Emotion in Music: the Fatigue in Sameness, the Life in Imperfection

Within the course of this morning, I had glossed over album reviews covering electropop/synthpop artists (IBlameCoco, Foretaste, Ladytron to name a few). For starters, synthpop groups are innumerable. I’d attempted to list down the artists and eventually tired of it, after the list dragged on and on. The technological big bang of the 21st century has significantly influenced music, particularly pop, rock, indie and of course, electronic. It has aided in the movement of genre revivalism, like the jangly guitar pop of the 60s, post-punk/new wave of the 80s and shoegazing/dream pop of the 90s. But let’s focus on the likes of chillwave, and the electropop hullaballoo. The synthesizer, drum machine and MIDI devices have blurred genres and notably helped bridge the gap between gig pubs and night clubs (enter the hipsters). I suppose we all agree that in general, people want to have a good time, which is manifest in head banging at gigs, drinking, dancing and getting wasted at parties (I apologize in advance to whoever will be offended by my idea framing). In a postmodern context, people could care less about what makes “good” music what it is and what does’t, as long as it’s enjoyable – the nothing matters mentality. Though this could be a cause for panic in the academia, it’s an accepted reality. Anyway, back to the reviews. I have noticed a pattern, where critics laud a group for for their “originality” and “re-invention” while on the other hand, lambaste them for being “insincere” or “too perfect.” This does not come as a surprise, given that the genre has been saturated in the span of a few years and this generation is too easily jaded. I am aware that the critics’ sentiments are nothing new.

So why talk about this? Well, I think it’s worth some discussion because people may be forgetting their musical history in their endless process of being lost in the moment. A friend sent me the link to a NY Times article, which tackles the science of how emotions in music are communicated to listeners. Below are videos featuring a study by Daniel Levitin to determine how musicians communicate emotion in their manner of executing a piece. The article and Levitin’s study share an essential common point: imperfection. Imperfection in music – mistakes.

In the study, the musician was asked to play a piece faithful to its technical specifications regarding tempo (speed in music) and dynamics (loudness or softness in music) and then was asked to play it adding his own expression and interpretation to the same specifications. To his own taste, he played some notes louder, some notes softer, some notes longer, some notes shorter. By doing this, the pianist deviates from the piece – mistakes, basically. In this sense, the pianist gains a sort of originality or accomplishes re-invention. Turns out, listeners claim to have been more moved by the second execution of the piece (that is, with the mistakes) than by the loyal execution. For the sake of cognitive economy, the brain is programmed to easily adapt to fixed patterns of sound and eventually throws it to the background. Perhaps this is why it is always a good thing for artists to hide musical surprises in a song until the right time or creatively place variations, as this most effectively catches the mind’s attention.

Though classical music was the medium, the core of the matter is closer to our case than we think. Today’s electronic music remorselessly utilizes drum machines (fixed and constant rhythm) and loops (fixed and constant instrumentation), effortlessly feeding the listener’s mind its musical expectations. Thus, it has less to think about. Imagine the myriad artists that have been doing this and its effect on the collective. It’s a no-brainer (no pun intended). Let’s retrace our steps to the critics’ sentiments. Critics praise groups for the twist they place on an established style, for baring who they are through such means. For them, the music is more sincere and real. They slam those (this goes for all genres now) that follow convention a little too perfectly, calling them inessential, boring or outright forgettable. For them, the music is a face lost in a crowd – the fatigue of sameness.

I speak to you now as a fellow listener: if you care about music, do give your listening some thought, if you haven’t yet. I speak to you now as a fellow musician: rules and conventions are meant to be broken. Break them. Break expectations. Dare to be imperfect.


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