Beatless Music

Beatless Music

Earlier this year while talking with several friends from different countries, I misunderstood one of the responses which led to us having an even more interesting conversation. Our topic was—no surprise here—what the future of music might be, to which at one point one of my friends exclaimed:

“I don’t know about everything that people are going to be listening to or how they’re going to be listening to it, but I’m sure that Beatles music will be popular.”

However, instead of Beatles, I heard “beat-less”, so I chimed in: “Beat-less music? You mean like ’50s-era Darmstadt serialism, John Cage number pieces, Morton Feldman, or drone-based minimalism?” This initially provoked laughter, but then we all talked about whether there could ever be a time when music without a regular beat would be popular with a large percentage of the population. The general consensus was probably never.

Over the weekend, while shopping for groceries, I became acutely aware of the relentless pounding beats of Katy Perry’s ubiquitous song “Firework”—I even heard this several times when I was in France in January. Despite how the pounding beats are what propels it forward and keeps the overall energy going, I imagined that in an earlier era the song would have survived fine without them and would probably have been equally popular. It seems that over the past half century, beats have grown more and more prominent in popular music to the point that it is probably impossible nowadays to have a hit song that doesn’t have an extremely prominent beat behind it. Could the overwhelming preponderance of prominent beats eventually lead to some sort of backlash? And could such a backlash lead to a rise in popularity (temporary or long standing) of some form of beat-less music?

This morning (via ArtsJournal) I read an article about a 23-year-old man who is the first confirmed case of someone who can’t perceive musical beats. The subject, who was identified only as Mathieu, has no problem recognizing familiar melodies and is even able to sing in tune, meaning that the perception of melody and rhythm are not intrinsically related to each other neurologically. Which begs the question: Might it be possible to create music that a majority of people would find memorable which lacks a beat?

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18 thoughts on “Beatless Music

  1. philmusic

    Laura is the only pop singer I know who used a lot of tempo changes in her work. Her album “New York Tenderberry” has some songs with a lot of rubato. At the time she was considered self indulgent for this. Unfortunately perhaps she still is. All the cover recordings of her works leave these tempos changes out.


    Phil Fried

    Phil’s Page

  2. MarkNGrant

    Frank, you probably know this already from John Blacking’s book, but possibly the first composer extensively to use the term “beatless music” was Percy Grainger, who seems first to have used it in a 1902 essay (reprinted in Grainger on Music OUP 1999). Grainger’s earliest experiments in composing beatless music were his works for multiple theremins in the 1930s (which can also be played by string quartet). A recording of Grainger’s 1937 33-second piece “Beatless Music” for six theremins appears on Mode CD 199, with all the theremin parts played (overdubbed) by Lydia Kavina, Lev Termen’s grand-niece. Lydia just performed some of Grainger’s theremin music again a few weeks ago live in London at the Celebrating Grainger 2011 event at Kings Place (she also performed the theremin solo work I wrote for her in 1997, “Bird of Paradise”).

    Late in his life Grainger evolved these ideas into short pieces of what he called “Free Music” for acoustic instruments he invented, though he completed only a few minutes of this music. His “Free Music” and “Beatless Music” sound like continuous polyphonic glissandi of sine tones (in contradistinction to the works of Gloria Coates, who deploys all the instruments and choirs of the orchestra in continuous glissandi in their natural timbres). Having attended the Mode recording session in 2000, I must report that Lydia marked each theremin part in the score with nodes so she could synchronize their performance in the overdub recording– which, I guess, is a way of saying that it was necessary to lay down “beats” or “click tracks” anyway in order to realize the music.

    As far as Mathieu and his beat deafness, that may be an extreme case but I’ve encountered many people who seem to have a lesser degree of “beat deafness”– i.e., they can’t seem to sense when to clap and when not to clap the beat. I think it’s a continuum– at the other end of the spectrum are musicians who have “perfect rhythm,” like Pierre Boulez.

  3. davidwolfson

    I work as a musical theatre music director, and since I often work with actors with little or no musical training, I’ve encountered the entire spectrum of beat awareness. I worked once in a community theatre setting with a gentleman who was simply unable to consistently reproduce either of the two repeated rhythms in a song (it was a song by Craig Carnelia, the Philip Glass of the musical theatre world)—and this despite hours of extra rehearsal. What was supposed to be a song about the monotony of retired life was in performance instead (at least for me!) a hair-raising, white-knuckle adventure in keeping a band with a singer.

