Wednesday, April 28, 2010


We love it, we listen to it, we hoard it and argue about it, but what is music and why does it have such a hold on us?

It’s the food of love, reckoned Shakespeare; it soothes the savage beast thought William Congreve, and Milton found in it “such sweet compulsion”. If you ask Madonna, she’ll just warble something pretentious about the bourgeoisie, but it saved Cevin Fisher’s life and Danny Tenaglia knows it’s The Answer. Brass Construction noticed that it Makes You Feel Like Dancing, while Stardust figured that it Sounds Better With You. Music is a human nutritional requirement, as important as the other absolute essentials of life: good friends, good sex, tasty snacks and text messaging. Anyone who says otherwise is not to be trusted – and we’ve all had one of those creepy neighbours who lives like a silent monk, only to bang a meat cleaver against the wall if we dare to play Britney at anything above a not-so-innocent whisper.

Plato thought music was so powerful it should be controlled by the state. In ‘The Republic’, his blueprint for the perfect civilisation, he argued that any new type of music should be banned, because it would upset even the most important political institutions. A couple of thousand years later, the Criminal Justice Act showed that modern governments took the power of music just as seriously, when its notorious ‘repetitive beats’ definition of house and techno made potential outlaws of anyone who got together in Britain to dance outdoors. Recently, the authorities in New York have lashed out at musical enjoyment in a similar way. Now that the city is stuffed full of yuppies, it’s got a surplus of swish designer bars with decks and dancefloors, all ripe for a little soft-shoe-shuffling. Yet thanks to the mayor’s infantile ‘zero-tolerance’ philosophies, the owners are forced to tape up polite ‘NO DANCING’ signs, because few of them have the necessary cabaret-license to allow (and this is how the law is defined) “more than three people to move rhythmically”. Ridiculous as it sounds, if there’s so much as a dip of the hips or a peppermint twist on the premises, the cops will bust them big time.

There’s always been opposition to music, especially if it’s new and different. That’s part of its power. If you like it, you’re in with the in-crowd, if you don’t, you’re your parents. Like clothes, music is a great way of defining who you are. If a new style of music comes along and it really annoys anyone over 30, you can bet it’s got a big future. That’s been true for everything from jazz and rock’n’roll to punk, house and Eminem.

But it’s not just teenagers who use music to define themselves. Since prehistoric times, music has played a central role in human culture. It’s a big part of most rituals, whether they’re state events like sending troops off to war, rites of passage like marriage and death, or something as ordinary as Friday-night lariness at Yates’s wine lodge. Certainly, apart from a few uptight (and relatively recent) European theologies, religion without music is a rare thing. The Hindu vedas, the world’s oldest scriptures, say that the universe was created through sound. The Bible tells us that “the angels dance in heaven”, and commands us to, “dance before the Lord”. Hasidic Jews (who don’t look too party-minded, with their frock coats and beaverskin hats), dance regularly as part of their religious worship and all Jews, even 90-year old aunties, are obliged to cut the rug at weddings. For Aborigines music is crucial, since they truly sing their world into existence. Their mythology is a complex blend of geography and music, and to them, every rock and tree and hill contains a spirit, each one created by singing a song. To an old Aussie tribesman, music works as a kind of spiritual Ordinance Survey map.

Music is different from other kinds of art. It moves through time but it leaves no trace. It can generate intense emotion, yet it’s not necessarily about anything. It’s “the art of combining sounds with a view to beauty of form and expression of emotion,” reckons the dictionary. The ancient Greeks only had one word (‘music’), which included music, dance, singing and poetry. Until recording was invented, it was a one-off experience, something that only happened in a particular time and place – music was a single performance, not a thing that could be repeated (no chance of a rewind!). Today, that’s the worth of a good band or a great DJ: you go to hear them because they make a night seem special and unrepeatable.

Until records you couldn’t collect music. The best you could do was buy some song-sheets and gather round the piano, or if you were one of the wealthy few, you could hire an orchestra to hang out in the lounge as your personal midi-system. Only with recordings could you get acquisitive about music, you could stockpile it and search for the bits you hadn’t got yet. Soon we’ll transcend this: thanks to online delivery, collecting music will once again be fairly meaningless. Everyone will have access to everything and the trainspotter will admit defeat (Napster and other MP3 cleverness give a foretaste of this ‘universal jukebox’ of the future).

