The idea of sadness connects the music of Adele, Kendrick Lamar, Billie Holiday, the English folk singer Nick Drake, the metal band Slayer and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.
But no streaming service is going to tell you that. They would seem to prefer that you continue to follow your usual patterns of listening — which they have put effort into recognizing — or, in a mood-based playlist, to stay within easily identified genres and sounds of melancholy.
We now have something close to instant, unlimited, often free access to the history of recorded music. But the recommendation engines of the Internet are teaching us to listen more conservatively, through obvious connections based on our casual choices. How can we learn to really listen across genre and era, in a way that takes full advantage of our astonishing new power, this vast musical inventory? How can we listen better than we are being listened to?
I wrote a book, “Every Song Ever,” to try to figure out the answer. It borrows the framework of an old-fashioned listening-appreciation book: Each chapter looks at a different aspect of music. But here, the listener is the focus. This is a book about listening experiences, qualities like repetition, speed, density and the slippery, is-it-true-or-isn’t-it idea of sadness in music, explored in an excerpt below.
I want to suggest a connective spirit of listening, so that we can become our own adventurous recommendation engines and get to know the back rooms of the inventory, the ones that might be otherwise hidden from you.
When we listen to Nick Drake’s record “Pink Moon,” if we know anything about the person who made it, we are probably hearing through a layer of sympathy. If we’re listening out of choice, we
probably know this man died young. We may even know that “Pink Moon” completely qualifies as “late work” — an unsentimental production full of nothing-left-to-lose moves: uncomfortable repetitions in short songs, snippings-off before a smooth finish, a disembodied quality to the singing. Just guitar and voice, close miking, no band, no strings, no reverb, some buzz on the guitar here and there that might in more closely watched circumstances have necessitated a retake. In other words, what we often think of as “truth.”
We might know that Drake died from an overdose of mood-regulating medication not too long after the record was made, depressed and to some degree unrecognized. We might think, logically, that his last songs are like last words — a suicide note or a will. Or that they came from a small life force within him that couldn’t be destroyed, some part of his sensibility that could remain playful.
And when we listen, we might think about the most vulnerable aspects of our own sensibilities, too — the irremediably blue parts, the hopeful parts, the shy or naïve parts. We’re respecting, we’re salaaming. If we have made our way to “Pink Moon,” many of us are not only guarding ourselves against specific calamities, disappointments or embarrassments, rites of passage that we will inevitably face, whoever we are — missed deadlines, bounced checks, the trials of school and money and love and work. We are guarding ourselves against death. We are getting the most out of this piece of music because it represents an achievement reached while life was at stake.
We’re pretty used to this idea, even though it is by no means universal: Whatever tendencies or tensions a serious artist may have had earlier in life, his late creations bring them out in stronger terms.
We do a lot of extra work in our listening around the notion of sadness — a phantom quality in listening that most of us nonetheless recognize and agree on — and through our extra work, we become especially vested in the music. The extra work takes the form of myths that we build around the reasons and circumstances of a recording, and through that myth-building we temporarily disbelieve in artifice. Artifice is the practice and process of being something one is not, and it is used to small or large degree by every artist in the world. It’s as transcendent as truth.
But sadness portrayed in music, whether the zombified reserve of some English bohemian folk singers during the 1960s — Nick Drake,
Jacqui McShee, Vashti Bunyan — or a sustained low note on a cello, is Lethe water: You recognize the symbol, drink it as you listen, and you forget all possible practical circumstances around the sadness you think you’re hearing. These can be the musician’s desire to connect with the tradition and audience of an earlier musician, and thereby to have his work accepted more quickly and earn some money; a producer’s desire to add emotional variety to an artist’s work; a singer’s decision to use a different part of his voice or capture it differently through microphones; or a fully contrived aesthetic absolutism equating misery, integrity and obscurity — the Romantic era’s interest-bearing gift to the future.
On the listener’s end, the circumstances adding up to a “sad” listening experience can be practical and not sad at all: the need for a focused and isolated stretch of time that is all his; the need for a bracing effect in order to focus while doing something boring, like being in transit; or the need to re-enact the emotions around something awful, which paradoxically makes you feel alive — a death, a breakup, a rejection, a failure.
The myth of Nick Drake, assembled posthumously by those who didn’t know him and are willing to sustain romantic theories about him, is that his music hinges on, and is more or less about, fatal disappointment and the desire to disappear.
But I have never felt very sure about that.
When you listen to “Road,” from “Pink Moon,” you’re listening to craft and technique and a series of choices. His long fingernails are precisely picking a steel-stringed guitar with unusual tuning: Several strings are tuned to the same note, so that among the different fingers you get a spray of notes that sound huddled close together. You are listening to his papery voice, just above a whisper — though that is a trick, too: Good performers know how to project and sound confiding. And you’re listening to rhythm, his thumb lining out the downbeats with a sharper picking sound as well as the mellowness of the voice, working against the slicing sound made with the hands.
