Saturday, March 3, 2012

Tears and Jeers

[Kind of a strange, rambling post. On Twitter, I just described it as "Me overreacting to musicians overreacting to journalists overreacting to people overreacting to Adele emoting." Enjoy!]

About a month ago, I'd never heard of Adele. (I don't offer this as a point of pride or shame - just fact). Then, in fairly short order: 1) I helped my daughter use an iTunes gift card to download an Adele album ("Who?" I said); 2) a few days later, Adele won a bunch of Grammys; 3) a few days later, the Wall Street Journal ran a piece about  the musical "formula" behind an Adele song; 4) a few days later, NPR picked it up, and 5) the Journal and NPR stories apparently drove a lot of musicians crazy. I actually missed the articles and the initial batch of negative reactions to them, but 6) Alex Ross brought the subject up a few days ago, by way of praising this 7) Isaac Schankler take-down of the Journal article. Got all that?

Schankler and others objected to some degree to the careless way in which the term appoggiatura was thrown around, but the bigger picture concern from Schankler and Ross seems to be this oversimplistic idea that there's an easy and direct relationship between a given musical device and an emotional response. After detailing some of the scientific findings on which the Journal article is based, Schankler writes:
Therefore, while we see a general tendency for appoggiaturas and tears to be associated, we can’t say that appoggiaturas are a necessary or sufficient condition for causing tears.
and, later:
This brings me to the aspect of the article that I find most offensive, the implication that music is like a science of emotional manipulation through sound, and that it’s as simple as applying a “formula” to achieve commercial and artistic success. Not only is it belittling to musicians and listeners everywhere, it also implies a very narrow view of musical craft. I want to strenuously argue for the value of music that doesn’t necessarily cause tears or chills. 
But I don't think that's fair description of what either the Journal or NPR pieces are setting out to do. In fact, the Journal story frames itself this way [emphases are mine]:
Though personal experience and culture play into individual reactions, researchers have found that certain features of music are consistently associated with producing strong emotions in listeners. Combined with heartfelt lyrics and a powerhouse voice, these structures can send reward signals to our brains that rival any other pleasure.
The suggestion is not that an appoggiatura automatically guarantees any sort of resultNor is there any suggestion that appoggiaturas are some new scientific discovery, as was carelessly assumed by this blogger and others. By using the technical term appoggiatura, the article is in fact acknowledging that this is a familiar musical device, known well enough to musicians to be given its own name.* The Journal story is loosely based on John Sloboda's research that shows listeners tend to respond in a statistically significant way to appoggiaturas as "chill" moments. Of course, the reason that stories like this get run at all (and then get picked up by NPR) is because of more accessible "hooks" - in this case, the Adele phenomenon and a Saturday Night Live sketch featuring office workers who can't resist crying when they hear Adele's Someone Like You.

Schankler is distracted enough by these hooks to complain that "even if the octave leap in Adele’s voice at the chorus of Someone Like You causes listeners to experience chills, there is no evidence this would have anything to do with making people cry." Well, the point of the research is not to distinguish between chills or tears, but rather to look for strong emotional reactions from listeners. Yes, the Journal story is subheaded "Why does Adele's Someone Like You make everybody cry?" but that's just playing off the SNL hook - I don't think the average reader is really going to take the title literally and think the causation is so direct or predictable. Also, there's nothing about the article to suggest that music should always be about causing tears or chills; rather, the point of the article is to focus on one way a certain type of song might do that.

On the other hand, I do think casual music fans are interested in knowing more about why music can have the mysterious and strongly emotional effects it has on us. To be interested in that question is not to think this is music's only goal, but it is certainly part of music's fascination.

Alex Ross expresses his concern as follows:
So many of these how-does-music-work articles and books seem to view music as one thing, as a standardized mechanical apparatus whose tricks can be figured out. And music is peculiarly prey to trivializing questions. Perhaps I'm overlooking stories in other fields, but I don't seem to see headlines along the lines of "How do paintings make us feel?" or "Why do movies with unhappy endings make us cry?" or "What about thrillers makes us tense?" Music emerges from these reports as a reliable servant of everyday emotion, not as a medium of individual creativity.
Well, first, I think there are a lot more people who regularly experience emotional reactions to music than to paintings, but paintings and especially movies (and novels) are, at least on the surface, seemingly easier to understand in terms of craft. Please notice that I say "seemingly." I'm not saying that paintings, movies, and novels might not have infinite layers of complexity, but I suspect the average film-goer or novel-reader has a basic sense of how plot and character work, how dialogue works, even how cameras work, etc. Give someone a camera and some actors and tell them to make a movie, and I think most people figure they could put a bad script together and put it on film. But ask them to explain why a given melody (or phrase disruption or harmonic surprise, etc.) can pull so strongly at our insides - that's tougher. Sure, one might point to the lyrics, to what one knows about the singer, to associations ("it's the song that was playing when we met"), to timbre or dynamics, but ask why the specific notes have such power and I think most people are at a loss.

