From today’s NYT:
The subtlest reason that pop music is so flavorful to our brains is that it relies so strongly on timbre. Timbre is a peculiar blend of tones in any sound; it is why a tuba sounds so different from a flute even when they are playing the same melody in the same key. Popular performers or groups, Dr. Levitin argued, are pleasing not because of any particular virtuosity, but because they create an overall timbre that remains consistent from song to song. That quality explains why, for example, I could identify even a single note of Elton John’s “Benny and the Jets.”
“Nobody else’s piano sounds quite like that,” he said, referring to Mr. John. “Pop musicians compose with timbre. Pitch and harmony are becoming less important.”
Dr. Levitin dragged me over to a lab computer to show me what he was talking about. “Listen to this,” he said, and played an MP3. It was pretty awful: a poorly recorded, nasal-sounding British band performing, for some reason, a Spanish-themed ballad.
Dr. Levitin grinned. “That,” he said, “is the original demo tape of the Beatles. It was rejected by every record company. And you can see why. To you and me it sounds terrible. But George Martin heard this and thought, ‘Oh yeah, I can imagine a multibillion-dollar industry built on this.’
“Now that’s musical genius.”
I’m conflicted about this. First of all, a focus on timbre over the traditional pitch/harmony/melody stuff is smart, it avoids a knee-jerk reaction and makes you stop and think about what you’re really listening to. And in a lot of cases yes, I do think it’s more about the tone, the particular combination of sound rather than just what’s on one of the tracks. But this is such a biased opinion, coming from a guy who spent 15 years as a record producer. Of course he believes that it’s all in the mix. But I need to believe that there’s also something very fundamental in the song itself that makes some very deep imprints as well.
And secondly, this business about the Beatles’ demo tape. Again, with the producers taking credit for everything. I like what a lot of the information in the article says, but it just doesn’t make sense to me that the talent of a band is all of a sudden under the jurisdiction of producers who either make or break them. And thirdly that a multibillion dollar industry is the key legacy of the Beatles, the ultimate goal for musical genius. What?