I began using the law of conservation of energy to visualize the evolution of Pop music when I was in high school. I was studying higher-level chemistry and music history as part of my International Baccalaureate degree, and while it felt like two unrelated subjects, I was eager to make a connection between them. In general terms, the law of conservation of energy states that energy in a system can’t be created nor destroyed, it just transfers from one form of energy to another. I started visualizing this idea in musical expression while diving into Western European art music and the evolution of Jazz music in America. I noticed how often others recognized these vast musical genres as being more complex than Pop music, primarily because of how they used more intricate harmonies and orchestration. I thought to myself how unfair it was to label the Pop music I was growing up with as simple. I knew it wasn’t any less than the music that came before it, but I couldn’t articulate why. If everything else in the world around me was advancing, then how could music become more basic?
Imagine that Bach’s “Fugue in G minor” and Taylor Swift’s “Out of the Woods” are both their own “isolated systems” with energy, or in this case, musical expression that transfers between different musical elements in each system. In my opinion, both pieces are complex and full of musical expression, and they hold similar amounts of kinetic energy and potential energy. However, the energy is active in different elements of the songs, and for “Out of the Woods,” that element comes from a technological revolution that Bach had no access to. Bach’s fugue holds most of its musical energy in the counterpoint: the melodic composition and modulation drive the expression of the piece. Meanwhile, most of the musical expression in “Out of the Woods” comes from the interesting sonics of the music production, which is true for a lot of Pop music today. Many Pop songs have simplistic chord progressions, which I think is okay because now the energy resides in sound design, music technology, how something is mixed, or how a vocal is processed. I believe that what we’ve experienced as music evolves is a transfer of energy from composition to production because we have the means to do so.
Let’s look at some excerpts of the sheet music from both pieces stated above. Clearly, one melody is more varied and ornamented than the other. Most of Swift’s song is a singular note with little to no melodic contour and a simple I-V-VI-IV chord progression, while Bach’s composition highlights an intricate subject and countermelody with more advanced modulations. Now let’s imagine what the Pro Tools sessions for both songs might look like. Oh right, Bach didn’t have Pro Tools! The earliest known recordings come from the late 19th century, far past his lifetime, so he likely didn’t even consider the kind of microphone he could use or how he could compress the organ with a Teletronix LA-3A or create an entirely new sound on a synthesizer for the fugue. The energy of the piece is most active where Bach’s capabilities and resources exist: his understanding of advanced harmony and his performance technique. Had Taylor Swift been composing at a time when music production wasn’t really a thing, she might have songs with eclectic modulations and contrapuntal bass parts. However, with Jack Antonoff’s exciting vocal arrangement and sound design for electronic drums and synths, there’s already so much energy in the song, that the harmony in this piece doesn’t need to work as hard. Ultimately, I experience both Bach’s fugue and Swift’s single as having the same amount of musical energy, but the energy is utilized in different parts of both systems.
I know this argument all seems convoluted, but this concept has really helped me in my critical listening. When I listen to any recording, I ask myself, “Where has the energy transferred in this piece, where is it being held, and how is it serving the song?” Sometimes the answer is not the same within one genre or even within one artist. If an element in a song feels simple, we can break it down to its core elements to find where the energy is. It can be in the rhythm, the performance, the sampling technique, or the lyricism to name a few. When I write and produce, I approach a new song with this mentality too. Where do I want the energy to be, where can I simplify the song to let that element shine, and how does it work with the narrative of my song?