Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Apologia pro Christian Rock: Syncopation & Sexualization (part 4)

After a long delay, it is time for the fourth installment of everybody's least favorite series! This time, I will dealing with the issue of syncopation directly and addressing the claims that syncopated rhythms (a) cause one to become "sexualized", (b) are contrary to natural law and (c) are from the devil. In this post we will only have time to look at question A, whether syncopated beats cause a person to become sexualized.

For many who oppose rock music as intrinsically disordered, the focus is on the syncopated rhythm of the music. Before proceeding any further, we ought to define syncopation, since it can be a difficult concept to grasp for those who do not have a musical background.

Syncopation occurs when a typically unstressed beat is stressed, i.e., an "offbeat." A standard textbook in music theory, the Benward and Saker's Music: In Theory and Practice states that "If a part of the measure that is usually unstressed is accented, the rhythm is considered to be syncopated." Basically, it is the placement of stresses or accents where one wouldn't "normally" occur. If this makes any sense, a traditional rhythm might have the following accent: ONE two ONE two ONE, whereas a syncopated rhythm might go one TWO one TWO one TWO. If we imagine the one's as the bass drum and the two's as a snare drum, then we can see that syncopated rhythms form the "backbeat" to almost all contemporary rock, but also reggae, blues and other forms of music, as we shall see later.

So for the most part, rock music is heavily syncopated. Although, we ought to point out right away that rock music does not consist solely of syncopation - syncopation is one type of rhythm and rock can contain a variety of rhythms. Furthermore, syncopation did not begin with rock. It was used in traditional classical compositions, especially those of a martial nature (march music). Syncopation was used in compositions of the Middle Ages, and such masters as Bach, Mozart, Beethoven and Tchaikovsky have also made extensive use of it (source). So in our discussion of syncopation we ought not to view it as some bizarre novelty invented by the depraved minds of modernity; rather, it is one musical tool among many that composers have always used in assembling their compositions.
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Now, let's look at these three objections to syncopation in music - that it causes one to become sexualized, that it is intrinsically disordered and contrary to natural law, and that it is from the devil.

The first objection is perhaps the most common, and the point in the argument where objections to syncopation become moral imperatives. If it were true that listening to a certain beat made one sexualized or aroused lust, I suppose it would be morally dangerous to listen to music with that beat, regardless of whether it were a secular rap song or a Christian praise and worship tune. Remember, according to proponents of this theory, the precise style of music or lyrics do not matter - all that matters is the presence of the syncopated rhythm. But does syncopation in fact make one sexualized?

Fr. Basil Nortz of the Opus Sanctorum Angelorum in his talk "Music and Morality" states that (and I paraphrase) syncopated rhythms cause the body to "channel energy" from the upper body down into the pelvic region, giving the listener a desire to thrust or move their hips in sexually suggestive motions. So for Nortz, the connection here is a very physical, biological one: the music actually channels physical energy from the rest of the body to the pelvis, presumably getting one sexually aroused.

Andrew Pudewa, though not making this sweeping of a claim, states that a syncopated rhythm arouses the "lower passions" of man and therefore makes it more likely that the sexual passion or appetite will be awakened by listening to such rhythms. While there is nothing wrong with the sexual appetite, Pudewa states that it is nevertheless dangerous to risk awakening this passion, especially since syncopated rhythms seem to grant it a dominant role in modern music. Pudewa says that rhythm is dominant in modern music based on the fact that "if you turn the volume down very low, the instrument you can still hear is the dominant one." Since in most instances a drum beat can be perceived at much lower amplitudes, therefore music that uses syncopated rhythms is dominated by this beat which sexualizes the listener. This is what Pudewa and Fr. Nortz refer to as rock music's use of "relentless" and "driving" rhythms.

Regarding Fr. Nortz's claims that syncopated beats channel energy to the pelvis, I think we can regard this as pseudo-science. If energy is indeed channeled to the pelvis, then what I want to know is what energy? How is it "channeled"? Does it flow through veins or arteries? Intestines? If you are saying that "energy" is "channeled" then you are making a biological claim about the functioning of the human body and its systems. Unless you can tell me specifically what kind of "energy" this is and how it gets "channeled", then this claim becomes as foolish as the claims of those who say they can "channel energy" from crystals. Therefore, to those who say that a syncopated rhythm channels energy to the pelvis, either explain biologically what exactly it is you are saying gets channeled and how or else refrain from using these meaningless phrases of pseudo-science; it's as worthless as saying that a dog moves by virtue of an "inherent locomotive principle." Frankly, I'm surprised how many people buy this argument about channeling energy, but if you think about it biologically it makes little sense.

