There is a lot of discussion as to what makes good music? Does good music have a catchy tune, or does a catchy tune make it boring and therefore excludes it from being good music? In a recent essay in the Wall Street Journal by Daniel J. Levitin, he discusses Christmas music and the nature of catchy tunes on our psyche. While his focus is the repetitive, boring nature of memorable Christmas tune, he also brings up interesting points about what makes tunes memorable and how we react to them.
"The fact that music does get stuck in our heads -- the Germans call these Ohrwurms, or "ear worms" -- is a key to understanding how human nature evolved. Evolution selected music as an information-bearing medium precisely because it has this stick-in-your-head quality; all of us are descended from ancestors who used music to encapsulate important information... Early Homo sapiens realized that setting words to music made it easier to remember them; the internal constraints of music, the accent structure and meter, not to mention poetic elements such as alliteration and rhyme, made it more difficult to forget the words."
So, tunes with words need to be memorable to make the words more memorable. I wonder how many opera composers consider this when writing an aria? Some of the most popular arias have wonderfully memorable tunes. We may or may not remember the words, but the memorability of the music leaves an impression and so (words or not) we do remember the essence of the piece, and so the composer has succeeded.
"When we like a piece of music, it has to balance predictability with surprise, familiarity with novelty. Our brains become bored if we know exactly what is coming next, and frustrated if we have no idea where the song is taking us. Songs that are immediately appealing are not typically those that contain the most surprise. We like them at first and then grow tired of them."
I'm not sure I agree with Mr Levitin on this point. I think perhaps the simplified versions of memorable melodies have simplified harmonies and little to surprise us, but that is because our brains have simplified the original, in order to commit to memory. "Twinkle Twinkle little star" and "Clair de lune" are a couple of good examples. "Twinkle Twinkle little star" is based on a French folk tune, "Ah! vous dirai-je, Maman" but was used by Mozart in his variations. Numerous words have been set to this little tune, which is partly why we know it so well. But if the melody is so boring, why did Mozart write a set of variations for it? "Clair de lune" is the third movement of the Suite Bergamasque by Debussy. Children all over the world learn a simplified version of this piece when learning piano. The melody is lovely, and very memorable. However, the original composition is anything be simply and boring.
"Holiday mall music is irritating because the sort of music that appeals to people of disparate backgrounds and ages is going to tend to be harmonically unsurprising."
Perhaps the problem with holiday mall music is they have taken lovely music and turned to the most generic forms possible to please the largest number of shoppers. Better to offend no one and yet bore everyone, than excite a few and irritate others (although I disagree with this concept). This is not because holiday music is boring, but that so many artists have taken these lovely pieces of music and distilled them down to their simplest parts, recording it and dumped in on to the market in order to reap the profits made by holiday albums. I heard a version of Handel's "Messiah" which was just a short section of the well know "Wonderful, Councilor, All Mighty King, Prince of Peace" and the vocalist completely ripped the soul out of the piece by simplifying it for solo voice and piano. I recognised the piece from the first 2 bars of music and cringed all the way through. Handel's music is wonderful, but simplified lack the depth that makes the piece wonderful.
On the other hand, some Christmas music is simple from the get go. "White Christmas" is considered the most popular Christmas song ever, and Irving Berlin's most revenue generating tune he wrote. It is simplicity to the core. Song writers joke that it only takes one Christmas song hit to be made for life. In order to have a hit Christmas song it has to be memorable, a tune people are going to get stuck in their heads, year after year.
Yet the sentiment needs to match music. "Percy the Puny Poinsetta" is a lovely little tune, and it speaks of how a tiny poinsetta finds love too. Why is this song not huge on the Christmas charts? Because it's corny from the outset. We understand the concept, but the tune makes the corny lyric even cornier (if that's possible).
"Percy the puny poinsettia
Is hanging his bloom in dismay
If they had just kept him wetta
He'd be a houseplant today"
This sort of doggeral verse is perfect for the smaltzy music. But smaltzy music isn't something we opt to listen to over and over again. It's fun occasionally, but by it's very nature it pokes fun at simplistic music by going overboard in this direction - and therefore quickly becomes boring.
Memorable music tends to be simple, but good music (which is also memorable) needs to have depth. Returning to Mr Levitin's essay:
"Another study by the researchers in 2002 played different styles of music -- classical and popular -- and found that restaurant patrons spent on average 10% more per meal when classical music was playing, and more on after-dinner coffee. The classical music created an air of sophistication, reflected in the more sophisticated (higher priced) entrées chosen by the diners."
Classical music creates an air of sophistication, and yet how much of classical music is memorable? The great pieces certainly are. Practically every child can sing the four core notes to Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. Yet, how many children have been exposed to the complete work? Studies show children who are exposed to Classical Music at an early age (sometimes called the Mozart Effect) do better in school. This has to do with way the brain processes the difference between the simple melody and the more complex harmonic progression of the sophisticated piece. The key to good music is then to combine a catchy tune with depth to create memorable music that is also sophisticated.
However, in this modern age of iPods and mall music, we are saturated with music constantly. One of the problems with boring holiday music is the inability to escape from it when out shopping during the holidays. My wife has programmed her iPod with 12 dozen of our favorite Christmas albums to play at work, while my work has started providing a Christmas mix to the cafeteria's sound system. The recording of music has made access to music limitless and yet also near constant in our world. Only One hundred years ago, music for most people was only accessible live. Holiday music was only heard in Church or by street corner choirs. Tunes needed to be more memorable, because there was longer between hearings. Now the music is constantly playing, even though there is more various types of music to be heard, radio stations tend to cycle through the popular top 10 (or top 40) songs of the week and malls put music on loops. As a shopper you may only hear the loop once in a two hour period, but as an employee of the mall, by the time Christmas arrives, you'll have heard the loop hundreds of times. No matter how great the music is, constantly put on repeat and anything will get boring.
That said people who love Anton Webbern's music say it is an acquired taste. If you listen to it enough you begin to enjoy it. Perhaps there is something to be said for that concept, if you can stomach listening to music over and over again, your brain simplifies elements of it and commits it to memory. So, even the most complex harmonies (such as Webbern's 12-tone music) can become memorized (and perhaps enjoyable - although I doubt I personally will ever get there).
Where does this leave Contemporary Classical Music? Should we be striving for a memorable melody and complex harmonies, or because of the repetition factor, should we completely ignore memorable melodies knowing that with repetition anything is memorable? The problem with this second option is getting music performed enough to get to that memorable/enjoyable stage. The bulk of society still thrives on simplified melodies and easy harmonies, even if they think the complex stuff is more sophisticated.
Contemporary Composers need to find that blend, of sophistication and memorability. Seldom do composers get recording contracts for new works before they've been performed. Therefore, in order to get to the point where the music can be heard again and again (complements of the recording) the piece needs to enjoyable enough on the first hearing to encourage a second hearing. The first hearing of a piece needs to be memorable enough that the audience leaves the concert hall humming one (or more) of the tunes and yet, interesting enough to allow for discoveries to happen during the second, third and fourth hearings.
"Songs that are immediately appealing are not typically those that contain the most surprise. We like them at first and then grow tired of them. Conversely, the music that can provide a lifetime of listening pleasure -- whether it's Bruckner 1 or Zeppelin II -- often requires several listenings to reveal its nuances. And the best music offers surprises with each new listening."