What Makes It Sound Like Christmas?

In so many cases, when we’re wondering “what makes it sound ____?” where ____ is Christmas, or metal, or Irish, or whatever, the answer lies not so much in the harmonies, but the timbres. Timbre is probably the most immediate aspect of our musical experience. Why shortchange it in our analyses?

Every year, music theory enthusiasts begin to ask the same question: “what makes it sound like Christmas?”

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As you can see, this discussion recurs every year in /r/musictheory.

Vox.com has incurred the wrath of Twitter’s musicologists after posting a video focusing on Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas Is You” that suggested that iiø7 chords are what make it sound Christmassy. The video begins by stating the research question, “What makes Mariah Carey’s song sound so incredibly Christmassy? Aside from the sleigh bells, of course.” They then proceed to discuss the harmonic content of the song and how the harmonies signify Christmassy-ness.

Vox’s declaration that iiø7 chords sound Christmassy irritated musicologists for many reasons, perhaps best summarized thusly:

In the Vox video and in all those reddit posts, and indeed in much of beginner music theory, there is an obsession with finding explanations in the harmonies, specifically, of a song. This is a reflection of the overall bias in music theory: we focus on teaching harmony most of the time. Curiosity about how harmony elicits emotions is natural in this context. It only becomes problematic when this discussion really leads to the exclusion of other music-analytical domains that are more relevant to the track’s signification—namely, timbre!

Volunteering with CUNY Citizenship Now!

I hope you can volunteer for this great cause. Now more than ever, immigrants need support, even here in New York City, a place truly built on welcoming immigrants.

While you will be enjoying the holiday season with your family, DACA young people will be living in fear that you will take away their right to work, their right to travel abroad and their right to be safe from deportation.

–Allan Wernick
Open letter to Donald Trump, November 24, 2016

Personal background

After the election, many of my friends have felt a motivation to begin taking actions and working toward social change. After I posted my own election reaction post, one friend of mine recommended a particular organization as a good place to volunteer: CUNY Citizenship Now, which is the City University of New York’s immigrant legal service program. Now more than ever, immigrants need support, even here in New York City, a place truly built on welcoming immigrants.

Lerdahl’s Timbral Hierarchies

A very belated review of an article from 1987. Are timbre hierarchies possible?

The real reason, I would argue, why timbre has been regarded as a secondary musical dimension is that, unlike pitch and rhythm, it has lacked any substantial hierarchical organization.

–Fred Lerdahl, 1987

Yesterday I read “Timbral Hierarchies” by Fred Lerdahl, originally published in 1987 in Contemporary Music Review Vol. 2. This article is post-GTTM (A Generative Theory of Tonal Music) and represents an attempt to explain how timbre prolongations, or at the very least timbral hierarchies, might be possible, in much the same vein as L&J-type metrical or tonal hierarchies.

This article is another curious entry in the outpouring of timbre music theory research that occurred in the mid-1980s (see also Cogan 1984, Slawson 1985). Since I wasn’t researching in the 1980s, I’ve wondered myself what the music theory community was like at this time, and what in the culture propelled this sudden interest in timbre. I presumed that this was due to a wider access to 1) spectrograms, a useful visualization tool for timbre, and 2) digital synthesizers, which allow for the level of precise control necessary in many perception studies. Lerdahl identifies out another possible impetus for a sudden rush to theorize timbre: “The issue has sharpened with the recent rise of computer music. There is now such an infinity of timbral possibilities that the need for some kind of selection and organization has become acute” (136).

I’ve found it funny in the past that I study 1980s popular music, and that so many of the existing articles and books on timbre research also date from the 1980s. But this quote in particular helped me realize that the unifying factor in all of this is rapid technological advancement.

Listening

This is a bit of a watershed moment for me and I need to record it, so I can go back when I slip into my jokey aloof self, and remind myself that this is how it felt when I really finally understood.

It’s a cliché to say this now, but the election results were a complete and utter shock to me. Maybe that makes me blind. I was in disbelief as the numbers climbed on the TV, dismissive of Florida when it went red (“typical Florida”), betrayed by my home state of Ohio when it followed suit, and bowled over as more and more Midwestern states voted for a reality TV star rather than the most qualified politician to ever run for president. I kept watching til 2AM waiting for things to change, before my friends and I began the slow process of coming to terms with our new reality. I slept for about five hours before waking up and scouring the internet for strategies Hillary might use to still eke out a win—something about recounts or the Supreme Court or something?—but of course there was no such path. This is really happening.

AMS/SMT 2016: The One with the Sound Bleed

Mansplaining in Erlkönig, To Pimp a Butterfly, AMS After Dark, and more. Quick summaries of each of the papers I went to (warning: mostly early music and pop) and a Twitter roundup.

Now that I’m back from (lovely!!) Vancouver, I’ll reflect on my #amsmt16 experience this year.

Here are the papers I saw, with a quick summary of each and maybe a few personal notes.

Fado

Cuca Roseta blew me away. Her voice was extremely powerful, and her timing with the guitarists was highly precise, even while the tempo fluctuated quite a lot. I was also especially fascinated with the ornamentation style, which is extremely rapid and requires excellent vocal agility.

There’s been a lot going on in my life lately! One thing I’ll highlight is that I went to Lisbon in October, which was my first ever trip to Portugal. While I was there I went to one of the big fado places, Clube de Fado, and got my first ever taste of fado singing.

What helps me survive writing my dissertation

Transitioning from student to writer has been somewhat bizarre. I can’t rely on my old thought patterns anymore. I’ve made number of changes to my working style that improve my mentality and attitude toward writing, which I hope could be helpful for someone else out there.

For dozens of years in a row, I was a student that took classes every semester which were taught by a professor and culminated in a final project or exam. I didn’t really need long-term goals because they were largely articulated for me. I got pretty good at writing a 15-ish page paper every semester for every class.

Transitioning into the new full-time job of writing a long document (my dissertation) has been somewhat bizarre. I can’t rely on my old thought patterns anymore.  I’ve made number of changes to my working style that improve my mentality and attitude toward writing, which I hope could be helpful for someone else out there. (This seems to be a pretty common type of post for a PhD blogger!) I have six tips and recommendations to share.

’80s-inspired music

How do we make something sound ’80s? When today’s millennials—who were only infants or children in the ’80s—recreate an ’80s sound, how does it compare to an authentically ’80s sound? What elements of the ’70s or the ’90s get misremembered as an ’80s phenomenon? All these questions are discussed in the the latest Pop Unmuted episode.

Last Wednesday I was a featured contributor to the podcast Pop Unmuted on an episode about ’80s music—listen here.

We are currently living in a kind of ’80s revival. Google “How do I make my song sound 80s?” and you can see hundreds of posts on online forums from amateur producers looking for an ’80s sound.

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The funny thing about this is that of course the ’80s was an entire decade of music, and there were tons of different genres and styles that were going on at this time. Obviously it would be difficult to name even a single characteristic that was represented in every ’80s style. And yet there’s something that persists in the collective memory of people today that can be called an ’80s sound.

How do we make something sound ’80s?