What about the argument that rhythm has an especially dominant role in rock music (of whatever variety) and that the dominant place of this rhythm "arouses" the lower appetites?

Again, what is the biological connection between the rhythm and how one gets "aroused" sexually? Do not most of these arguments make use of the unwarranted assumption that a syncopated rhythm arouses one's sexual appetites? Pudewa and Fr. Nortz seem to take this for granted. As a musician of twenty years, I can say this is not the case, but we'll come back to this.

Is rhythm dominant in modern music? Rhythm in fact is dominant in all music, of whatever variety. You cannot have music that is not dominated by rhythm. Classical music is dominated by rhythm. Ancient Greek music is dominated by rhythm. Mozart is dominated by rhythm. So how can Pudewa say that modern rock music is dominated by rhythm? Here we have to make a subtle distinction - when it is said that modern music is dominated by rhythm, what is meant is that modern music makes extensive use of percussive instruments. This is the difference between modern and pre-modern music: while all music is dominated by rhythm (which is just the timing of the music), classical or pre-modern musical forms were written in such a way that the rhythm was not expressed as percussively (note the lack of "drums" in classical compositions, which keep rhythm without them). In modern music, percussive instruments are used for the purpose of keeping rhythm. But in both cases the rhythm dominates the music - it can't be otherwise; without rhythm, there is no music, just minimalism; and however much one dislikes rock music, one cannot accuse it of being minimalist, since most rock music maintains a variety of rhythms, melodies and can be very complex - one might not like the solos of Eddie Van Halen (whose music I can't stand), but one cannot claim that they are minimalist or not complex.

So, it's not rhythm but percussion that allegedly dominates modern music. Andrew Pudewa says that we can prove this by the experiment of turning down the volume when a rock song is playing. If we do this, the last instrument we can still hear as the volume goes down is the drums. This is said to "prove" that the drums dominate the music.

I don't know how scientific this is, but I think what instrument you hear "last" when the volume is turned down has way more to do with tone and pitch that what is "dominant." For example, a lot of classical compositions will have an occasional cymbal crash in them, perhaps only three or four times in the whole piece. Yet, because of the tone and pitch that a cymbal has (as opposed to a violin or cello), you can be sure that if you turned the volume down, you'd hear that cymbal crash above everything else. Does this mean that classical music is dominated by cymbals? No; it simply means that a cymbal is of such a tone that it can be picked up by the human ear with greater ease than a bass. Similarly in rock music, I don't know that we can say that drums "dominate." Obviously, the music has to have rhythm, either with or without drums. I would say that drums don't dominate - they coordinate, as without drums it is very difficult for the guitarists to keep their own rhythm, depending on their degree of expertise.

One more thing to harp on here, and that is the use of this deceptive vocabulary about "relentless" beats and "driving" rhythms. Both Pudewa and Nortz use this language, and I hear it mimicked by many who criticize Christian rock music. What do these adjectives actually mean? Nothing at all. By saying "relentless," isn't this just a more negative way of saying that the beats are constant? Well, so what? Most musical compositions have an instrument that is constantly present. Or when we say that the beat is "driving," don't we really just mean that the beat sets the pace of the music, which is precisely what percussion is supposed to do? These adjectives "relentless" and "driving" are not helpful and are somewhat deceptive- couldn't we just as easily say that compositions by Bach are made up of "relentless piano playing" or that  the 1812 Overture features the use of relentless, driving use of horns; we could even say that Canon in D makes use of that one, "relentless" chord progression. In any of these case the use of the adjectives "relentless" and "driving" would be technically true; yet these adjectives are reserved for reference to rock beats alone because they carry with them obvious, loaded connotation that is negative. Heck, most classical music consists of relentless, driving violins.

But we have strayed from our original question - does any of this have anything to do with people getting sexualized from these beats?

