Music Innovation Isn’t Just Digital

6 07 2012

I was talking with my oldest son about music the other day, while we were listening to some Daft Punk and Swedish House Mafia in the car. He was a bit surprised that I was listening to this style of music (given my usual genre is 60’s, 70’s and 80’s top-40), and was describing how innovative the artists behind Daft Punk were, and how experimental they were. I pointed out that he would find it surprising how many artists there are that really like to experiment, many whose roots are in music genres you wouldn’t expect to be experimental. He basically asked “so they like to work with computers and synthesizers too”, and I had to point out that experimentation had nothing to do a specific mechanism for producing innovative sounds. Its the ideas and innovations that matter.

Innovation/Experiment == Digital/Electronic? Not So Fast

My son’s opinion isn’t unusual. I have encountered many people, mainly casual fans like myself at the periphery of music, that believe that “innovation” and “experimentation” means “digital” or “electronic”. This overlooks some critical history: much of the music we listen to on the radio today owes its root existence to experimentation with music forms back in the late 1940’s, and even that owes its roots to musical styles that go back as far as the 1860’s.

I can hear a lot of people saying “what? Are you nuts? What does mid-19th century music have to do with dub-step, electronica or even pop and rock?”. Consider where the roots of today’s music come from. A lot of the mainstream music is still based on styles and forms that were laid down in the 1950’s during the early days of rock ‘n roll. Modern electronic forms are based on work done by early progressive rock, or “prog rock” bands like The Moody Blues, Pink Floyd and Procol Harum (amongst a host of others). The first use of synthesizers back in the 1960’s, along with pieces that incorporated instruments not normally used in rock (harpsichords, orchestral instruments, sitars), showed bands and composers what the possibilities could be. Even those first prog rock bands had influences, with albums like Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and Pet Sounds being some of the more influential works.

Like All History, A Continuous Chain Of Events

Again, I can sense some protest, but keep in mind that history isn’t a series of starts and stops. You can’t point to a single event or single day where “today we have electronica” or “at this time on this day, punk rock came into existence”. Consider the development of the various types of “metal” music. We didn’t wake up one day, and boom, there was Black Sabbath, formed out of nothingness. What is out there today started from early work in the 1950’s, where some groups started to look for a different type of sound (some trace the roots of metal to groups like the Kingsman and “Louie, Louie”, believe it or not). As rock music started to fissure and specialize, we got more and more instances of “hard rock”, sometimes as a single track on an album (think “Helter Skelter” from the White Album), and more and more, as entire albums. From there the music got “harder” until at some point, it was clear that “hard rock” itself had created a new offshoot that eventually became known as “heavy metal”.

So experimentation and music innovation isn’t new. But what about this idea that the roots of music we listen to today goes back to the mid-1800s? Let’s work backward. The basic form for a contemporary pop or rock song has been around for about 60 years: 2:30 to 3:30 in duration, typical form is verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus-verse-chorus-exit. Yes, there are a lot of variations on that basic form, but the structure is pretty common. Today’s “average” band (2 guitars, 1 bass guitar, drums, keyboard) is a pretty typical configuration. The biggest technological changes first came in the 1950’s, with the introduction of the electric bass guitar (replacing the traditional stand-up acoustic bass) and the solid body guitar. The next big thing was the development of the first synthesizers in the 1960’s, and the addition of more sophisticated multitrack recording. Computer-generated and computer-managed sound (experimented with in the 1980’s, but was more common starting in the 1990’s as computer technology improved) was the next step in music technology.

But our rock grew out of the 1950’s rock n’ roll. That, in turn, was a melding of blues, jazz, country and gospel styles. Blues, which is sometimes considered the core of rock, itself goes back to the beginning of the 20th century, which is based on forms that started as “black music” and “slave music” going back as far as the 1840’s, but which started to have a more unified and defined style in the 1850’s and 1860’s.

Experimentation and Innovation Started In the 1950’s

Okay, so modern pop, rock and other music forms actually go back to beginnings decades ago. But how were they “experimental” in the 1950’s? In some cases, it was experimentation by emphasizing different musical styles in songs (giving something a more country sound, or incorporating more jazz elements). To be honest, very little of the experimentation made it on the radio, the primary vehicle for promoting rock and pop. And the few who were allowed to experiment publicly were those that were already well established.

Things started to change in the 1960’s, and it wasn’t the synthesizer that first moved “experimental” and “innovative” music forward. The use of orchestral instruments, or unusual instruments like the harpsichord and the sitar, were areas where artists tried to experiment. The incorporation of folk elements, and the beginnings of folk rock, were an experiment in music making carried out in the mainstream. Artists didn’t just experiment with instruments and musical style. There was a lot of experimentation in the studio, using the studio itself. Things like over-dubbing, use of feedback and things like echo chambers (an essential part of Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound style) allowed artists to experiment with music in ways that were hard to reproduce just through simple playing of instruments.

The addition of the synthesizer allowed for production of new and unique sounds that you just couldn’t get through normal string, percussion and wind instruments. An important element was that these sounds could be produced live, and not just in a studio. In some ways it was considered ground-breaking, but for many artists, it became another tool in their musical toolbox.

Experimentation with new and alternative forms of music continued, and the synthesizer wasn’t always a key part of the equation. Exploring the use of other ethnic forms (like Paul Simon’s use of Brazilian drumming forms on Rhythm of the Saints, plus his unusual mix of older urban music styles on Graceland before it) has come and gone, and reappears from time to time. Fusing and merging styles (adding more jazz, country and traditional blues elements) continues. In some cases, “experimentation” was about getting back to simpler roots, and about eschewing heavy use of post-recording production techniques, generally manifested in the rise of punk and later grunge.

The Rise of the Computer

The introduction of the computer into music making was, like the synthesizer, a way to create new sounds in ways that simply weren’t possible (or very easy) with traditional instruments. The increase of smarter synthesizer complemented this development. Eventually, the use of loops and samples became standard form, particularly for a lot of the growing urban forms like rap and house. In some ways, it was a step backwards, because what we weren’t seeing was truly new compositions “from scratch”. Instead, what was being made was interesting and intriguing remixes, and repurposing of small slices of recognizable music. It was still creative, and still innovative, but in a different way. To use a car analogy, composing a new song from scratch was like designing a new car from the ground up. The remixes, samples and loops was like the “resto-mod” a combination of restoration and modification of an existing thing into something newer.

For now, a lot of the music labeled “experimental” or “innovative” is typically heavy on synthesizers, computer-generated sound and loops/samples. And it generally gets all of the attention. But experimentation with new ways to incorporate orchestras, live performances and obscure music forms tends to not get the same sort of coverage. Often, these types of music find their way into the public consciousness in the form of TV or movie soundtracks, rather than being released as concept albums, given that the album format itself is getting less attention. The rise of iTunes has been good for music fans (because you can buy the songs you want, and skip the ones you don’t), but it has been hard on the album format, one which the music industry is still clinging to. Artists are expected to put out 10-15 songs as an “album”, but the unified form of the concept album (like Sergeant Pepper’s, or ELO’s Time) that is really best played through in one go has generally faded away.

Lots Of Innovation, Not All Of It Digital

So innovation and experimentation with music can use digital tools like synthesizers and computer-managed sounds. But, as history shows, it isn’t exclusively the domain of the digital and the electronic. Non-traditional instruments, incorporation of historical music forms, and even something as simple as a capella can be just as innovative.

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