Hesselink (2013), Radiohead’s “Pyramid Song”: Ambiguity, Rhythm, and Participation

Link to article: http://mtosmt.org/issues/mto.13.19.1/mto.13.19.1.hesselink.php

This article brings together several topics and issues we have discussed this term, including issues of beat perception, metric dissonance, and the influence of individual preferences and experience. Read the article, keeping the following questions in mind:

  • What is the author’s “research question” and how is it situated in the context of rhythm research?
  • How is “ambiguity” defined and how does the author’s definition compare to London’s?
  • How does the author approach his research question methodologically?
  • What are the main findings?
  • How might this question be further explored experimentally?

In preparation for class discussion on Tuesday, April 23, post a short  (1-2 paragraphs) response by Monday, April 22, 11:59PM. The goal of this post is not to answer the guiding questions, but to share your initial reaction to the contents of this article, including questions it raises about music perception, empirical methods, and any other issue relevant to our exploration of rhythm cognition. (Late posts will be downgraded; responses posted after 2:30PM on Tuesday, April 23 will not be credited.)

9 thoughts on “Hesselink (2013), Radiohead’s “Pyramid Song”: Ambiguity, Rhythm, and Participation

  1. The author’s research question seems to be how rhythmic ambiguity in a pop/rock song can be a powerful force for audience participation. He explains that pop/rock has had lots of success through semantic ambiguity in that the vagueness of lyrics, musical ideas, and visual associations allows for listeners to personalize the meaning of songs for themselves. