Why is all music in 4/4?

(December 12, 2021)

It is a favorite pastime for music aficionados (where music aficionado = someone who listens to something other than Top 40 and knows two things about music theory) to bemoan the tragic state of modern music, specifically the fact that everything sounds the same. Same chord progressions, rhythms, song structure. The reason why this happened is fairly obvious: the genesis of a music industry created an optimization problem, and we're living in a time where this is a mostly solved problem. It's cheaper to produce a thousand items from a plastic injection mould than carve each piece by hand. It's more scalable to sell the same music globally than cultivate local traditions.

But there is a second, more technical why question we could ask: why did modern music arrive at the specific qualities it arrived at? I want to posit a potential, partial reason for why all songs on the radio are in a 4/4 time signature. The idea to write this came to while thinking about whether Polish traditional music could have evolved into something popular with the modern masses, the way Negro spirituals evolved into blues, evolved into rock.

Much of Polish music, before it became replaced by Western influences, was based on 3/4 rhythms. The wild, trance-like spinning of the mazurek and oberek, or the slower, more waltz-like kujawiak are all counted in 3. Why could these rhythms not survive the musical revolutions of the mid 20th century?

It is not for a lack of energy and liveliness in the music. Just look at the sort of a musical fire an old man from a small village can spark up with a fiddle: It's not even necessarily the crazy, non uniform rhythms of the music that would have been a problem. Should the mazurek have been destined to influence modern popular music, the industry would have watered down and simplified its complexities for the shopping center visitor's ears. That of course would have been a great disservice to the music and I'm glad it didn't happen, but it was possible.

The problem I see is technical, and comes down to the fundamental design of the mazurek, its purpose being contrary to what is necessary for modern popular success. So let's first talk about the technical requirements of modern music.

During the 20th century music became an entertainment product for individuals. It is a music you listen to on the radio while cleaning the house, in headphones on a commute. You don't go to a concert just to spend time with friends, but in large part to have an individual experience of the music. To say "I was there, I heard them, I saw them". Of course there is still a social aspect to concert-going, but in centuries past, it was the primary aspect of music making. It was a social glue and lubricant in the same way as alcohol. These days when you go to a concert, you sit or stand in your own spot, facing the stage, and experiencing the music on your own, inside your own mind, inside your own body. Maybe jumping up and down with the rest of the crowd, but you're doing the jumping by yourself.

You can't jump to an oberek in a mosh pit under the stage. It simply won't work. If you jump on every beat, it will be too fast. If once a measure, it's going to be awkward and too slow. Either way, it's just not going to feel right. The oberek is a dance fundamentally designed to be danced spinning with a partner. That's what the accents guide you towards. There is a flywheel effect of one partner leading in one measure, the other in the other measure. It simply is not a music for individuals. And that's a good thing.

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