Musical Uncanny Valley

In which I compare annoying music to artisanal ketchup.

Tagged: Music Theories

Recently, a friend of mine shared a link to Max Richter’s solo debut album Memoryhouse on social media:

While I appreciate Richter’s work and think it’s good, it’s very hard for me to enjoy it. The problem is that I find much of it—and particularly Memoryhouse—too reminiscent of Philip Glass’. The latter’s minimalism and distinctive brand of ostinato, harmonic chord progressions, variations in half-time, &c., is clearly being referenced in Memoryhouse, albeit with perhaps “post-minimalist” orchestration. For example, when I first listened to November, the first track of Memoryhouse (q.v. above), it immediately reminded me of Glass’s String Quartet No. 3, which predates Memoryhouse by about 20 years:

It’s a bit like when a TV show wants to parody Jeopardy but doesn’t have the budget to license rights to the Jeopardy Think! music, so it creates a slightly different version which ends up sounding wrong, despite the fact that if the original Jeopardy theme had never existed this new version would be just as popular. What is called a musical pastiche.

That just sounds wrong to me, to the extent that my subconscious is offended by it. It’s like going to a Michelin 3-starred restaurant and being served artisanal, house-made ketchup, from locally sourced organic tomatoes and garlic harvested from the chef’s own private garden during the last full moon in spring: No matter how good that ketchup tastes, it’s not going to taste as right as Heinz, because that’s what you grew up eating. And heaven forbid you’re served Hunt’s. Did we lose a war?

In my mind, a pastiche is distinct from something like an homage or inspiration since its similarity to the source material is much more noticeable. For example, Glass’s predilection for pairing low-pitch ostinato with higher-pitch simple melodies is technically very similar to Mozart’s modus operandi, yet we rarely ever hear Glass being directly compared to Mozart.

A number of years ago I had a subscription to the Philadelphia Orchestra and attended a concert debuting a new symphony by a relatively unknown composer (whose name escapes me). The theme was “The United States.” I’m guessing the concert was held around the time of Independence Day, but I neither remember nor care to look it up. The whole thing was very frustrating for me to sit through, because it was clear to me that every single movement was simply a pastiche of the work of a much more famous American composer. I would have much rather heard a performance of “the real thing.”

Music from completely different genres can also either purposefully or accidentally trick our brains into finding similarity. From almost exactly five years ago today:

Been bugging me for years: Does Aesop Rock’s “9-5er’s Anthem” quote Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue”?
Evan Sultanik

The field of æsthetics has produced a hypothesis of what is know as the uncanny valley: When an object moves and/or looks very similar to (but not exactly like) a human being, it causes revulsion to the observer. Here is a video with some examples, if you want to be creeped out a bit. As objects become increasingly similar to the likeness of a human, human observers become increasingly empathetic toward the object. However, once the object passes a certain threshold of human likeness, the human starts to be repulsed, until another likeness threshold at which point the object is almost indistinguishable from a real human.

CC BY-SA 3.0, from here

I posit that there is a similar phenomenon in music, and that is what I am experiencing when I listen to Memoryhouse. One of the theories explaining the uncanny valley is that conflicting perceptual cues cause a sort of cognitive dissonance. It is well-known that the brain behaves almost identically when imagining a familiar piece of music as it does when listening to it. This suggests that the brain is internally “playing” the music in synchrony with what it is hearing, anticipating each note. In a sense, one’s brain is subconsciously humming along to the tune. My theory is that when a song (or, particularly, a pastiche) is similar enough to another song that is much more familiar, this evokes the same synchronous imagining. However, once the pastiche deviates from anticipated pattern, this ruins the synchrony and causes cognitive dissonance.

Excuse the pun, but on that note I’ll leave you with something that will hopefully not be in your musical uncanny valley: This wonderful, recent recomposition of Glass’s String Quartet No. 3 for guitar:

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