That some music is associated with sexuality is unmistakable, but we have to be clear about what is causing what. For example, rap music and hip hop are more associated with sexuality than most other sorts of music, which is easily proven by a look at their music videos, lyrics and the life-styles engaged in by those who listen to such music. But does the music cause this sexualization? Could the sexuality associated with hip hop and rap perhaps have more to do with culture and socioeconomic status? That is, could not the emphasis of the hip hop "culture" on sex and promiscuity be more about the lack of positive male role models, inverted values that see promiscuous men and loose women as the norm and grinding poverty that leads to a focus on immediate gratification rather than fortitude and temperance? Doesn't this make more sense than saying the beats did it? When we factor in the way this music is marketed and advertised, this reinforces the sexual images associated with the music. The music is marketed using sex, but the rhythms in the music don't cause sexualization. If you remove the cultural background to a lot of this music, I think it is rendered quite innocuous, as in the case of Christian rock music.

And by the way, if the beats really do cause sexualization in hip hop music, then every single person who listens to hip hop should become sexualized and promiscuous, whether they are an African-American youth from Chicago or a dopey, middle-aged white Yuppie professor from Berkley.  Remember, if its about beats then its about beats, and every syncopated rhythm is equally dangerous and sexual - Barry White becomes just as sexual as the Mr. Lunt's "Cheeseburger" song in Veggietales, which is absurd. Yes, syncopation is used in rock n' roll and hip hop, but it also occurs everything from country and blue grass to the Muzak you hear in the department store and the innocent little tunes your kids pick up from Veggietales and Dora the Explorer. Yet sexuality is only associated with a few genres of music, not everything that uses syncopation. Here we have a fallacy of attributing the cultural trappings of a few genres to the whole. That this is a fallacious attribution is easily provable by the fact that (a) it is very easy to separate the musical style from the cultural baggage, and (b) the existence of a vast numbers of musicians and fans of other forms of syncopated music who are not sexual deviants.

I am a musician. I play Christian rock and write Christian rock songs about Jesus but using modern instruments, rock beats and syncopation. If everything was true about syncopation that some assert, then I should be a sexual deviant, not living chastely in a monogamous marriage. It is easy to pick out a few secular rock stars who are sexual deviants, but to focus exclusively on Ozzy Osbourne and the like ignores the throngs upon throngs of other musicians, many Christian but also many secular, who are not deviants, not sexually promiscuous and who are likewise (and most importantly) not famous. Therefore, is it not more plausible that it is the fame and fortune of many rock stars that leads them into immoral lifestyles rather than the type of beats they use in their music? It is a well established fact that fame and wealth corrupt; why invoke syncopated rhythms when we have a much more plausible explanation, especially when there exists a vast number of musicians who are not famous and likewise not living immorally?

Now, it could be argued that syncopation does in fact lead to sexualization by invoking the behavior that goes on at rock concerts. Men and women drunk, scantily clad, sometimes dancing and grinding in a sexual manner, sometimes engaging in unchaste activities right at the show. That this goes on is undeniable, and does it not prove that these beats stimulate the body and cause people to become sexualized?

My answer: absolutely not, and for a simple reason of plain logic. If the argument is made that the beats themselves cause all of these behaviors, and then we bring forward the dissolution that happens at rock concerts as evidence, then it follows that it is necessary to isolate the beats from the concert to prove that the rhythms themselves are responsible for this behavior and not the fact of the large gathering or people, alcohol, loud volume, etc. Basically, if the beats really do cause these behaviors, then they should cause these behaviors under all circumstances, not just when at a rock concert. If we see that syncopation does not produce these behaviors under all conditions, then it is clear that the behaviors described do not derive from the rhythms but arise instead out of the conditions/circumstances in which the music is being performed.

That this is the case is proven by the simple fact that the lewd behaviors described above are associated mainly with rock concerts - i.e., people do not start taking their shirts off and grinding when they are listening to rock music in their car on the way to work in the morning, much less if it is a Christian artist. Nor do they do these things when listening to rock, say, while working in the garage on a Saturday afternoon. In fact, these behaviors seldom occur at all unless in the context of a large gathering of teenagers with plenty of alcohol and loud music. That is definitely a bad combination, but it doesn't have anything to do with beats or rhythms. If you don't believe me, check out the history of opera: opera was banned in the papal states in the 1700s because of the lewd and dissolute behavior that went on at operas. Operas were the rock concerts of the 1700s. And what was the common factor? Certainly not "syncopated rhythms," but the volatile combination of young people, large gatherings at night, alcohol and the latest faddish entertainment.