Scientists have spent plenty of research grants pondering music’s power. The Greeks discovered that, because it’s all to do with sound waves, music is very mathematical. The relation between different notes can be described in terms of fractions (a guitar string half the length of another will produce a note an octave lower). That’s why musicians talk in terms of fourths, fifths, minor thirds and so on. What sounds good to the human ear has a lot to do with harmonics, as in ‘harmony’, which is actually all to do with numbers. Bach was so mathematically-minded he composed a lot of his music (his organ fugues especially) not by humming and whistling but by doing clever sums with a lot of fractions in.

The mathematical connection makes music easy for machines to get a hold of. A synthesiser is just a big calculator with a loudspeaker. And thanks to digital sampling and mixing, modern producers can sidestep the tricky bits of composing and do it all by ear. “Today’s music does a lot of very clever things without realising it,” says Richard Worth, a classically-trained flautist who plays in New York’s Groove Collective. “When you get a DJ combining records, or a hip hop producer making a track from samples, they’re often doing things with time signatures and harmonies that jazz musicians would get very excited about."

DJs and dance producers use a host of techniques that can be explained scientifically. Dance music is usually judged on how effective it is, meaning how good is it at getting people on the floor, at keeping them dancing, and at gaining a higher state of mental stimulation – technically referred to as “losing it”.

“I think it’s to do with dynamics, says Tom Middleton of Global Communication. “Fluctuations in the volume and frequency range. If you’re rolling along with the lower range of the spectrum – a kick-drum and a bassline – that tends to keep people rooted to the floor. Then, if you add the really high frequencies and remove the bass – for some reason – people just put their hands in the air.”

Tom believes it’s the contrast between the lower frequencies which you feel with your body and the higher frequencies which mess with your head. “High frequencies actually make your brain resonate more than your physical organs. It interferes with alpha and beta waves in the brain. You just get people going nuts. If you were to play a beat and fade in some high frequencies like white noise, and then fade out the beat, I can almost guarantee that people will go nuts. All they’re hearing is this noise that makes their brain feel really confused.” Then he smiles knowingly. “Particularly in a drug-induced situation.”

Neil Todd is an expert in music perception. He thinks he can explain why we are so partial to loud bassy sounds. Neil has recently found that the part of our ears which is mostly responsible for balance also works as a primitive hearing organ. It only responds to lower-frequency sounds (between 50Hz and 1,000 Hz), and crucially, it only really works at high volume (above 92dB). ‘It creates a feeling of movement. So as well as any vibrations and touch-sensations you might get from the music, there’s another sensation as well.” Neil uses techno in his research, because repetitious music makes the experiments simpler. “What I’ve discovered is a primitive acoustic system and it creates a feeling of movement, a pleasurable sensation, even if you’re not moving. It explains why people like rock or dance music to be really loud.”

Like many scientists trying to understand the effects of music, Neil is convinced it’s to do with finding a mate. We evolved hearing to help us understand our environment better, but the fact that certain sounds are actually pleasurable, he believes, has to do with sexual selection. “It’s about females choosing males on the basis of signals they produce”. Mating calls? “Yes, in lower vertebrates, they make vocalisations, low frequency sound. Even fish do that. What we’re talking about is direct sound that is intended to induce a response in the female.” His research into the effects of low frequencies continues, and he’s yet to confirm his suspicions, but what Neil seems to be saying is that, yes, Women Respond To Bass.

The other key force at work in loud music is resonance. The right sound frequencies will make an object vibrate violently. That’s why a singer can break a wine glass if she finds the right note (it’s also why, when people walk in step on it – ie with a regular ryhthmic frequency – the Millennium bridge wobbles). Loud club music goes beyond being just sound. It’s actually vibration, movement. Whether we learnt to like this when we were grooving to our mum’s 120 bpm heartbeat in the womb, or if it’s just a fact of being human, we enjoy being shaken up. Not for nothing do we say that music ‘moves us’.

