Art is about building patterns and then breaking them. It’s about setting and defying expectations. It’s a fight to do something that’s never been done before and a coinciding struggle to understand what has been done so you have a foothold from which to move up.
Connoisseurs will say that it is impossible to fully understand art without a deep understanding of the context in which it was created. An old painting will mean nothing to the layman but will be overwhelming to someone who understands how it was revolutionary for its time. There’s no denying the purely subjective side of art, though — a young child with a mind like a clean slate can be awed by a simple combination of colors, and any person can get down to a good rhythm.
This collision of intellect and feeling in the patron forces the artist to strike a delicate balance. He must make a calculated effort and make every choice with reason and deliberation, but at the same time, he must define his work through free, pure, personal expression.
In the world of popular music, those scales are heavily tipped toward calculated effort. Formulaic music can be recreated, and you can’t sell a product if you can’t continue to make it. A nationwide industry can tell the public what they like through advertising, then they can sell the same music over and over until another musical force comes along that threatens the profit or presents opportunity for a bigger one. Genres will form, and the industry will make new formulas to fill the demand.
It’s the same in film. Companies can perfect a limited portfolio of plot setups and twists to fit the popular genres. While they might not win an Oscar with their newest superhero action movie or straight-couple romantic comedy, it doesn’t take an Oscar to make a killing in the box office.
These cookie-cutter tactics define art for the public and set up expectations. If you spend most of your time listening to popular radio, you might think of music as a fat beat behind some verses and a good hook.
However, there are plenty of people who aren’t tied to the norm. If you have a little bit more of a musical background, you might think of music as a time signature and a key, or maybe a few of each. The more abstract musical thinkers will define it as a feeling or a story expressed by some manipulation of the 12 notes.
Jazz is a popular form that has succeeded in meeting the expectations of the public while exploring both the cerebral and expressive sides of music. However, beyond jazz lies the forgotten genre of “art music.” It’s kind of like music’s version of modern art. An art musician discards all expectations and starts her piece as a blank page. Sure, it’s pretty foolproof to start with a beat in common time and throw some snare on the backbeat, but she won’t do that unless it serves the purpose of the piece — you don’t write a poem with a uniform sentence structure just because it makes the poem easier to read.
When you listen to art music, you might not tap your foot or bob your head. You might not sing along. In fact, you’ll probably just sit there and listen, which is why making art music is not usually a mainstream practice. One area where art music surfaces in the mainstream is in film music. Film music doesn’t always aim to be catchy or groovy — it aims to stir emotion and strengthen the power of the scene. Its purpose is often to capture a feeling, which makes it fall directly in line with art music.
Sure, plenty of music makes unique, unprecedented use of the 12 notes, but that’s not the last level of abstraction. In many musical traditions around the world, especially in the East, the 12 notes aren’t the foundation of the music. There are quarter tones in Middle Eastern music, which turn the 12-note scale into a 24-note scale. In Indian music, there’s a 22-note scale — now that’s tough to handle. There are six-, 19- and 31-note systems used in some European music, and in Indonesia there are five- and seven-note systems. These note divisions are so different from our standard Western tradition that sometimes our ears can’t even process the music.
Music is supposed to be a universal language, but sometimes musical barriers are ingrained. Top-40 radio is one kind of musical conformity, but the 12-note scale is a wall that many people in the West have never seen beyond. This kind of conformity is brain-deep: The World Science Festival did a presentation called “Notes & Neurons” that delved into both the scientific and artistic reality of this developmental phenomenon.
These explorations reveal an even more confusing world for the musician. Hooks, beats and other relatable musical formulae are essential to connecting with the listener, but at the same time there is a vastness of musical potential that can only be reached by escaping the familiar rhythms and the predefined melodic systems. An artist can spend a lifetime delving through history to form a solid foundation of context, and he can spend another reaching out into oblivion trying to find his most personal sounds to achieve pure expression, but the crucial effort lies in finding the best way to do both.