Payola Theory: The “Gimmick” in Minimalist Music

Friday, January 21st, 2011

The minimalist music of such composers as Steve Reich, Philip Glass, John Adams, and others, as commonly understood, is formed by the repetition of certain simple phrases, harmonic progressions, or patterns over and over with small variations to maintain interest. The manner in which the repetitive element is processed is understood as the key stylistic element, and the nature of the subject material doesn’t seem to much matter. For example, it does not seem to make a difference whether the subject is an early 19th century harmonic progression, a Debussyian or Stravinskyian melodic motif, or a Haydnesque scale pattern, the important element is the repetitive process to which it is subjected.

Also, this repetitive process in minimalist music is often associated, or possibly even “glamorized” with the mystique of an Eastern philosophy or musical aesthetic. While I would not reject this association, I would maintain that the repetitive process also serves a more mundane purpose: It persuades the mind that it is “enjoying” the music it is hearing. Remembering that the listener during the performance is a “captive” audience member, the constant repetition seems to make an hypnotic mental imprint and induces the listener to accept the subject musical material as being pleasing without much regard to its intrinsic quality.

This musical practice is not without precedent. In the American popular music industry there was an illegal practice known as “payola,” in which recording companies, popular singers, and songwriters, would bribe radio disc jockeys to have their recorded songs played on air as frequently as possible. While obviously there were social implications in Payola and the songs, themselves, tended to be simple and repetitive, I will restrict my comments to the purely musical effects. In this case the main idea is that the listener, having heard the song enough times, would be persuaded to like the song and would then go out to purchase the recording. Payola reached a high water mark in the 1950’s and 60’s and sharply declined after public scandals involving music producers, artists, and DJs revealed the scam.

The suggestion here being made is that cleverly, whether consciously or not, minimalist music composers somehow hit upon the idea that the constant repetition of phrases, patterns, etc. would make said imprint on the listener, and in effect, achieve the same desired result that the purveyors of payola had hoped for: have their music accepted by the listening public resulting in increased sales and profit. And it was all done legally by simply writing in the number of repeats necessary to input the music into the listeners’ mind. You might say that minimalism is the “Rock’n Roll” of the classical world, in which the constant repetition of simple melodic and harmonic patterns makes an appeal to the lowest common denominator in our music listening abilities.

Historically, on a more positive note, the advent of minimalism along with the “Sound Theater” of composers like George Crumb or Michael Colgrass can be viewed as a welcome respite from the much more ascetic serialism of Boulez or the mathematic/scientific pretensions of Stockhausen and Xenakis which held sway in much of the 50’s and 60’s. And in truth, I myself am not immune and have incorporated something of minimalism in my own musical style.

Currently, minimalism, as such, has been on the wane for quite a while though it has undoubtedly contributed concepts of interest to contemporary composers and their audience and can often be quite enjoyable on its own terms. However, minimalism was destined to be a passing fad appealing, as it does, mainly to the instinctual level of the human mind and not also to the higher mental processes. Ultimately, it lacks the power of the best music in the Western tradition. The greatest music of such composers as Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, and Mahler not only reaches the instinctual level, but also seems to have an integrating and transformative effect on the higher mind. Small wonder, then, that we value the “Mozart Effect” in Western education. It is also no surprise that people of other cultures likewise share the same high regard for Western music as exemplified by the increasing numbers of Asian children taking violin lessons or participating in other such musical training.

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