Saturday, October 8, 2016

The World's Most Unlistenable Music?

I was just reading the Wall Street Journal and they had a little video titled The World's Most Undrinkable Wine which I had to look at, of course. These kinds of titles are really just clickbait, but in this case it worked. The wine in question is South Africa's Pinotage which has a smokey character that can be a turnoff depending on how the wine is made. To me, it just sounds interesting and I am going to buy some Pinotage next chance I get as I have never tasted it. I love Lapsang Souchong, which is a very smokey tea. But I will let you watch that video...

I'm not a fan of video clips generally and this is no exception. I usually long for a more intelligent interviewer (or a more intelligent interviewee!). The great thing about the internet is that you can browse over articles to see if they are worth reading much more easily than you can browse through a video. For me, broadcast television is unwatchable because you can't skip ahead.

But back to my title! I stole it, of course, because it makes you want to click on it. But then I started thinking, hmm, what is it that might make some music unlistenable? And for whom? That makes the subject an interesting one.

The most salient reasons why some music might be unlistenable are probably subjective ones. While I believe that there is such a thing as objective aesthetic quality, that is there are some pieces of music that any reasonably educated listener would acknowledge as being of high aesthetic quality and other pieces of which the opposite could be said, sorting this out requires some effort. A lot of the time we tend to listen casually, meaning that we tend to enjoy styles and tunes we are familiar with and enjoy less ones we are not.

So right off the bat, we can say that if you hear a kind of music that is entirely foreign to you, you might find it more or less unlistenable. Here is an example of some traditional Thai music that will be unfamiliar to most people:

Some contemporary music is in a style that most people will find unfamiliar as well. This is a piece for solo guitar by Elliot Carter, Changes (1983):

Some other music might be, to some people, unlistenable because it is overfamiliar or because it is in a style that is crude, excessive or maudlin. Here is "Memory" from Cats by Andrew Lloyd Webber which fulfills at least two of those criteria:

But this doesn't exhaust all the possibilities. What about a piece of music that is in a style that isn't particularly familiar, nor unfamiliar, but that is just very poorly written or performed? Believe it or not, thanks to some clever mathematicians and a TED talk by Scott Rickard, we have an example of what might be the world's ugliest music. This is a clip of the talk in which he explains the piece. The piece itself, which is only a couple of minutes long, begins around the 7:49 mark.

What criteria is Scott using? Basically, the criteria of repetition: musical beauty, he tells us, is based on repetition. His example is the recurring and uniting motif in the Symphony No. 5 of Beethoven:

On the other hand, there are pieces that many would call more beautiful than this piece that use much less repetition. Take the slow movement to Beethoven's Hammerklavier piano sonata, for example:

I think that it would be more accurate to say that we enjoy beauty in music most when we can follow it and repetition is the means that composers use to organize the music so that it can be easily followed.

Scott Rickard only explored one way of creating musical ugliness, that of non-repetitivity. But surely there are others. What about simply ugly sound? There are some sounds that are considered particularly beautiful while others are considered unpleasant and grating. I recall a clarinet player telling me that the most beautiful note he ever heard was sung in a recital by Jessye Norman. This is "When I Am Laid in Earth" by Purcell:

Other times the human voice can produce sounds we do not want to hear.

But what about the composition itself? Is it possible to simply write a bad piece of music? Well, sure. Most composers do, on a regular basis, but they destroy them before they see the light of day! As Schoenberg said to a student once, the eraser end of the pencil is more important than the other end. But can we find any examples of badly written music? That is quite hard, actually, as no-one really wants to put something up on YouTube and label it a "bad" or "poor" musical composition. So we have to dig around a bit. This, for example, is not really bad, or not as bad as it could be. It is just typical of a non-good or mediocre composition:

It just noodles along with no interesting melodies or phrases or rhythms or harmonies. Entirely inspiration-free! It is probably healthy to listen to poor music from time to time to remind ourselves what we are trying to avoid!

Ok, let's end with the most unlistenable music I can find on YouTube. There are lots of possibilities, but this collection of bad auditions from X Factor will provide you with several quite unpleasant experiences:


Marc Puckett said...

That was quite a treat! The bad ones were amusing in their awfulness but of course I only had to listen for fifteen or twenty seconds; quite otherwise if I had to sit and listen for ninety minutes. But pitiable too; they've probably been told by their teachers, during the entire course of their education, to cultivate their unique talents, to transgress the traditional norms, that novelty is the supreme paradigm, &c &c &c.

Bryan Townsend said...

Oh goodness, I sure hope that those singers aren't the product of some teacher's studio! But yes, someone must have told them that you just have to "feel it" follow your intuition, let it all hang out! And they did so entirely innocent of any aesthetic concepts whatsoever.