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Thread: Why can't non-classical music be more... "linear"?

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    Default Why can't non-classical music be more... "linear"?

    (for lack of a better word)

    Say a jazz improv. There's the 12-/16-/32-bar head and then the entire structure repeats ad infinitum. It's improvised and there's a lot of variation but the basis for the improv stays the same, and the rhythmic pulse is kept and the dynamics stay fairly flat - if it's a quiet ballad it stays that way, if it's an energetic loud track it only gets louder.

    In rock and pop music usually there's a riff or a chord progression that repeats and the song develops as "riff A for 8 bars, riff B for 8 bars" etc, etc. Again - constant rhythmic pulse and even narrower dynamics.

    But in classical the form seems to function more like a sketch. In short pieces the entire first half tends to repeat once and then the second half is played and repeated once. In pieces in sonata form there's repetition of the entire theme and the exposition sounds like it's flowing free, modulating between keys, going faster and slower, going through all sorts of dynamics.

    I have a problem in that I like those repetitive forms of music, and recognize that when they're well-made they definitely require on part of the artists huge amounts of artistry and talent and sensitivity towards the form to create. It's precisely this repetition and steady flow of the songs and improvisations that makes them powerful.

    And yet the thought that I'm listening to something formulaic is always on the back of my mind. It bothers me because I feel like the music is constrained and in turn my listening to it is constrained. I feel like a robot following a predetermined pattern, and it feels like the band is just going through the motions - even though they're good and play and sing with soul and passion! And I don't know how to juxtapose those two traditions, I feel like I'm missing something there. Say, a heavy metal band will craft riffs and repeat them to build a song. But they could've done it differently - they could've developed those riffs into longer ideas - why would that not have worked just as well if not better for the mood they were trying to convey? Would it really be that much more difficult for jazz musicians to improvise over longer forms and compositions - why play a 12-bar blues or AABA form when you could have so much more? Doesn't more and longer = better? Why not?

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    Senior Member Eva Yojimbo's Avatar
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    All genres develop certain forms and stylistic tics that apply across a broad swath of artists, sometimes to the point that anything outside those forms and styles often isn't considered to be a part of that genre anymore. That caveat aside, there is a great deal of jazz and pop and rock and metal that does fit into the forms and styles you describe. EG, the jazz form of head-improv-return is mostly applicable to Bebop and the sub-genres that came from the Bop tradition. While it describes a good chunk of the most well-known jazz pieces and artists, it does not describe all of them. There is definitely jazz that is more composition-oriented rather than improv-oriented, and there is improvisational jazz that does change rhythm, contain multiple themes, and is quite dynamic. I'd say the same thing about pop, rock, and metal having a ton of songs (and bands/artists) that generally don't fit into the forms you describe. Classical was certainly not immune to formula either. For every Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, etc. mastering the sonata form and doing all kinds of creative, artistic things with it, there were dozens, maybe hundreds, of composers just using it as a blueprint for mediocrity.

    All that said, I think the thing with genre-typical forms is that I find it's best to enjoy and appreciate what each genre does that's unique rather than constantly wishing that it was something else. The reason I love classical and jazz and pop and rock/metal is because they all do something that's most typical to that genre that most of the other genres don't. So I like the complex forms, harmonic language, and large-scale design of classical; I like the improvisation of jazz; I like the concision of catchy songwriting; and I like sound/energy of rock. Now, all of these genres can do elements of what the others most typically do, but if they made up the bulk of what they did then it's arguable they wouldn't BE those genres anymore. Just as I appreciate each genre separately I also appreciate the artists that attempt to meld them together in interesting/unique ways. I love a band like King Crimson because I can hear strains of what I love about classical, jazz, rock/metal, and pop in them, often in equal measure!

    As to your final question, I'd say decidedly NO: "more and longer" doesn't "=better." If anything, I'd say that length has a tendency to make things worse rather than better for the simple reason that anything that goes on too long runs the risk of either running out of inspiration or running its good ideas into the ground. I can think of far more works that I wish were shorter rather than those I wish were longer. Another thing about length is this: if you hate Beyonce and listen to one of her songs, all you've done is wasted 3-5 minutes; but if you hate Wagner and listen to one of his operas, you've wasted 3-5 hours! All that said, I would agree that sometimes length is necessary in order to fully express some ideas, and I also love a great deal of music that's very lengthy in all genres (including Wagner); but I still appreciate the ability to communicate a few good musical ideas in the span of a few minutes as well and think the pleasure of well-constructed, catchy rock/pop is grossly undervalued. Of course, there's no law that says you can't have both. Lately my playlist has been dominated by Mahler and... Carly Rae Jepsen.

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    With introductions, verses, choruses, bridges, codas, and probably a few I'm forgetting, non-classical music types have plenty of tools to vary up the song in a short period of time. They also want people to focus on and relate to their lyrical content, so it is not always beneficial to do too much sonically within any given piece.

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    Of course, "form" is a major component of "art". Even when the art is seemingly "formless", the implication is that the artist chose formlessness as the form.

    The sonata form is a wonderful creation. Hear how much music has been generated through this form, and all of it is different! The form does not strangle creativity.

    Pop music tends to follow basic "song form" (ABA or verse-chorus-verse structure), which is not a bad thing. Like with sonata form, the songwriters often "play" with the form, varying things here and there, pushing at the edges to create surprises every now and then. A good thing, that. Still, the form holds, and the art works.

    Just yesterday I heard on the radio Queen's wonderfully vibrant "Bohemian Rhapsody", a piece which defies "song form" and proves delightful all the same. It brought me to contemplating other rock/pop songs that utilized rhapsodic (free-flowing) forms. I didn't make a list, but my immediate thought was the Beach Boys' "Good Vibrations" and Jimmy Webb's "MacArthur Park". The Beatles' "A Day in the Life" is an interesting form, as are a couple of their other more experimental works -- sometimes merely a collection of previously unused songs strung together. There are many forms, and one of the great joys of listening to music is to listed precisely to form -- or the lack of it.

    In art classes we teach that "form is meaning", and this proves true whether the genre is painting, literature, drama, or music. So much great art pivots on its form in terms of how to interpret it. This concept proves one of my favorite lessons in art, and if I don't stop typing now, I'll go one for pages discussing "form as meaning". None of us really wants that here.

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    Senior Member norman bates's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Boychev View Post
    Would it really be that much more difficult for jazz musicians to improvise over longer forms and compositions - why play a 12-bar blues or AABA form when you could have so much more?
    for what I know, yes it is actually a lot more difficult. There are a lot of challenges for an improviser.
    Gunther Schuller talked a lot about this argument in his articles and books, and he had a deep interest for those jazz experiments where the musician tries to use extended forms instead of of the usual head-improvisation-head form. A lot of third stream (Mingus, George Russell are famous examples, or stuff like the piano solos of Keith Jarrett... but the thing is that Jarrett was playing alone, not interacting with other musicians, something that would have added other layers of complexity) especially is about this.

    I remember also experiments of musicians like Butch Morris, where the improvisers had to react to the gestures of the conductor... I have to say that I don't remember super tuneful music onestly, but the idea was extremely interesting for me. And at the same time it exposed all the difficulties doing something like that. But I think that if jazz has a future, the idea of a coherent improvisation going in that direction should be something that has to be explored a lot more.
    Last edited by norman bates; Jul-12-2019 at 00:05.
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    Senior Member philoctetes's Avatar
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    Last edited by philoctetes; Jul-12-2019 at 00:23.

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