Sunday, June 10, 2018

The Musicology of Ringtones

Or I could have headlined this with "the music theory of ringtones" but "the musicology of ringtones" just sounds more clickbaity. The Washington Post has an article up that is pure music theory: No, iPhone ringtones aren’t bad. They’re musically sophisticated. Of course the only reason this appears is because of the Apple connection. But it is a quite decent article explaining what is it about iPhone ringtones that gets your attention:
Consider the ringtone “Xylophone,” which consists of two lines — a cutesy melody on top supported by a constant pulsing layer underneath that sustains your attention. “Xylophone” is composed around the concept of syncopation — accentuating weaker beats to mess with a rhythm a bit and make it more complex. Think: “Buh-buh-bummm, buh-buh-b-b-b-buh” in the upper line, and “bum-bum-bum-bum-bum-bum-bum-bum” consistently in the lower line. These two lines may not seem to match up at first, but the melody fits awkwardly with the supporting tones underneath. The lower line features annoying pulsing beats, while the melody articulates beats that the second line doesn’t hit. In theoretical terms, we would say one line has isochronous rhythms — that is, they are evenly spaced and patterned. By contrast, the line with the syncopated melody uses non-isochronous rhythms. Together, these two patterns create a barrage that aims to unsettle the listener. This is a tune that Apple has stuck with precisely because we don’t want to listen to it.
The “Marimba” ringtone — which was the iPhone’s default for many years — also has two lines, but they fit together more harmoniously. Each one contributes in a more collaborative, less antagonistic way to the music. The base is made up of lower pitches, while higher, accented chords form the upper line: “Buh-buh-BUH-buh-buh-BUH-buh-buh-BUH-buh-buh-BUH.” Together they produce a rhythmic effect that’s similar to the pulsating line of the “Xylophone” tone.
Where “Xylophone” relies on syncopation, though, “Marimba” works through a related compositional element known as hemiola. A hemiola is a specific type of syncopation, featuring three beats where you would intuitively expect two.
I have to quote so much because the writer, musicologist Alyssa Barna, goes into a lot of technical detail. While I appreciate the analysis--so nice to see these days--it is somewhat hamstrung because of the built in restrictions on what you can say in the popular press. Mind you, she does share with the readers two correct technical terms: syncopation and hemiola (and even the unfamilar "isochronous"), so points for that. Go read the whole article.

One comes away with a bit of an idea that these ringtones were constructed to be interesting in a rhythmic way, but just how remains vague. Also the reader is mislead by passages like this:
[Hemiola is] a fairly common musical technique, one that’s been around for centuries, featuring prominently in the work of 19th-century composers like Brahms, Schumann and Tchaikovsky. It also regularly crops up in popular music — from the opening riff of Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir” to the chorus of Britney Spears’s “Till the World Ends.”
Well, yes, but that is like saying that alcoholic beverages were really popular at 19th century dinner parties--quite true, but misleading since alcoholic beverages have been ubiquitous since the pyramids were built! The rhythmic device of hemiola, which even after the detailed description: “Buh-buh-BUH-buh-buh-BUH-buh-buh-BUH-buh-buh-BUH” remains a bit unclear, has been used extensively in music since the Middle Ages. In different ways it was a part of musical textures from 1400 to the present. Along with syncopation it is one of the most fundamental musical gestures there is. But what is it exactly? I wrote a whole post on it quite a while back titled: Hemiola: It's Not Just For Hemophiliacs! Go have a read. Incidentally, I might have gone a bit off-track at the beginning of that post when I said that we start seeing the hemiola in 16th century Spanish music. It was very typical in that music and in fact, it is ubiquitous in Spanish music to this day. But it was used well before that, particularly in dance music.

The Wikipedia article is quite good on hemiola. They offer this example:

If you can read music, this is a lot clearer than "buh buh buh" but let me explain for the non-music readers. Hemiola in this example makes use of the fact that six is divisible by both three and two. So if you have a measure of music that contains six eighth notes, indicated by the 6/8 time signature, you can have three beats of two eighths each, or two beats of three eighths each. In the example shown, both are present at the same time. In Baroque music a cadence was often signaled by inserting one measure of three beats at the end of a phrase of several measures with two beats each. It gives you a nice effect. You can produce this yourself. Try clapping a few measures like this One Two Three Four Five Six. The bolded beats should be accented. That is your two-beats-per-measure. Then end with this: One Two Three Four Five Six, keeping your counting even, but accenting one, three and five instead.

There is a particularly effective and subtle use of this effect in flamenco music:

One layer is just 3/8 with nothing on the downbeat, the other layer alternates between 6/8 and 3/4. This is found in the bulerias and other places. Again, the Wikipedia article is pretty good and has a lot of musical examples.

Since link-rot seems to have claimed my musical example from my hemiola post, let's have it again. This is the first movement of the Concierto de Aranjuez by Joaquin Rodrigo which begins with some very nicely used hemiola in the solo guitar:

Three measure grouping, which is unusual. The first measure is 6/8, the second is 3/4, which is the hemiola, then the third measure is a compression of the first two measures. This same figure is then repeated at different pitches. Here is a performance by Pepe Romero. I think he plays that opening more crisply and rhythmically than anyone:

Incidentally, that old Nokia ringtone is from the Gran Vals, a guitar piece by Francisco Tárrega (it appears around the 12 second mark):

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