How to Mesh Traditional Music Theory with Modern Pop Music?

Mike Lawson • News • February 26, 2014

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How can conventional theory mesh with modern pop music styles like hip-hop?

How can conventional theory mesh with modern pop music styles like hip-hop? (Pictured: Jay-Z, credit: Aniroudh Koul)

An unexpectedly forward-thinking answer recently appeared on the online forum Quora when posed with the simple question, “What are some new topics in the field of music theory?”  Ethan Hein, master’s candidate in music technology at NYU, took time to eloquently explore a number of ways in which conventional means of teaching music has become irrelevant to modern day musicians. Excerpts follow:

“Rather than trying to identify a canonical body of works and a bounded set of rules defined by that canon, we should take an ethnomusicological approach,” he writes. “We should be asking: What is it that musicians are doing that sounds good? What patterns can we detect in the broad mass of music being made and enjoyed out there in the world?

Hein points to a duo of researches named Trevor de Clercq and David Temperley who have attempted to analyze common traits of Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 500 greatest songs of all time.

“A few results jump out from the study,” he writes. “As you’d expect, the tonic I is the most commonly used chord in the Rolling Stone corpus. However, the next most common chord is IV, and it most frequently precedes I. Right away, we have a conflict with traditional classical theory, where the most basic tonal building block is the V-I cadence. Rock uses plenty of V-I, but it uses even more IV-I. And the third most common pretonic chord in rock is not ii, like you’d expect if you went to music school; it’s bVII, reflecting rock musicians’ love of mixolydian mode.”

He continues: “The harmonic situation gets more complicated still if you include hip-hop in the data set. The Rolling Stone list includes ‘Bring the Noise‘ by Public Enemy, which doesn’t have any triadic harmony at all. De Clercq and Temperley dealt with that by just not including the track in their analysis, which is unfortunate. A real theory of contemporary music would have to deal with hip-hop, which may not have triads but does have strongly melodic unpitched vocal lines, modal harmonies, and sometimes very crunchy dissonances and microtones.”

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