complex simplicity
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periurban

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I don't quite know how it arose on this forum, but there is a huge discussion going on in various threads relating to musical complexity.

Various genres of music are being assessed or argued over on the basis of "complexity" or "simplicity" as if it is somehow possible to define the worth of music by such an assessment.

The premise upon which such arguments are based is entirely fallacious on several counts.

1) Genres are a crock. If a classical piece is played on electric guitars by leather clad bikers in front of an audience of 10,000 pogoing nutters, is it still classical music? If a rock piece is played by four tuxedo clad university graduates to an audience of grey haired conservatives who applaud politely, is it still rock?

2) Complexity has nothing to do with the value of a piece of music. The simplest piece of music that could ever be written (aside from silence, which has been done) would be a single note played using an unmodulated sine wave. If I composed such a piece, no-one would pay any attention (quite rightly), but if it was to be discovered that Beethoven had written it, suddenly the "piece" gathers an infinite amount of complexity it never had before.

3) Context is everything. It's incredibly easy to write an immensely "complicated" piece of music that is utterly meaningless. With modern technology I could create a dense soundscape consisting of harmonies, progressions and structures that Beethoven could only dream of. The total polyphony available to him was, maybe, a couple of hundred notes. For me, there is no limit. But who'd care if I wrote such a piece?

4) Music exists entirely in the mind of the listener. Some have said that complex music appeals to people of a higher intelligence. But no music or sound has "complexity". That only arrives (as if by magic) when our brains interpret the data. There is no complexity in the data itself. In effect, the entire "complexity" of any sound can be represented by a single wiggly line on a piece of paper (or in a spiral groove on a plastic disc). A wiggly line that moves around a lot may indicate musical activity, or it may indicate chaotic noise, but only the brain can interpret which is which.

If it was possible to mathematically quantify taste and preference it would have been done by now. It isn't, and elevating a particular piece of music, or an entire "genre" (whatever that means), on the basis of an arbitrary and subjective assessment of the nature of vibrating air molecules isn't going to help.

Let's proceed from here on the basis that everyone is entitled to hold their music dear to themselves, and that whatever they get out of it shouldn't have to be justified or argued about.
 
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drarthurwells

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A simple steady beat of a simple drum is music. It communicates and has an emotional effect, such as relaxation. Continuous white noise also - can help induce sleep.

This is music in its most simple form.

A step up in complexity is punk rock (the original "rap" music) and modern rap. This is still primitive or simple music, and not as complex as a Mahler symphony.

Simple music is characterized by repetition of a theme, and limited interaction among simultaneous themes (either in their number or their interplay).

A simple melody, such as Satie's Gymnopedia, played on a piano, can communicate deep emotion (other than relaxation), Your point about the potential value of simple music is well taken.

Complex music is more cognitively stimulating - requires more peceptual integration to model in the brain and assimulate, but this does not mean it is better in emotional communication - city traffic noise can be very complex but is not good music. However, the more complex the music, the more potential it has for communicating complex shades of emotion, but the more potential it also has for being like traffic noise.
 
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Glod

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Everything is IMHO.

1. The score (if reasonably followed) decides whether the piece can be called rock or classical music. That means, however, if it is differently arranged, i.e. that the "classical" score stipulates a philharmonic orchestra, but it is played on electric guitars, bass, percussion and keyboard; it is not.

2. Correct. Complexity is not a necessity for beauty or for a "catching tune".


3. "But who'd care if I wrote such a piece?" Somebody who would like it.

4. This is a relativistic stand point: there are no objective truths; everything which is real to us, is a product of the intellectual processing of our minds. According to this point, you´re right.

P.S. You seem still, if I may say, caught in the axiom of complexity is good and/or beautiful . AFAIC, that is a subjective statement and far from shared by everyone. I think earlier threads in this matter have shown that time after time.
 
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VicAjax

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Quote:

Originally Posted by periurban
1) Genres are a crock. If a classical piece is played on electric guitars by leather clad bikers in front of an audience of 10,000 pogoing nutters, is it still classical music? If a rock piece is played by four tuxedo clad university graduates to an audience of grey haired conservatives who applaud politely, is it still rock?


just because music from one genre is interpreted and performed under the rubric of another genre doesn't mean genres are a crock. genre is no less legitimate than nationality, race or religion. they can be -- and are -- mixed, corrupted and transformed to create new ones. it's merely a mode of categorization, no more no less. still legitimate.

