A couple of recent conversations on Facebook have me rather puzzled. In each case, by making straightforward statements about what I think, I seem to have offended friends, or hurt their feelings.

John Lehmkuhl posted a link to a Soundcloud track that he likes. I listened, and didn’t care for it. More to the point, I wasn’t sure why anyone would care for it, as it lacked melody and phrase structure. I found it boring and pointless. I didn’t use those terms in my initial comment on the link, but I did ask why some composers find melody and phrase structure anathema. In a later comment, I tried to articulate what I was thinking in a more complete way.

In the end, John responded, “Fine, Jim. You don’t like it. I get it. Thanks for taking my sharing of music I love in the totally wrong direction….”

Here’s what I don’t get about that. What is “the totally wrong direction”? Is it his idea that the only comments one is allowed to make about shared music links are of the “ooh, wow, I loved it too, thanks for sharing” variety? I mean, aren’t we allowed to discuss the pros and cons of music in a posted link to a piece of music? (See below for a provisional answer to this question.)

In a more general sense, am I supposed to not think about things? Am I allowed to think about things, as long as I keep my thoughts secret? Or am I supposed to Read more

The Gravity of the Tonic

Here’s a fairly deep psychological puzzle for musicians to chew on. Why is it that most pieces of tonal music start and end in the same key?

This has been true, by and large, since at least the time of Bach, and probably for a long time before that. (I’m not an expert on Medieval or Renaissance music.) The norm in Bach’s day, and for more than a hundred years afterward, was for a piece to start in some arbitrary key, modulate up a fifth to the dominant at some point near the middle of the piece, perhaps with a side trip along the way to the relative minor or relative major, and then modulate back to the tonic. The possibility of ending the piece in an entirely unrelated key seems to have been systematically shunned by everybody. Composers just didn’t do it.

They still don’t.

We can point to isolated exceptions in recent times. Barry Manilow made something of a fetish of modulating up by a half-step (and then, perhaps, doing it again), so that a piece that began in C would end in D-flat or D. Other pop songwriters do this too, but not often, perhaps because it feels like a cheap trick. Published ragtime Read more

What’s Naughty & Nice

Oddly enough, religion can provide no reliable guidance that will help anyone figure out what behavior is moral or immoral.

Most religionists believe just the opposite. Many of them, or so I’ve read, are convinced that religion is the only reliable source of moral guidance. They’re convinced that atheists, who lack the guidance provided by religion, must be amoral monsters.

To understand why they have it backwards, we need only cast our eyes back through history at the Inquisition. During the Inquisition, which went on for hundreds of years, the clergy of the Catholic Church tortured and murdered untold thousands of innocent people.

Today, we have no trouble seeing that their actions were profoundly immoral. But that was not how it appeared at the time. At the time, the torture and killing were Read more