Musical style and technology have always been in conversation, each one pushing the other along. The development of well-tempered piano tuning with its fuller dynamic range, for example, made it possible for the great body of 18th- and 19th-century piano music to be written-or, more precisely, created the medium through which certain composers found their voice. In this way, science creates environments in which certain musical personalities and temperaments thrive, or don’t.
But recently, this conversation between technology and music has become more like a shouting match-less polite and more aggressive.
Over the last 60 years, the majority of music we have heard has been delivered to us not live, but in prerecorded form. And the evolution of those prerecorded formats, as much as any musical genius, has determined what music actually sounds like.
The standard pop-song length of three minutes was famously molded and bound by the 78, a distribution format which allowed for three-minute songs and not much more. With the advent of 331¼3 r.p.m. records in the late 40’s, we got longer songs.
But as the means of distributing and using music have multiplied, our attention to music-and our appreciation of it-have shrunk.
Nothing puts the stamp on our shrinking musical attention span as much as Apple (AAPL)’s new online song catalog, iTunes Music Store. The store is essentially Napster, with the minor caveat that you have to pay 99 cents for each song you download. But my sources in the preteen world have uncovered an interesting development: The kids aren’t actually paying for the songs. After all, how many kids have a credit card? And even if they did, a buck a song is steep, especially when you can get them for free on LimeWire and Kazaa.
No, instead of buying, they’re listening to the free 30-second previews that are available on the Web site. And they’re listening to them over and over again.
These previews get right to the essence of the songs. They’re usually cut from somewhere in the middle and contain a bit of the verse and a bit of the chorus, or the hook, which is the part that everyone recognizes.
You might ask how anyone could possibly find enjoyment in just 30 seconds of a song? But there’s a lot to suggest that 30 seconds of a song is just about all we need these days. In fact, everything from TV commercials to children’s toys, from radio jingles to cell-phone ringers, from song-form changes to the rise of sampling, has been subtly training us to read and receive our music in increasingly smaller chunks.
For instance, have you noticed how few new pop songs contain bridges? Historically, the bridge is the section where a song goes somewhere new-sometimes to a different key and maybe to a new theme lyrically-and it has pretty much disappeared from the Top 40 (though not the country charts), which makes your 30 seconds even more representative.
Dance music, more than any other genre, has also changed the nature of pop music. Dance tracks tend to be longer and more repetitive than conventional songs. The dance-track composer relies on texture and production-adding found sounds, sampling, dropping instruments in and out of the mix and, of course, that old standby, turning up the volume-to move things along.
The rise of sampling, first in rap music, then in R&B and now virtually everywhere, has placed further emphasis on the hook-which is like heading straight to the climax without foreplay.
Modern composition, as composition professors often lament, has become a vertical exercise rather than a horizontal one. A lot of this can be traced to the way music, particularly modern pop music, is composed today, which is increasingly on a computer using music software. Composing on a computer does have some advantages. It allows writers access to an infinite number of sounds and tracks playing at the same time. A composer can pile sound upon sound with almost unlimited potential to create texture (or fix a flat voice). Listen to any current hit on the Top 40 and you’ll find probably 50 or more different tracks playing at the same time. The typical pop song from the 50’s probably had less than 2 tracks.
But this technological advancement has changed the priorities of composition. The emphasis, which was once on development and theme, on modulations that took place over the course of a song or a musical piece, has shifted to sound design and texture-variables that can be piled up and reduced in a manner of seconds. It’s the difference between developing a musical idea (recasting it, changing keys and repeating it) and putting a sound through different filters, or playing a beat four bars with a bassline, four bars without.
If our musical attention span could be diagnosed, we would all get treated for musical Attention Deficit Disorder. Think of all the places you hear music-in stores, on TV, on the radio, in elevators, on cell phones, at the gym-and think about how you hear this music. Is it a complete experience, or is just background noise?
Not only are we becoming desensitized to music by our environment, we are also making choices-actually training ourselves to hear music differently. The thousands of small radio audience-research firms across the country go to two major production houses, Hooks Unlimited in Atlanta and Autohook in Woodbury, Conn., to get CD’s containing 10-second snippets of hundreds of songs. Radio stations evaluate a song’s life span by playing these excerpts from songs-the 10-seconds are always the hook or the most recognizable part-to test audiences. Just 10 seconds!
And don’t think the labels-and, to a lesser extent, the artists-are unaware of this.
