A reader of this blog recently took me to task for my analyses of popular songs. He raised two objections. First, he doubted that any song writer actually thinks the way I analyze when he composes. Secondly, he said that my analyses missed the point of why people actually care about the music.
As to the first point, I more or less agree. However, I contend that this is irrelevant. Analysis is always after the fact – at least more or less. Some composers are more intuitive, others are more calculating and aware of what they are doing. However, ALL make actual choices as to melody notes, chords, rhythms, specific words in lyrics, etc. which are going to have an effect on the way the piece is perceived by others. Whether they are fully conscious of why they are making those choices – and aware of what the actual effect will be – is ultimately irrelevant. This would be akin to the “intentional fallacy” in literature. That is, it does not necessarily matter what the author intended when he was writing the novel, it only matters what he actually put in it (i.e. the finished novel). It is those objective elements of the finished work (i.e. the elements of its ‘structure’) which determine its success or failure.
Now, don’t misunderstand me. There are good theories, bad theories, and mediocre ones. There also can be disagreements. However, there is a baseline of reliability as to why a piece of music works or doesn’t work and this sort of structural analysis at least helps us to have a rational dialogue about the piece of music.
Otherwise, we are left with what I suspect my interlocutor’s second point really was all about: liking a piece because it gives one pleasant memories of high school, or because it is his and his wife’s favorite song, or because it is associated with something else that he likes. Or that it is the music that ‘summed up’ a generation. (The Beatles music for the 60’s generation, Glenn Miller for the WWII generation, etc.). Don’t get me wrong, these heavily subjective reasons are legitimate. I have no personal problem with them. It is only that they are by their very nature incommunicable to others who didn’t share that same subjective experience.
Some music, like patriotic or religious music, does span the generations, but popular music changes much more quickly. Each generation has its own popular music. The big question is: “Why should I acknowledge that song “x” is a great song, even if I have no personal attachment to it?” In fact, I don’t necessarily ‘like’ all the music which I praise – a very tough concept for some people to grasp – but, in a sense, the purpose of the blog.
There are objective musical standards. We can agree or disagree about my application in particular cases. But let’s keep the discussion going.