Quote:

2) Complexity has nothing to do with the value of a piece of music. The simplest piece of music that could ever be written (aside from silence, which has been done) would be a single note played using an unmodulated sine wave. If I composed such a piece, no-one would pay any attention (quite rightly), but if it was to be discovered that Beethoven had written it, suddenly the "piece" gathers an infinite amount of complexity it never had before.


complexity is objective. value is subjective. i value simplicity in music. i also value complexity in music. you apparently seem to value one more than the other. i find the intellectuality of music equally as important, sometimes moreso, than the emotionality of it. i also experience an emotional response when i hear talented musicians play a difficult piece, independent of whatever emotional subtext is supposed to be inherent in the composition itself.

Quote:

3) Context is everything. It's incredibly easy to write an immensely "complicated" piece of music that is utterly meaningless. With modern technology I could create a dense soundscape consisting of harmonies, progressions and structures that Beethoven could only dream of. The total polyphony available to him was, maybe, a couple of hundred notes. For me, there is no limit. But who'd care if I wrote such a piece?


first of all: no, it's not incredibly easy to write an immensely complicated piece of music that is utterly meaningless. the simple act of composing music, complicated or not, has meaning. so in actuality, it's impossible to do so. also, complexity doesn't lie in the "number of notes" available to a given composer. it's in the rhythmic constructs, the mathematical formulae that underlie all music. and if you wrote something that was a dense soundscape using thousands of notes, i'd care. unless, of course, it sucked.


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4) Music exists entirely in the mind of the listener. Some have said that complex music appeals to people of a higher intelligence. But no music or sound has "complexity". That only arrives (as if by magic) when our brains interpret the data. There is no complexity in the data itself. In effect, the entire "complexity" of any sound can be represented by a single wiggly line on a piece of paper (or in a spiral groove on a plastic disc). A wiggly line that moves around a lot may indicate musical activity, or it may indicate chaotic noise, but only the brain can interpret which is which.


if music only exists in the mind, then so do all other aspects of life. this is sort of specious logic... dime store philosophy, even. saying music itself has no "complexity" is like saying a bullet wound itself has no pain.

Quote:

If it was possible to mathematically quantify taste and preference it would have been done by now. It isn't, and elevating a particular piece of music, or an entire "genre" (whatever that means), on the basis of an arbitrary and subjective assessment of the nature of vibrating air molecules isn't going to help.


the same, then, could be said for political ideology, religion... indeed life itself.

Quote:

Let's proceed from here on the basis that everyone is entitled to hold their music dear to themselves, and that whatever they get out of it shouldn't have to be justified or argued about.


what fun is it if we can't argue about which music is good? actually, if your logic is followed, we're not actually arguing. we're simply assembling letters in a particular order that only has meaning or complexity or argument in the mind of the reader. we're just typists.

 
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drarthurwells

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Good posts.
 
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Glod

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Quote:

Originally Posted by VicAjax
..."what fun is it if we can't argue about which music is good? actually, if your logic is followed, we're not actually arguing. we're simply assembling letters in a particular order that only has meaning or complexity or argument in the mind of the reader. we're just typists.

"



Did I hear somebody exclaim touché...?
 
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Hell_Gopher

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Nice discussion


I completely agree that complexity doesn't equal superiority in music. Especially if complexity is taken to mean simple eclecticism. By this definition, Bach's Violin Concerto in A Minor is more straightfoward than, say, Yes's "Close to the Edge". But, (in my *humble* opinion, of course) the former is a much better piece of music. In the way that it sustains and develops a theme (to the baroque extent, anyway), you might say it was more complex, meaning deeper, piece.
 
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wakeride74

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I think the value of the music rests with the listener.

I studied music in college and it unfortunately made my very analytical when listening (from a music theory stand point). I still enjoy the simplest of music but when I listen to stuff, especially a movie score or classical piece I tend to separate every part and listen to how they all fit, where they move (up or down, closer or further away), how the "chords" are stacked, key and tempo changes, strings and wind intervals, etc. This does not make the music "superior" but it can create a value in the mind of the listener depending on how it is heard.

For example Sublime is one of my all time favorites, and the music is as simple as can be. I listen to it differently than I do things that have more going on with them, that's all. It does not mean I think one is better than the other... apples and oranges.

As far as genre's are concerned I don't think they are a "crock" I think they are just too general. NIN, Maroon 5, and Michelle Branch should not all be "rock".
 
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periurban

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Thanks for your interesting and well thought out replies. I'm glad to see we haven't yet descended to bashing one another over the head with weighty abuse.

