Thursday, August 30, 2007

Active Listening vs. passive listening and the pop hook

Another post from James Wallace
Hi everyone. In responding to my last post, radio gnome from the station Radio Hidebound made a comparison between passive and active music listeners.

Passive listeners have music in the background and hum along with the melody, while active listeners try to soak in all different aspects of the music such as the lyrics, the tone of the instruments and the different rhythms and melodies. As a teenager, whenever I discovered a new artists or a song I was really crazy about, I would play that music for people I knew anticipating that they would be able to find the same aspects of the music that I dug so much or even better: perhaps they would hear something that I didn’t and would be able to give me a whole new perspective on the music. Usually I would get a cool response like “oh, it’s ok” or “not bad” or “I don’t know.” I can only think of a couple of people who were able to give me instant feedback and would be able to describe what they heard and reference other music in the process. I realized that a lot of people need time to come to accept new music, particularly music that is challenging and does not use a conventional approach to melody.

This brings me to the pop hook. Popular music of all genres needs to have the pop hook to function. The chorus of the new country song or the beat of the latest hip-hop track all need to have a certain melodic structure in order to get the listener humming along. Modern pop music particularly focuses on a repetitive chorus that is catchy and easy to sing along too. You will rarely hear music that ever breaks this rule on contemporary radio and it is this “hook” that is a necessity for the passive music listener. My friend’s father from Romania used to love singing along to the chorus of Country and Western songs and would just mumble during the verses. The lyrics of the song where irrelevant to him and didn’t really matter, as long as he had that chorus to come back to.

As I listen to Sun Ra’s Spectrum on Sky FM’s Modern Jazz station while I write this blog entry, I think of the vast universe of music that gets left out of the equation when the need for the conventional pop hook usurps all other aspects of music. Many peopled have argued with me that it is this approach to melody and song structures that people are drawn to at an instinctual level. However, I don’t know whether or not this is true. I lived in South Korea for five years (An-yong-hae-se-yo!) and I got the chance to listen to a lot of traditional Korean music. This music (along with other traditional music from across Asia) has a total different point of reference in terms of melody and rhythm than what is found in the western musical cannon. These melodic structures developed out of this society. Unfortunately, this music is nowhere near as popular these days in South Korea as the very commercialized pop music which fills the radios and television sets across the country(though there is great stuff happening in the underground). The westernized pop hook has infected their culture.

What I came to realize was that Korean traditional music requires more active participation from the listener for it to be truly appreciated. And I find that this true of most music that doesn’t follow the conventional pop structure. The listener doesn’t mindlessly hum along to the chorus but rather has to be engaged in the experience. Just as a Thomas Pynchon novel requires more of the reader than one written by Stephen King. Just as a Werner Herzog film requires more of the viewer than one made by James Cameron. However, if the listener, reader or viewer is willing to do the work, then the rewards I think are huge. I would love to see listeners of commercial radio be able to take the time to really appreciate beauty of Indonesian Gamelan music or the compositions of Bela Bartok. But then again maybe I’m dreaming.

In case you didn’t think I liked any pop music, here are some of my favorite pop albums:

  • Brian Eno-Here Comes The Warm Jets
  • The Jesus and The Mary Chain-Psychocandy
  • The Pixies-Doolittle
  • Change Of Heart-Smile
  • The Rheostatics-Introducing Happiness
--James Wallace (


radio gnome said...

I think I'm going to have to differ with you a little on this one James.

For you see, I love hooks.

I'd agree that most (like 99% "most") of the stuff that gets played on commercial terrestrial is formulaic and derivative (giving it a sense of familiarity on first listen), but this happens without a hook. At least by my definition of a hook. To me, a hook is a little something something fresh and new and, yes, catchy (hence "hook") and by definition any hook is at least a "good hook".

Television's "Venus"
Talking Heads' "Psycho Killer"
The Church's "Reptile" (a two guitar hook)
The Smithereens' "Blood and Roses" (a great bass hook)
XTC's "Senses Working Overtime"

While all of the above do fit into a certain pattern familiar to Pop music, each has a little bit that makes one sit bolt upright and listen a little more closely.

Songs can be great without having hooks, and great hooks can be wasted in otherwise lousy songs, but a good hook in an otherwise decent song is a special event and should be cherished. IMO, natch.

I would also say that anyone who thinks in terms of songs having hooks are Active Listeners. They may be actively listening to what some consider crap, but they are more engaged than the Passive Listener who merely wants musical company and that the Active Listener is more likely to broaden their horizons in search of more hooks (even if subconciously).

I also think every kind of music has hooks relevant to the kind of music it is. Both classical music and jazz are full of hooks. They are the little snippets of compositions most people remember and are familiar with.

Oh yes, I love hooks.

John said...

I agree with most of this posting, but can accept what Radio Gnome said. These days though the "pop hook" seems to be the only thing that matters, that is why there is so much rubbish in the charts and why, in the UK, The X Factor is so popular.

Currently (Christmas 2009) we are seeing a revolt against this with tru music fans ("active listeners" I suspect) re-claiming the charts by helping Rage Against The Machine's "Killing In The Name" to get to the #1 spot for Christmas rather than the X Factor winners bland pop ballad.

RATM's track has got great hooks in it, but it wouldn't appeal much to passive listeners because there is no melody to the lyrics.

I hope it makes it and sends out a message to the scumbags who force manufactured pop on us all the time!

Alex said...

I agree basically with what the last poster here said. However, most of the time people use the word "pop" along with it. That's just discrediting almost all music ever made. It's rather dumb when people don't even bother finding what catches the ear beyond some twee two power chord "indie" pop fad with morbid lyrics about a breakup.