What is sadness in sound per se? Nothing. It doesn’t exist. There is no note or kind of note that in and of itself is sad and only sad. (Heard differently, Drake’s voice can also be relaxed, or tired, or content.) But the construct of sadness, and the attendant contract that it helps build between musician and listener, has to do with how we might recognize it person-to-person: through silence and dissonant long tones, or through agitation and mania; through closed systems of harmony or phrasing, or through unnervingly open and dark ones. We hear it through voices and through instruments. And as listeners agree to play by the official rules of sadness, so do most musicians, and so do most singers, imitating the sound of instruments.
But of course not every thin voice or descending melodic figure connotes what a work of music is about; it’s case by case, with the meaning suggested by tonal relationships within those figures, and all the context around the figures. (The Adagio-Allegro movement of Mozart’s String Quartet No. 19 includes various descending figures; the first ones, slow with small dissonances in an indeterminate key, sound sad; the later ones, up, brisk, major, sound happy.)
The writer Albert Murray often expressed the idea that the blues wasn’t an act of sadness, but an act of defiance and survival; that a great skill in black American culture was the ability to improvise a way out of the void. It seemed counterintuitive: Weren’t there plenty of examples in black American music of voices or instruments that were actually mimicking the sound of crying or disappointment? (Billie Holiday’s “I’m a Fool to Want You,” Etta Jones’s “I’m Through With Love,” Robert Johnson’s “Stones in My Passway,” Howlin’ Wolf’s “Smokestack Lightning.”) But Murray was probably right. Bent notes and in-between notes, the key ingredients of that music, can’t be notated, because they’re not clinical examples of music; they’re clinical examples of living and minute-to-minute choice. They cut unusual paths. They are not singing from the page; they’re full of individual will. Listen to that music thinking not about sadness but about achievement and ambition and invention and care, all the things that tend to run counter to sadness, and it makes much more sense. It’s not instinctive moaning, the sound of someone running out of options, ready to curl up and die. It is learned excellence.
Flamenco, similar to the blues, is often a song of defiance and resistance, sometimes of boasting or the maintaining of human standards; it is the music of poor people memorializing, or taking a stand on everyday things that cause anger and defy logic. But it is almost unbearably tempting to call it all sadness. Partly this comes from performance style: Some flamenco singers — Manuel Agujetas, who died Christmas Day, for a good example — look like they are going to burst, and sing that way, too; they rise to the sort of shouting that can ruin a voice. And the fact that the music rarely changes its basic harmonic vocabulary suggests an extramusical idea that things will not get better, that the cantaor understands the notion of eternity and is squaring off against it.
There is no more variegated and better developed code of sadness and fatalism, and probably no better managed lie, than in heavy metal. The music itself developed in response to a modern understanding of sadness: “chronic ennui,” an idea that runs from Evagrius to the 19th-century French Romantic literary critics — Baudelaire, Sainte-Beuve — to the time when Black Sabbath was kicking in to the culture. The extreme subgenres of metal over the last 40 years can be seen as different stages of the ennui cycle: anxious boredom, objectless anxiety (black metal); frantic activity (death metal); numbness (drone or doom metal).
Metal is the fanatical generation of myth. It holds the unthinkable in hysterical awe. It runs on fear but looks like greed. It’s all inverse gospel, and the code for listening to it is as complex as gospel’s. It doesn’t give you false assurances. It tells you that wars will continue. It tells you that flooding and plagues will continue. After Slayer’s “God Hates Us All,” there’s not much room for songs about human oppressors. It wants to pull the listener down into the earth, which is of course what will happen to the listener eventually. You will find its makers warning, repeatedly, that there is not a complete intellectual framework for everything. You cannot understand the world. The closer you get to the extreme kinds of metal, the deeper you look and listen, the more the lettering appears drippy and cryptographical, the more the music sounds smeared and scratched, or massed and indistinct, or too fast to register.
It is concerned with limitations, but not “I can’t run five miles this morning”; not “I don’t see myself as a mother, I’d prefer to be a favorite auntie”; not “I had four last night, got to stop at two.” Limitations as in: What kind of order should we bother to create in our lives while knowing that human existence has been bitter since the Paleolithics? When does permanent mourning become a temptation toward the opposite: loving death, encouraging its approach?
Music from several genres that evoke a “sad” listening experience:
Nick Drake, “Pink Moon,” 1972
Mozart, String Quartet No. 19, Quatuor Ebène, from “Mozart: Dissonances,” 2011
Billie Holiday, “I’m a Fool to Want You,” from “Lady in Satin,” 1958
Etta Jones, “I’m Through With Love,” from “So Warm,” 1961
Robert Johnson, “Stones in My Passway,” 1937
Howlin’ Wolf, “Smokestack Lightning,” 1956
Slayer, “God Hates Us All,” 2001
Slayer, “Flesh Storm,” 2006
Black Sabbath, “War Pigs,” 1970