    It’s important to remember, when discussing the future of beatless music, that most music has a regular beat because our bodies respond so strongly to it. Regular meter (and deviations from same) are a large part of what’s fun about music for most people. That’s not to say that the current emphasis on prominent beats in pop music will last forever; it’s not monolithic even now. But expecting regular meter to go away is like expecting tonal centers to go away; ‘taint going to happen.

    David Wolfson

  4. holbrooke

    The beat during the chorus of the Katy Perry song (four on the floor with a backbeat) is easily the most prominent rhythm on earth right now. It is our global folk rhythm, our collective minimalist composition that weaves its way through most popular music with endlessly subtle variations of timbre and tempo. It is a celebration of and propaganda for the spectacular achievements of recent history.

    Frank, try for a moment to leave your inner contrarian behind and just enjoy the music of this incredible time.

  5. philmusic

    It is our global folk rhythm, our collective minimalist composition that weaves its way through most popular music with endlessly subtle variations of timbre and tempo.

    Not sure what you mean by subtle.

    Or our for that matter.

    Phil Fried

    Phil’s extremely contrarian page

  6. Frank J. Oteri

    Holbrooke, that was quite an interesting link, though I’m not really sure what it had to do with our global folk rhythm. I clicked through though part of me was initially afraid that it would lead to this;(

    Well, I guess I just outed myself as a contrarian… I enjoy the music of this incredible time, but there’s a lot more music being made now than stuff permeated by a “four on the floor with a backbeat,” even though some of that stuff can be exciting, too. When you state that this is “our global folk rhythm,” however, I get scared. Not because I’m a contrarian, but because it sounds all so terribly regimented and constricting. Nothing should be de rigeur. After World War II, folks like Adorno and even Stockhausen decried music with a strong beat as being too reminiscent of the recently vanquished fascist regimes that attempted and failed to make the whole world conform to their aesthetics. Perhaps ironically that same decrying of strong beats was its own form of aesthetic totalitarianism.

    I don’t want to live in a world where everyone looks the same and, even worse, sounds the same and thinks the same thoughts. Some of our greatest works of art have addressed this very issue, like this.

  7. mclaren

    One obvious way to get ametric music involves disrupting the pulse to the point where the rhythm is ergodic, defined as a sequence in which every subsegment proves equally representative of the whole. This is the condition under which any duration is equally likely at any given time, which defines white noise — or, if you prefer, a normal distribution (the two are equivalent).

    This yields the Darmstadt and aleatoric music of the 50s. One drawback with that kind of ametric music: since statistically any duration is equally likely at any given time, the number of available states is unlimited. This mandates infinite entropy (entropy = log of the number of available states) and thus infinite bandwidth, which is to say that it immediately overruns the limited human sensory channel capacity.

    As Lee Humpries notes:

    “It is possible for input to exceed our channel capacity, crowding data out of short term memory before we have fully dealt with it. This occurs when the rate of input is high, when the input is complex,
    or both.” [Humphries, Lee, “Atonality, Information, and the Politics of Perception.”]

    Iannis Xenakis echoed this criticism more than half a century ago:

    “Linear polyphony destroys itself by its very complexity; what one hears is in reality nothing but a mass of notes in various registers. The enormous complexity prevents the audience from following the intertwining of the lines and has as its macroscopic effect an irrational and fortuitous dispersion of sounds over the whole extent of the sonic spectrum. There is consequently a contradiction between the polyphonic linear system and the heard result, which is the surface or mass.”

    Other more musically fertile approaches to ametric music were explored outside the narrow confines of Darmstadt and coin-flipping, however.

    An alternative path to ametric music involves extending duration to the point where the basic beat disappears.

    “Longuet-Higgins and Lee recognize that the sense of meter does not extend up to indefinitely large time spans, and put what they recognize is an arbitrary stop on this process once the time between events exceeds about 5 sec (cf. the duration of the perceptual present). (..)
    “Estimates of the perceptual present, which forms the boundary between direct perception and the memory-dependent processes of construction and estimation, are variable, but a value somewhere around 3-8 seconds is in agreement with a good deal of the available evidence. Crowder (1993), for example, following research by Cowan (1984, 1987), concurs with the proposal that there may be a very short auditory store of around 250 msec, and a longer store, with a period of about 2-10 sec, with the two stores being the behavioral consequence of a different perceptual/cognitive processes.”
    Clarke, Eric F., “Rhythm and Timing in Music,” in Psychology of Music, 2nd Ed., ed. Diana Deutsch, 1990, pg. 476.

