"Oh, this song is very tri/quad/oct/rectangular"
April 17, 2006 7:33 AM   Subscribe

Please define "angular" as an adjective for music.
posted by Homeskillet Freshy Fresh to Education (35 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Staccato and energetic.
posted by jjg at 7:43 AM on April 17, 2006

I don't have a scientific definition, but to me, I always think of angular in regards to music as "stop and start" or "jerky". Unpredictable. This is probably a bad example but some of it I consider angular, especially when it gets to the mid-way point.
posted by dobbs at 7:46 AM on April 17, 2006

Tempo changes. Lots of abrupt tempo changes that work together to create a fascinating piece.
posted by mediareport at 7:49 AM on April 17, 2006

I've seen it most used for early post-punk and new wave: think early XTC. Jagged, jarring guitar chords which really shouldn't work together, but do.
posted by scruss at 7:52 AM on April 17, 2006

Everyone is on the right track, but I think it most directly refers to the shape of the melody. Think of a song like Heart and Soul, where the notes are next to each other (i.e., a scalar melody). You can more or less tell what's coming next. Then listen to a Thelonious Monk solo. Staccato and energetic, definitely, but the notes are all over the place -- if you wrote it down on staff paper, it would literally be angular instead of smooth.
posted by danb at 7:52 AM on April 17, 2006

Two bands that typify "angular" to me are Helium and Gang of Four--both for their jarring, jerky usage of chords per scruss' description.
posted by LionIndex at 7:56 AM on April 17, 2006

In terms of classical music at least, danb is closest. In simple terms, melodies are either angular or stepwise. In stepwise melodies the tune moves literally by step, or very small leaps like a 3rd. An angular melody is one in which the melody moves by bigger leaps, often of dissonant intervals such as a 7th, and in different directions. If you were to do a "join-the-dots" thing and draw lines between each note on a stave, the resulting line would have lots of sharp angles rather than a more gently changing line.
posted by Lotto at 7:59 AM on April 17, 2006

Also, as pieces which contain angular melodies tend to be Modern, other modernist aspects such as harmonic dissonance, complex rhythms etc are likely to be present.
posted by Lotto at 8:00 AM on April 17, 2006

in music theory its definitly referring to the melody, angular music doesnt just step around on a scale but jumps around a lot.
posted by yeahyeahyeahwhoo at 8:03 AM on April 17, 2006

Telecasters involved usually.
posted by fire&wings at 8:09 AM on April 17, 2006

I think some of you are on the wrong track. First, the terms for melodic motion are conjunct (stepwise) and disjunct (involving leaps).

Angular music may feature disjunct melodies, but I don't think that's really what "angular" is about. Most "good" melodies mix conjunct and disjunct motion.

I agree that "angular" describes music that is energetic, but it also has to be jarring in some other way. I suppose starts and stops and tempo changes fit as well. But I think of angular as being associated with a band like The Pixies (and later Nirvana), who didn't tend to do those things, but instead played loud music with big, harsh guitar sounds (another important feature) and often dissonant or unusual choices of harmony. I think that dissonant is the most synonymous term here, for different meanings of dissonant. Sometimes it's just a single non-diatonic note or chord, sometimes it's more than that, but the music has to have a "rough" texture, some sense of unresolved tension, which is what dissonant means. I think the non-diatonic element is quite important, too.
posted by ludwig_van at 8:24 AM on April 17, 2006

The term makes me think of Thelonious Monk (and I notice danb had the same reaction). He always considered himself a modern musician - along the lines of what Picasso and the other cubists were doing with their painting. He incorporates a lot of dissonance in his playing, but it comes together beautifully.

It brings to mind Duchamp's Nude Descending a Staircase. Both can readily be described as "angular" but are not, to my mind anyway, "harsh".

I'm not a musician, so I can't put it in more technical language. And I realize that I haven't defined the term, really. All I can do (and perhaps all anyone can do) is come up with metaphors that shed light on the relationship between what is a physical term and an auditory experience (which isn't physical in quite the same sense).
posted by aladfar at 8:58 AM on April 17, 2006

Lack of reverb is fairly common on the postpunk-influenced stuff, too.
posted by mikeh at 9:13 AM on April 17, 2006

I'd disagree with ludwig_van. I'd never apply angular to Nirvana and probably not to the Pixies. As people said above, it generally refers to post-punk music like Gang of Four & Wire, and followers/ripoffs, like Elastica. In fact, big guitars are, to me, antithetical to angular music.
posted by dame at 9:42 AM on April 17, 2006

posted by Dean King at 9:49 AM on April 17, 2006

Yeah, I'm with Dean King. First band the popped in my head was Autechre.
posted by vernondalhart at 10:01 AM on April 17, 2006

I'd disagree with ludwig_van. I'd never apply angular to Nirvana and probably not to the Pixies.

