The Drop as Transversal Element (or data-driven music journalism?)

I’ve been looking for a fun example to push the boundaries of what is possible when doing data-driven journalism in our Online News unit this semester. I used Skrillex in a lecture last year to discuss affect and popular music (Lawrence Grossberg’s work is good on the way affect can be analysed in terms of ‘mattering maps’, but also check out this journal article for a different kind of engagement). Earlier this year someone posted this capture of comments on Skrillex’s Facebook account regarding the quality (or absence) of ‘the drop':
Mark Richardson at Pitchfork (music site, the bastion of indie music etc) had this to say about Skrillex, his fans and these Facebook comments:

The responses were edited down from hundreds of comments, many of which had Skrillex fans mirroring his praise of the tune. But the reason why it’s funny, and why it’s been passed around so much, is clear: These bass fiends have no ear for electronic music genius. They just want that drop.

So what is ‘the drop’?

Wikipedia:

Typically, the percussion will pause, often reducing the track to silence, and then resume with more intensity, accompanied by a dominant subbass (often passing portamento through an entire octave or more, as in the audio example). It is very common for the bass to drop at or very close to 55 seconds into the song, due to the fact that 55 seconds is just over 32 measures at the common tempo of 140 bpm.

Or urban dictionary:

The part of a dubstep tune where it gets so incomprehensibly filthy that one cannot fathom – therefore, ones mind explodes.
Person 1: “Yo dude, check out the drop in this banger”
Person 2: “Holy shit dude”

The drop is the when the beat kicks after a duration of anticipatory build up (‘intro’). The relative value of the drop or the intro is often debated (sometimes it is the ‘bounce’ that wins out). Dubstep is also known for the ‘wub’, check out this application of the below-mentioned Echo Nest API, the Wub Machine. The results can be truly horrific:

I downloaded the free iPhone app and created a wub machine dubstep version of the They Might Be Giants’ track “The Bells Are Ringing”. I laughed so hard I almost did rofl.

Skrillex is actually fed up with people talking about ‘the drop’:

Transversal blocks of musicality

What I find fascinating about the discourse of music enthusiasts and fans around ‘the drop’ is that it is largely congruent with popular music discourses at different points in history referring to the ‘swing’, the ‘riff’, the ‘beat’ (as in ‘house’ or ‘break’) and so on. Each of these elements describes a particular block of musicality that is repeated in different ways within specific genres of popular music and within specific scenes (here I am using Will Straw’s influential definition of a scene).

I don’t know what to call these blocks of musicality in general; I am sure that musicologists have a term for it or someone will invent a term. I am thinking about them following Foucault’s concept of the ‘statement’. A ‘statement’ is a kind of singularity in discourse: the distribution of statements in an archive characterises the field of (onto-epistemological) positivity for articulating ‘truth’ in scientific discourses. Although music scholars have pointed out that discursive repetition is different to ‘musematic repetition’ within an individual song, I am describing something else.

The distribution of these blocks of musicality characterises a field of (onto-affective) positivity as a condition of popular musical appreciation. I am not talking about whether or not a track is ‘good’ or ‘bad’, but that these blocks of musicality will serve as the affective condition (in the philosophical sense of causality) of musical appreciation. Within genre studies, we’d call the drop a trope of the genre dubstep. I am trying to push it a bit further however, because genre studies is largely concerned with complexities of cultural typologies. What I am interested in is the affective dimensions of these blocks of musicality and how they come to organise listening practices.

The different blocks of musicality have different affective qualities. The drop combines anticipation and a pitch of intensity. Anticipation can have negative affective qualities (dread) and positive (‘excitement’), with popular music associated with the latter. The distribution of the drop as a differentially repeated block of musicality is also a distribution of these affective qualities through the communities of practice (online, clubs, etc.). If this seems like an overly convoluted way of saying that beats are dropped in clubs, you’d be right, but I am not (only) saying that. I am suggesting that ‘the drop’ cuts across music, the bodies of listeners and the discourses of music reception (Pitchfork, or any number of other music appreciation sites).

There is a transversality to these blocks of musicality that transcends a purely musical interpretation of them. What if ‘the drop’ became popular not because of the sonorous dimension of its musicality, but because of the shared (ie social) distribution of anticipation and pitch of intensity felt that moves across a community of listeners? You not only ‘hear’ the drop, to paraphrase Adorno, you ‘hear’ the everyone-else-hearing-it. There is a social dimension of the block of musicality present in every ‘drop’. I could imagine a ‘media archeaology’ of such blocks of musicality, as a way to examine the composition of power relations characterising popular music scenes (as well as Straw’s categories such as nostalgia, etc.). The social dimension of ‘the drop’ is accidently captured in the above quoted Urban Dictionary definition. So beyond academic research, what if you could analyse the character of ‘the drop’ not in strictly musical terms, but in terms of its musical capacity for sociality as a predictor of popularity?