    Morton Feldman and LaMonte Young and Eliane Radigue and Laurie Spiegel have used this method to produce ametric music without overrunning the human channel capacity. The result? Music which sounds beatless yet not incoherent.

    There remains a third option obtaining ametric music: continual regular yet constantly changing blocks of different broken tuplets. Hardly used until now, this option permits highly regular and easily comprehensible rhythmic patterns which nonetheless fail to repeat in any regular way. By eliminating barlines and instead using blocks of different broken tuplets in multiple polyphonic lines, this approach allows highly organized and easily comprehensible rhythmic patterns, but without a regular beat.

    As David Huron pointed out in his first Ernest Bloch lecture:

    …The emphasis on low-level aspects of [musical] sensation and perception has proved, in retrospect, to be justified. Far from being musically irrelevant, the past decade of research has shown that low-level phenomena, such as the mechanics of the basilar membrane, have had far more impact on musical organization than was formerly suspected. […] Regarding the nay-saying character of much psychology of music research, history has largely vindicated the nay-sayers. For example, ongoing research on the perceptibility of serial transformations has been carried out since the 1950s. Careful, sophisticated experimental research has been carried out by scholars such as Bruner, Francès, Gibson, Lannoy, Largent, Millar, Pedersen, Thrall, and others. Yet, to my knowledge, not a single one of these scholars has had his or her work cited by any set theorist. Many music theorists continue to write as though questions of perceptibility remain unaddressed and open. Some theorists wrongly assume that research has only addressed the listening of non-musicians or non-experts. (Gibson, for example, studied members of the Society for Music Theory.) Set theorists have been delinquent in ignoring this research. Music theorists in general have been delinquent when assuming that the human capacity for auditory experience is unbounded. [Huron, David, “Lecture 1. Music and Mind: Foundations of Cognitive Musicology,” Ernest Block Lectures, 1999.]

    The first approach to ametric music finds itself doomed by the hard-wiring of the human nervous system, as Huron notes. The ergodic distribution of unpredictable durations mirrors the ergodic distribution of unpredictable pitches, rendering the music perceptually patternless and devoid of audible organization. Under these circumstances training or stylistic familiarity proves futile in teasing patterns out of the perceptual chaos, since, as Philip Ball has noted:

    “Atonal compositions based on the twelve tone method devised by [the Viennese Kook] remain, in some cases a century after they were written, largely unpopular with musical audiences. Research in music cognition may now offer some clues as to why this is. [The Viennese Kook’s] method of atonal composition actively undermines some of the basic cognitive principles that allow our brains to turn to turn notes into music.” [Ball, Philip, “[The Viennese Kook], Serialism and Cognition: Whose Faulty if No One Listens?” Interdisciplinary Science Reviews, 2011]

    By making use of the accumulated knowledge acquired in the last 100 years of psychoacoustics and research into cognitive science — as opposed to churning out meaningless numerology like the denizens of Darmstadt and Princeton — composers in the 21st century can generate ametric music without destroying perceptual patterns or eliminating audible organization from the music.

    As 21st century composers emerge from the shadows of numerological superstition into the light of cognitive research, new frontiers of musical organization await us.

    Preliminary approaches to this new kind of ametric yet non-chaotic music of the 21st century include Kyle Gann’s Dance For Henry Cowell, Michael Gordon’s Four Kings Fight Five, and Mikel Rouse’s Failing Kansas. Further extensions of these techniques remove the need for each set of tuplets to line up at the barline, as Henry Cowell’s New Musical Resources presumes.

