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Musical Localism and the Rebirth of Culture

August 22nd, 2023 | 11 min read

By John Ahern

There is a secret history to popular music which does not often get told. This alternate universe of popular music has been there from the very beginning, and it easily disguises itself. It can and does appear in any genre: rock, soul, disco, Latin, electronic, alternative and so forth. (Although I have not ever found it in country; draw your own conclusions.) It runs alongside its much more well-known twin, the vast majority of popular music, but it is quite different. In order to understand this alternate universe, we first have to understand what normal popular music does.

Normal popular music is a tightly controlled procedure. Regardless of genre, it is dance music, in that its phrases are unerringly periodic. Every song can be organized into groups of four measures, which theorists call “four-bar hypermeter.” (Once you notice this, it will ruin most music for you, so I do not recommend you pull up your favorite pop song and begin counting measures.) Those four-bar hypermeasures usually end up adding themselves into groups of 2 or 4 as well, making the whole song a clean, symmetrical, and predictable entity. Many critics use “predictable” as an insult, but it is not an insult. Predictability allows all sorts of clever deviations to play with our expectations, such as the “buildup” and “drop” of electronic dance music.

Another characteristic of popular music is more structural. There are almost always three distinct musical “textures”: a high texture with the melody, a middle texture with harmonic material, and the lowest texture, with the bass note of each chord. Much of what we perceive as differences in genre are really just mapping these three textures onto different instruments or varying some parameter of one of those textures. For example, simple vocals, acoustic guitar and acoustic bass might get you a folksy sound whereas autotuned vocals with reverb, synthesized keys and sawtooth-lead bass gets you a pop-electronic sound.

There are many more things that define and unite the genres of standard popular music. They are both, incidentally, inheritances of Western Classical music. But these two–the rigorous, hypermetric structure of songs and the synchronic texture of the music–are important precisely because we do not tend to notice them. (Although this does not prevent their having a profound effect on us.) By pointing them out, I even disenchant the music a little. Once you are aware of these features, you may discover that the music’s veneer of self-expression, individual utterance and spontaneity is less believable. Cave lector.

So what is the alternative universe I spoke of? It takes a little bit of music and repeats it over and over again. Each time it repeats, it adds or takes away something from the overall texture. Hypermeter is less important here, as is our three-part texture. The varied repetition allows us to hear exactly what is present and what is absent in the musical texture. We begin to notice details. Bass, various harmonic instruments, vocals, other instruments are all equal players vying for our aural attention. We don’t any longer hear the music as a unitary mass of sound, but rather as distinct, variegated parties engaged in music-making. It is, in a word, polyphony. Or, rather, it is exposing the inherently polyphonic nature of music-making that standard popular music would sooner have us forget.

Polyphony may seem like an odd thing to call any popular music, but it is there and it is intoxicating. The 1962 hit song “Oye como va” by Tito Puente is an example. Or the ending of Earth, Wind and Fire, “Can’t Let Go”, the deep house music of DJ Frankie Knuckles, “We are the music makers” by Aphex Twin, “Roygbiv” by Boards of Canada, Sufjan Stevens’ “The Predatory Wasps” and “The Tallest Man, the Broadest Shoulders” and “Too Much” (and many, many others), the slow section of Radiohead’s “Paranoid Android”, or “Sugah Daddy” by D’Angelo. It is different from mere “groove” or “lick,” since it doesn’t merely repeat the music as much as it brings attention to the individual elements that create the music. Thus it is constantly removing and adding different musical lines.

We might come up with any number of theories about why this music does what it does: it might come from jazz, from West African horn or drum ensembles, from Jamaican dub. Or perhaps it is an aestheticized exigency of the technology: the soundboard, essential to modern production, lends itself to different channels with gain dials and mute buttons.

But perhaps it is a spontaneous re-emergence of some fundamental part of human nature which wishes to see music not as a thing to be consumed but an activity to be done by many distinct participants.

Now, we could appreciate this lovely music, this alternate and (I think) more beautiful path down which popular music could have trodden and might still. This essay could be nothing but a panegyric and I could conclude right here. And it would be like any number of essays and books which have lauded the older model of music as polyphony. Polyphony is a reflection of social harmony, and we are right to grieve its rarity and suspect its absence is correlated to our dark times. I myself have even written a piece like that, but here I want to go further.

The grim truth is this: polyphonic popular music is a ruse. If we are in a musical version of the end of The Silver Chair, and the music industry is like the witch convincing us that her world is all there is and no other world is possible, then this polyphonic popular music is her most effective trick. We can listen, for a moment, and conceptualize a musical Narnia that is different, but ultimately it will only be a species within the same old genus. It turns out that the music industry has an infinite capacity to absorb this kind of musical challenge and turn it to its advantage.