I apologize for the length of this post - next time I will examine whether syncopation is "against natural law" and whether or not syncopated rhythms are "demonic" in origin.

12 comments:

Anonymous said...

Ummm- Compromising to be accepted by the world- or to justify your upbringing/youth? Just asking?
JSW

BONIFACE said...

Neither...just, as a musician of 16 years, think this theory is bunk.

I don't listen to the music I did as a youth, nor do I think this has to do with trying to get "acceptance." I don't even like most rock music, Christian or otherwise. But I have to call it like I see it, and I just think this is a case of Christians trying to absolutize their preferences. I was told the other day by one mom that somebody made these same arguments regarding girls riding horses!

I find this whole theory to be absurd, not borne out by facts, the experience of most musicians (most of whom I talk to have never even heard of this theory)or science.

Anonymous said...

Is it "absolutizing" as you say- and I am not defending all criticism of Rock music- or is it applying the traditional approach to any artistic expressions? Certainly even you would NOT hold to the idiocy that sophism that art (music) is all in the eye of the beholder? I do think that when anyone grows up in a milieu it is extremely hard to really get any true perspective and clarity, even if one is accustomed to silence in their life. I do detect a trace of "I grew up with it- and I am ok- so it must be ok” fallacy.
I do think that it very hard to become a true “deep in the bones” traditional Catholic ( that I assume both you and I wish to become) if one is alive today- there is just too much baggage that we all (myself included) carry around that is hard to abandon. Music, art, TV shows we watched, the Civics propaganda that we imbued while in school, Catholic or otherwise.
I do come to your blog quite frequently to read your musings- and most of it is informative and even thought provoking Every once in a while it appears to me that you are very young both chronologically and spiritually- no offense intended- just some observations. Thank you for considering the comments- JSW

BONIFACE said...

Anonymous-

I did not grow up with Christian rock. I thought Christian rock was stupid when I was growing up.

Also, no, I do not think that the beauty of art/music is all in the eye of the beholder, but I do think that some of it is: some people happen to love country music; I can't stand it. Some people think Bach is better than Mozart. Well and good; there is room for disagreement here.

That said, I think there is music that is very bad to listen to, and music that is very good to listen to - but my whole point with this series is that, if music is good or evil, it is not because it uses a certain type of beat. It would because of other factors.

I notice that you have not in either of your comments actually addressed the arguments I brought up - you have simply suggested that maybe my opinion is due to immaturity. Do you believe that "energy" gets "channeled" through the body when a syncopated beat comes on? What kind of "energy?" Through where is it "channeled?"

My objections to this idea about syncopation being bad are not based on my feelings or what I grew up with but on the fact that it is an argument that makes no sense if it is thought out.

It is okay to say I am young - I don't take offense - but if you are writing off my objections to this theory (now four posts of them) solely because of my youth, then that is a bit unfair, because as you can see, I have actual reasons for my opinions.

Fr.A said...

You are correct about one thing for certain; this is my least favorite topic of yours.

I will say this... establishing that the rythum, beat, syncopation, etc. is or is not evil, doesn't mean that it's fit for Christian themes. When people apply Christian themes to this music (especially the name of our Lord, the saints, etc.), I find it offensive because the music, by the very nature and intent of rock (sex, drugs, and rock & roll) is not reverent enough for the serious matters of our Faith.

Seán said...