Nutty thirties scientist Nikola Tesla was obsessed with resonance. He made tiny machines which were capable of destroying whole buildings by oscillating at just the right low frequency. It’s this principle which lies behind the sonic weapons tested by various militaries (and the KLF): find the resonant frequency of the human body and you can wobble it to death. Tesla took it even further and drew up blueprints for an earthquake machine, having cleverly worked out the frequency of vibration that would be needed to shake the earth to pieces.

A DJ’s standing orders are to keep the energy rising. Most records start simple and build. They add increasing layers of music and interest, generating a sense of acceleration. The best DJs will manipulate this to great effect. They’ll occasionally take the energy down, in order to bring it back up dramatically (all good DJs will turn the volume down when they come on), but most of the time they’re looking to take things higher. Any DJ worth his salt, by overlapping records, can create the illusion that the energy is constantly rising and never falling.

For a scientific illustration of this phenomenon, listen to the sonic illusion known as the ‘rising tone’. You can download it from Continuous Tones. This is a sound generated by computer, which uses complex harmonies to give the impression that it’s always rising in pitch. You could listen to it for days and it would still sound like it’s getting higher and higher. And that’s what a DJ can do by using records. With most, this is a case of exploiting the overall feel of the record, but some, especially trance DJs, use key-changes to achieve the same effect. A change in key gives the impression that you’ve stepped up a gear. Oakenfold, for one, organises his records into a progression of keys “Keys are a very important thing because they fuck with feelings,” he argues. “Minor keys make you feel down, solemn, sad. A major key makes you feel happy."

A lot of music works because of our in-built sense of expectation. Listen to a wrinkled guitar picker play a 12-bar blues (or even someone plodding out Chopsticks on the piano). If he stops at the 11th bar, you’re left hanging in frustration. It sounds unfinished, unresolved. Where are the last few notes? You can’t leave it there! Melodies in classical music are built of themes which repeat and develop and resolve, and dance music takes this to extremes, working the audience into a fever pitch by manipulating our need for melodic completeness.

“Anything that increases the tension and lets them know something is about to happen,” says Pete Heller, listing some of the tricks of the DJ’s trade. “You can create an air of predictability, introduce some familiar factor to give them a feeling of impending action.” This works with rhythm as well as melody. That’s why breakdowns and snare rolls are so fiendishly effective “You can bring everything down to just a kick-drum and a bassline, for a clap-along moment, or you can stop everything and have a big snare roll and it makes everyone realise it’s about to go off again."

Repetition is a crucial factor in this. Most dance tracks take a simple set of notes, a hook, and repeat it ad infinitum. If you’re dancing you get so used to this regular repetition of sound that if it disappears you desperately want it back. That’s why the most exciting parts of a dance record are where bits of it stop suddenly (drops), and when they dramatically resurface.

“I like repetition.” says Danny Howells. “Sheer relentless repetition. It’s hypnosis. If you’ve got a track really grooving along and it drops out for a bar, when it comes back with the kick-drum and bassline, you’re pretty much guaranteed to cause a stir.”

Dave Lee agrees. “If I wanted to do a surefire track that I wanted to go down well, I’d have lots of drops, bass drum fills, climaxing up to when the kick-drum comes back in.” As Dave explains, this also works with frequency manipulation or ‘EQing’. A good DJ will use the EQ controls to steal away the bass and return it at exactly the right moment. “As many effects as possible, all swelling up, a sample filtering up and down during the drops. And when the drums come in something like a siren."

The first rule of showbusiness is the same as the first rule of selling heroin: ALWAYS LEAVE THEM WANTING MORE. It’s almost as if dance producers and DJs are making instant junkies of us. Supply dancers with an endlessly repetitive rhythm, and if you suddenly take some element of it away they’ll go cold turkey and beg you to bring it back in. Dance music has evolved until most of these tricks are fairly well understood. Indeed, many of them are so over-done as to sound pretty corny to many producers. The breakdown and the other effects which DJs use to mess with our heads are so mind-numbingly effective because they’re all about tease. Put simply, it’s about rhythms, starts and stops and dramatic changes. You could say much the same about sex, and this might explain why DJs can punch so far above their weight when it comes to pulling.

© Frank Broughton & Bill Brewster
Originally published in shortened form in Mixmag, 2002