Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Adorno on popular music

I am working on the Wikipedia book, and starting with pre-1960s attitudes about high and low culture, i.e. those pre-contemporary prejudices to which the whole Web 2.0 world-view is utterly opposed.  I discussed Reith's view in an earlier post.

The Marxist sociologist Theodor Adorno (1903-1969) cannot be left out here. Adorno was passionate about music as a child, growing up in a wealthy and cultured family. He came to the United States in 1939 to join the Princeton University Radio Research Project as chief of the music division. The project was funded by the Rockefeller Foundation, for understanding the effects of mass media on society.

Adorno was highly critical of the effects of popular music. One of his essays is here, where he tries to capture the difference between highbrow and lowbrow music.  There are two. The first is 'standardisation'.  He makes the interesting point that the difference between high and low is not simply a matter of complexity and simplicity.
All works of the earlier Viennese classicism are, without exception, rhythmically simpler than stock arrangements of jazz. Melodically, the wide intervals of a good many hits such as Deep purple* or Sunrise Serenade are more difficult to follow per se than most melodies of, for example, Haydn, which consist mainly of circumscriptions of tonic triads and second steps.
However, the complicated in popular music never functions as "itself" but only as a disguise or embellishment behind which the scheme can always be perceived. The whole structure of popular music is standardized, "even where the attempt is made to circumvent standardization".
Standardization extends from the most general features to the most specific ones. Best known is the rule that the chorus consists of thirty two bars and that the range is limited to one octave and one note. The general types of hits are also standardized: not only the dance types, the rigidity of whose pattern is understood, but also the "characters" such as mother songs, home songs, nonsense or "novelty" songs, pseudo-nursery rhymes, laments for a lost girl. Most important of all, the harmonic cornerstones of each hit — the beginning and the end of each part — must beat out the standard scheme. This scheme emphasizes the most primitive harmonic facts no matter what has harmonically intervened. Complications have no consequences. This inexorable device guarantees that regardless of what aberrations occur, the hit will lead back to the same familiar experience, and nothing fundamentally novel will be introduced.
'Serious' music, by contrast, is an organised whole in the context of which every detail must be understood, and which is never the simple enforcement of a musical schema. This cannot happen with popular music. No removal of detail affects its musical sense.

The second feature which distinguished the popular from the serious is pseudo-individualisation.  More later.

* The song from which the hideous rock group took their name.

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