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The Music Experience Quadrant

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(Hypebot) In this piece, Alex Tiuniaev unveils a new method of examining how we listen to music using something called the Music Experience Quadrant, which places music on a spectrum between emotional vs. rational, and abstract vs. visual.


Guest post by Alex Tiuniaev

About four years ago, I wrote an essay entitled “Thinking Music” vs. “Emotional Music”: Two Different Kinds of Music Listening Experience on how I listen to various types of music and what it is exactly that I appreciate in a given musical piece. Since then I have been thinking about this (a lot) and finally decided that the time has come to write an update.

I found that the one-dimensional “thinking vs. emotional” concept is too simplistic — mainly because I have come to realize that “thinking” music varies so much in how I perceive it and whether I like it or not — and so decided to add an extra dimension to it. I called it the “Abstract – Visual” axis and so arrived at what I (unashamedly) called the Music Experience Quadrant. This is how it looks like:

You can see that it has two dimensions instead of one, and I believe that it can help explain why we are drawn to certain kinds of music and not the others.

The Rational – Emotional Axis

This is the concept that I discussed in my previous piece on “emotional” and “thinking” music (although the term “rational” seems more relevant to me now). As I mentioned before, “emotional” music caters to the basic human emotions, and this is what you usually can hear on the mainstream radio. The songs that get “stuck” in your head as well as various instrumental “hooks” and “riffs” that stay with you long after the music has ended are all inhabitants of the “emotional” realm. Personally, I think that the features described above all form the basis of the music industry. They explain why people go to concerts and listen to the radio.

One kind of music that seems somewhat mysterious to me is dance music, especially the kind that plays in clubs. That is because rhythm plays a crucial role in this kind of music, and it is interesting to investigate how vital rhythm is to the overall emotional impact of this type of music. Can pieces made only of rhythms be emotional? Traditional African music played on drums is an example, and the answer definitely relates to how our society perceives music and what kinds of music we were exposed to as children. What might seems devoid of emotion to a European listener could be quite the opposite for an Asian or African listener. But I cannot comment on non-Western music types simply because I have very little experience with them.

Rational music, on the other hand, is the “thinker’s music”. The kind you appreciate not because it resonates with your inner feelings but rather as a piece of art in a museum or a good (non-fiction) book. It gives you food for thought; it educates you and it creates a space for new kinds of musical experience that would otherwise be firmly rooted in emotional responses created by “hooks”. In other words, it nurtures and enriches your musical perception.

The Abstract – Visual Axis

This is the new concept that I came up with to differentiate between music that is mostly concerned with scales, chords, and rhythms from music that is more about textures, timbres, and atmospheres. “Visual” music is exactly what the name says — it paints a picture in your mind. This could be done either by using certain timbres, pitch-less textures or even lyrics (if they are poetic enough). An interesting question is whether electronic instruments (such as synthesizers) have more “visual” potential than traditional ones. On the one hand, synthesized sounds are richer in terms of timbre colors and almost certainly sound more “otherworldly”. On the other hand, there are many examples of highly “visual” pieces that rely almost exclusively on acoustic instrumentation. Debussy’s La Mer, for instance. Or Howard Shore’s score to The Lord of the Rings. That said, the “visual” quality of a piece in general does not depend on the instruments used. Even a chamber music piece can paint pictures more colorful than a whirlpool of spacey electronic pads.

Below you will find brief descriptions of the four “cornerstone” types of music, according to this classification, as well as some examples of each type. All of this is purely subjective, of course. It is very interesting to investigate whether an algorithm for determining the nature of a piece according to this concept, could ever be created.

Visual / Emotional (VE)

This type of music is my personal favorite. It combines the emotional appeal of more accessible styles with the visual stimuli of textural and ambient kinds. Basically, these are songs or instrumental pieces that usually have a strong sense of melody or alternatively, contain beautiful harmonic movements, while at the same time creating a sense of space or conjuring up different “sound worlds” in our mind. The latter can be done either by using textures, timbres or lyrics (in case of songs).

Examples of VE: Coldplay – Midnight (Ghost Stories); Vangelis – Blade Runner Blues (Blade Runner OST); Bob Dylan – Desolation Row (Highway 61 Revisited)

Visual / Rational (VR)

While retaining (and also focusing on) the visual element of VE, this type of music is much more restrained and less accessible, replacing the emotional impact of the former with ambiences, textures, and other exotic, sometimes quite experimental features. The main point here is to create a soundscape that is both alive with musical details and visually stimulating. This kind of music is mostly (although not limited to) electronica and various electro-acoustic types. It does not exclude other genres and styles, as I already mentioned before.

Examples of VR: Brian Eno – Lantern Marsh (Ambient 4: On Land); Boards of Canada – Kid for Today (In a Beautiful Place Out In the Country); Cliff Martinez – First Sleep (Solaris OST)

Abstract / Rational (AR)

Now this could be the least accessible of all four types, as it requires both willpower and appreciation for abstract art. This music is very restricted in terms of emotions and it is too abstract to have the power of creating “sound worlds”. Most modern academic music and avant-garde electronica lies within this domain. Listening to it requires attention and focus, but if you give in to it and invest enough time, you will be richly rewarded. It is also the type of music that asks the question “What else can be done?” by expanding the boundaries and breaking new ground. Therefore, if you are interested in what artists can do with sound and how these new techniques can be applied to more traditional music genres then AR music is here to help!

Examples of AR: Aphex Twin – Kladfvgbung Mischk (Drukqs); Morton Feldman – Piano and String Quartet, 1985; Sigur Ros – Di Do (Ba Ba Ti Ki Di Do)

Abstract / Emotional (AE)

This is pure emotion set to music. Textures and non-pitched sounds are totally neglected in favor of scales and chords played with more traditional instruments or simpler timbres. Basic building blocks are used to elevate the listener to a higher emotional level. In my opinion, most of what is referred to as Classical music (up to and including Beethoven) belongs here. Although less adventurous and more melody-focused rock and pop musicians also fall into this category. It is very broad and probably too vague to define (but then again, all of the four types presented here are!) but the main feature of this music is its emotional impact.

Examples of AE: JS Bach – 2nd Movement from Suite No. 3 in D major, BWV 1068; John Williams – Theme from Schindler’s List (Schindler’s List OST); Sam Smith – Stay with Me (In the Lonely Hour)

So what can we make of it all? My understanding is that you have to have enough of the “Visual + Emotional” content in a given piece to make it appealing to the general audience. If the piece is not “emotional” enough, it should “make up for it” by being highly “visual”, and vice versa. In this case, we are staying within what I called the “mainstream” half-plane. If there is not enough of this “Visual + Emotional” content then we are moving away from mainstream into what I called the “niche” zone, something that is more likely to appeal to certain audiences, which enjoy this specific type of music. That is because you have to have a certain willpower to sit through these “niche” pieces; and that willpower comes from the fact that either you have been exposed to this type of music before (and you liked it) or because you are willing to give it a try and see if it can enrich your listening experience.

All of the above is purely subjective thinking that is based solely on my own listening experience. It seems that every listener is searching for something to relate to in a given piece. I wonder if there are other things that you get attracted to in music, besides the ones I have discussed here. If so, then my concept might not be the final “Theory of Everything in Music” after all, but the search is always on, is it not? 🙂  

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