This “polyphonic pop” is a shadow but also a promise. It is the void left by a light we are not used to seeing and it stirs within us a fervent hope that our paltry musical lives might not always be so impoverished. It is so effective because it is a reflection of some other music which we do not now have but for which, because we are created beings oriented around singing God’s praises, we have an ineradicable desire.

And what is that other music, the music which this polyphonic popular music points to? It is, of course, music you do yourself. It is you singing, you being one among many making harmony. It is not a music which you consume but a music in which you participate. It is not your voice alienated from you, vicariously sung through another and sold back to you. It is you and your family, you and your friends, you and your community, making music.

I remember when I became acutely aware of how interconnected all of these issues are: it was an evening at the Starry Plough Pub in Berkeley, CA. As a Christian and classical musician, I have grown up around music making and frequently participated in it. So the proceedings of an Irish session should not have surprised me. But it was still strange to see all sorts of people, in a massive circle around a small table with a pint on it, each with their instruments, intent on their music between stolen sips. They played for themselves and taught newcomers as they went; the rest of the bar was not an audience but an accident. It was not incidental music; we were incidental listeners. The music would stop every so often so they could drink at greater ease and so that, upon occasion, a stentorian woman with a quick vibrato could deliver us a ballad. It was a living pastiche, precariously preserved in this seedy Irish bar. It wasn’t simply this kind of participatory music which was endangered but also, for instance, the act of public storytelling and the possibility of “third spaces” in which people could recreate. These things have all experienced a concurrent demise in our era, and not coincidentally.

The ethnomusicologist Thomas Turino has written on this distinction, which he takes to be more fundamental than any genre distinction, between “participatory” and “presentational” kinds of music. “If we briefly consider the products of the music industry over time,” says Turino, “we can glimpse cosmopolitans’ gradual shift in thinking of music making as a social activity to music as an object.” He talks about what it was like interacting with Peruvian festival music of the 1980s, before (or athwart) the arrival of the various technologies that have enabled our presentational era. “For them,” says Turino, “a recording is to ‘music’ what, for us, a photograph is to the person in the snapshot: a representation of something else, not the real thing.”

It is worth asking for a moment where and how the change occurred in music. Here I depart a great deal from other traditionalists and conservatives who talk extensively about music, particularly the late Roger Scruton, as well as the various others who have written on the topic such as E. Michael Jones and Julian Johnson. For many of these thinkers, the moment of decline occurred somewhere in the twentieth century or perhaps the nineteenth, and the culprit was, variously, dissonance, a rejection of long-standing norms of form, professionalism, and, most of all, the rise of commercial recording technologies that allowed music to become abstracted from live, public performance.

Here I am much more radical: Classical music is not the solution to our problems; it is the problem. I consider the shift from Palestrina to Monteverdi, from Bach to Haydn, as far more fundamental than the shift from Wagner to Schoenberg or from tonality to atonality or from Rachmaninoff on shellac to the Beatles on vinyl.

Classical music is notoriously difficult to define and would almost be a useless term, were it not for its apt description of one aspect of much music from 1600 to 1900: it is a project meant to recreate the triumph of classical drama under Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides. It is, at its core, a performance. From its beginnings in Florence in the 1590s to Nietzsche’s much later historicization in Birth of Tragedy, practitioners and devotees of Classical music alike considered it an attempt at recovery of Attic tragedy and the fabled powers of music in ancient Greek myth. This is encapsulated perfectly in the portrait of Beethoven by Joseph Willibrord Mähler in 1804-5, where Beethoven is portrayed with a Greecian lyrie in his left hand and, in the distant background, a solitary patch of sunlight illuminates Doric columns, as if newly excavated and discovered.

A few years later, reviewing Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, E. T. A. Hoffman famously expressed what would become the standard Romantic line about musical autonomy:

[Music] is the most romantic of all arts, one might almost say the only one that is genuinely romantic, since its only subject-matter is infinity. Orpheus’s lyre opened the gates of Orcus. Music reveals to man an unknown realm, a world quite separate from the outer sensual world surrounding him, a world in which he leaves behind all precise feelings in order to embrace an inexpressible longing….

It is not a coincidence that E. T. A. Hoffman writes these words, constitutive of Classical music in the nineteenth century, at precisely the moment when public concerts spread across Europe as the ideal way to experience music. Hoffman’s words make the main thing about music the listening to it. Music’s ontology has changed: what is important to Hoffman is not whether or not he is involved in the music-making (I think, probably, he would rather not be) but rather the music as an object to be experienced and even consumed. There’s no denying that, relative to our own time, the century of Beethoven and Hoffman was a golden era of musical amateurism, of music-making in the home. Yet, on the other hand, music in the parlor began to stand in relation to concert music as sign to signified.

This does not mean that past music yields us no healthy model for music-making. It does mean that perhaps we should spend less time exalting Mozart and Brahms, as wonderful as they are, and first enjoy the riches of Piae cantiones, The Oxford Book of Carols, Sacred Harp, and Mother Goose Nursery rhymes. More importantly, we need to be aware that the Classical music which many traditionalists valorize is itself responsible for the musical alienation of our moment.