    The recent research of Bruno Repp proves particularly crucial to the perceptual limits and consequent structuring of such patterns — in particular, Repp, B. H., “Perceiving the numerosity of rapidly occurring auditory events in metrical and non-metrical contexts,” Perception & Psychophysics, 69, 529-543; Repp, B. H., “Rate limits of on-beat and off-beat tapping with simple auditory rhythms: 1. Qualitative observations,” Music Perception, 22, 479–496, 2005; Repp, B. H., “Rate limits of on-beat and off-beat tapping with simple auditory rhythms: 2. The role of different kinds of accent,” Music Perception, 23, 167–189, 2005; Patel, A. D., Iversen, J. R., Chen, Y., & Repp, B. H., “The influence of metricality and modality on synchronization with a beat,” Experimental Brain Research, 163, 226–238, 2005; and Repp, B. H., “Rate limits in sensorimotor synchronization with auditory and visual sequences: The synchronization threshold and the benefits and costs of interval subdivision,” Journal of Motor Behavior, 35, 355-370, 2003, and Repp, B. H., “Processes underlying adaptation to tempo changes in sensorimotor synchronization,” Human Movement Science, 20, 277-312, 2001.

  8. eaj

    One obvious way to get ametric music involves disrupting the pulse to the point where the rhythm is ergodic, defined as a sequence in which every subsegment proves equally representative of the whole. This is the condition under which any duration is equally likely at any given time, which defines white noise — or, if you prefer, a normal distribution (the two are equivalent).

    This yields the Darmstadt and aleatoric music of the 50s.

    Cite all the perceptual studies you want, but you don’t do them any favors when you begin your encyclopedic post with such a whopper of a misstatement.

    Information theory might have something to tell some of us about musical pattern formation and recognition — though the actual musical applicability of these ideas is to me far from self-evident — but the casual misapplication of (simplifications of) its concepts to musical repertoire to which it does not even begin to apply, to which it is in fact contradictory on its face, makes it hard to take you seriously. And that’s before the silly “[Viennese Kook]” stuff.

  9. eaj

    Schoenberg’s, and for that matter Stockhausen’s, music may not be popular — and I myself, for what it’s worth, don’t have much interest in a good deal of it — but it is a good deal more “popular” than Gann’s, Rouse’s, or Gordon’s. Why do you think that is? What does that say for your thesis?

    (Hint: it says that “popularity” is not a useful metric.)

  10. mclaren

    …Without evidence to back it up. The commenter can’t cite even a single peer-reviewed article to provide evidence for his claim that any reference I cited or any statement I made is “a whopper of a misstatement.”

    It’s fascinatingly evident that the sole response on this forum to citations of peer-reviewed journal articles in the psychoacoustic and cognitive psychology literature about music results in baseless assertions from music theorists which prove, upon examination, wholly contrary to the documented facts about the human ear/brain system.

    The only other realm of knowledge in which this sort of behavior seems to occur nowadays is global warming denial.

  11. mclaren

    eaj asserts: Schoenberg’s, and for that matter Stockhausen’s, music may not be popular — and I myself, for what it’s worth, don’t have much interest in a good deal of it — but it is a good deal more “popular” than Gann’s, Rouse’s, or Gordon’s.

    Do you have any hard evidence to back that statement up?

  12. eaj

    peer-reviewed studies to know that the statement that “all durations are equally likely at any given time” — structurally or perceptually — applies to maybe a few experimental pieces in the history of 20th-century music, but not even close to a representative portion of “Darmstadt and aleatoric music of the 50s.”

    It would be hard to survive the peer-review process, I would think, with an article whose conclusion–i.e. that rhythmic patterning exists and is perceptible (attenuatedly, of course, like all musical patterning) in this repertoire–is obvious from opening a pile of scores and looking at a single page of each. I wouldn’t accept it for publication, anyway; to seriously propose the opposite is to misunderstand music, information theory, or both.

    But it plays into a useful stereotype, I suppose, of which I do not intend to spend any more energy disabusing you.

    As for the proposition that more people know, love, play, listen to, and study the music of Schoenberg and Stockhausen than Kyle Gann and Mikel Rouse–I simply can’t comprehend that that is a controversial statement. It doesn’t have anything to do, as should hardly need stating, with the quality of the music of any of these four composers or its importance or worthiness of public attention, performance, and so forth, let alone their relationship to the “ear-brain system” and its perceptual biases–which is precisely my point.

    I’m not going to get into an argument with you about the relevance of the “ear-brain system” to musical structure and perception, let alone the usefulness of prescriptive universals about that relationship. I am profoundly skeptical, of course; but if you want to make a case, it behooves you to neither make baldly false claims about the way musical repertoires work nor to deny statements of fact about the cultural spread of these repertoires that are patently self-evident.

    That’s all. I’m not a theorist, by the way, not that it matters one whit.

  13. philmusic

    If you need to question what works or does not in art the scientific approach of true or false is irrelevant.

