The Days the Music Died
It's All Bach's Fault! ...By V
Strap yourself in for some schooling, my dear friends. In this, the first of a series on music’s ups and downs, triumphs and perils, I will reveal to you a crazy theory. A theory so far out of conventional wisdom, many of you will stop reading once I make the statement.
Johann Sebastian Bach killed music. Yes, THE Johann Sebastian Bach from the turn of the 18th Century, revered by all — except yours truly — to be one of the greatest composers to ever live, stabbed music in the back and twisted the proverbial knife. Now, catch your collective breaths. Grab a paper bag and breathe if need be… I warned you.
How can I make such a claim? Gather ‘round ye lads and lasses, it’s time for a little music history lesson.
In 1722 our friend Johann wrote a little exercise book called “The Well-Tempered Clavier”. For you stoners out there, this is a collection of musical studies for keyboard players (no not Moog Organ players, you zealots) intended to teach and master technique. This collection of comprehensive compositions effectively helped usher in a tuning system known as ‘well-tempered’.
What the hell is well-tempered? Simply, natural musical harmonics were altered so a keyboard instrument could seamlessly switch from key to key. For the slow kids, this means the keyboard could be “in tune” with itself. As an added bonus, composers could now write music flowing between keys with no issues of it sounding ‘off’. As a result, other instruments had to tune using the well-tempered system in order to play “in tune” with keyboard instruments.
Our modern, western ears recognize this system as ‘normal’ music. Non-western music (like the meditation stuff your hippie girlfriend listens to while doing yoga in the basement and chanting ‘om’) is not based on this system and it is why it sounds weird or different to our ears… No, it’s not the aroma of patchouli — which inevitably seems to linger whenever pumped through the head shop speakers — causing you to find the music odd.
Back to our friend Johann for a second. He was not the first composer to adopt and write for this new system (even though he likely had to be talked in to it, as he preferred a different system called ‘equal tempered’). He WAS, however, the first to write a study for keyboard. The Well-Tempered Clavier is revered as one of the most significant works written for keyboard, and precisely the reason I place the knife in his hand. What followed was a sweeping acceptance of the new well-tempered system.
So why do I call this acceptance a death? Musical notes and harmonies, in their natural form, do not follow equal (or well) tempered divisions. Imagine a spiral, if you will… can you picture the smooth curve that never repeats, never intersects? Natural Music follows this same curve. The well-tempered system cut the musical spiral into equal little blocks, subsequently forcing all music after it to live in those boxes.
You are likely thinking, “What the hell, V? Rock-n-Roll is freaking awesome and this well-tempered stuff seems to be a good thing! We wouldn’t have Zepplin without it, man!” And you’d be right. Believe me, I love a good Zepplin tune as much as the next stoner.. er I mean gal.
Death can be beautiful, much like the fallen leaf from a tree, it can breathe life in to what is to come. After all, anything new follows an ending. There are obvious benefits from placing ‘music in a box’ (coffin?). What would the world be like without the likes of Mozart, Beethoven… Chopin, Liszt… Debussy… Miles Davis… The Beatles… and on and on into much of the popular music of the 20th century (Zepplin, man)?
But, humor me for a moment and let’s look at it a little deeper than just the musical implications…
Western Civilization has gradually, yet continually, moved away from natural states of being. We all live in our cushy, temperature-controlled boxes; drive around in our little bubbles to bigger boxes; stop en route to have rapidly prepared food shoved inside our bubble so we can cram it down our throats as we speed around on synthetic paths, not noticing anything that isn’t right in front of our noses… You get the picture.
Music is no exception to human-kind moving further away from ‘natural’. In fact, it may be one cog in the gigantic wheel of injustice against nature and humanity’s continual fall from Eden. As soon as we decided to alter the tuning system in order to make it sound a certain way and fit perfectly into our perception of ‘correct’, we took another step on the path to fast food joints and gas-guzzling Chevys going to dry levees.
An avid music fan, of (nearly) every genre, and musician myself, I certainly enjoy the mass amounts of creativity, artistry and down right fun Western Music contributes to the world. However, I can’t help but wonder if it is only serving as another distraction from our true state of being. Thus, the release of the Well-Tempered Clavier is the first Day the (natural) Music Died.
Then again… I write this as I listen to music coming from my enchanted plastic circle spinning round and round, cuing the band in the box to perform for me as I please, magically powered from a hole in the wall, channeling burned black rocks directly to my nice warm bubble…
*Thank you to my genius brother Dave for his input and suggestions.
*Other sources: Encyclopedia Brittanica, Wikipedia