The First Rule of Music
by Alex Cosper

Reshaping the Musical Landscape

As the song says, the first rule of music is that there are no rules. Most of us know this fact when we're young before someone starts drilling bolts in our heads so that our thinking will be trapped in a box. Kindergarten, however, actually teaches musical ideas outside this 4/4 box by exposing up to different types of timing. I remember learning waltzes at a young age. Waltzes are written in different time signatures than standard pop music. Instead of a four count, a waltz has a three or six count. Taking this step further were groups like The Beatles and Pink Floyd, who both used unconventional timing, which may partly explains why they are two of the most successful recording artists in history: they mixed things up.

If you don't mix things up enough you end up like the stagnant musicians who follow trends and have no idea how to bend away from them. If all you become is a follower, then why should you ever be allowed to be in a leadership position? That's what's so startling about major labels, who are in the position to change the world with music, yet in the corporate music era of the early 21st century, they are stuck on copycat music. It's not at all the same deal when older generations couldn't stand Jimi Hendrix in the sixties because it was completely revolutionary. It's more like people of all ages aren't that excited about 2000s music that sounds completely stale because there's no sense of evolution. It's basically the same formulas that have been done to death for over two decades.

There really hasn't been a supergroup of the 2000s to lead us anywhere amazing like there was last century. The reason this problem falls into the category of "mass mania in slow motion" is because when the music industry is allowed to behave like a monopoly in which three companies control most of the music that is exposed nationally, it generates mass mediocrity. Not only do tons of mediocre songs come from this paradigm, it blocks out quality visionary art in the process. The masses usually aren't musical explorers as they tend to accept a certain percentage of music pumped through the controlled industry channels such as radio stations. The answer to this problem is that music needs to go through a series of radical transformations without discarding core foundations of the past.

Outside of Rules of Conformity

Formulas that shape recorded music tend to burn out after awhile, regardless of what research might tell marketers of mediocre mass mania. The reason these uncreative gatekeepers resort to formulas is that they never learned the first rule of music, which is that there are no rules. There's no rule, for example, that says lyrics have to be shallow to be appreciated by a mass audience. There's also no rule that melodies or chord progressions have to resemble other big hits. If a song does its job and tells a unique story set to its own unique melody, then none of these formulas even matter.

There are many ways to break up standardized music formulas that start to resemble as assembly line of cheeseburgers that lack nutrition but are supposed to make you feel good about conformity. Mass mediocrity in slow motion can easily be offset by new ideas. This doesn't mean that any off the idea will capture people's attention, but it does mean that imagination is more powerful than mediocrity. Music should be everchanging and everlasting, not processed to fit inside a predictable box. If songwriters never open their own minds and souls to a broader universe than the status quo, it becomes stagnant and leads them to believe the incorrect cliche that "every possible song that can be written has already been written."

The reason it's obvious to creative minds that trillions of new ideas have yet to be explored in music is that music has way too many variables to be locked into a set pattern. Even if every combination of 12 notes in western musical scales were exhausted in every possible way, a creative thinker would still know how to rearrange notes with new ideas for timing. Conforming to rigid rules of music is a limitation, not an asset. You can also break new ground by experimenting with new sounds or notes on top of unexplored rhythms. Did you really think that the same beat we keep hearing in over-produced dance music is the final frontier of all music?

We know that music can evolve because there was nothing like Chuck Berry prior to the 1950s, just as there was nothing like The Beatles prior to the 1960s, just like there was nothing like Kraftwerk prior to the 1970s and there was nothing like New Order prior to the 1980s. Why so many artists copy these pioneers instead of assuming the roles of pioneers themselves is actually kind of baffling. Choosing to be a soundalike just causes your music to be lost in the shuffle, whereas standing out can be much more memorable. That's why we remember albums like Sgt Pepper or Dark Side of the Moon instead of music that just tried to copy other music.

Shallow music with no message or unique musical presentation is essentially music that doesn't matter and shouldn't be remembered. No wonder so much music of the early 21st century is so disposable. Without a message or purpose except to "buy this song," people actually have no reason to keep buying the same formulas over and over. So instead of the music biz wondering why all the same sounding music isn't bringing them as much money as it used to, a better focus is getting back to what music is really supposed to be about, which is human expression.

Next Chapter: Corporate Compromise

Index to Mass Mania in Slow Motion