    Art makes its own rules.

    No sonic prejudice.

    Phil Fried Phil’s Page

  14. MarkNGrant

    Frank’s original tree is getting lost in the forest here– i.e. his point that the “beat imperative” has become so mindlessly ubiquitous in pop (and other) music that it’s become a not-so-subtle form of artistic totalitarianism. Music simply cannot be marketed commercially today without a concussive groove. Is this a form of policed thought control or a byproduct of debased taste? Or both?

    Frank raises the notion of beat deafness. I think that beat saturation is also causing epidemic “tune deafness.” A year ago I was recruited to be the anti-rock “bad guy” in an NPR radio interview, but surprised the host when I said I very much had liked the music to Next to Normal, a rock musical. Listeners called in to protest– naah, that show wasn’t any good, because its music, though groove-based, wasn’t cutting edge. Indeed, it wasn’t. It was too melodic for them and not beat-smacked-to-death enough to be worth listening to.

    Children born in the late 90s all love Beatles songs (I speak from firsthand teaching experience). Why? The Beatles’ songs are just damn good tunes.

    Don’t get me wrong, beat has never not been an important part of American popular music. In the 19th century through the ragtime and early jazz era, the song beat was the march. For the Tin Pan Alley/American Songbook/Broadway era, the song beat was the foxtrot. But in the march and foxtrot song, the melody always was an equal partner with the beat. Since circa 1954 the fundamental beat of song has been the rock groove, which has slowly over a period of decades taken over melody. The so-called classic rock of the mid-60s to early 70s, which was loud but quite melodic, now sounds almost like classical music compared with the pop of today, which is almost bereft of discernible melody.

    Melody has seemingly been disinherited as a meaningful component of music. Wave-based music (sometimes called minimalism) seems to entrance a vast audience even though it eschews melody (endlessly repeated melodicles, however appealing, are not melodies).

  15. colin holter

    Frank raises the notion of beat deafness. I think that beat saturation is also causing epidemic “tune deafness.”

    There’s a significant difference, though, between the cognitive disorder of beat deafness and the culturally conditioned insensitivity to “good tunes.” My rock history students, most of whom date from the early 1990s, are very receptive to the tunes in the Beatles and the more recent band Muse; on the other hand, there are a lot of strata of aesthetic information besides melody in hip-hop, which is also quite popular with my students. To ask where the melody is in a Lil Wayne track is only marginally more productive than asking where the melody is in batucada, I guess: It’s just not a relevant criterion. For my part, I seize every opportunity to blast the very tuneful tartan pop of Aztec Camera and Orange Juice alongside the less melodic Toots and the Maytals before class.

  16. pgblu

    forest, meet trees
    To say that the beat and the tune work hand in hand is like saying the red and the round work together when we look at an apple.

  17. holbrooke

    Music simply cannot be marketed commercially today without a concussive groove. Is this a form of policed thought control or a byproduct of debased taste? Or both?

    Let me try again to make the point I was trying to make with Frank: We live in a time of unprecedented human development. Recent history and currents trends show incredible achievements in human rights, democracy, life expectancy, child mortality, gender equity, reproductive rights, economic opportunity, mobility, all kinds of violence, and the list goes on.

    Do you really think that in a world where the dominant mainstream trends are moving in such an overwhelmingly positive direction there could be a dominant mainstream music that is somehow sinister or totalitarian?

    I think not. I think our popular music unites young people across borders, economic classes, and other prominent barriers and helps them learn and share the most basic values of our emerging global culture (check out the themes all over the Billboard Hot 100): be proud to be yourself, be free, enjoy your life, contribute to the economy, dance vigorously (exercise), love involves risk and sacrifice, etc. this is a good thing. These are the values that will mature and positively shape our world.

    One more point, this is really important and many of you are guilty of this logical misstep: The fact that there is a dominant or popular ideology (or music) is not evidence that that ideology is in any way opposed to a diversity of ideas ( or music).

  18. MarkNGrant

    To say that the beat and the tune work hand in hand is like saying the red and the round work together when we look at an apple.

    Indeed. Yes, you would think, but not invariably. The details of the argument are too lengthy to summarize in a post here but my analysis of this subject appears in my book The Rise and Fall of the Broadway Musical in the chapter on rhythm, particularly the subchapter entitled “The Rock Cataclysm.”


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