When I started college as a piano major, I could play a Chopin nocturne or Mozart sonata pretty well, but I couldn't have begun to tell you how to write such a piece. I would definitely have felt more comfortable setting out to write a novel or make a film than to compose a sonata or symphony. That's partly because the craft involved in a well-made film or novel is more transparent; we look through them straight to the story and may not realize how sophisticated the craft is. The craft involved in a sonata is more opaque because there's not necessarily an obvious story on the other side - so it's more natural to think of the craft right away. Everyone knows who composed their favorite symphonies or operas, but many have no idea who wrote or directed beloved movies. I know there are plenty of music students who experience things differently than I did (obviously, my pre-college training was pretty incomplete), but I'd guess the average person who cries listening to Adele would be as much at a loss as I was about how to string notes together. It's tempting to figure that a great tune is just pure witchcraft.

Maybe one reason I found Schankler's critique to be over-the-top is that I think appoggiaturas are a great teaching hook, so I'm sympathetic to the goals of the article. In many years of teaching music appreciation type classes, my two favorite compositional techniques to explore with the uninitiated are appoggiaturas and pedal tones. I've written before about the marvelous power of pedal tones**; as with appoggiaturas, the power is based on a simple exploitation of dissonance to create a certain kind of tension that most listeners easily feel but probably don't notice as a device. As Schankler suggests, these are garden-variety techniques and they in no way guarantee any kind of success; but just as Sloboda believes that the appoggiatura principle is in play during many "chill moments," I've discovered over time that MANY of my favorite passages feature pedal tones.

True, that could just be re-stated to say, "pedal tones often occur at climaxes and climaxes are intentionally exciting passages," but I still found it revelatory to realize how often this simple effect had worked magic on me. Yet, I don't find that "peeking behind the curtain" ruins the effect or is in any way "trivializing." Watch Rostropovich rave about the visceral thrill of a pedal tone and ask if he had grown tired of the effect at this advanced stage of his career. [should start at the 9:18 mark]

A powerful teaching point here is that dissonance need not be, as so many assume, some kind of abrasive or necessarily unpleasing sound; dissonance, in most music, is more about a relative kind of tension.(Yes, I know that musicians know this; you might be surprised how many others misunderstand the word.) Having now looked into Adele's Someone Like You a bit, I'll admit that it's not a great candidate for teaching appoggiaturas. The song I always use in classes is a little less current, but this tune could almost be said to be about appoggiaturas. [Full Disclosure: I used to think I was pretty hip for using this "contemporary" tune, which I've now realized many undergrads have never heard before.]

I know that the circled notes don't all fit the classic "music theory" definition of appoggiaturas - in fact, I begin in class by describing them as "expressive dissonances" to make the point that dissonant notes needn't sound harsh, but that accented dissonances generally carry a kind of expressive power. Nobody hears this song and thinks, "ouch, those notes hurts," but the clashes carry a more subtle, inward kind of hurt. (And, yes, of course this expressive power is significantly rooted in cultural conditioning as well - but the principles of consonance and dissonance also have to do with natural principles of overtone reinforcement/clashing.) But I also introduce the term appoggiatura to point out that this effect was important enough to be given a name - and since the Italian word suggests "leaning," it also shows that there was a kind of sensation associated with this effect. Thus, I'm happy to see the Wall Street Journal jumping in and showing that this is a historically important technique that is both simple and powerful, that works on most of us whether we're aware of it or not.

McCartney's Yesterday is a particularly nice example because the "appoggiaturas" occur along with the rhymes in the lyrics (-day, -way, stay), so that the melody can be said to have its own sort of rhyming. Not a revolutionary idea, by any means, but evidence for why this tune hangs together well and lends itself to sad, reflective lyrics. There are many other reasons this is such a famous, successful tune, including that it was written by Paul McCartney - but I see no problem in helping people see the mechanics underlying these pitches.

