What Makes It Sound Like Christmas?

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!

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Beat of a Different Drummer?

In my dissertation research I’m turning toward drum machines. It’s a natural extension of my ’80s sound inquiries: if the Yamaha DX7 was so important to the ’80s sound, drum machines like the LinnDrum and the Roland TR-808 were at least equally important.

Analyzing the timbre of drum machines using my existing apparatus has revealed how biased toward pitched phenomena theories of timbre really are. For example, so many theories of timbre are completely preoccupied with overtones/partials and their relative loudness. (For more info on spectrogram analysis, check out the first half of this blog post.)

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This spectrogram is of a harmonica synth playing a melody. Time is on the x-axis in seconds. Pitch is on the y-axis in Hertz (higher Hz = higher pitch). The bottom line of this spectrogram, at around 500 Hz, is the fundamental pitch. Colloquially we just call this “the pitch.” The parallel lines running above the fundamental are the partials of this sound. You don’t hear them as separate notes, but instead you hear a change in timbre.

But for many percussion instruments, drums and cymbals and such, you won’t see any partials like that at all. Even drums that are pitched don’t really have partials running in multiple parallel lines above it.

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These are samples from a Roland TR-808: bass drum, low tom, mid tom, high tom, snare, closed hi-hat, open hi-hat, clave, and handclaps. Notice how these are all just thick bars of sound, not at all like the parallel strands in the above example.

So it does us no good at all to talk about partials, how those partials compare to the ideal natural harmonic series, whether there’s vibrato, etc. Yet, that’s the majority of the focus of spectrogram analyses.

Over the next few weeks I’m going to start finessing how we can talk about timbre in non-pitched percussion instruments. For now, back to the grind…

’80s-inspired music

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?

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Are We Not New Wave?

Today I finished reading Are We Not New Wave?: Modern Pop at the Turn of the 1980s by Theo Cateforis.

I began the book to solidify my knowledge of earlier 1980s pop. My dissertation focuses on the DX7 which wasn’t released until late 1983. The genre of new wave, by comparison, grew out of punk and thus really begins around 1976 or so. Although new wave gets conflated with ’80s pop more generally, it’s really a “turn of the 1980s” phenomenon, as the title explains.


I’m investigating how the ’80s sound was understood in the ’80s as well as today.

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Keyboard Magazine in 1986

It’s funny what we identify with, and how we situate ourselves, when we research an era of the past. As part of my research for my dissertation, I spend a ton of time in the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, looking at old magazines and seeing what performers, fans, and critics had to say about the Yamaha DX7. Right now I’ve focused on Keyboard magazine, targeted of course at keyboardists. In the process I also get a feel for what the culture surrounding keyboards in the 1980s was like.

In the April 1986 issue, many names are given on pages 6–7. The editors are Dominic, Tim, Bob, Ted, and David. Regular contributors are Richie, David, Bill, Jim, Tom, Steve, another Steve, Larry, Terry, another Bill, Allan, a third Steve, Bob, Don, Bobby, Dave, and Ruth (!). Writing letters are James, Nick, Clay, Gary, Ken, Jim, Woody, Jack, Glen, and Scotty. They’re writing about Nick, Alain, Jeffrey, Steve, David, and Joseph. Next month promises articles on Ivo, Wally, David, and Ralph. So then, we have forty-one men mentioned for every one woman on these two pages at the beginning of the April 1986 issue. 

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