warmer", more visceral and emotional in appeal, and allotted to the lower classes. Now that the audience for music is the individual, and the person sitting next to the listener usually won't hear what they are listening to, many of the status benefits of the cooler, more detached, more cerebral music are lost. This ends up being an advantage for lower status, less sophisticated or original, more "fun" styles of music.

All this said, I love cerebral difficult, and unusual music. But the facts of private listening and studio polish really change the rules, and different music comes out on top of the popularity game now.
posted by idiopath at 9:52 AM on March 10, 2015 [7 favorites]


Well, we will have to agree to disagree on chord progressions. Not much has changed since Gershwins "I've got Rhythm" ( a I vi ii V), Megan Trainor's "All About The Bass"' (I ii V I) or Daft Punks "Get Lucky" (i V vi IV). Everyone from Buddy Holly, Beatles, Dylan and Tom Petty have gotten by with the same formula.

Davis' "So What" follows a wickedly simple AABA in Dorian, which a half step modulation for the B. The "noodling" is playing the Dorian scale, exclusively, occasionally throwing in the blue note, the flat 5. He's not exactly pushing the boundaries of music composition.

Where I think you get in to dangerous territory is comparing a "rap girl" noodling as sounding like a kindergartner. Ella and Louis' "scatting" is, to me, no different than Beyoncé embellishing a vocal line with blue notes. Amy Winehouse may not have understood the theory behind a blue note, or flat Seventh, but she sure as shit new that certain notes, placed in a vocal line, dramatically altered the sound.

So, we can save the "pop music is bland"'for another conversation,as its brought up every decade, but harmonic simplicity vs knowing your Lydian dominant mode does very little in the way of writing a damn catchy song.
posted by remlapm at 9:57 AM on March 10, 2015 [4 favorites]


If you're comparing current Grammy nominated teen pop to 40 year old underground geniuses it's pretty easy to see devolution. Why don't you compare Kanye to the The Chipmunk Song instead?

No, there are far better comparisons. The Beatles, the Stones, the Who were all in the 20s when they were writing their best works. Even something like this video that was discussed on the Blue just a couple days ago (the one about "Total Eclipse of the Heart") shows how an interesting chord progression and structure can support a fantastic pop song.

Sampled music, even the good stuff, tends to find a groove or riff and then stay there for the remainder of the song. So it never goes anywhere. A good pop song can use chord structure and modulation to create a dynamic (as opposed to static) musical experience. (An exception to this is Missy Elliott, who uses changes in rhythm and tempo, and really unusual samples, to create something with direction.)
posted by Ben Trismegistus at 10:00 AM on March 10, 2015 [1 favorite]


Its criminal that someone heard the Chi-lites, then recognised Beyonce, rather than heard Beyonce knowing this awesome track is awesome because the Chi-lites on first listen.

It's criminal that a good amount of people heard Missy on the Super Bowl halftime show, and didn't even recognize Missy, rather than heard Missy knowing this awesome track is awesome because Missy on first listen.

Which is to say that we are piling up so much content as a group that soon these kids won't even know whose lawn they're on. Eventually today's artists may hope they get sampled so their music can get rediscovered from the the digital depths of the system that will replace the system that will make Spotify obsolete. Or for older artists, rescuing the music that was already salvaged from the rubble of long closed multi-floor Tower® record stores that were gnawed away at by the likes of Scour and Kazaa.

One thing samples offer for me is what a link can offer. It may seem funny that Pete Rock would find Lupe's doing what he did to be a problem. But in my estimation (and maybe he's gone into more detail than in that article) Pete heard a number of things, including songs, and something about that specific 4 or 5 second bit opened up his emotions about his friend who died. Out of all the sound in his world, it was those few seconds. So for Lupe to jump on that, it made no sense to him.

All this said, I love cerebral difficult, and unusual music.

And this is why I love hip hop. There are entire worlds that have been occurring all around you that you've missed apparently. If you listen to a lot of hip hop and don't go anywhere, it's because you aren't equipped with the tools to travel. Listen more. Hip hop artists reference other artists, concepts, mix and flip those concepts, recontextualize other work and their own work, and on top of it all there are a sizeable amount of regional references that force you to interact with other people to learn. I remember I was listening to some hip hop with friends from the south years ago and they challenged me on what I got out of a certain line of a song and after listening to me talk, explained the regional reference. It's an incredible and fascinating art. I made a better comment about it on here a few years ago and it is still relevant.
posted by cashman at 10:09 AM on March 10, 2015 [4 favorites]


