We’re Having a Music Theory Issue in This House

The issue is Ben Shapiro’s definition of music.

I was watching Adam Neely’s video, “Music Theory and White Supremacy” the other day. In his video, which I highly recommend watching, Adam shows a clip of Ben Shapiro making the argument that hip-hop music is not music, because “according to his father who went to music school”, music must contain three elements: melody, harmony, and rhythm. Since rap music doesn’t contain melody (it doesn’t? Not ever?) then it doesn’t qualify as music.

His definition is just plain wrong.

While most of what we call “Western (Euro-American)” music contains all three elements of music, some doesn’t. And it’s not just rap.

Let’s take, for instance, the plainchant used by the early Catholic church. While we could argue that it does have melody, I would challenge any music school graduate to use their ear training to notate it. The melody doesn’t have a lot of movement, and the rhythm is just about indiscernible. As far as harmony is concerned, the earliest chant had none. But I’m going to guess that Ben Shapiro would still classify plainchant as “music.”

Technically, harmony is any two pitches sounding against each other. A mother singing a lullaby to put her baby to sleep is singing a melody. It may have rhythm, but does it have harmony? Is it, then, music? One could argue that melodies have implied harmonies. If that is true, what harmonies are implied? The fact is that a melody could be harmonized many different ways; thus, the harmony is not predetermined by the melody. Arnold Schoenberg even said that music students with a modicum of training in music theory (figured bass and part writing) would have difficulty effectively harmonizing someone else’s melody. (Theory of Harmony, p.14) If that is true, and I believe it is, melody does not dictate harmony, and a melody alone cannot count as two elements of music. So, I ask again: is a mother singing a lullaby alone to her baby making music? This is a rhetorical question – of course it is!

Speaking of Schoenberg, does his music have melody? This is a bit tongue-in-cheek. Some of it does have a distinguishable melody, but his later 12-tone music can be hard to follow, and it definitely does not have a tune one can take home in one’s back pocket. Does that make it not music? Of course not! We can argue about whether or not we like it. We can discuss whether or not it is beautiful. But there is no question that it is music.

The same goes for John Cage who opened the world’s ears to the sounds of the prepared piano. The prepared piano substitutes nicely for certain percussion. Cage’s Sonata No.5 for prepared piano sounds astonishingly similar to a gamelan ensemble; it is rhythmic-based, without a singable tune or identifiable harmony. Again, we can say whether or not we like it, but it is most definitely music.

There are many other classical composers who have not required their music to have all the elements of melody, harmony, and rhythm. But it’s not just Western classical composers whose work doesn’t fit Ben Shapiro’s ignorantly narrow definition of music.

Music from all over the world often lacks one or more of the three elements. Traditional Celtic music is often accompanied by only a drone. Does that qualify as real harmony? I already mentioned gamelan music (this example is Balinese, and as you will hear there are only tiny bits of singable melody.) It is fascinating music, but it is nothing like what most Westerners are used to hearing. Much of African music also is primarily rhythm-based. I have a recording of African women washing clothes in a river. While washing, they sing a melody (no discernible harmony) and turn the river into a percussion instrument by plunging buckets into it or slapping their hands on the surface of the water. The size of the buckets and the way they hit the water with their hands creates different tones and textures, making the water sound like multiple different instruments. Not only is it music, but it is beautiful demonstration of turning a mundane task into a joyous celebration of community. The examples abound from around the world.

So what about hip-hop and rap?

I just spent the last month as a juror judging music videos for a competition. Out of about one hundred ten entries, over 60% were hip-hop/rap. I am not a hip-hop and rap connoisseur, but I can tell you it is music. First of all, much of it does actually include melody. If someone doesn’t know this, they haven’t taken the time to listen sufficiently to make a fair judgment about the music. Second, unlike Ben Shapiro claims, rap is more than “rhythmic speech.” Spoken word, which in a sense could be called rhythmic speech, is a performance art with it’s own genre. Most hip-hop/rap is accompanied, and the accompaniment includes: harmony! The mix of beats, bass, sampling, and a wide variety of instrumental and textural options provides a lot of interest. As I argued above, the lack of one particular element of music does not disqualify it from being music.

Even if there is only one element, it is still music. It is difficult to have a discernible harmonic progression or melody without rhythm, but rhythm can often stand alone. Consider a marching band during a parade. As they walk by when the wind instrumentalists are resting from playing, the drum corp is still playing in time. The watching audience might even be moved to boogie a little while they go by. Just drums! Just rhythm! Does Ben Shapiro think that they are not playing legitimate music?