Well I'm not trying to be a prescriptivist here, but the term is frequently used that way.

I don't see how big guitars could possibly be antithetical to angular music. The operative part of the angular metaphor, in my opinion, is the idea of an object with a rough, uneven surface, or a figure with lines jutting out awkwardly. I think it's more a descriptor of musical materials (harmonies, melodic choices, rhythms) than specific textures, although it's commonly associated with certain sounds.
posted by ludwig_van at 10:06 AM on April 17, 2006

The Pixies don't do stops and starts, or tempo changes? Is this a different Pixies to the band the rest of us knows?

I'd agree with dame on this one – it's not so much big guitars, which seem too chunky, in sound terms, to really be angular. If something sounds "angular" I'd take that to mean (and this is depending, of course, on any other adjectives being employed) spare, jagged chords or hooks; melodies which jerk up and down the musical scale, or which initially are jarring or dissonant. In addition to the already mentioned Wire, Gang Of Four &c., it makes me think of James Chance, or The Futureheads, and all the other post-punk devotees kicking about at the moment.
posted by Len at 10:08 AM on April 17, 2006

Wow, the angular that I know (which is more or less synonomous with disjunct melody) can be extrapolated much farther than I knew. This is good stuff. I always wonder about what those durned music critics are talking about.
posted by danb at 10:11 AM on April 17, 2006

I'm not familiar with the definition that's pretty close to "dissonant," but apparently it's fairly common. I'm with the other guys that it can mean a more rhythmic trait, especially when explicitly applied that way ("angular rhythms"). For instance, the rhythm guitar in Talking Heads' Moon Rocks is a perfect example.
posted by abcde at 10:35 AM on April 17, 2006

(The distorted one, not the more mild one in the left channel.)

I'd certainly qualify the postpunk style too.
posted by abcde at 10:41 AM on April 17, 2006

The Pixies don't do stops and starts, or tempo changes? Is this a different Pixies to the band the rest of us knows?

Heh. It's just they aren't what I think of when I think "angular." Hence, "I" and "probably."

Anyway, ludwig_van, I'd say angular implies the spareness Len references. Which is partly why I think it's odd to apply it to the Pixies. Besides, you know sometimes people use things incorrectly.
posted by dame at 11:02 AM on April 17, 2006

For me, it's Slint. One of the problems with "angular" is that it's subjective. While the Pixies don't sound particularly angular to me (there's too many melodic surf guitars), they might to Ludwig. Monk is a good one to mention, as he's been called "angular" for a long time. I think that some of it does come down to staccato, but I think the combination of staccato and discordant melodies is what I think of. If we're naming Talking Heads albums, which often get hit with "angular," then we're looking at '77 or Fear of Music. Having a metallic timbre to sounds helps them sound more "angular" too.
(And now I have the opening riff to "At Home He Feels Like a Tourist" stuck in my head).
posted by klangklangston at 11:08 AM on April 17, 2006

Heh. It's just they aren't what I think of when I think "angular." Hence, "I" and "probably."

Oh, I was more talking about ludwig_van's reasons for describing the Pixies as angular.

On the other hand: some of Joey Santiago's guitar playing could be angular – all those clipped chords, the abrupt jumps in pitch. Nirvana angular, though? Nah. Like you say, the sounds too big, too thick to be angular. Angular implies an ability to change direction (of melody) very quickly; if your guitars are loaded with distortion and reverb, that's not really going to happen. It'd be like trying to ask an 18 wheeler truck to suddenly slalom through traffic cones meant for a Mini. If that makes sense.

Oh, and how I forgot to mention Talking Heads until this point I don't know.
posted by Len at 11:21 AM on April 17, 2006

A lot of that horrible "math rock" is angular. Don Caballero being #1 on that list.

Shudder To Think, Gang of Four, Wire and Les Savy Fav are all good examples.

And though Nirvana may be rough, they were in no way angular. Most of their beats were just too simple and straight forward to be angular in nature.
posted by DieHipsterDie at 11:25 AM on April 17, 2006

Oh yeah, though U2 is in no way angular, The Edge's playing definately was. As someone else mentioned, so was Joey Santiago.
posted by DieHipsterDie at 11:27 AM on April 17, 2006

I'd agree with DieHipsterDie. Don Cab is definately the first band that comes to mind when I think "angular" .