The possibility of data-driven music journalism?

There is UPlaya that carries out an algorithmic analysis of music submitted to compare it to previous ‘hits’ to assess whether or not it fits with its predictions of success based on previous popular music. The big player in parsing music and a great deal of associated material is The Echo Nest API. The Echo Nest is described as a ‘music intelligence platform’ and boasts 5 billion datapoints with 30 million songs and 1.5 million artists. Here is a Slideshare presentation where one of the creators of Echo Nest walks through its creation and the “pitfalls and promise of music data”. One of the more amusing uses of the Echo Nest API is this project called The Pitchfork Effect. The project in itself is very cool. I find it amusing that data analysis tools are being used to analyse the qualitative process of judging music and sound aesthetics (as well as whole range of other issues to do with political economy of music, i.e. ‘indie’ used to mean something beyond an aesthetic/marketing category). But I am thinking of something else.

Say, for example, I wanted to analyse Skrillex’s music and reception through the concept of ‘the drop’. Is an algorithmic analysis of his music tracks possible, in terms of when each track ‘drops’ and the quality of the ‘drop’? Certainly. It would be a question of exploring the relation between the anticipatory build up (‘intro’) and then ‘drop’ when the beat kicks. I’m interested in not only an analysis of the music itself but locate the music in patterns of reception. The question here would be, how does ‘the drop’ ‘drop’ (in communities of music listening practice)? Similar to Skrillex’s computational music producing ‘drops’, this would be a computational music journalism analysing meta-drops. (::diabolical cackle::)

Data could be gathered a number of ways including by way of doing a basic sentiment analysis of online commentary about the quality of the drop or number of ‘plays’ of a given track through online sites such as Last.FM. Combining both sets of data we could look for patterns/correlation between the qualitative reception of the socio-musicological ‘drop’ and the algorithmic analysis of the ‘drop’ as a block of musicality. The thesis could be tested against historical examples of ‘riffs’ and so on using different algorithmic measures for a media archaeology of such transversal ‘blocks of musicality’.

As a start here is the ‘fantracker’ data vis of all activity tracked by Musicmetric:

23 thoughts on “The Drop as Transversal Element (or data-driven music journalism?)”

  1. The drop thing is interesting. If it’s at 32 bars into the song (which we lindy hoppers often think of as 16 8s into the dance at common time and a fairly slow tempo 3 minute song), then it’s 4 phrases (a phrase is 4 8s) into the song. Most common time swing songs are 12 phrases long. So by the end of the first 4 phrases you’ll have heard the riff or head (ie the key melodic theme), and you’ll be a third of the way through the song.

    Most swing DJs are pretty good at judging how far through a 3 minute swing song is, because the first 4 phrases set things up, the middle 4 build and tell the main part of the story (and often include bridges), and the final third (or final 4 phrases) is often signalled by a shift in intensity, and’ll often feature a shout chorus. I was in a DJ battle the other night, and I knew I had to get my next song ready when I heard that last third kick in in my opponent’s last song.

    Swing music – popular music – is ridiculously conventional and formulaic. For us as dancers, this formula is really important, because it provides the structure for all the complicated improvisation that happens in a 16 piece (or smaller) band. It helps us know when the band will split up to improvise or when it will get back together to repeat a chorus or theme in unison. For swing musicians, a band leader like Basie would rely on this understanding of structure in his head arrangements. 15 human beings just making shit up, together, and producing something so highly structured yet also so improvised. We are _such_ social animals!

    Frankie Manning, one of the most famous lindy hoppers of all time, said that he had to learn to count in bars (lots of 4), and to count _at all_ when he started working with bands, because up til that point he’d been working with the feel of the song, rather than numbers.
    I’ve read some interesting stuff about what happens to partner dancers’ brains when they partner dance – the language centres and number parts can’t work as well, especially as things get complicated, because the brain is, physiologically, far too busy with the data coming in from physical contact with a partner, and the biomechanics of it all. So _feeling_ the drop is an important skill, as counting can impede creativity, skill and reaction time. Especially when you’re working at 300bpm, twice as fast as dubstep.

    If I’m DJing, then the ‘drop’ is often the moment in a song when I know whether or not I’ve really captured the dancers, because I see and feel them suddenly shift up a gear. If I’m dancing, I notice that the endorphines kick in at about the point of the drop in the first or second song – which is a finely trained response in Pavlov’s lindy hopper :D .

