July 5th, 2016
Hello all. This is Matthew Shannon from the band Off the Ledge, here with my new sub-blog to our main “Off the Ledge” blog. I’m calling it, “Deconstructing the Machine.” Every couple of weeks or so, I will examine a new topic regarding tricks and trappings of the trade, those ‘ol POP industry mechanisms we so easily succumb to, while also peering into some philosophy within the realm of music appreciation. Granted, this blog will be opinion based, but I want people to understand where I’m coming from. I appreciate a somewhat scientific approach to everything in life, but I also understand that those gaps of knowledge I occasionally face should simply serve to drive my ambition for understanding music forward (its healthy to think you know something, but its also healthy to make mistakes. That’s how you learn). In a nutshell, I’m not claiming authority over what constitutes good or bad music. I’m just giving my opinion.
Well, with that outta the way, let me introduce my first topic for this maiden voyage:
120 BPM: “Yeah, I could dance to that!”
We don’t often think about it, but the heart is this odd sort of metronome, which seems to mimic the speeds and tempos of our emotions. Our reaction to the beauty of a sunset, which slows our internal pace and lowers the beats per minute of our heart, or the terror of a violent storm, which elevates our pulse and increases the beats per minute, are just 2 examples of this mind-body connection . Smells can elicit either desire or fear or fond memory and our hearts react in kind. The touch of a hand or even the thrill of a burn makes our heart strings vibrate in various ebbs and flows. Why should music or even simply sound be any different? The calming coo of an infant one moment can relax your heart rate and in the same moment, its cries and screams can push your heart rate to 11 (Spinal Tap reference!)
Songs can do the same exact thing.
Think about any classical music you’ve heard. There was, more than likely, a lot of speeding up and slowing down in most pieces you can recall, right? That’s because music back then had to be dynamic enough to spur our imagination and aid us in self reflection. Rarely do you hear classical music played strictly at 120 BPM; it slows and quickens to help tell it’s story and compel the listener to imagine what it was about the story they could connect with on a deeper level. The Piano Sonata No. 14 in C-sharp minor “Quasi una fantasia”, Op. 27, No. 2, better known as “Moonlight Sonata” by Beethoven, was actually given its now famous name some 10 years after it’s creation. A music critic in Germany at the time named Ludwig Rellstab, thought the pace of the movement resembled the way moonlight danced off the waters of Lake Lucerne in Switzerland. This was the imagery that he experienced listening to this famous piece. On a side note, I like mentioning this song because John Lennon wrote the song, “Because,” after listening to Yoko Ono play, “Moonlight Sonata”. Either way, the point I’m making is that not only was this critic influenced enough to reflect on his own experiences and consider their meanings, but I bet ya dollars to doughnuts that when he first appreciated that moonlight off of Lake Lucerne, his heart rate was relaxed and slow, just like the tempo in “Moonlight Sonata.”
So how does this 120 BPM business come in? Well, according to The Echo Nest, the same “musical intelligence” company that provides the data for the Million Song Dataset, most popular contemporary songs after the 1940s had tempos ranging from around 117 to 122 BPM. Why? The human heart works very hard at a rate of 120 BPM and usually after a short amount of time, endorphin levels will start to rise, which provides us with a sense of euphoria. This happens after we dance for a short time as well. Dancing!!! That’s it. An average rate of 120 BPM is also a great rate for dancing. Several scientific studies demonstrate that 120 BPM is the optimal tempo for music to workout to because our heart rates will tend to mimic the speed of the music. Reading on, I found it shocking, learning about our tendency to nod our heads or tap our feet at 120 BPM, as I’m also listening to examples and finding myself, in fact, nodding my head AND tapping my feet.
Is this a bad thing, music compelling us to move in mysterious ways (U2 reference)? No! I think its great that we’ve tapped into this human tendency to react physically to what we hear. What I don’t like is when record labels force everything they produce into that tempo or anything close to it. I can appreciate a scientific application to a product, but that’s exactly the problem: music isn’t just a product, and it’s certainly NOT supposed to be a product that makes you happy all the time. Music should be sad, and angry, and uplifting, and profound, and moving, and silly, and fun, and happy and every other emotion or descriptor in between. Tempo is the musical pacing that should mimic life, not the other way around. If you’re an artist who truly cares about understanding your craft, why would you focus all of your efforts solely on what people are movin’ their butts to? That’s a very narrow, narrow band of the reflection of our human emotions and frankly, lazy if that’s all you ascribe to.
Music is a means of expressing the reality of our human condition, and humans are fragile creatures. We need music to help guide us through how we process the thoughts and ideas and perceptions of the world around us. It’s one of those few things we don’t entirely share with the animal kingdom, although emerging science is finding unexpected things. (Wolves, for example, in order not to be drowned out in the choir of other howling wolves in a pack, will select individual pitches to howl at, thereby establishing their independence.) As such, we should honor music for the expansive and uncharted territory it represents. A lot of people believe we hear songs today that sound the same simply because, its all been done before. I ask them to consider the math. Humans can discern tempos ranging from 40 BPM to around 300 BPM. That’s a difference of around 260 different tempos that we are comfortable discerning. Now lets figure out what percentage of that average rate of the most popular music of the last 76 years (117 BPM to 122 BPM) accounts for the total possibilities. 5/260= 1.92%. Less than 2% of the possible tempos are being focused on, based on our understanding that an average tempo of 120 BPM encourages us to dance…. I would call that somewhat detrimental to our exploration efforts.
So there ya go. If you wanna write a pop hit that will get all the people up and moving, then write it around 120 BPM. Just for the sake of progress, please don’t let that be the only pace you set with what you create. Life has more meaning to behold than just dancing. Perhaps the other songs not written around 120 BPM give you even more of a reason to dance when you truly let them affect you and move you emotionally. We wont learn that if the record labels have their way. They discourage originality in their current pop line-ups, so much so in fact that computer algorithms are being used to assess which new songs they encounter from their teams of songwriter’s, will fair most popular among their key demographics (i.e. – McDonalds has a new beefy beef burger, now with extra beef, and they’ll sell it to you like it’s brand new, and you’ll eat it, because its always reliably simple and doesn’t challenge your tongues’ expectations). I, for one, prefer to let my palate be challenged; I appreciate the nuances of flavor even more that way. Same with sweet lady Music.
That’s all for this first installment of Deconstructing the Machine. Stay tuned for more music industry magic tricks and bull-crap. Rock on,….