So, let’s assume that we live in a musically unprecedented moment, that music has become commodified and thereby impoverished; we ought, therefore, to embrace a kind of musical localism. Then we should finish by asking: first, why, among all these other malaises of modernity, should we be worried about music? And, second, what does musical localism actually do? What are our first steps? How do we, to borrow Wendell Berry’s phrase, “think little”?

In answer to the first question–why we should worry about music in particular–there are two ways of answering. One would be to take the tack of Theodor Adorno (who, for being one of the fathers of the infamous Frankfurt School, was a bit of a “rad trad”). In his 1936 essay “On Jazz,” he makes the case that jazz is deleterious to society. But curiously it was not because its surface-level syncopations and dissonances are revolutionary and anti-authoritarian–for Adorno, that would be a compliment, as resisting totalitarian ideology becomes a central priority for him–but because, beneath this transgressive surface, the endless cycle of regular beats and tonal harmony ultimately control the music. Jazz is nothing but a veneer of protest, inducing in its bourgeoisie listeners a feeling of having resisted totalitarianism that inoculates them against truly critical thinking. His critique hardly rings true of the jazz that was to come in later decades, but it certainly could describe much popular music now.

Adorno understood (as Plato, Aristotle, Charlemagne, John of Salisbury and Frederick the Great did, to name a few) that there is some mysterious and intimate connection between the body politic and its musical life. Augustine, for instance, points out this connection in the City of God: “The concord of different sounds controlled in due proportion, suggests the unity of a well-ordered city, welded together in harmonious variety.” Adorno, although he cynically inverts the picture, agrees with this connection: for him, music is a central proving ground for whether people will allow themselves to be controlled by the rhythms of an ideology or will have the musical intelligence to see through that ideology and resist, not just its superficial allures but its structural features.

Another possible answer to “Why is music important?” is the one Peter Leithart has been making for several years now: worship, and especially musical worship, is the end around which we must organize all our anthropology. It is the secret desire of our unfallen hearts that we do not understand but which awakens within us when, for instance, we hear the strains of polyphony. But how can we sing to God when we have forgotten how to sing? There will be no vibrant church music without vibrant folk music. There will not be loud congregational singing when there is not even loud singing in bars or barber shops. If you wanted to write sacred poetry as well as Donne or Herbert, you would be at an impossible disadvantage if you had forgotten how to write words altogether. Such a disadvantage is our inheritance with respect to music.

So, assuming then that this is a critical concern, how can we address it in our own lives? Here perhaps we can take our clue from Berry–who is talking about agriculture, not music. “We are going to have to rebuild the substance and the integrity of private life in this country,” he says in Think Little. “We are going to have to gather up the fragments of knowledge and responsibility that we have parceled out to the bureaus and the corporations and the specialists, and we are going to have to put those fragments back together again in our own minds and in our families and households and neighborhoods.”

Cast into the musical mold, this surely means we need to re-invest in singing our children folksongs and nursery rhymes. As essential as reading and stories are to homes with children, so should be song. Song and storytelling, in fact, are not such distant enterprises: “Clementine” and “Jack and Jill” serve both purposes ably. You will do a bad job of it unless you admit that you yourself have likely forgotten, from long disuse, the melodies and words. Perhaps your parents never sang them to you at all. I would recommend every parent buy one or more of the following anthologies of folksongs, ballads, rounds, and musical games: Go In and Out the Window: An Illustrated Songbook for Young People, The King’s Singers Book of Rounds, Canons and Partsongs, 150 Rounds for Singing and Teaching Kodaly, and the Barbara Cooney-illustrated American Folk Songs for Children.

When it comes to religious music, here I am afraid the traditionalists have a clear victory over fans of contemporary worship. There is simply no debate: singing a hymn is easier and more rewarding than attempting to stage your own cover of Chris Tomlin. For that is what it will always be: a cover. You will never stop hearing the Gettys’s voices and their arrangements in your heads, as lovely as they are, when you sing their music. But when you sing a hymn, it is never a cover of Stephen Cleobury or the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. You and they just happen to be singing the same hymn, which was designed for no other purpose.

I am, in theory, a strong believer in new music and contemporary sacred song. And although I don’t like the current selection of contemporary music, I don’t consider that a reason for indefinitely singing old music. At the same time, when you start singing often and enthusiastically, it will become clear which music is made for humble singing and which is made for listening to professional arrangements. And the demands of musical localists may, some day, even be loud enough to transform how such music is written, to make it friendlier to persistent, amateur use. That is my hope, anyways.

John Ahern

John Ahern is a graduate student pursuing a PhD in musicology from Princeton University. He is a substitute organist for the Princeton University chapel on occasion. He loves his wife and son, and they all frequently sing, to greater and lesser degrees of success, Renaissance bicinia over dinner.