The significance of ‘groove’ in Western popular music
The term ‘groove’ is in common usage, especially but not exclusively among musicians active in the field of popular music for whom it signifies a quality of the rhythmic feel of a piece of music. Grooves are often differentiated according to their relationships with certain styles of popular music – swing groove, funk groove, reggae groove etc. – which can then be used as descriptions or instructions for performance. In more general usage the term occurs in relation to dancing, or perhaps more specifically to movement with music that falls short of outright dancing, and bears the connotation of understanding or appreciating the rhythmic elements of music. In addition, the description ‘rare groove’ has also become one of the myriad generic categories under which recordings are retailed. However, the term’s use is rare in academic literature and it remains under-defined, its meaning flexible and vague.
Part of the reason for this may be that the study of popular music has been dominated by culturalism: the generally unspoken assumption that it is not worthy of aesthetic attention and that its sole interest is as ‘cultural text’. This has led to popular music studies often having concentrated on lyrics rather than music, style as an ensemble of elements of which music is only one, the social uses to which popular music is put, the commodity-nature of popular music and so on. Popular music has been under-researched, that is, it has been under-researched as music. (Of course the opposing tendency would be equally one-sided. There has been a move towards musicological analysis of popular music recently but little integrated historical analysis, just isolated examples of individual pieces.)
Related to this, popular music is often held not to be part of a single overall history of western music. In this respect music is in a different situation from other artforms: whatever judgements are made, it is generally conceded that popular literature and pop art are part of the histories of their respective arts, to the point where the distinction signified by the term ‘popular’ has lost much of its purchase. In music, however, this is not the case and consequently a much more rigid separation still exists between popular and classical, or popular and serious, as evidenced by radio stations, music shops, and university music departments. (In many universities, there is likely to be more popular music studied in media or cultural studies than in the music department.)
I do not argue that the term ‘popular music’ is redundant, and an aim of my research is to identity the characteristics that make it unique. Nevertheless, a rounded theorization of music ought to be able to integrate all the particular forms in which music manifests itself into a single historical and analytical framework. This may not be possible at the level of individual works. But it should be possible on a broader level, that of epochs, styles, genres and general characteristics.
This conviction appears to entail a contradiction, namely, that what we know as popular music is fully explicable as a contemporary phase in a unitary history of western music, but is at the same time different enough to warrant its own distinct category. The solution may be to think the relationship dialectically, in terms of a transformation of quantitative changes into a qualitative one.
Groove seems to me to be the key element of popular music on which many of these questions hinge. Groove is present to some degree in almost all of what we consider to be popular as a opposed to ‘classical’ or ‘serious’ music, to the extent that it might be considered as a suitable definition of popular music. (Such a definition is not my primary intention though it is worth noting that if it could be sustained it would be an essentialist definition which would cut against the culturalist and contingent collections of loose definitions of popular music in current usage.) However, some styles of popular music are more groove-orientated than others: while some give the impression of being primarily about groove, stripping away other elements of the music to a minimum, in others the groove element is little more than the addition of a back-beat played by the drums.
My project is based on an initial characterization of groove as comprising four elements, some of which have been previously commented on by other theorists but which have never been synthesized into a single theory of groove:
The first two of these are not unique to the popular music tradition which originated in the early twentieth century though I believe that their manifestation in popular music is of a more exaggerated form. The third is a feature of some other ‘folk’ musics, in particular the highly rhythmic music of (west) Africa which of course has a relationship to the popular music which developed in the USA in the early part of the twentieth century. The fourth I believe to be unique to western popular music and all four together are required to generate groove. That this results in a form of music which displays an orientation to time which is quite different from any others is an important phenomenon that requires explanation. My motivation for attempting to provide such an explanation is partly purely academic (if there is such a thing) – ie. that there is a theoretical gap that should be filled – but partly also a desire to rescue popular music from the accusation that its orientation to measured time is emblematic of its crudeness, lack of sophistication, simple functionality as dance music etc. One might argue, for instance, that an increased emphasis on rhythm may be understood as an overdue corrective to western art-music’s two hundred-year preoccupation with harmony and polyphony. At the very least, I believe that the emergence of groove demands examination on its own terms, and an explanation which does not begin from the assumption that such music is regressive or of a lower status than the classical canon.
Central to my investigation is the notion that music, like other artistic and cultural practices, is not a sphere isolated from other aspects of social life, indeed that in some way, the forms which artistic practices take will loosely correspond with, or refract, those of society more generally. On one hand, music certainly has its own history, but on the other, its history is bound up with a wider history of the society of which it forms a part. The materialist aesthetics of Theodore Adorno are relevant here. The precise connections between art and society are often less easily demonstrated in the case of music than in, for example, literature, which clearly draws its themes and material from the surrounding world. It seems a difficult task to define, for example, fugue’s relationship to eighteenth century European society. However, the fact that time is at once an element of music and of social life may render such an investigation more feasible.
