Sunday, February 7, 2010

Elizabethan Music & The Beatles

Here's the transcript of an interview with Tod Machover, one of the heavy hitters at MIT behind the new ways of making music via the electronic gaming portal. Renaissance music has always been a great favorite of mine, more so than a lot of the classical canon. 

But strangely, the thing I listen to 75% of the time, when I’m exercising with my headphones on is English Tudor/Elizabethan music, so music from about 1450 to the early 1600’s. And this is music that has attracted me for years, probably ever since I was in high school. I love Bach, I love Beethoven, I love Mozart, I love the Beatles, I love you know, Stockhausen, I love many things. But for some reason I come back to Elizabethan music because it’s a little bit like the Beatles. It has – I don’t think it’s an accident that it’s English, England has had a lot of really bad periods of music, but it’s had several amazing periods where they’ve found an incredible balance, not just between music that’s a rather complex and also pretty direct. Like the Beatles.

Everybody likes it because the tunes are memorable, I mean, any Beatles song is perfect. It gets to you right away. But if you look at the orchestration and the way the voices blend, and the way the instruments are used, and if you listen carefully to subsidiary voices which are not the main baseline to the main harmony, it’s very, very – I don’t know if complex is the word, but it’s very, very rich; much more than most pop music. So, it’s managed to combine complexity and simplicity in a very special way. And I think it took influences from all around the world. England’s a little isolated, so when it clicks – and Tudor and Elizabethan music like that. It’s extremely calming. I mean, it always takes me to another place, it’s also very, very stable and simple at the same time, you know, there are these melodic lines that do the craziest things. Much more interesting than what people were doing in other countries. And it’s also harmonic. The English learned, in my view, how to use harmony much earlier than the French or the Italians, or the Germans. So, you had these crazy lines colliding against each other whether it’s string music or vocal music. And at the same time, the beautiful chord progressions that are very modern in a lot of ways.


  1. What makes a song a hit is having a "hook": some catchy bit that gets repeated over and over again in the song so it sticks in the mind. It can be a part of the lyric, it can be a memorable bit of bass line, or it can be a catchy rhythm or some very striking progression in the harmony. If the hook is not in the lyric, you can find yourself able to hum the tune but utterly unable to remember what the words are!

    But what makes a piece of music last over a long time is this kind of richness which Machover refers to. The harmonic and rhythmic subtlety, the blending of different voices and tones, the deliberate introduction of dissonances, the matching of the mood of the music to the content of the lyric. Is is also this richness that allows a classical movement to last 10 or 15 minutes as compared to the 2 minutes of the average pop song. The richness allows the tune to stretch out and develop itself, until the variations in rhythm, tone and harmony have been used up.

    This richness means that there is something new for you to notice each time you listen to a piece, and so you do not tire of the repetition.

    Classical music looks to achieve this richness as its primary aim - new music is always measured against the old - and only the best of the old survives to be played regularly. And sometimes, classical composers go too far in the richness direction and make music that lacks the "hook" necessary to get it listened to in the first place!

    But much (perhaps most) pop music has the hook, but lacks the richness. So most Beatles-era music only rarely gets played nowadays as a curiosity. It is after all nearly 50 years old now!

    The Beatles (as well as many of Lennon & McCartney's post-Beatles songs) definitely have both the hook and the richness, which is why they remain popular and will continue to do so.

  2. Jonathan - Well said. For me, a big part of the richness of Elizabethan music has to do with the slightly different take on harmony. When just and well temperament got eliminated by equal temperament, some delightfully quirky flavors got left behind. Always amazed me classical music turned away from all that richness in the pursuit of modulation and harmonic blandness with which great structures can be built. Never understood why it was either/or and not both. (Same goes for rhythmic freedoms of Early Music exchanged of for metrical monotony.)

  3. One further point. Some classical music is so rich that it takes a while for a masterpiece to get accepted. Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring was written in 1913 but it wasn't until the 1950s before it got programmed regularly at classical concerts. I remember when I was in high school in the 1970s the Norwich Philharmonic Orchestra put it on. It was thought to be very daring for an amateur to play it, and there was a lot of moaning among the players during rehearsal concerning the impossible rhythms and what they thought at the time to be the complete lack of any tune.

    Similar issues apply to Debussy - it was a long time before his whole-tone harmonies came to be understood.

  4. Great point. My idea is that if equal temperament and regularized rhythms hadn't become the mono-diet of Western music from the Baroque on, those examples wouldn't have seemed quite the eruptions they were. (That you were doing Sacre in high school another indicator of what a great music education system you've got over there.)

  5. I don't think equal temperament has had much effect except on keyboard music.

    In baroque keyboard music, if the instrument is not tuned using equal temperament, you get a much stronger sense of returning "home" when a piece returns to its original key after modulating to a distant key in which the instrument is somewhat out of tune relative to just intonation.

    But other instruments don't work in the same way with respect to their tuning, so I don't think you can blame equal temperament to the extent you seem to want to :-)

  6. Jonathan - You may be right, but here's what I'm thinking. First, as I understand it, in the old tunings, different keys had different feels, from the key at the center of the tuning to those way out on the edge where you had "wolf" tones. And I've seen from time to time that some composers felt some keys were more appropriate for particular moods, which doesn't really make sense if the only difference is a frequency step up or down.

    The other thing is that in those older tunings chord progressions have a slightly different feel that might take a composer on a different trajectory than the one equal temperament might suggest. Gesualdo comes to mind.

    I don't think that there's anything "wrong" with equal temperament, just wish the others didn't get left behind, which is what happened when all the keyboards went equal.

    Should also confess modulations often feel like cheap tricks to me, something the composer uses to stretch things out more than some need in the music to go that way (especially band music!!!). On balance, I prefer music that builds and sustains a feeling tone and more often than not modulations break the mood (for me) rather than enhance it. I do understand, though, that for folks with theory mind, modulations give some sort of frisson of pleasure I'm not getting.