PBStupidity

Public radio station WAMC from Albany runs pretty continuously in our house, and I support it and get a lot from it. But the stupidity of their music stories lately is about to drive me to random acts of violence. On Thanksgiving they did a vapid, all-morning “analysis” of the complete Beatles’ White Album with a bunch of variously educated talking heads, of which the only comment I remember was the insightful, “Ooooooh, the maracas!” And this week they’ve been promising a “mathematical” analysis of the striking opening chord to “It’s Been a Hard Day’s Night.” Well, you put “mathematics” and “chord” together, and I get interested. It turns out some sound expert did a Fourier analysis to find out that what sounded like just an unusual guitar chord was actually doubled on piano. The same genius then spent a full minute of air time (was this national?) speculating that it might be possible to find patterns in a Fourier analysis of the sound waves that could reveal which parts of the songs were written by Lennon, and which by McCartney. No hint of what you’d look for, to discern personality in sound waves – it just might be possible. Meanwhile, the station’s truculent guru Alan Chartock, whose obstreperousness I treasure, veers away from covering classical music because he considers it elitist. But isn’t there anything else musically non-elitist besides letting a bunch of nutballs who don’t know jackshit about music sit around and mouth off about the Beatles? Isn’t that expanding the very definition of elitism to include almost everything?

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Comments

  1. richard says

    I just heard the same about the analysis the It’s Been a Hard Day’s Night” chord. Sometimes it’s hard to believe that NPR is the best in radio journalism.

  2. says

    Fourier Analysis?!
    Seems to me it would be a whole lot easier, and much more reliable, to just read the Playboy Interviews with John Lennon and Yoko Ono, in which John comments on every song the Beatles recorded, including who wrote what.

  3. Tawnie says

    Thank you! I hope the folks in charge at NPR read this and think again.
    When NPR drives me completely batty, I hook my computer up to our stereo and listen to the BBC. I can’t recommend it enough.

  4. Alan Chartock says

    Hey guys. Which of YOU have played in five orchestras? You can call me names but when you say that I didn’t like clasical because it is elitest you couldn’t be more wrong. You should see and hear the guff I take for playing the whole Metropolitan Opera Season and the entire Tanglewood season. By the way, we got more compliments on Beatles prorgam than anything else all year long. Maybe you are the elitests. Have a great New Year, Alan

  5. says

    If only classical musicians discuss classical music and those discussions never get to the public, how is classical music ever going to move beyond accusations of elitism? Yet, I tire of the idea that only classical music needs to be explained in order to be enjoyed and that no other music has this trait. (As an aside, I wonder if the Mr. Chartock who posted here needs to spend less time in his five orchestras and more time working on typing…doh!)
    KG replies: Well, he’s a very busy man, and I regard it as an unexampled honor that he dropped in. But your first sentence is virtually the theme of my life.

  6. Dan Schmidt says

    By the way, if you are interested in actual musical analysis of the Beatles’ music, I highly recommend the two The Beatles As Musicians books, by Walter Everett.
    KG replies: I’m sure I’d rather hear that read over the radio than what we’re getting.

  7. says

    That program does indeed sound fairly inane. But in fairness to the Fourier Analysis guy, there’s a kernel of interesting possibility. Fourier Analysis seems an odd way to approach it, but it is reasonable to do mathematical analysis of music to figure out what music is by whom. It’s been getting done with text for ages, and as I recall was used to tentatively identify the authors of a number of the anonymous Federalist Papers. Fourier analysis has so much timbre data that isn’t terribly useful for this kind if research that it might get in the way, but you could certainly use Fourier analysis to do transcriptions of notes and then compare patterns of notes against work of known provenance.
    I wish Alan had gone into more detail in his response about elitism. Is he saying that classical music doesn’t have an elitism problem? If so I disagree. Is he saying that you’re wrong about why he veered away from classical? I have no reason to think otherwise. Is he saying that the fact that people complain when he plays more classical music than they’d like evidence for a lack of classical elitism? If so, I disagree and don’t even think I follow the argument. That said, I’d raise one point of clarification. Kyle–is part of your objection that this program was dedicated to the Beatles, or merely that the analysis was vapid? In other words, would you feel any differently if they had done this sort of lightweight faux-analysis to a classical work? I suspect that the genre of the music is irrelevant to your objection, but Alan seems to have interpreted you differently (assuming that I’m interpreting him correctly.)
    KG replies: If the question was “Let’s do a mathematical analysis…” and the answer was “a piano!”, I think I’d be disappointed no matter what the piece. Sometimes what a man says is all he means.

