Comments: What's Wrong with Western Music? Part II. "Hey, Jude"

the students complained that it was "wrong" because their beds didn't fit against the walls.

What makes Morse wrong is not the lack of right angles, but the giant lipstick-on-tank-treads sculpture. That is so wrong there is nothing that could ever make Morse right.

Go Stiles!!!!!

Posted by Jonathan Schwarz at August 10, 2008 04:57 PM

Oh how true. Ha Ha yes, quite so. Ah yes.

Posted by Yalie McYale Yale at August 10, 2008 05:27 PM

Wow. You're not going for a laugh. You're being serious.

Do your parents ever regret not having sent you to a trade school?

Posted by J Lum at August 10, 2008 06:00 PM

Well, I at least had never thought of music in these terms and am glad to be doing it now. And now I think I understand what you meant by "wrong" in your last post--I wasn't one of those who was angered by it, but I was confused. Can't wait for part three.

Posted by ethan at August 10, 2008 06:17 PM

Yalie McYale Yale,

Dude, getting to make little remarks like this is the only thing I got out of going there. Cut me some slack.

J Lum,

This type of comment deeply irritates me. Please present yourself differently or hold your peace.


Agreed. I don't know how anyone can fail to be interested in this subject, but then I don't know a lot of things.

Posted by Jonathan Schwarz at August 10, 2008 06:42 PM

hmmm... you may be barking up the right tree but you still haven't got off the ground. i suspect the problem is that you either don't know enough about masturbating and/or you don't know enough about non-orchestral music. here is my rebuttal: go look/listen to Foxy Lady by Jimi Hendrix (as an immediate example: According to your argument, the 11th that Hendrix plays every second beat should make people NOT feel like masturbating. Look at Hendrix and the crowd and tell me if you still believe that....

Posted by oslo grumpus at August 10, 2008 07:10 PM

I thought that it was the secret subliminal Satanic backmasked messages in the music that made me want to masturbate! Turn me on dead man...

Posted by Duncan at August 10, 2008 07:41 PM

Oh, that's what you meant.

I'm pretty sure the secret for Western music is that (3/2)^{12} is approximately 129.75, which in turn is pretty close to 2^7 = 128.

I hope you're not suggesting that timbre is dependent on the harmonics, because my understanding is that it's not.

As for wrongness, what of e.g. slendro (a gamelan tuning system), which has five pitches per octave (octaves aren't exactly 2:1, though), approximately equidistant? Or am I still misunderstanding?

Posted by StO at August 10, 2008 08:26 PM

Yeah, I thought that "Hey Jude" was wrong. Now "MacArthur Park," that was a good song.

On the topic of music, there's a new documentary on Arthur Lee and Love called "Love Story." Great if you liked the band. Gives a good feeling of the Sunset Strip scene in the sixties.

Posted by Bob In Pacifica at August 10, 2008 08:28 PM

This argument may founder tangentially on the subtle but unmistakable differences between masturbation and actual coitus.

Posted by roy belmont at August 10, 2008 08:37 PM


1. hendrix is sex, not masturbation.

2. 11th??? you mean the tritone b7#9. the sharp 9 was hendrix's signature chord. i think you're confusing jimi with the indigo girls.

Posted by Bernard Chazelle at August 10, 2008 08:39 PM

Thanks much for taking time to post this. I have always wondered why music has the effect it does. Practical theory does not really explain the mystery of music it is more like a road map or a recipe for what is known to work.

How to get sequences of notes that produce many great intervals and keep the excruciating ones at bay while keeping a listener's attention with anticipation and surprise is what music is all about. All musics!

Yes, that sounds logical in fact one of the problems an improviser faces is the balance of constructing a melody that is balanced between resolving in a way that the listener expects and resolving in an unexpected way. If you play too predictably the listener becomes bored quickly and the same holds true for playing too unpredictably, the listener becomes bored and looses interest so the problem is to find a balance between the two.