I tend to think of angular as being applicable to melody, rhythm, and
timbre. An angular melody being one with large steps, particular somewhat non-diatonic steps. An angular rhythm could be oddly syncopated or in an odd time with the odd bits emphasized. An angular timbre being trebly, cold, with lots of attack.

Since Don Cab tends to cover pretty much all of the above, a great
posted by alikins at 11:43 AM on April 17, 2006

The Pixies don't do stops and starts, or tempo changes? Is this a different Pixies to the band the rest of us knows?

Admittedly my familiarity with The Pixies oeuvre has some gaps, no, I can't think of any songs with tempo changes. Most of their tunes are pop songs at heart. The description that I was responding to made me imagine math rock bands, as DieHipsterDie alludes to.

And guys, I didn't decide that The Pixies should be described as angular. But I'm telling you that lots of critics describe them that way.

And again I don't think it's so much about rhythm as melody and harmony. That is, rhythm plays apart in it, but I can't imagine a rhythm alone being described as angular. I don't think it has anything to do with "being able to change direction quickly." That's being nimble or agile. It's about playing a chord or a melody where everything is peachy except for those one or two pungent, unexpected notes.

Nirvana and The Pixies has lots of songs like that. Some weezer stuff, especially Pinkerton (and weezer was very influenced by The Pixies). Early-middle Radiohead, too. The intro to Electioneering, from OK Computer (even though it sounds more like a track from The Bends, which had lots of angular tunes) always has a very angular sound in my mind.
posted by ludwig_van at 11:58 AM on April 17, 2006

Also, I meant to say this; besides "dissonance" in general, I think a more specific way of describing what I'm talking about is chromaticism. Music doesn't have to be chromatic to be angular, but that's one thing that often characterizes it. And I don't mean full-out chromatic, just employing chromaticism in some way. Another good example I just thought of is Radiohead's "My Iron Lung."
posted by ludwig_van at 12:00 PM on April 17, 2006

i'd like to nominate Don Cabellero as an apt candidate for the label "angular." (me thinks this math-tangent-ful instrumental stuff exists in the tense waters between angularity and sweet melody, but perhaps that's just me).
posted by garfy3 at 12:51 PM on April 17, 2006

Ludwig, I think the source of our difference is the angle we're coming at it from. When most people who listen to indie music (but don't know much about music in an academic or fundamental sense--that is beyond what it sounds like to them) talk about angular, they are talking about post-punk and mathy stuff. They aren't looking for the musical explanation.

But they do not mean Weezer, Radiohead, or Nirvana. The Pixies is arguable.
posted by dame at 1:07 PM on April 17, 2006

Again dame, I've heard the term used by music writers for those bands many times. But the usage makes sense to me, so I'm trying to explain what I think those writers are referring to. I don't write for a music publication, and rarely use the word angular when describing music.

I also think that there are enough similarities between the groups in question that they could all be reasonably called angular. Just because they're in different genres doesn't mean the same adjective can't accurately describe all of them.
posted by ludwig_van at 1:24 PM on April 17, 2006

Here's a good example; I believe this text originated from allmusic.com, but it also appears on mtv.com and approximately a million web sites with a little bio blurb for weezer:

"As one of the most popular groups to emerge in the post-grunge alternative rock aftermath Weezer received equal amounts of criticism and praise for their hook-heavy guitar pop. Drawing from the heavy power pop of arena rockers like Cheap Trick and the angular guitar leads of the Pixies Weezer leavened their melodies with doses of '70s metal learned from bands like Kiss."

But again, I'm not saying it isn't also used to refer to post-punk and math-rock. I'm saying it's a vague musical quality that's independent of a single genre, and has been used to describe many Pixies-influenced alt-rock bands (which Nirvana and weezer are and Radiohead was once).
posted by ludwig_van at 1:37 PM on April 17, 2006

But see ludwig, they're just using angular there to describe the "guitar leads," not the sound as a whole. So yeah, they have angular guitars, but the bigness makes the music not angular as a whole.

I don't know if you'll see this, but I enjoyed this discussion as a whole.
posted by dame at 5:48 AM on April 18, 2006

Thanks for the illumination, everyone.
posted by Homeskillet Freshy Fresh at 9:53 AM on April 18, 2006

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