It might have been coming out of the air space between her ear buds and flesh, or it might have been seeping through the holes in the woman’s head. Either way, that endless, non-varying thump–thump–thump was making me nuts.
This experience is similar that one endures when listening to a well known song by a bubblegum band named after an ubiquitous insect. The one in which the lyric, “I want to hold your hand” is repeated over and over and over and over and…
The “Boss”, Bruce—Bruce!—Springsteen uses this technique as a bludgeon: “Born in the USA!…I was…[wait for it]…Born in USA!” Repetitiveness is such an integral part of this man’s music that you have the idea he is ad-libbing most of his songs, though drawing on a shallow fund of imagination.
And then there is the sheer, gut-wrenching awfulness of most modern children’s music, which includes music supposedly sung for the benefit of children. “Banana Phone” and “We are the World” come to mind. Not only are the lyrics of these songs simpleminded, but their melodies are brief, trivial; a handful of phrases recapitulated dozens of times in one sitting. Thinking children idiots is a recent phenomenon, incidentally.
Need I repeat what makes music awful? Repetitiveness! Overt, unnecessary simplicity. Purposeful limitation.
Think of a “melody” consisting of just one tone, whichever tone you like, and held for as long as possible. This, we shall not quibble, is music. But it is bad music; it meets our tests of repetitiveness, simplicity, and limitation easily.
Now think of a harmony consisting of a regular, unvarying thumping, again replayed ad nauseum. This, too, meets our tests. It is also, we say in a spirit of generosity, music. But only in the sense that the Museum of Modern Art is a museum which displays, well, art.
Finally, take a lyric, any string of words will do, say less than length ten, and then sing them over and over and…you get the idea. Once more, music; but rotten.
Our measure is three-dimensional, consisting of the components melody, harmony, and lyric. Some music lacks one or two of these elements; none lacks all three. Jokes in which a “composer” sits unmoving at a piano in front of a credulous audience who hear nothing but their neighbors farting are not music. If “everything” is music, nothing is. In any case, a piece which is lacking one or two of the elements, our measure is also silent.
Musical Badness (MB) quantified is this: the proportion of the time a length of music is devoted to repetitiveness.
MB is thus a number between 0 and 1. Consider our three examples: the endless tone has a melodic MB of precisely 1 because the repetition is exact however long the “piece” lasts; the harmonic MB is also 1 and for the same reason; as is the lyric MB, obviously.
A score of 0, it must be emphasized, does not indicate goodness: our score says nothing directly about excellence. For example, a chaotic series of “bleeps” and “bloops” supposedly emanating from a computer, such as were often heard in 1950s science fiction movies, would score very low on the melodic MB, but in no sense would this music be good. Neither would singing the dictionary make for a sublime lyric.
There is subjectivity in MB which arises from deciding which parts of a piece one cuts for tests of repetitiveness. Oftentimes, lyrics fall into natural clumps: nearly any pop song is distinguishable as pop for this very reason. Hip Hop (Rap) is instantly identifiable for its use of the same four or five (perhaps it is only three) harmonies.
Natural divisions are found in melodies, too, but the test here is less reliable. Take, for example, Beethoven’s Piano Sonata (no. 8 )1 in C Minor, adagio cantabile: the same, it must be admitted, very simple melody occurs throughout, but it would take a strong man to call it bad.
The MB scale can fail here if it does not take into account the evolving voice of the melody; repeated, yes, but with different accents; similar to a poetry reading by a native English speaker followed by a Frenchman approximating that language.
Think, therefore, of MB (in each dimension) as a probability of badness: high scores only say that a piece is probably bad, not that it certainly is. A sunny day may follow a forecast of ninety-percent chance of rain. The measure, once more, is not symmetric: low scores are indicative only of the lack of repetition, which itself may or may not be good.
No perfect method exists, or can exist, to quantify beauty or ugliness. In fact, even though I am a statistician, I caution against undue reliance on quantification. The Benthamization (if I may) of music is to be resisted. But here I think we can have a little fun.
Next time: examples.
1 The extra space after the “8” but before the “)” is intentional; if missing, an insipid smiley face with glasses appears.