Sampled music, even the good stuff, tends to find a groove or riff and then stay there for the remainder of the song. So it never goes anywhere.
Ironically, this is partially because sampling rights are so expensive, the usage of samples was more varied and complex before royalty payments were the norm.
posted by idiopath at 10:09 AM on March 10, 2015 [1 favorite]


cashman: I am aware that complex and interesting things are going on in hiphop lyrics, but I prefer written poetry (personally) and I find lyrics distracting in music. I'm not saying that there is nothing interesting in this newer, different stuff. I'm trying to describe a few factors in how, why, and where, it diverges from the standards of what classical music calls "good". Not trying to make a value judgment here, really. You don't have to enjoy Webern, and I don't have to enjoy Missy Elliot. It's all good.
posted by idiopath at 10:16 AM on March 10, 2015


"noodling" is a term of insult when applied to jazz, like those musicians are just running up and down the scale like jam band guitarists
posted by thelonius at 10:22 AM on March 10, 2015 [1 favorite]


"noodling" is a term of insult when applied to jazz, like those musicians are just running up and down the scale like jam band guitarists - posted by thelonius

Eponysterical - am I doing it right?
posted by Ben Trismegistus at 10:27 AM on March 10, 2015


You mean like Art Tatum, Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, who just blew through arpeggios?

I kid, I kid. Of course Miles didn't noodle, every note was intentional, but my point was his (and Coleman, and adderly) sticking to 7 notes (and 7 notes only, 8 with the occasional flat 5) for "So What" is no different, harmonically, than Amy Winehouse or Aguilera embellishing a vocal line.
posted by remlapm at 10:28 AM on March 10, 2015


Eponysterical - am I doing it right?

No. Check the spelling - I am named after a Stevie Wonder song.
posted by thelonius at 10:32 AM on March 10, 2015


D'oh!
posted by Ben Trismegistus at 10:38 AM on March 10, 2015 [2 favorites]


cashman: another thought - the cool/cerebral/high-status vs. warm/emotional/low-status split isn't an absolute. It's a fractal. Even within Classical you have your Schoenberg vs. your Pachelbel, and within hiphop you have your Common vs. your Lil Jon. It's not just a split across genres, but also across styles or even artists or tracks, and recording / private listening will tend to push toward the "lower" end (which isn't objectively inferior - it's a style with different criteria).
posted by idiopath at 10:44 AM on March 10, 2015


As a musician and composer, this sentence bothers me:

Among sampling musicians, discovery has the same creative status as invention.


Me too, as a guy who makes hip hop beats out of samples. It's overstated--it's not the same status. You do get recognition from a very small subset of people for digging deeper for your samples; a lot of people don't care though. Hell, in the 90s some of the most popular hip hop was being made out of almost entire songs that were number one hits less than 15 years prior. I certainly don't look at someone digging deep for sources to sample as invention. It's expected now. Even I can find stuff that no one really sampled before and sounds great, but it doesn't mean I'm out there innovating or something. Because ultimately it's what you do with it, not what you used. Since he's mentioned in the article, let's take Pete Rock's Tru Master. A lot of people would have had On the Move in their arsenal but few could ever have put it to use like Pete Rock did.

I do appreciate how guys like Madlib, MF Doom, Alchemist etc will go out of their way to pull samples out of stuff from rare, forgotten records but that's only a small part of what makes what those guys do special.
posted by Hoopo at 10:47 AM on March 10, 2015 [3 favorites]


I find texture and timbre more interesting than harmony - of course that's a false dichotomy but if we have to pick sides I'm going with Lou Reed's "three chords and you're into jazz." If it helps, do a Fourier transform and think of it as microtonal composition.
posted by atoxyl at 10:51 AM on March 10, 2015 [2 favorites]


atoxyl: I think a big picture view is that both traditional music theory and modern recording and amplification techniques are ways to sculpt texture and its evolution over time. Modern academic electronic music goes really deep into that rabbit hole, and accomplishes some amazing things (but doesn't make much effort to be crowd-pleasing for the most part, so you have to do work as a listener to get to those sublime moments).
posted by idiopath at 10:56 AM on March 10, 2015


Hein's been blogging for a long time over here. I recall running across this post on Visualizing Music before, along with plenty more food for thought.
posted by Twang at 10:58 AM on March 10, 2015 [1 favorite]


Sampled music, even the good stuff, tends to find a groove or riff and then stay there for the remainder of the song.

