For several years now, baroque composer J.S. Bach (1685-1750) and beat guru J Dilla (1974-2006) have resided comfortably as neighbors on my iPod. It may seem strange that musicians of such drastically different aesthetic share such close quarters, but I am constantly tickled by their proximity.
Though separated by hemisphere, language, and the advent of electricity, Bach & Dilla are historic neighbors as well. J.S. Bach codified a musical system which has been the backbone of all popular music since. J Dilla participated in that system’s deconstruction. For the first time in 300 years, popular western music is not reliant upon the tonal music system.
“All music is the blues. All of it.” — George Carlin
The tonal (also known as functional or dominant) system is so engrained in our western ear, it is almost impossible to picture a song without it. Bach, Beatles, Beethoven, Metallica, Amy Winehouse, Bob Dylan, Louis Armstrong, Mozart, Toby Keith, Kirk Franklin, Beck, BB King, Pink Floyd, The Eagles, Jimmy Buffet, Diana Krall, Duke Ellington, AC/DC, Scott Joplin, Kings of Leon, Willie Nelson, Lady Gaga and the Beach Boys. They are (or were in their day) all popular musicians, and they share the same basic language of I, IV, and V chords (the three basic chord types in tonal music). Please forgive the music-speak, but for those who walk the walk, here’s the short and skinny of it:
There are 12 keys, each key is a collection of notes formed by a series of steps. Each key contains two half-steps, these two half-steps create tension within the key. This tension is contained by the V7chord and is released as the V7chord resolves to the Imajor chord (my students will remember this conversation from chapter II of my piano theory book, Piano, Yeah! volume 1). It is this relationship between V7 and Imajor that gives western music its sense of forward motion and context, and almost every song we know adheres to its dominance.
I do not mean to imply that all music is trapped by tonality,
- Indian folk music is built around a microtonal concept
- German 20th-century serial music rejects the notion of tonality and actively obliterates it
- free-jazz pioneers Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane seem to transcend tonality rather than reject it
but these are not examples of “western popular music.” To find a truly popular music that is not bound by tonality, we need look no further than hip hop.
“Most of my heroes don’t appear on no stamps” — Chuck D
Despite being one of the most influential art forms in recent global history, hip hop music is underrated by large portions of the general populous. Even well-versed, hip-hop-loving musicians are guilty of neglecting its sheer depth of character. I would like to focus here on the harmony of the music. To make my point, I will draw from one of the musical forms listed above.
Here is a recording of German serialist Arnold Schoenberg’s.
Schoenberg found and developed methods for getting outside of tonality and the circle of fifths. It was a deliberate attempt, and in many ways it was reactionary to the status quo. Notice how strange it sounds, because there is no tritone, hence no V7 chord and therefore no Imajor chord. There is no grounding, no tonality, hence the term “atonal music.” To Schoenberg’s dismay and surprise, his music was not sang joyously in the local tavern.
Now, I have taken a two-bar section of this piece, looped it, and added a simple drumbeat.
It is a composition cobbled together from elements of previous compositions, keeping in line with hip hop tradition. If I were a rapper, I could rap over this beat; however, I will spare you the embarrassment. Regardless, there is nothing tonal about this music. Such is the depth of hip hop: for the first time in recent history, a western form of popular music is not reliant upon tonality nor does it reject the tonal system. Unlike German serialist music of the mid 20th-century, hip hop is not rebelling against a tonal system; in fact, it seems at times to be blissfully unaware.
Such is the greatness and flexibility of hip hop, and it is for this reason that I am such a fan of the music: as an artist, I am free to create new music using whatever musical elements I feel to be relevant. In the hands of a capable producer, all sound is equally malleable as raw material.