Other Freakin’ Options Available

I like this interview with Branford Marsalis in the Seattle Weekly, and completely agree with him:

You put on old records and they always sound better. Why are they better? I started listening to a lot of classical music, and that really solidified the idea that the most important and the strongest element of music is the melodic content.

In jazz we spend a lot of time talking about harmony. Harmonic music tends to be very insular. It tends to be [like] you’re in the private club with a secret handshake.

I have a lot of normal friends. ‘Cause it’s important. [When] you have a bunch of musicians talking about music and they talk about what’s good and what’s not good, they don’t consider the larger context of it…

When laypeople listen to records, there’re certain things they’re going to get to. First of all, how it sounds to them. If the value of the song is based on intense analysis of music, you’re doomed. Because people that buy records don’t know shit about music. When they put on Kind of Blue and say they like it, I always ask people: What did you like about it? They describe it in physical terms, in visceral terms, but never in musical terms.

But then he says what so many musicians say:

Everything you read about jazz is: “Is it new? Is it innovative?” I mean, man, there’s 12 fucking notes. What’s going to be new? You honestly think you’re going to play something that hasn’t been played already?

And I always think, Well, actually there are a lot more than 12 fucking notes if you want to use them, and with the other ones I think I have played some things that – worthwhile or not – at least hadn’t been played before.



  1. says

    The tone of Marsalis’s comments gets in the way for me, even as to statements with which I’d likely agree. I don’t, however, agree with him that the strongest element of music is melodic content. (Do we listen to Shostakovich for those soaring melodies of his? I don’t think so.) I see this as one of a legion of examples of commentary on the listening experience by a musician (or composer) that tries to “read the tea leaves” of what goes on in the minds and hearts of that mysterious, unfathomable monolith comprised of “lay listeners”/”laypeople”/name your one-size-fits-all term.

    I sometimes wonder if some musicians and composers have forgotten how to listen to a piece of music as music, so consumed are they with the thrill of spotting a clever use of counterpoint or marveling over an application of foreign objects to a violin toward a resultant sound that mimics a deadened wash board. I sometimes also think that, for some composers, fascination with specific technical aspects becomes primary, rather than serving the musical work. We each of us listen differently, bringing to our listening our heads, hearts, experiences, musical knowledge, listening experiences—the list is long. All of those approaches to listening are valid, and they bring about a whole host of differing responses.

    I do think what you (as opposed to Marsalis) have written is likely true for many of us when we listen to music (including me): “It has always seemed to me that melody, rhythm, and harmony are primary aspects of music, and texture and timbre (this latter rarely dwelt on much in postminimalist music, but quite prominent in spectral music) are secondary.” But I am not so sure I agree with this: “Melody, rhythm, and harmony are what naive listeners perceive directly; texture and timbre are areas in which composers show their craft and their subtlety.” (That “naive listener,” Kyle, who is s/he?) I think, rather, that composers show (or fail to show) their craft and subtlety in every aspect of their work, whether it be a lovely, understated melody in the key of C major or a wild excursion into microtonality and strange, dissonant clusters of sound.

    As to the latter, I’m reminded here of Dylan Mattingly’s new piece, Sky Madrigal. I don’t know if you had a chance to hear it when it aired on radio from the Cabrillo Festival, but to me, this seemed to use an incredible variety of musical elements and combine them in an entirely new and fresh way, all in service of, and resulting in, a resonant, thrilling piece of music. Those with technical knowledge can parse it, I’m sure, to try and figure out HOW he pulled this off, but anyone listening with both ears has to know THAT he did.

    KG replies: But when I think back to the Shostakovich pieces I’m familiar with, all I remember is melodies.

  2. Kyle says

    I would say melody may be the strongest element for Classical/Art music and (possibly) Jazz, but in almost any other music I can readily think of, rhythm is the strongest element, and indeed the element that most contributes to whatever label folks tend to put on it. From Irish music to Funk to Salsa to Ewe to the latter part of a Raga performance to J pop to your son’s Black Metal band, rhythm is the primary defining factor (and at least in the case of the metal band, also timbre). All the tunes on earth that are Bossa Nova tunes aren’t Bossa cause they have melodies that sound like Girl from Ipanema, they’re Bossa cause they have similar rhythm.

    In most of the world’s musics, the melody is more or less secondary. Since much of music is primarily used for dancing, as long as the rhythmic material for X purpose is consistent, then the melody is largely interchangable (ie, for the Irish Reel dance rhythm, there are somewhere around 4-6 thousand different melodies, or “tunes”). That’s why the average listener doesn’t tend to care about the lyrics or melody to any of the schlock that’s on the radio, as long as the rhythm makes you move, mission accomplished.

    KG replies: Before we go too far, let me reiterate that the intended points of this post were, 1. there are not only 12 pitches to the octave if you don’t want there to be, and 2. musicians often judge music on technical issues that the nonmusician listener doesn’t care about. In the article (mine) I link to, I actually list the primary aspects of music as melody, harmony, and rhythm. Everyone feel free to argue with Marsalis on the point about melody, but I have no dog in that race.

    • Kyle says

      Agreed. I apparently pushed ‘send’ about five seconds before I should have, because right after I did, I thought to myself, “yeah, but Kyle’s point is just that you aren’t limited to only twelve pitches if you don’t want to be”. Just think of all the color tones that are used in Arabic taqsim, Indian rags, and “blue notes”, to say nothing of all the other music using microtones and non-repeating scales (I particularly enjoy Xenakis here). Amen for all that frequency space between the piano keys!