To dispute that, this is a hit from 2013 composed of samples and wildly odd and discursive, then performed live and smoothed out.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 11:02 AM on March 10, 2015 [1 favorite]


atoxyl: I think a big picture view is that both traditional music theory and modern recording and amplification techniques are ways to sculpt texture and its evolution over time. Modern academic electronic music goes really deep into that rabbit hole, and accomplishes some amazing things (but doesn't make much effort to be crowd-pleasing for the most part, so you have to do work as a listener to get to those sublime moments).

I agree. One thing that was actually on my mind was realizing yesterday that I lost my download of LaMonte Young's 5+ hour, very expensive in hard copy, "Well-Tuned Piano" when my old laptop died.

Reading over it again I think the issue for people like ReeMonster might be more about songs being built on a single loop than about simplicity of chord progressions. I still don't really agree that there's anything inherently wrong with that - and I don't think it has much to do with whether samples are used or not - but I understand where the complaint is coming from better.
posted by atoxyl at 11:09 AM on March 10, 2015


Sampled music, even the good stuff, tends to find a groove or riff and then stay there for the remainder of the song. So it never goes anywhere. A good pop song can use chord structure and modulation to create a dynamic (as opposed to static) musical experience.

Same can be said for what a lot of pop and rock "tends" to do; I don't think sample-based music is necessarily limited in this way more than pop or rock. It's just that often the groove works. In many genres. Sample-based hip hop definitely can definitely see pretty significant changes in direction over the course of a song.

(An exception to this is Missy Elliott, who uses changes in rhythm and tempo, and really unusual samples, to create something with direction.)

Not to take away from Missy and Timbaland, but I think they are more exceptional in execution than in using more rare samples or rhythmic changes than their contemporaries. They put together elements that were fairly common in hip hop for many years in a way that was their own and connected with people. A fairly unique sound using the same elements.
posted by Hoopo at 11:34 AM on March 10, 2015


Most popular music is moving farther and farther away from traditional composition. To the extent songs even have a chord progression any more, that progression tends to repeat for the entire song, not changing for the chorus or bridge.

This isn't true of a lot of the music that still really sells. Adele, Coldplay, One Direction, Sam Smith, Ed Sheeran, Bruno Mars, all go for traditional structures in their music.
posted by colie at 11:44 AM on March 10, 2015


To dispute that, this is a hit from 2013 composed of samples and wildly odd and discursive , then performed live and smoothed out.

Maybe I just don't have the right kind of ear for this sort of thing. What I hear is one 4-bar sample from what sounds like a doo-wop song repeated over and over for most of the song, with two breaks interspersed with a sample from another (R&B?) song. So, for me, that doesn't really dispute my point.

Not to take away from Missy and Timbaland, but I think they are more exceptional in execution than in using more rare samples or rhythmic changes than their contemporaries. They put together elements that were fairly common in hip hop for many years in a way that was their own and connected with people. A fairly unique sound using the same elements.

Thanks. That's a better description of what I meant.

This isn't true of a lot of the music that still really sells. Adele, Coldplay, One Direction, Sam Smith, Ed Sheeran, Bruno Mars, all go for traditional structures in their music.

Sure, agreed. Still seems like a relatively small segment to me, though, compared to the majority of what plays on pop radio.
posted by Ben Trismegistus at 11:55 AM on March 10, 2015


one could argue that the set of possible pop melodies and chord progressions have essentially been exhausted and the only path forward is to repurpose.

I don't think this argument would work. For a start, there are actually brand new chord progressions to invent (Radiohead's 'Just' is a good example), many of which are too challenging and difficult to become hits today, but the point at which these become acceptable to the average pop listener's ears either due to overall musical context, or specific compelling sound gestures, or the personality of the artist and sheer brute force, is a fascinating, constantly moving target.

We have seen 'borrowed' chords from modal and chromatic origins become 'domesticated' by pop music time and again, where the trick is to incorporate them into a musical structure that satisfies the listener's need for rising tension and resolution. Surface-level sound gestures and effects can grab attention and pop depends on them to do so, but they can't do all the work and people certainly don't listen to albums 30 years later because of them.

