Saturday, May 10, 2014

The Long and the Short of It

I just ran across a little article about how often people skip a song after listening to just the beginning. Because of the digital world we live in, we can find this stuff out: the data come from Spotify. Here are some points:
  • Nearly a quarter of all songs on Spotify get skipped within five seconds of starting.
  • More than a third are skipped within 30 seconds.
  • Nearly half of all songs are skipped at some point. 
  • On average, listeners skip over a song roughly every four minutes. Oh, these sad, distracted times!

    At the other end of the spectrum, I've decided to give myself a little course in Bruckner because I have never really gotten to know his music and it has been intriguing me. So I have been listening to all the symphonies in order. Just got up to the Symphony No. 4 in E flat major. Here is Sergiu Celibidache in a famously leisurely performance some 80 minutes long:

    Other conductors briskly trot through in a mere 60 minutes.

    It gets me thinking: with pop music, what is it that either grabs or turns off the listener in the first five or thirty seconds? Let me pull up a few clips at random:

    That had such a nice piano intro that I would have kept listening.

    That one caused severe boredom after twelve seconds! It's the particularly annoying drum track back beat.

    Yeah, fifteen seconds of that was enough!

    I see that pop musicians have a real problem: if you don't have a compelling opening, people are just going to skip over. But if your opening is too interesting, people are also going to skip over because they will think it is "weird". What do the big names do?

    Spacey synth sounds, no pulse, diamonds, water, smoke, naked woman and when the song finally arrives it has an interesting harmonic progression, so it does make you listen a bit longer just to see what is going on. The Beatles paid a lot of attention to how songs began:

    That's a famously weird chord that begins that one: a diminished dominant: D, F natural, A, C and G sharp. But they don't give you any time to mull over its weirdness as they jump right into the chorus.

    But symphonic composers are not under the same pressure to totally hook the audience in the first ten seconds. Bruckner essentially spent his whole career as a symphony composer working out the implications of how Beethoven wrote his Symphony No. 9, with its famously spacey opening:

    Sometimes a composer tries very hard to be as minimal as possible in the opening, because that can be very compelling:

    Shostakovich actually said to the quartet preparing to give the first performance: "Play the first movement so that flies drop dead in mid-air and the audience leaves the hall out of sheer boredom". The opening adagio movement is followed by five more--all of them also adagio!!

    Don't quite know how to end this meandery post, but here is Bernard Haitink conducting the Symphony No. 1 by Bruckner with its march-like first movement:


    Rickard Dahl said...

    Good point. Most pop music is boring and easy to skip over. On the other hand classical and even TV, video game and film music (assuming it's well composed) is much more interesting. What do you think about Bruckner so far?

    Bryan Townsend said...

    I used to lump Bruckner and Mahler together, because that is often how history books present them. But I've been realizing how different they are, so I've been listening to the Bruckner symphonies with great interest. Up to No. 4 and so far I quite like them.

    Rickard Dahl said...

    Yeah, I see quite a difference between Mahler and Bruckner (to me Mahler doesn't sound that interesting, Bruckner sounds very interesting, both composed massive pieces but Bruckner was better at it I think). It's unfortunate that history books present them by lumping them together.

    Bryan Townsend said...

    They seem to be paired fairly often: Bruckner/Mahler, Debussy/Ravel, and it used to be Bach/Handel, but that seems to have fallen by the wayside.

    I'm only up to Bruckner 5, so lots left to listen to. And after that I intend to listen to the Mahler symphonies which I haven't done for quite a while. Then I'm sure I will have some things to say. I do notice that Bruckner seems to work with very, what I want to call, "solid" forms. For example, quite often a movement will be divided fairly closely in halves or even quarters. Halfway through there will be a pause and a kind of recommencement. It gives the music a kind of architectural solidity.

    Craig said...

    I don't usually think of Bruckner and Mahler together; apart from the medium in which they excelled and the huge canvases on which they worked, they aren't all that similar. Temperamentally they would seem to have little in common.

    I sometimes joke that Bruckner "wrote the same symphony 9 times," which of course isn't quite fair, but his body of work does seem less diverse, the individual symphonies less distinctively themselves, than is the case with Mahler. Mahler also, I think, made "better" use of the orchestra: Bruckner tended to rely mostly on strings and brass, to my ears, with comparatively small roles for winds and percussion, whereas Mahler kept everyone busy. I put "better" in scare-quotes because Bruckner used his orchestra in the way that best suited his purposes. But I do think it is fair to say that Mahler's music is, by and large, more colourful.

    Regardless, I love them both.