These popular science/media reports on music/science research are often clumsy at best, and it's easy to see why that's frustrating, but I think there's more good done than harm in getting readers to think about the craft of musical language. Speaking of which, I've had quite a few students and other acquaintances mention this RadioLab episode on musical language; even though it contains lots of oversimplications that drive me crazy (the discussion of dissonance and The Rite of Spring has lots of issues***), I actually really enjoy the episode and have recommended it to many. Getting people to care about the craft behind good musical invention is a great way to open up ears to even more magic.

* Dan Wilson, the song's co-writer, is quoted by NPR as thinking that the Journal article "talked about how Adele and I had used this secret trick about putting appoggiaturas in, but I didn't know what that was." But the Journal article never refers to the device as a secret trick. There is the suggestion that Adele and Wilson "stumbled upon a formula for commercial success," and "stumbled" is probably an unfair word choice, but the "formula" described involves a lot more than just appoggiaturas.

** I've been teaching myself organ over the past year and playing Sunday services regularly. The most sure-fire technique I know for livening up a hymn is to hold down a single pedal (either tonic or dominant, depending on the desired effect) for an entire verse and let the tension build. (It's also a nice break for my feet which really don't know what they're doing in the other verses.)

*** Wild coincidence! About two hours after typing that bit about the RadioLab episode, I turned on my car radio and found myself right in the middle of the The Rite of Spring discussion from that very episode; interesting, but the storytelling obscures the actual science to an astonishing degree. I'll have to write about that some time...


cyclist56 said...

Your repeated references to musical conventions or devices as "hooks" sort of reinforces the point that Ross and Schankler were making - that there is no pat musical formula for evoking emotions. As I read the WSJ piece and its subsequent NPR follow-up airing, the idea being advanced was that just that. Whether the critics were "over the top", they made a valid and important point that many musicians appreciate.


I guess I just didn't read those articles that way. In fact, the Wall Street Journal piece says "Depending on the context, we interpret this state of arousal as positive or negative, happy or sad. [MM: and, presumably any number of reactions in between]" And, as I already mentioned, the article is also clear that other factors come into play before the "chill" is experienced at all. So, I don't see this as presenting a pat formula for evoking emotions. Rather, it seems like an exploration of one way in which emotions might be evoked. It's hard to deny that people have emotional reactions to songs; what's wrong with exploring some of the mechanics that make that happen?

Thanks for the thoughtful comment.


Bryan Townsend said...

Careless blogger here! Perhaps you should read my post again. What was really irking me were two things: the implication that this 'research' into the expressive use of appoggiatura was somehow news; and the scientism behind it all (only science can know truth). Just because my post was short and pithy doesn't mean it was careless. Oh, and your much longer post here is an excellent one from a different perspective.

Re: Yesterday. Those beautiful appoggiaturas that you point out actually do fit the definition quite well: the first is an unprepared 9-8, the second the same (or an accented passing tone, depending on your brand of terminology) and the third is a 4-3, also unprepared. All three resolve downward by step in the normal way.


Thanks for the comment, Careless Blogger. It was careless of me not to have noticed it sooner!

I do think your post mischaracterized the Journal piece unfairly. You wrote:

"Was all musical knowledge suddenly sucked out of the universe recently and someone forgot to tell me? How can this possibly quality as 'news' or 'research'? Are these scientists this utterly ignorant of the simplest facts about the structure of music? If so, why for Pete's sake are they qualified as researchers into music? In my favorite textbook on harmony, which is 650 plus pages long, the appoggiatura is first discussed on page 43. It is as if these 'researchers' have almost complete ignorance of the basic materials of music."

And yet, the Journal article is clear that Slodoba's research is from 20 years ago. Also, your quote makes it sound as if the Journal piece is about the discovery of the "appoggiatura." Slodoba's research is about whether there's a high correlation between "chill moments" and appoggiaturas. I wonder if that's mentioned on p.43 of that theory textbook.

True, it might be fairly common for musicians to understand that appoggiaturas might have this kind of effect, but I still think it's interesting research and I, for one, hadn't heard about it. So it was new to me!

For what reason are you proposing that Slodoba is "utterly ignorant of the simplest facts about the structure of music?" I just didn't see that.