This happens with the Beyonce song mentioned in the article - the song works because the sample bit is essentially a pause, a time-out and a chance to relax and release tension in the company of a simple pounding beat with traditional orchestration and arrangement, before the modern intensity of the very syncopated and jerky, demanding, verse returns (complete with dazzling rap effects, multiple voices, and everything else a modern studio could throw at it). You would not have a hit without the contrast between the sections. The fact that it used a sample is just because that's the easiest and most direct way to get your vision of these contrasts down on tape now. Who wants to hire a load of grumpy brass players and write them out a score?
posted by colie at 12:06 PM on March 10, 2015


A gaggle of brass players hired as studio musicians in this day and age would likely be super happy for the work.
posted by grumpybear69 at 12:08 PM on March 10, 2015 [1 favorite]


True enough, although I live near AIR studios and the guys with music cases in the local pub tend to look pretty pissed off...
posted by colie at 12:12 PM on March 10, 2015


Sampled music, even the good stuff, tends to find a groove or riff and then stay there for the remainder of the song. So it never goes anywhere. A good pop song can use chord structure and modulation to create a dynamic (as opposed to static) musical experience.

To me, this is it - sampled/electronic music is fundamentally groove-based. I wouldn't say it's "static" just because it doesn't prioritize directional melodies or chord progressions, though; dynamics are created by adding, layering, and subtracting tonal and rhythmic motifs, sometimes using alternating repetition (A/B/C sections, why not?), and sometimes in a through-composed manner (I pulled that phrase out from a beginning theory class taken a million years ago, please correct me if I used it wrong) .
posted by cotton dress sock at 12:13 PM on March 10, 2015 [1 favorite]


Also, saying anyone "invented" a chord progression is kind of like saying big pharma companies are "inventing" the various and sundry gene sequences that have medical uses. It is more a process of discovery. The sequence of chords in "Just" isn't novel or noteworthy except maybe (maybe) in the context of contemporary pop music, though I'd bet that Steely Dan probably used it somewhe.
posted by grumpybear69 at 12:40 PM on March 10, 2015 [2 favorites]


A chord progression and the melody that accompanies it are copyrightable and are the issue at stake in the Robin Thicke/Marvin Gaye court case at the moment.
posted by colie at 12:46 PM on March 10, 2015


A chord progression is not copyrightable, though a melody is. What is at stake in the "Blurred Lines" trial, since neither the melody or the chord progression are the same, is whether or not the "feel" or "essence" of a song can be copywritten. I seriously hope the Marvin Gaye estate loses that one, despite how much I loathe Robin Thicke.
posted by grumpybear69 at 12:50 PM on March 10, 2015 [1 favorite]


What an astonishingly different way of thinking about music this guy has! I'm surprised people are even still talking about sampling as something controversial in this millenium; didn't this stuff all get sorted out in the '90s?

we we might like to pretend that recordings are essentially documents of a performance that actually took place

This is not true of the music I like most; it doesn't really make sense to describe a piece of electronic music as a "recording" at all. The track itself is the object of art; the process of creating it is just the labor. There is no performance to record; there are merely sources which are mixed and assembled and edited.

As far as I am aware, this is true of all hip-hop music and pop music in general, so perhaps whatever controversies still remain about sampling are a form of category error.
posted by Mars Saxman at 1:43 PM on March 10, 2015


Given that microphones are selected for properties other than exacting accuracy, and the potential choice of the producer to choose one recorded performance over another, even the most pristine and unedited recording is still to some degree an artifact.

Not to mention the editing, postprocessing, and mastering ubiquitously applied to even the most "natural" of performances.
posted by idiopath at 1:48 PM on March 10, 2015


Among sampling musicians, discovery has the same creative status as invention.

I think it would be better to say that discovery and invention are different arts each capable of its own excellence. Like playing guitar vs. directing a symphony. Or singing vs. producing. Nobody looks down on Yo Yo Ma for playing Bach instead of his own compositions.

Whether an artist has done something sufficiently transformative to the stuff they started with ought to be a controversial artistic judgement that the audience argues about, not a finding of a court of law. I see a smooth continuum from covering a song through sampling a song to composing a song with the only judgment that ought to matter being whether the end result is good or not.
posted by straight at 2:20 PM on March 10, 2015 [1 favorite]


I prioritize teaching production, engineering and sample based composition over instruments, notation and composition to kids these days because, though I have a degree in music theory and performance, they are both obsolete IMO. Spotify is the new music theory textbook, and DAW's are the new score. I've also, like the author, struggled with this argument with many of my production and musician friends my whole life. This is always my conclusion:

Sample Based Art: Standing on the shoulders of those who served the gods of science and math to serve the gods of culture. Though sometimes, it feels we're only serving the gods of industry.
posted by urrduhdur at 2:45 PM on March 10, 2015


I prioritize teaching production, engineering and sample based composition over instruments, notation and composition to kids these days because, though I have a degree in music theory and performance, they are both obsolete IMO. Spotify is the new music theory textbook, and DAW's are the new score.