A number of questions flow from this starting point. Is music’s time the same time as ‘ordinary’ time? Can we speak of ordinary time or must we distinguish between different times – objective time, subjective time, clock time, psychological time? Should we think of music, because it is a ‘temporal art’ which requires time for its performance, as simply existing in time, against a backdrop of time, or does music manipulate time for aesthetic purposes?
There is of course a long philosophical history of debates about the nature of time. My research is not intended to be an intervention in that debate, still less to offer a definitive answer to the question “What is time?”, partly because I doubt whether any such answer exists. But to trace some of the philosophical arguments about the nature of time may provide insights into the ways in which the experience of time, or time-consciousness, has fluctuated throughout history. It also seems reasonable to suppose that one of the areas in which this varying consciousness has been manifested is in artistic representation, in particular, in music. This hypothesis does not assume that such manifestations are generated consciously by composers and musicians and understood explicitly by listeners. Indeed, what may make them a more reliable guide to the time-consciousness of social groups or society as a whole is precisely their unconscious, implicit nature. Looked at this way, music may be viewed as a tool for socio-historical investigation as much as the object of study in its own right.
The history of western music from the Renaissance to the present day may be roughly conceived as displaying a progressive metrication, that is, the increasing importance of meter as an organizing principle. However, within that trajectory there is a counter-tendency during the second half of the nineteenth century in which meter is stretched to breaking point, as though the musical material were struggling to free itself from meter’s confining force. At the turn of the twentieth century, there appears to be a divide within music over this question. The ‘serious’ music current, now represented by the modernist and avant-gardist currents, almost exclusively eschews an audible sense of meter, and increasingly beyond that towards music without pulse. Even those who incorporate elements of folk musics into their modernist style often subvert the metricality of these sources by introducing irregularity. The philosophers Bergson and Deleuze are among those who articulate conceptions of time that appear to endorse this anti-metrical aesthetic. The alternative current is that represented by popular music, just beginning to emerge out of black American styles, in particular piano ragtime with its heavily pulsed left hand accompaniment set against syncopated right hand rhythms. This inaugurates a succession of overlapping popular styles and genres all of which defy the modernist trend by reaffirming and intensifying the metric sense and adopting groove as their central principle. Thus one way of characterizing the rupture between highbrow and lowbrow, serious and popular, which dominated music throughout the twentieth century is with reference to the two musics’ distinctive orientations towards time.
We are confronted, then, with two questions. What is it about collective experience at the dawn of the twentieth century in the US and other industrialized parts of the world and the time-consciousness generated by it that produces the phenomenon of groove? Why is there a divergence such that two temporally distinct aesthetic responses are produced? (Does each current represent a different aesthetic response to a single time-consciousness or is there a split in time-consciousness as well?) Sociological theories of time, such as those of Gurvitch and E.P. Thompson will be relevant here.
My definition of groove requires elaboration into a substantive theory, complete with musical examples. This will involve a survey of the standard theories of meter and rhythm such as those of Meyer and Cooper. The two key areas which are crucial to the distinctive nature of groove concern the measuring of time by a isochronal pulse, and the question of backbeat. Any explanation of the latter would seem necessarily to refute the widely accepted understanding of meter as a function of strong and weak beats in which the strongest marks the first beat of a bar. The work of musicologist Zuckerkandl in providing an alternative explanation based on the idea of a ‘metric wave’ will be helpful here. In order to tackle the question of measurability, some engagement with psychological theories of time perception and consciousness will be necessary, beginning with the explanation of Fraisse as to how it is possible for humans to measure regular intervals of time in the first place. Fraisse’s theory that oscillation is the key to this would seem to correspond with Zuckerkandl’s oscillatory model of musical meter and implies that all regular meter is the product of binary oscillation occurring at each level of the metric hierarchy. It is possible, then, to conceive groove as a technique which exploits this phenomenon to the full, with the additional proviso that, to the extent that groove undermines or subverts this process, it does so by reversing its polarity rather than by introducing irregularity as other musics have done.
Backbeat is the element that distinguishes groove from the return to pulsed music signalled by minimalism. Though based on isochronal pulse, such music does not tend to employ the hierarchical levels that generate a strong sense of meter, resulting in a temporal sense which Kramer refers to as ‘moment time’, a kind of temporal stasis. By contrast, groove’s multilayered meter combined with backbeat creates a strong sense of the progress of time, a heightened awareness of the present’s position within the continuum of time. (A question that remains here is to what extent does such a temporal focus depend on the continuous measurement of time which groove-based musics seem to provide?) At the same time I will argue that, contrary to this representing a capitulation to the measured, objective time of industrial society (Adorno), the elements of syncopation, often generated through improvisation, are the manifestation of a subjective pole within the dialectic of objective, temporal inevitability and subjectively controlled contingency.
The final part of my thesis will ask in what ways this sense of time can be correlated to the socio-historic juncture of the twentieth century and will attempt to draw some political conclusions. Is there a connection between the sharpened sensibility to immediate (or micro-) temporality of which metric music may be an expression and that of macro-temporality – history?