On harmonics that is quite true concerning why instruments sound the way they do. The flute has fewer harmonic than an oboe. So the oboe has a rather nasal sound because it has more harmonics while the flute has rounder more hollow sound. This can be a great source of frustration for sax players trying to find a mouthpiece that suits them. Some mouthpieces produce more harmonics than others changing the basic sound. I used to play in a band where one of the sax players would show up with half a dozen mouthpieces which he kept changing and trying which drove him crazy because he couldn’t decide which one he liked best, hilarious. Another time he showed up with band aids placed all over his horn claiming he had improved the intonation of his horn though he ended up ripping them all off in frustration.

Posted by Rob Payne at August 10, 2008 09:31 PM

"This type of comment deeply irritates me. Please present yourself differently or hold your peace".

Da-du-dum-dum-DUM...(Theme to Dragnet).

Posted by J Lum at August 11, 2008 02:28 AM

Mr Schwarz, you seem pretty damn right to me. Unlike music!!!!

Posted by ethan at August 11, 2008 03:41 AM
This is a strangely anti-intellectual reaction.

How strange can this be? You're asking people to stop believing in Santa and The Easter Bunny. It's like the confounding of pundits that people vote based on emotional manipulation rather than self-serving logic.

Between you intellectually dissecting music, Mike of Angle intellectually dissecting comedy, and Jonathan dissecting politics and media, the baby Jesus surely cries himself to sleep every night.

I hope you three are happy with yourselves. (Don't get me wrong: On politics, the baby Jesus should cry.)

@J Lum: I found your comment slightly funny.

@Jon: I know that you're the host but some friction ain't half bad. I learned more from the to and fro -- Bernard/StO/Payne -- of previous arguments than from the actual posts.

Posted by Labiche at August 11, 2008 08:09 AM

OK, it's a valid critique of music to challenge its being based on harmonic organization, for which it will not be difficult for you to demonstrate its 'wrongness' and to show how other cultures have achieved less wrong (and/or differently wrong) harmonic organizations. We'll also soon see what you meant earlier about 'cheating'. (And when you get there can you say how you feel about specific methods of cheating, like the Lehman Bach tuning?)

But it's really equally if not more 'wrong' to presume that appeals to primate research and observations about "all babies around the world" constitute any kind of proof of inherent nature of music.

Bernard since you're aware that you're far from first to make these observations ("nothing I have to say on the subject of music has any originality"), do you think you go too far in such generalizations as 'all Western music?'

After all, it has now been a Very Long Time since John Cage (for example) said "We must ask, was Beethoven right or was he wrong?" and answered "Beethoven was wrong," precisely in regard to the issue you are raising (although for a very different reason). And in that Very Long Time there have been many musicians who have essentially given up harmonic organization of sound. The standard responses are a) they don't count because they're still a tiny minority of music overall, and b) they don't count because what they're doing isn't music. What say you?

Posted by ROYT at August 11, 2008 09:14 AM

When the mode of the music changes, the walls of the city shake.

Posted by joel hanes at August 11, 2008 10:51 AM

My comment was intended to be the opposite of anti-intellectual. I not sure I understand why you would want to characterize an intellectual disagreement as anti-intellectual. I'd also like to point out that I in no way feel as if I have lost something; there is no need to defend Western music, even if it were to turn out to be the most objectively and fantastically wrong music on earth. What most people in the West (broadly defined) call music is just one set of rules about how to produce pleasurable and organized noise. Hopefully I can explain my position more clearly below.

One, it is not even remotely difficult to understand harmonics and its relation to Western temperaments (harmony and tone, if not all of music, is math, as you point out). Suggesting otherwise is disingenuous and condescending. You yourself, in a blog post of all things, have done an excellent job explaining key elements of it structure.

Two, you continue to say that Western music is somehow more wrong than others, but you still haven't even tried to explain how it is that other equally arbitrary divisions of the octave (all the pentatonic scales, for instance) are less wrong. (A side point, the fact that some monkeys might prefer some intervals to others does less work here for you than you seem to hope. Do you think it establishes your Platonic music as a physical fact, and that will let you rank the wrongness of various musics?)