That's honestly the most depressing thing I've read all day.
posted by Ben Trismegistus at 2:50 PM on March 10, 2015 [5 favorites]


That Tom Scott cover of "Today" in the link is going to be on my iPod in Hell, I think. Trying to imagine thinking, this song should be more uptempo, with a sax solo. Yeah!
posted by thelonius at 5:53 PM on March 10, 2015 [1 favorite]


OMFG, DAWs are not a score. Musical notation is a system for transmitting musical information to other people for the purposes of performance. A DAW session is no different than a 2" reel.
posted by grumpybear69 at 7:01 PM on March 10, 2015 [2 favorites]


"Among sampling musicians, discovery has the same status as creation." That's just not quite right. I can "discover" all the samples I like but if all I do is display them in a big catalogue, I haven't created anything interesting. It's more accurate to say "recontextualizing a recognizable sound in a new setting has the same status as creation," which is of course true for all music, in a sense. All music is made of sounds, 99% of them recognizable as notes or rhythms or textures or the sound of a log burning. But when Iannis Xenakis records a log burning and then filters it to sound like tiny bells, is he recontextualizing an old sound, or making a new one? When Bach sets a chorale tune to a new harmony? When Jimi Hendrix plays the national anthem? When anyone performs anything that has been previously performed, ever??

Man we KNOW that it's not a bright line between "ex nihilo sounds" and "samples." It's a lot of shades of nuance and the difference in significance happens on multiple levels. So I think when this author says he finds it more worthwhile to "identify existing sounds...and give them fresh meaning in new contexts" he's really saying that he finds it more valuable to create originality and complexity at the level of cultural reference. He wants us to hear stylistic references and play around with external/internal musical worlds, maybe. Otherwise, what's the value in digging up old interesting sounds, when one can easily (thanks to much of the same technology) make your own new sounds to your exact specifications? There isn't some giant underground warehouse full of all the sounds in the world that's about to reach capacity.

Anyway this article doesn't really seem to cover much new ground; no one I know personally working in electronic music feels "anxiety" about sampling. The computer musicians I know who don't sample extensively are choosing to explore creativity on an algorithmic or spectral level. There's plenty of creative things to be done with samples, but we don't need to justify it with the "music theory is dead" argument, which the author in no way endorses himself.
posted by daisystomper at 9:07 PM on March 10, 2015 [3 favorites]


I don't think ignoring traditional music theory is a good idea if you're making music with samples. Beatport is one of the major markets for EDM and samples, and all the tracks and samples for sale note the BPM as well as the root chord. Really good DJs mix with a chord progression in mind, or at least they understand how to use it for tension and release, even in pure dance contexts. Also, as genres vacillate between minimalist and baroque, so does the complexity of production and composition, including chord progression. This has been going on since the birth of techno and hip hop / breakbeat. You don't necessarily have to understand traditional theory to be a modern producer in sample-based genres, but it's not going to be an asset to be ignorant of how music has been composed for centuries. Even punk musicians eventually accepted that not being competent as musicians wasn't helping them play music.
posted by krinklyfig at 9:56 PM on March 10, 2015


late to the thread but....

seems to me, if a 'producer' is going to 'own' a horn break - they could learn music, learn the horns, get inspired, compose the break, practice the break, record it, then use it in their pop star's tune.

or - ya know - ctrl+c, ctrv+v - is just as artful.
posted by j_curiouser at 12:51 AM on March 11, 2015


It' also kind of funny that we're having this discussion right now given that with a few producers excepted mainstream hip hop and related genres do less crate digging/sampling outside royalty-free stuff than ever these days.
posted by atoxyl at 1:52 AM on March 11, 2015 [2 favorites]


also, lots of hip hop artists tour with live bands now
posted by thelonius at 7:54 AM on March 11, 2015


I don't think ignoring traditional music theory is a good idea if you're making music with samples

I actually got in a rather lengthy argument on Reddit about this recently. I agree that if you want to get serious about making music it can't hurt to learn about your medium. It's certainly not going to hinder you and really it's probably a good idea. If you ever hope to collaborate with people who play instruments you're gonna have a hard time communicating. But if you have an ear for what sounds work together, working with samples, drum machines and simple bass and synth accompaniment shouldn't be too difficult without being able to read music.
posted by Hoopo at 10:21 AM on March 11, 2015 [1 favorite]


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