There’s more to music than emotion
I’ll admit, I’m a music geek. I have a voracious appetite for music. I obsessively curate my music library, manually entering genre, style, year, label, and even each performer credited on the album. Like any 90’s kid, my first favorites were mainstream bands like Green Day, Smashing Pumpkins, Pearl Jam, Bush, etc. I went through a classic-rock phase after playing guitar for a while. Then a jazz period. Then an indie period. Then post-rock. Then screamo, then metal, serialism, romanticism, field recording, musique concrete, hymns and gospel, chicago blues, even a Broadway showtunes period. The point is, I’ve listened to a lot of different music. I know it’s extreme, but I’m a geek. It’s my job.
As a geek, I always end up talking to people about what kind of music they like (the answer usually being “EVERYTHING”, unless they’re a fellow geek, in which case they list some band that’s only played one show so far “they’re gonna be BIG, man”). What strikes me, though, is a theme I’ve heard countless times. We listen to some piece of music and if it gives us some feeling, we call it “good” music. If we don’t have some emotional reaction, it’s obviously “bad” music. Aside from being an unreliable way to judge music (my feeling doesn’t mean the music is special, or that you’ll have a feeling too) it’s also myopic. It’s like sending someone to jail because you had indigestion. Don’t get me wrong, emotion is an integral part of the musical experience. It’s truly incredible that a few sounds in our ears can make us think of loved ones, can send us back to grade-school, can make us cry, can soothe us, can excite us. However, music is too big to be filtered through one lens. Hearing music through more channels than just an emotional one can help you appreciate music of any kind.
In college, I was introduced to a new way of listening to music. The acronym SHMRF stands for Sound-Harmony-Melody-Rhythm-Form. These are the essential ingredients that ALL music is comprised of. It doesn’t matter when or where in the world, all music has these elements. Every different culture and style emphasizes one or more of these elements in different combinations. In order to appreciate music you’re unfamiliar with, it can help to pay attention to one element at a time to see where the emphasis lies.
Sound refers to the color, or timbre, of music. Think of the difference in sound between a flute and an electric guitar. They can give totally different qualities to the same pitches. An easy way to differentiate styles is by using different instruments. The typical jazz lineup consists of horns, piano, upright bass and drums. This is a sound wholly different than the guitar, bass, drum lineup of rock music, or the vocal sound of a Broadway ensemble. Here’s two examples of the same piece, orchestrated in wild contrast:
And yet another example that emphasizes sound over harmony, melody, rhythm or form:
Harmony is a word used to describe any situation where more than one pitch sounds simultaneously. Moving from one pitch to another creates the illusion of a line (melody), and harmonies can be thought of as two lines moving parallel to one another, sometimes crossing, sometimes moving in opposite directions, etc. Although instruments create harmonies, it’s easy to hear them in vocals. See if you can focus on one singer at a time, listening to how the pitch they sing reacts and blends with the other singers. It’s clear that harmony is emphasized here:
Another example of vocal harmonies, which seems to be a predominate piece of this band’s style:
As mentioned before, a melody can be thought of as the illusion of line created by playing or singing one pitch after another. Sometimes it’s easy to focus on lyrics instead of melody, so I’ve included two examples of familiar melodies without lyrics. Bet you can sing along despite the missing words:
Rhythm just refers to how long something in music lasts. A long sound followed by a short one creates a rhythm. Chords (harmonies) can change at different rates. Songs can be slow or fast. All these elements cumulatively create rhythm. The following song was revolutionary for it’s time because the beat is grouped together in 5s (as opposed to the more traditional 4). Hence the title:
Here’s another example of music where the rhythm commands attention. Listen to the drums rise in complexity throughout the track:
Form refers to repetition in music. Melodies repeat, chord progressions repeat. Sections repeat. The forms that most of us are familiar with involve verses and choruses. There are tons of other forms, though. Getting familiar with them and trying to identify them can widen your appreciation for what’s happening in what you’re listening to. This example adds a new instrument each time a section is repeated or introduced. It starts with acoustic guitar, drums, and vocals. A subtle electric guitar is introduced in the second verse. Piano comes in at the chorus, etc. See if you can hear each instrument entering:
Here’s an example of another form. This music is ‘through-composed’, meaning it avoids repetition and comes across as a stream of changing moments.
Music is infinitely flexible. There are just a handful of elements that get mixed up, stretched out, combined and recombined, but the results are unlimited. Paying attention to SHMRF will totally enrich your experience with music you already love, as well as allow you to hear unfamiliar music in a new way. However, you’re still not going to like everything you hear. I really can’t stand noise music. I find music that lacks melody, harmony, or form to be un-listenable. But that’s because my taste in music sucks, too! SHMRF won’t make you love everything you listen to, but at least you’ll have a better way of describing your taste.