Third, there is a long history of completely self-conscious theorizing about the nature of harmony and its relation to the conventional scales used since the late 17th century. It would not have been news to Mozart or Beethoven, and certainly not Bach (whose well-tempered clavier was not necessarily even-tempered). This is a good example of technical, non-parochial and sophisticated discussion of Western harmony:

Fourth, I was not calling the issue of harmonics, temperament, Western music's history, and music theory banal or silly, I was calling your treatment of it banal or silly. To insist that "wrong" does not carry any possible negative meaning while at the same time claiming (without a defense) that Western music is more wrong is asinine. It is completely conventional and well-recognized by all serious students of Western music that its "classical" harmonic rules are a distortion of acoustic reality. This was evident at the beginning to musicians since at least the 16th century. What you seem to leave out is that this "error" allows a much greater complexity in the treatment of harmony which allowed this music to invent sounds that otherwise would not have been possible. You may well find this to be an unfortunate choice (and you would not be alone in that), but I stress again that this is only "wrong" in an either banal (that is, if every music is so, it is a useless term) or parochial (again, if you can show rather than assert how some choices are more wrong than others, please do so) sense.

Finally, I find it curious (as hinted at in a comment above) that your theory of music seems to be entirely missing concepts of texture, timbre, rhythm, duration, etc. Does Paul's voice not matter? Was Van Morrison's choice of guitar irrelevant? Once you have attempted to argue (rather than assert) why your use of the term " most wrong" is justified by letting us see some other tradition that you find to be non-pejoratively and less "wrong," I would be interested to learn if you consider the acoustic phenomena above to be part of music or accidental to it.

Posted by Brian at August 11, 2008 01:01 PM

Bernard, Rob, Brian, ROYT, et al --

This is the best discussion about anything ever on this site, and not just because it hasn't required any effort on my part. I really appreciate it.

Posted by Jonathan Schwarz at August 11, 2008 01:28 PM

Jon, I thought the huge argument you had with that "Arsenal of Democracy" chap was pretty enlightening.

Bernard, I'm still not sure what makes the twelve-tone scale (say, well-tempered) wronger than a pentatonic scale, so I'm waiting on that.

If you'd included just two sentences to the effect that the "wrongness" (non-judgmental) that you were describing had to do with division of the octave, all my bilious blather in your prior post would be obviated.

Posted by Save the Oocytes at August 11, 2008 02:15 PM

"hendrix is sex"?.. maybe so, but your blog is clearly masturbation.... the "sharp 9th" which you seem so proud to identify is, in fact, an 11th in the video i linked to. hendrix bends the string up (as you can see and hear) and that's why foxy lady doesn't sound like, for example, the predominant chord in purple haze. regardless, the sound hendrix is making is clearly a dissonance and not a unison, an octave, a third or a fifth. according to your post there is something asexual about this sound. according to hendrix there is something sexual about it. hmmm, welcome to life as a computer scientist... sometimes even great theories can be refuted by getting out of the lab a bit...

Posted by oslo at August 11, 2008 05:09 PM

It is completely conventional and well-recognized by all serious students of Western music that its "classical" harmonic rules are a distortion of acoustic reality.

i'm sorry i bored people on this blog with such trivialities. you're right, i should try to be less "completely conventional."


nope, it's a sharp 9. you don't bend from a sharp 9 to an 11th, anyway. furthermore, your point makes no sense, because if it were an 11th, then that would be a subdominant an octave up, so it would NOT be a dissonance. you'd leave out the 3rd and you'd be golden. in other words, your post is a contradiction. i suspect you don't know much about rock guitar, do you? but then why do you bother making these technical points when you seem not to have a clue?

thanks for suggesting that i should get out of the lab more often. i've done that by playing rock and blues guitar in garage and college bands for 20 years.

> your blog is clearly masturbation

i do what i can to get by.

Posted by Bernard Chazelle at August 11, 2008 06:53 PM

Thanks, Bernard. This is great news.

All these years I've been under the impression that it was my playing that was wrong. Now I find out it's THE SYSTEM!!

Finally! There's something that's not my fault!!

I can rest easy now, although I won't stop practicing. ;-)

Posted by Winter at August 11, 2008 07:08 PM

let's go through the argument step by step in order of relevance (which i will prioritize).

- (83% relevance) - the main thrust of your original post was that dissonances are not sexual sounds. I disagree. i say that comment runs the range from meaningless to wrong. given all the other elements involved in music it is meaningless to say that a combination of notes or tones in and of themselves are sexual or not. and if you choose to ignore that point and bypass all the other elements of music and just listen to how dissonances are used in song then your point is simply wrong. I contend dissonances can be used for sexual music. I chose the example of Hendrix' Foxy Lady which we both agree employs a dissonance.