Genres obviously serve a useful purpose. I would guess that my exploration of krautrock led me to disciover bands I'd otherwise have missed. My point regarding genres was that as far as trying to establish the worth or musical value of a piece (however you calculate it) genres tell you nothing.

When I talk about simplicity I'm talking about sonic as well as musical simplicity, and a sine wave is as simple a sound as you can get. A drum beat is a fairly complex thing by comparison, but I take the point regarding rhythmical complexity also being just as important.

I do take issue with the idea that there is a level of intellectual capability that is required to process and appreciate particular pieces of music. By implication, that argument leads to the conclusion that those who like "simple" music are somehow less intellectually capable. I find that argument less than convincing.

Yes, nothing exists outside the mind, since that's all we really are. But there are many aspects of experience that can be quantified using objective techniques such as mathematics. Colours and sounds can be measured scientifically, and with regard to many aspects of experience consensus is easy to achieve (even if it's never universal).

Music is different because it only ever exists as an entirely subjective experience in the same way as most other art forms. I'm talking about that process whereby the external stimulus of the moving air is magically converted into an experience that is either pleasurable or not.

Other art forms follow the same process of internalisation, but I'd argue that none rely so heavily on that process for their effect. This is to do with the different ways in which the brain processes visual and auditory information.

The imaginary landscape that is created by music arises out of our total life experience in a much more powerful way than other art forms. Instrumental music is an almost entirely subjective experience, akin to abstract painting or dance, the difference being that whereas the other forms stimulate the visual pathways, music stimulates the auditory pathways, and the brain treats each of these very differently.

I was recently asked to give a youngster some guitar lessons and the first thing I asked him was why he wanted to play guitar. He told me that it was because he'd seen Axl Rose playing a solo whilst standing on a white piano.

The process of internalisation that young man employed means that not only does that image of his favourite guitarist come to mind every time he hears that song, it informs his whole attitude to guitar based rock music. Did he like Guns'n'Roses before seeing that iconic image? I'm not sure, but the act of listening now triggers it, and no doubt many more.

My general point about musical complexity is that (even if it does objectively exist) it doesn't determine or limit what a person can enjoy, because we all enjoy music for hugely different reasons.
 
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Hell_Gopher

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Quote:

Originally Posted by periurban
If it was possible to mathematically quantify taste and preference it would have been done by now. It isn't, and elevating a particular piece of music, or an entire "genre" (whatever that means), on the basis of an arbitrary and subjective assessment of the nature of vibrating air molecules isn't going to help.


It would be fascinating if someone or some group were to work out a way to do this. It would be pretty mindblowing if there was some nontrivial similarity between, say, Pet Sounds and Beethoven's Symphony No. 9.

I for one hope someone, somewhere is looking into this.
 
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CSMR

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Complexity is either meaningless or misunderstood simplicity.
 
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drarthurwells

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Quote:

Originally Posted by CSMR
Complexity is either meaningless or misunderstood simplicity.


Love that.

Neat thought.

So valid.

just want to point out that misunderstood simplicity appears meaningless as long as it is misunderstood, e,g., Einstein's theory of relativity. But much that is complex remains meaningless even after it is properly understood, e.g., traffic noise.
 
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K271 Guy

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Very professionally done with some nice flying. It was a pleasure to view.
 
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drarthurwells

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duplicate post entered - deleting this one
 
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drarthurwells

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Quote:

Originally Posted by Orubasarot
Aesthetics, nothing but subjectivity. People seem to understand that on this forum, though I originally jumped into the flamewar thread and assumed this place was a complete circus.

I think Passenger of Sh!t's 250+ BPM gabber kicks layered with screaming are just as tasteful as Philip Glass' Mishima String Quartet (my favorite use of strings). I don't care which composition is more difficult to construct, I only care about what appeals to my ears, which is both.

I don't care if I'm listening to "Vomit Up Your Ass", "One A Da Las Sicc Niggaz", or "Fratres For Violin, Strings And Percussion". None of those make me feel cooler or smarter or more refined than anyone else. Music is entertainment, and some people can be entertained by things that to other people are the audio equivalents of gutting a horse.



Is "Vomit Up Your A**" as creatively refined as Beethoven's ninth? Is the same degree of musical taste discrimination, on the part of the listener, required to enjoy either? Are all moral evaluations equally valid (and any evaluation of the worth or goodness is a type of moral evaluation in terms of evaluative brain processing)?
 
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