The humanity of irregularities

Music, especially from a theoretical point of view, looks strict and ordered, in all its perfect and mathematical beauty. But the music that strikes you deep inside, moves you, grabs your soul and makes you thrill, is the one that feels human in all its irregularities.

One of the main reason a piece of music will speak to someone is because it resonates with their memories, their own way of feeling and experiencing the world. This is very culture-dependent and musicians cannot do much about it, but to compose according their own experiences.

However, there is something that all humans have in common: strong emotions trigger uncontrolled physiological responses. What happens when you are about to cry, when anger rises, or when you are excited ? Your body starts shaking, your voice trembles, or becomes weak. That slight lost of control also happens when you play music. Your playing becomes irregular too, and people can sense the emotion. This irregularity, skilled musicians will regulate it. Enough irregularity to suggests strong feelings, but not too much to keep it pleasing and decent.

So let’s have a look at different ways to bring irregularities and humanity into music.

Surprising the audience

Robert Glasper - So Beautiful

In this jazz live recording, Robert Glasper plays a melody on the piano that is most of the time off-beat. That’s simple syncopation, but is effective at surprising the audience. The main beat, called downbeat, is marked by the kick drum and low notes on the piano and bass. It sounds quiet, as if the instruments all sounded stuffed during the downbeat. Meanwhile, the higher melody on the piano never settles on the downbeat. Every note seems to spring out. This gives a motion to the song, a groove. Silencing the main beat, and stressing the secondary beats, is a simple way to make a song groove. And what is groovy, moves people.

Rival Consoles - Recovery

If we omit the drums, the previous piece was gentle on the off-beat. Nothing keeps you from emphasizing very odd and surprising beats though. You can even play slightly off tempo. In the song Recovery by Rival Consoles, you can hear a phrase with irregular accents and rhythms. Above one melody line, composed of regularly repeated notes, are added some off-beat and stronger notes. Some notes double the main line, in a way that seems to accelerate or slow down the tempo. While other notes just pop out in-between the repeated notes, creating surprising rhythms in the process. The result is a phrase with a lively swing, that seems to stretch the tempo. It has got a lot of character, and seems as excited as ourselves about the rest of the song.

Letting it go

Louise Attaque - J’t’emmène au vent

Louise Attaque is a french band famous in France for their song J’t’emmène au vent. Play it during parties, and you can be sure that people will sing along this thrilling and sentimental song. Dirty playings from the violinist, the guitarist, and the singer all contribute to intensify the ecstasy of the song. The rough and gipsy-like violin threatens to break as the violonist plays frantically. The strumming on the guitar is wild. And the singer’s voice is shaky, probably because of the adrenaline of the song. Everything in the song reminds of humans’ physiological responses to emotion. That’s what make this song so catchy.

Keeping it subtle

Nils Frahm - Snippet

This song, by Nils Frahm, is all about subtle. As you know, suggestion is often more powerful than gross exhibition. There’s no need to exaggerate emotions. The irregular playing can be subtle. Shout and people will notice. Whisper and people will listen.

Now can you picture Nils Frahm playing this song on his piano ? Bent over his keyboard, the eyes closed, his body oscillating slowly, his fingers barely jumping on the keys. He is holding his feelings back. You could as well be sitting together on a couch, him telling you his story, with some nostalgia. You can’t tell if he is sad, or happy, really. Maybe he cried earlier, maybe he will laugh later, you don’t know. What’s for sure is that, right now, you can hear something is off. He is keeping his things together so he can tell you a story.

We saw that irregularities are key to make music speak to us, humans. That explains why computers are still quite bad as musicians. Let’s just not forget that irregularity exists thanks to its contrary. In our case, regularity and perfection. Because cleverly organized sounds make for the most satisfying musical experiences, music theory will stay as relevant as ever as a tool to sublimate our emotions.