Boniface,
I stumbled upon this and went back to part one and read all of them. I have to say thank you for your work so far. I have battled with this until recently. I've "battled" mostly because I do take morality serious, and also do not wish to scandalize my neighbor. On that note, I have reached the conclusion that rock music per se (secular or otherwise) is not immoral. I listened to Michael Matt's talk on YouTube ("Music & Culture") and John Vennari ("Mud Houses and Modern Men"), which state the same stuff that other people have. I thought about it, researched african rythmic sensibilities, listened to some folk music from Ireland and England, some bluegrass and country, scanned my past, and also took a sober look at "rock" as a whole. I'm just not convinced. Not even enough to ban all rock "to err on the side of caution". After you get beyond the backbeat deal, which I think is the most visual aspect, there is just a judgement of content: lyrics, style, scene, etc. Music is not neutral, but I can't say that any music is inherently evil. The back beat is FUN. Fun can equal immorality sometimes. There are other things that lead to immorality too. And some rock music can be occassions to sin. Some may be a sin to listen to. I can say that my favorite band is the Grateful Dead. They have written some beautiful songs, with beautiful poetic lyrics. They are musically interesting. Some have a heavy backbeat, some are slow and light. Some are country, bluegrass, and folk flavored. Some others are straight ahead rockers. They put on a great show in the past, and were not about the glitz and glamor, but the music. With all this said, some of their songs I'll avoid. Most are telling stories. Some stories are gritty and sad. But overall I find them sensually pleasing, like a good glass of wine, a cigar, or a game of pool. I don't go to my music to find idols or have it craft my morality. I don't even go to chant for that. It pretty music that takes me somewhere. It's all quiet a sensual experience across the board. I like the chant when I pray. I like the 23 minute "Dark Star" jam when I am washing my car. I like silence in the morning. Etc. I don't slight a Catholic for avoiding some types of music for their soul's sake, I respect that, but we have to put a level head on and not be knee-jerk reactionists, nor legalists. We have to step back and apply the same honest reasoning to music that we applied to the faith when we accepted her.

Pax.

Seán said...

[2]
After you get beyond the backbeat deal, which I think is the most visual aspect, there is just a judgement of content: lyrics, style, scene, etc. Music is not neutral, but I can't say that any music is inherently evil. The back beat is FUN. Fun can equal immorality sometimes. There are other things that lead to immorality too. And some rock music can be occassions to sin. Some may be a sin to listen to. I can say that my favorite band is the Grateful Dead. They have written some beautiful songs, with beautiful poetic lyrics. They are musically interesting. Some have a heavy backbeat, some are slow and light. Some are country, bluegrass, and folk flavored. Some others are straight ahead rockers. They put on a great show in the past, and were not about the glitz and glamor, but the music. With all this said, some of their songs I'll avoid. Most are telling stories. Some stories are gritty and sad. But overall I find them sensually pleasing, like a good glass of wine, a cigar, or a game of pool. I don't go to my music to find idols or have it craft my morality. I don't even go to chant for that. It pretty music that takes me somewhere. It's all quiet a sensual experience across the board. I like the chant when I pray. I like the 23 minute "Dark Star" jam when I am washing my car. I like silence in the morning. Etc. I don't slight a Catholic for avoiding some types of music for their soul's sake, I respect that, but we have to put a level head on and not be knee-jerk reactionists, nor legalists. We have to step back and apply the same honest reasoning to music that we applied to the faith when we accepted her.

Pax.

Seán said...

[1]
Boniface,
I stumbled upon this and went back to part one and read all of them. I have to say thank you for your work so far. I have battled with this until recently. I've "battled" mostly because I do take morality serious, and also do not wish to scandalize my neighbor. On that note, I have reached the conclusion that rock music per se (secular or otherwise) is not immoral. I listened to Michael Matt's talk on YouTube ("Music & Culture") and John Vennari ("Mud Houses and Modern Men"), which state the same stuff that other people have. I thought about it, researched african rythmic sensibilities, listened to some folk music from Ireland and England, some bluegrass and country, scanned my past, and also took a sober look at "rock" as a whole. I'm just not convinced. Not even enough to ban all rock "to err on the side of caution".

TopTech said...

I agree, it's not likely the 'music', but the lyrics.

http://intro2psych.wordpress.com/2009/05/13/music-and-sexualization/

That said, there IS something about martial/march music... j/k

Anonymous said...

I came across this blog after reading an interview in Zenit News from July 26, 2012 which talks about Rock and Roll music. (go to www.zenit.org)

Regarding your questions of Fr. Basil Nortz's claims about the effects of rock music on the body, have you considered contacting him directly? I would surmise that if you wrote him a letter or spoke to him on the phone, he would be glad to offer more explanation. From listening to his work "Music and Morality" it seemed clear to me that he was not speaking so much of personal preferences or ideas, but presenting information from several reliable sources, including the rock musicians and those in the industry, themselves, quoting their own aims.

It would be interesting to hear Father Nortz's comments. He is probably very busy, so persevere in contacting him.

God bless,
a musician

Anonymous said...

I don't know if it's more stupid thinking that a technique like syncopation (used also in ancient christian music) could be evil per se (but fanatics are everywhere), or wasting time trying to demistify a stupid concept with a blog article....

BONIFACE said...

Anonymous-

Nothing is to stupid for this blog!