It is unfortunate that Ben Shapiro’s music theorist father who went to music school did not teach him that music does not need to have all three elements of melody, harmony, and rhythm to qualify as real music. This kind of thinking allows a person to inaccurately and unfairly judge certain styles of music as inferior. As I said in my post, “Is Music Theory Racist?“, analysis of music is very limited to only a certain style of music in a certain place at a certain time. To hold all music to the same standards is, at best, ethnocentric and irresponsible. As a public figure, Ben Shapiro is accountable for the opinions he spreads about music, and as extension, other cultures as a whole. Ben Shapiro’s comments, whether he intended it or not, denigrates the music and culture of entire regions of Africa and Indonesia, as well as Aboriginal and Indigenous tribes, and there are likely other musics I am as of yet unaware. As a public figure, Ben Shapiro is spreading his own personal opinions of music, claiming that they are based on a universal standard, and leading his followers to agree. However, the very basis on which he is making his statements – his definition of music – is just plain wrong.

There are three elements of music. (Actually, I would argue that there are four, the fourth being form, but that discussion is for another post.) We can agree that three elements of music are melody, harmony, and rhythm. But music does not necessarily contain all three at all times. A wide variety of music exists. Sometimes it contains just one element; sometimes it uses a combination of two; sometimes music does contain all three. This is true of folk and classical musics, from around the world and in the Western tradition.

Next time you whistle a tune you made up or sing in the shower or beat a rhythm on your body, know that you are enjoying a tidbit of music. It may not be the world’s next masterpiece, but it is still music.

Where are the Dancing Elephants?

I have a love-hate relationship with Gustav Mahler.

I love dark Mahler. When Mahler’s music is in the depths of despair, I am right there with him, my eviscerated soul laid bare writhing in agony. There is no milk chocolate in Mahler’s world. That dark music is a gourmet flourless 80% cacao chocolate torte, so rich the flavor lasts for hours. But other times Mahler, as I like to put it, “goes Disney” – you know, the happiest place on earth. Sickeningly sweet. Like an overloaded ice cream sundae with caramel, hot fudge, peanut butter sauce and marshmallow, finished off with the obligatory whipped cream, walnuts, jimmies, and of course, cherry.

I don’t have a sweet tooth.

It’s the syrupy music of Mahler that disqualifies him from being my favorite composer, even though his somber, haunting music leaves me “deep into that darkness peering…wondering, fearing, doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before” to quote Edgar Allan Poe, a fitting pairing.

But despite the fact that I cannot bear listening to Mahler’s “Disney” music, I think I understand what he was doing. First, if music isn’t emotional, what’s the point? Second, the music must be what it is. Mahler doesn’t hold back. He allows the music and the emotion to achieve maximum fullness. It is incredibly intense, like the colors in a Fauvist painting. This is what I admire most about Mahler’s work, and I aim to emulate the courage to write passionate music regardless of the potential embarrassment of being too much.

A few months ago, I was commissioned to write a Christmas piece for the Greater Tiverton Community Chorus. As I finished it up over the weekend, I asked my husband to listen to it. I was concerned about it being “corny.” While my husband is not a composer, he is a musician with good taste and I implicitly trust his judgment. He listened, turned to me and said, “No, it’s not corny. But…it seems like something’s missing. Your ending needs more.” As I asked for more details, he sighed and replied, “I’m afraid you’re going to have go Mahler on this one.” I knew what he meant: Disney Mahler.

I revised the ending by giving the sopranos some higher notes and making the harmony more complex, then brought it back to him for another listen. In his best Edna Mole imitation, he said, “No, no, no, no, no! Dahlin’, where’s the BIG? Where are the dancing elephants?” Mahlering this up really meant working hard to pull out all the stops. Suddenly, I understood why only a touch of happiness wasn’t enough. There was still something missing, stifling the impact. I had to figure out what it was.

It finally came to me – I was missing percussion. I didn’t have the option to add timpani to the piece, but I had a piano which, in one light, is a percussion instrument. I made the left hand fill in for timpani and the right hand fill in for chimes. I gave the trumpet part more flourish and higher notes. Finally, it was finished – as over-the-top as it could be. I imagined Mahler coaching me, “That’s it. You’ve got to be all in. Go big, or go home.” I must have done it right because the director loved the piece and called it “magnificent.”

Am I falling in love with Disney Mahler?