Indulging in a Moment of Music Snobbery

An interview on NPR drove me crazy this week!  It was about Adele’s hit Someone Like You.  You can read the interview here and the follow up here.  I think the point was to answer the question: “why does a certain song make us (the audience) feel a certain way?”  One musicologist suggested that it was a skillfully placed appogiatura.  That is a technical musical term with a specific definition.  I would pose that the song isn’t a success because of a single appogiatura but that it is possible to define what technically or structurally makes a song pleasing to the ear.  I studied music in college so perhaps I am more inclined to think music is explainable but I am quite certain that this can be done.  Take Canon in D: it’s wildly popular for weddings and is an emotional piece of music for many people.  It’s based on a circle of fifths chord structure, canonical, with suspensions.  There is a huge list of hit songs that have the same elements.

The part of the interview that irritated me was when they called in the guy who co-wrote Someone Like You and asked him if he deliberately put an appogiatura in the song to hook listeners.  He laughed at the idea that there could be a musical formula for songs that people like and pointed out that if there was he would be using it every day.  Here is the point where I get really snobby.  Since he did not know what an appogiatura was (which is a college freshman first semester level music theory concept) I am going to assume that he was not trained in music theory.  He chalks up the song’s success to Adele’s lyrics and emoting the pain she was going through.

I think he created a false dichotomy.  Just because they did not deliberately use a winning structure does not mean that said structure does not exist.  Music theory does not only apply to the “classical” world of music!  I think the reason that song resonates with so many is because musically it further expresses the lyrics.  Guess what?  That would involve music theory and structure, include the appogiaturas!  If those same techniques had been employed on less meaningful moments in the song would it have the same result?  No!  I suppose the reason for this rant is that I was a little offended that anyone would assume that just because they didn’t do something musically intentionally that means it isn’t critical to the success of music.  Ok, moment of snobbery ended.  I want to study pop music from a structural perspective and see if my guess is right.  Maybe I’ll post more about that later this year.

~ by shostagirl on February 15, 2012.

4 Responses to “Indulging in a Moment of Music Snobbery”

  1. Yeah, I’d be interested to hear that because for me it was totally the lyrics. Now I HATE the song because it’s overplayed, but it was definitely the lyrics that related to a situation I had.
    Another example would be “Pumped Up Kicks” which is a HUGE hit and very popular to a lot of people, but I can’t take the lyrics so no matter how delightful the song is I always turn it off.
    For the record Canon in D should never ever ever EVER be played again. I guess it’s kind of pretty but it’s become like Thomas Kinkade! hahaha!
    But, as you are the music person and I am the lyrics person, I wonder if maybe your theory is generally true. Like, generally the popular songs have a certain structure. But the man DOES have a point….you would think that if there was a certain structure, all songs would be made like that.

  2. Right, but my point is that it isn’t only the lyrics that make it connect. If it was completely boring musically the lyrics might still be good but it would not be a nice song- it’d be a poem put to crappy music.
    I think that if the producers/writers actually knew music theory there would be a lot more good music out there. Here’s the other thing- people who do know music theory and who can identify that structure (I’m talking composers/much more talented songwriters…) want to create something new and so they don’t stick to the tested structure. I mean, there are a million (not being specific) creative variations but still.

  3. Also, don’t we all have a cherished song with completely stupid lyrics but the music is just SO COOL?

  4. No. I don’t have a cherished song with stupid lyrics, but the music is so cool. I’m thinking maybe because the music doesn’t speak to me the same way it speaks to you? I do have ones with stupid lyrics that I like, but the music is usually stupid too. It’s basically “stuff I can do zumba too.” LOL, but not quality music or anything.
    And I DO like a lot of poems set to crappy music. Do you know Bright Eyes for example? 🙂 I’m just saying maybe that works for people other than people who are really really really aware of lyrics?

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