- (10% relevance)- you (in desperation?) said that "hendrix is sex, not masturbation"... Duh, wha??? Not sure what that means or how it relates to my point that Hendrix used dissonances to create sexual music. but if you actually meant something of significance in this statement and i just couldn't figure it out, it might warrant a 10% relevance so i gave you the benefit of the doubt.

- (5% relevance) - we both agree that in the song Foxy Lady, Hendrix uses a dissonance. I say that in the link I sent you he bends the note frequently thus making the tone go up (btw, i personally can bend a string up a step and a half. i suspect there are many, many others who can do the same. nonetheless, i give this point 0 relevance). I absolutely concede that an 11th is not a dissonance and I apologize for that mistake. But a note bent up through sounds that are not on a Western scale (which are sounds that the process of bending a string necessarily must pass through) definitely sound irregular and that is what Hendrix is doing. (And yet, again more relevantly, it is my believe that the song sounds and was intended to sound sexual)

- (2%)- I intimated that you are kind of a nerdy professor type. You contend that is not the case! And you cite your 20 years of garage rocker experience as evidence. I'm not sure these points (nerdy professor versus guy who spends 20 years playing in low level rock bands) are in contention. But i am willing and happy to concede this point as it only distracts from the more relevant issues (as well as the fact that you have demonstrated feisty, sex and rock-n-roll strewn, arguing tactics).

Rock on!

Posted by oslo at August 11, 2008 07:55 PM

Sorry, Oslo, but what's your problem? Why do you have to be so hostile from the get-go? You make a technical point, which happens to be flat wrong, and then you accuse me of general ignorance " about non-orchestral music" in your very first post.

Why can't you be a little more civil? Wouldn't life be better for everyone?

Posted by Bernard Chazelle at August 11, 2008 09:31 PM

well, hold on a sec...
if i had known i was wrong in my first post, obviously i wouldn't have accused you of general ignorance of non-orchestral music. it wasn't an insult but (i think) a fair explanation to how you came up with the part of your initial post i still disagree with. it was after you pointed out my mistake to me that i apologized (see above) without sarcasm, moved on, and re-affirmed (with sarcasm) my central point - that dissonances can be sexual in spite of your argument (more or less) to the contrary.

your very first post to me walked right by this main point and suggested i was mistaking sex for masturbation and didn't know hendrix from the indigo girls. i thought your pose was funny and responded in similar tone (i thought).

so, to close down the issue, i'll leave you with these two thoughts:

- maybe you're funnier than i am, or maybe i'm just thicker skinned than you are but i didn't and don't have a problem with the tone of your posts or mine. as it's your forum though, i'm going to bow out because my intention is not to bug you, but was to get a rebuttal to my initial and main point.

- and i still contend (as i have every post) and would enjoy hearing - mean that sincerely, btw - how you reconcile the fact that music with dissonance in it can be interpreted as sexual in light of what you said in your initial post?

Posted by oslo at August 12, 2008 02:58 PM

I enjoyed the explanation. I am not sure I understand how the harmonics work, but I guess you had to simplify something. I was under the impression that the eight-note scale was designed to allow a variety of different "musical-sounding" notes and still be easy to learn. I have heard people say that the 10-note and 12-note scales allow more self-referencing harmony, but are substantially harder to learn. The 10-note songs I have heard sound bad to me, but it may be that I simply don't like that particular composer.

To me, the ultimate test is still whether it makes me feel good. Mozart Horn Concertos make me feel good. Could he have written something in a 10-note-scale system that also makes me feel good? I suppose so, but I would want to listen to it and pass my own judgement.

I have heard people say that in cultures where they only ever hear 12-note-scale songs from birth, American music sounds like trash to them. Yet a few decades later, the 12-note-scale is their "grandfather's music", and they are happily recording Elvis rip-offs.

Is this true, or is this simply a Western fantasy created by the imperialist pop music industry? Hopefully, someone with your background can fill me in.

Posted by FutureDave at August 13, 2008 08:05 AM