  8. Paul H. Muller says

    Well for what its worth we use Fourier transforms at work every now and then but all they can do is give you some idea the frequencies present in a signal and their relative amplitudes. Fourier transforms are mostly used to in vibration analysis to detect resonance points. It is a LONG way from identifying frequency content to something like determining musical authorship.
    In music the frequencies are a given – its the sequences and combinations that matter. Your ear is going to be much better at that than a Fourier analysis.

  9. says

    what does Fourier tell us?
    Math is not my thing, but I still hear fairly well. Personally, I kind of doubt that there is a piano on that first chord. Actually, I don’t really care either way, I’m just kind of curious why the Fourier guy thinks so, based on the math.
    Everyone who knows anything at all about the Beatles knows that the Hard Days Night chord was played on a Rickenbacker 12 string (George), maybe even doubled on another Rickenbacker (6 string) by John. The 12 has double courses (duh!), tuned in octaves and unisons. The octaves on a Ric are in opposite relationship than on some other 12 stings, such as the Dan Electro. The Ric has the lower octave “on top” (you would hit it first when playing a downstroke).
    So, I would think it might just be possible that with the doubled courses in octaves and unisons, an analytical tool such as Fourier might see the guitar timbre as being piano-like. But that would tell us nothing interesting about the music. For what istruments were actually recorded, I would have a tendency to look at the Beatles Recordng Logs (I don’t have a copy, however).
    If Fourier can’t tell us if the 12 string was a Ric or a Dano, I wouldn’t trust it to tell us that a piano we can’t hear ourselves was used.
    As for using math to determine authorship…
    Like I said, I don’t do math. But I really have a hard day’s time understanding why you would even want to try that, and I would still rather just read what the Beatles themselves have told us about it, then let it go. Even if your math tells you who wrote what, you can’t justify your claim without a living Beatle or eye-witness or a valid document backing it up.
    So what’s the point?
    KG replies: The Fourier guy claimed that George Martin played the piano chord. So that means that Fourier analysis can tell us, not only what instruments were played, but who played them! You gotta be impressed.

  10. says

    KG replies: “The Fourier guy claimed that George Martin played the piano chord. So that means that Fourier analysis can tell us, not only what instruments were played, but who played them! You gotta be impressed.”
    Wow, Kyle. You’re right. Now I am really impressed, in awe actually. But what I would really like Fourier to tell me is what instrument the song was written on. Forget who wrote it! I mean, did John come up with that chord on the white Steinway he had at his house, or did George Martin think it up and then pound it out on the Bosendorfer at Abbey Road? Personally, I’m inclined to think that George Harrison was trying to get his fingers in the right place to start the song, and found the chord by accident, and Martin said ‘That’s great, let’s use it” – and then doubled it on piano (or not). I guess only math will tell us for sure.
    God, I love music! Especially the parts we can’t hear.

  11. peter says

    Do you think a Fourier Analysis of 4′ 33” could also tell us the colour of the piano on which Cage composed it?

  12. says

    “Do you think a Fourier Analysis of 4′ 33” could also tell us the colour of the piano on which Cage composed it?”
    I am beginning to believe that it is possible, in fact, quite likely. My best guess – as a non-math-oriented listener, mind you – is that 4’33″ was composed on a transparent acrylic piano. Of course, we’ll need to wait for the numbers to come in to be certain. Either that, or ask John – wait, he’s dead. Okay, Tudor. Shit, he’s dead too. Damn. All the reliable sources seem to be dead. I guess we just have to trust the Fourier Guy.

  13. says


    Do you think a Fourier Analysis of 4′ 33” could also tell us the colour of the piano on which Cage composed it?

    No, but it would determine that the universe IS permeated by 60 cycle hum.

  14. says

    So here I am, driving to Red Hook (NY!), and this inane “report” comes on NPR. At first I, too, was interested like the rest of you. Then I thought … wait … this is the Beatles … and quickly changed the station to our Jazz Alternative station.

  15. says

    God, I love music! Especially the parts we can’t hear.
    Damn, this is, like, the best translation of Ode to a Grecian Urn, ever:
    Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard
    Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on;
    You have a future in interpreting poetry for the NPR crowd…

  16. Carlton Wilkinson says

    I agree with Kyle–if the mathematical analysis had shown that the chord was an alteration of the final chord of a famous sonata or something like that I think the radio report on the research might actually have been justified. As it was it seems merely a cheap exploitation of the Beatles name to generate public interest in the radio broadcast itself. (And I have no doubt that it worked.)

  17. mclaren says

    This is why internet radio will eat analog radio’s lunch. Some guy sitting in his basement could come up with something smarter and more insightful than this.