Earlier this year while talking with several friends from different countries, I misunderstood one of the responses which led to us having an even more interesting conversation. Our topic was—no surprise here—what the future of music might be, to which at one point one of my friends exclaimed:
“I don’t know about everything that people are going to be listening to or how they’re going to be listening to it, but I’m sure that Beatles music will be popular.”
However, instead of Beatles, I heard “beat-less”, so I chimed in: “Beat-less music? You mean like ’50s-era Darmstadt serialism, John Cage number pieces, Morton Feldman, or drone-based minimalism?” This initially provoked laughter, but then we all talked about whether there could ever be a time when music without a regular beat would be popular with a large percentage of the population. The general consensus was probably never.
Over the weekend, while shopping for groceries, I became acutely aware of the relentless pounding beats of Katy Perry’s ubiquitous song “Firework”—I even heard this several times when I was in France in January. Despite how the pounding beats are what propels it forward and keeps the overall energy going, I imagined that in an earlier era the song would have survived fine without them and would probably have been equally popular. It seems that over the past half century, beats have grown more and more prominent in popular music to the point that it is probably impossible nowadays to have a hit song that doesn’t have an extremely prominent beat behind it. Could the overwhelming preponderance of prominent beats eventually lead to some sort of backlash? And could such a backlash lead to a rise in popularity (temporary or long standing) of some form of beat-less music?
This morning (via ArtsJournal) I read an article about a 23-year-old man who is the first confirmed case of someone who can’t perceive musical beats. The subject, who was identified only as Mathieu, has no problem recognizing familiar melodies and is even able to sing in tune, meaning that the perception of melody and rhythm are not intrinsically related to each other neurologically. Which begs the question: Might it be possible to create music that a majority of people would find memorable which lacks a beat?