    So your point: “You not only ‘hear’ the drop, to paraphrase Adorno, you ‘hear’ the everyone-else-hearing-it.” is certainly accurate for swing dancers, who are profoundly social dancers. I’ve been trying to articulate what it is I feel when I’m DJing, and how exactly I know what dancers are feeling. It’s more than just visual cues (ie reading mood, fatigue, energy, etc through muscle tone, etc). When I’ve done a really good set, I feel as though I’ve danced every song. And I’ve felt every feeling the dancers have felt. And this experience is heightened if the crowd is larger. But it’s exhausting stuff. The best DJs direct not only tempo and style, but also emotional highs and lows, so dancers can emotionally as well as physically continue on for hours on end. We often talk about the first DJ for the night ‘warming a room’. Sometimes it’s literally about temperature (lots of people dancing makes a room hot and humid), but it’s really more about raising emotional temperatures – building an empty dance floor into a crowded, seething mass of adrenaline.

    When it’s a band working with dancers, the feeling is even more intense. This video is of two bands battling, within one song: http://youtu.be/zlTOv0hr3pM That’s about 30 people understanding the structure of the song intuitively, and improvising over the top. One of the musicians wrote about it here: http://www.westlakerecords.com/blog/2011/04/22/the-power-of-jazz-dclx-2011/ So that’s an entire room full of people all feeling the same feelings as some of them make music and some of them dance, until eventually 95% of them are utterly absorbed in the music-making, and totally getting off on the emotions and excitement of it all. The ‘drop’ happens at about 0.36, when the second band comes in. The fact that the bands swap in at the ‘drop’ instead of taking things up a gear kind of builds and builds the tension to a crazy level – that’s why people start going nuts and the musicians get crazy after a few swaps. There’s no resolution! No pay off! Things just keep getting more and more exciting!

    It’s not surprising that people call lindy hoppers a cult. I imagine this is what it’s like to being in a charismatic, evangelical religion. I’m fairly sure the adrenaline is key.

    The lack of cues like the drop is what characterises some of Duke Ellington’s best work. He was fucking about with these things as early as the 1930s. My favourite Ellington song ‘Rockin In Rhythm’ refuses to conform to the 4 x 8 = 1 phrase; 12 x phrases structure. And as a result it’s maddening to choreograph to, and really HARD to dance to!

    It’s no surprise a lot of musicians are also mathematicians (the dark haired pianist with glasses in the video clip above has a Phd in maths from MIT). But it’s less surprising that the mathematicians who can’t abandon structure and improvise make rubbish musicians. Or dancers.

    Finally (and sorry to babble on instead of using my own blog), the timing of the drop is a product of the early days of recording records. A standard record or ‘side’ was 3 minutes long, and wasn’t replaced by long playing records until about the 50s (I’m not sure, really – that’s too modern for me :D ). So the ‘drop’ at that 32 bar point is entirely a product of the limitations of technology that could only record songs at or less than 3 minutes.
    In real, live performances, musicians rarely kept (or keep) to that 3 minute limit.

  2. This post got me thinking about the origins of the device known as the drop. It wouldn’t surprise me if it could be traced directly back to, at least, the moments in funk music when a band leader calls for some musicians or the whole band to stop, and then a short period later, re-enter. Probably the most well known example of this being in James Brown’s Funky Drummer.

    Brown signals what he wants to do around 4:55 when he says “When I count up to four I want everyone to lay out and let the drummer go.” Following a period of building up, around 5:30 he calls for the breakdown, lets it sit for a bit, then around 20 seconds later brings everyone back in. Prince very effectively uses a similar kind of drop in order to grab the attention of his audience – see around 2:40, 3:55, and 5:10 into this clip.

    Additionally, I wonder if for James Brown, part of the reason for using such a drop would be to maintain the group concentration of his band – in your thinking, to keep the group listening to the music and to each other listening. Brown was known for maintaining discipline to the point of even fining musicians who made a mistake, perhaps his use of drops, and his general method of directing the band while on stage e.g. 30 seconds before the drop in Funky Drummer when he announces his intentions, served a practical as well as musical purpose?

    For a longer historical perspective, perhaps also consider the role of the pausing/breaking of the beat in blues music. An obvious example of this being the “stops” at the start of each vocal cycle (in this example, the hits on beats one and four of four beat bars) in this video of Elvis Presley singing Blue Suede Shoes.

    A bit tangential from your point but perhaps that can help to inspire or guide any further consideration.

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