Hit Clip’s a Hit
If you want to see what the future sounds like, listen to a Hit Clip. For anyone who doesn’t have an 11-year-old daughter, the Hit Clip is a small MP3 player made by Hasbro for kids and young teenagers. Hasbro has sold over 25 million of them, and McDonald’s and Oscar Mayer have given them away for promotions.
The attraction of the Hit Clip was that it played 50-second samples from hit songs. Songs-‘N Sync, Britney Spears, etc.-that are already simplified in the way described above.
Commercials are another story. Have you noticed how many old hits are cut up and edited for commercial use? Have you noticed how “Getting Better,” the Beatles song used in the Philips electronics commercial, goes suddenly from verse to chorus without the break that you hear in the original recording? The same surgery was performed on Sly and the Family Stone’s “Everyday People” for a Toyota commercial. That’s editing, baby.
This kind of editing is more than just obnoxious. Whether we recognize it or not, we’re being robbed of the song’s original design. As a result, our expectations of what music can do are degraded.
All of which makes those 30-second previews on the iTunes store the perfect (if slightly twisted) way to listen to modern music.
The iTune preview doesn’t need to be downloaded. You can play it right on the site, which makes it particularly speedy and convenient. Say, for instance, there’s some song that’s been bugging you and you need to hear it. You can quickly find it, play it and scratch that itch.
‘Give It To Me … ‘ Free!
This happened to me the other day, in fact, with Rick James’ “Give It to Me Baby,” which I had heard at the gym and really needed to hear again. I clicked on a button at the iTunes site, and there it was: “You say I’m so crazy / Coming home intoxicated…. ” Great bassline, tight drum groove-the whole deal.
But after 30 seconds, I really didn’t need much more. I played the clip a few times and got the groove in my head. The song doesn’t actually go anywhere. The same two chords show up in both the verse and the chorus, and the drums and bass don’t change at all. The elemental thing about the song is the feel, which you get in those 30 seconds.
On the other hand, some songs and genres aren’t nearly as fulfilling in this truncated format. High-concept rock bands fare particularly poorly: Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb,” for example, barely gets going before petering out.
Yet strangely, such ostensibly complex bands as the Smiths (sadly, only two songs available right now) and R.E.M. sound great in 30 seconds. Then again, when you think of their compositional style-which, in both cases, is based on a distinctive guitar player’s grooves-it makes sense. R.E.M.’s “Catapult,” off of Murmur , was just right.
With Jackson 5 songs, 30 seconds is more than enough, but with Michael Jackson’s solo work, the tunes sound horribly incomplete. That must be the Quincy Jones difference right there, making each section of those songs on Off the Wall and Thriller distinct and necessary. Simon & Garfunkel, with their short, catchy and sometimes annoying folk ditties, sound all right, but Paul Simon’s solo stuff is too episodic to be excerpted.
Likewise, New Edition’s “Popcorn Love” and “Mr. Telephone Man” are well served in 30 seconds, but Bobby Brown’s glorious “Roni” is just too much song: The pre-chorus alone is that long.
Surprisingly, most of Nirvana in 30 seconds is an exercise in frustration. The music is so frenetic you’d think that small bites would be sufficient, but it turns out that there are just too many sections to the songs. Furthermore, Kurt Cobain’s lyrics frequently follow a narrative that you want to follow, too. So when the songs are cut off, you’re left wanting more.
Annoyingly, Journey’s “Any Way You Want It” doesn’t even make it to the chorus before fading out, giving you a severe case of musical blue balls.
But then it’s Liz Phair to the rescue. A few seconds of her cooing “I want a boyfriend” on “Fuck and Run,” and you’re rocking out again.
Speaking of frustration, the only good part to the Doobie Brothers’ “Minute By Minute” is that tasty gospel-keyboard introduction, but the hook-centric iTunes preview serves up the lame chorus. Yet, when I needed-for some inexplicable reason-to hear the Dixie Chicks’ “Wide Open Spaces,” I got enough without getting annoyed.
Unfortunately, the iTunes library is far from complete, even when it comes to the basics. There’s some Elvis Costello, for instance, but only late, “arty” Elvis. There’s no Beatles except an album of outtakes. No Led Zeppelin, either, except for a piss-poor cover band that may or may not be a goof.
Worse still, no The Stylistics. For shame, iTunes, for shame. Then again, how could anyone set the mood with the Isleys in just 30 seconds? But along those lines, thankfully, there’s 93 selections of Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes.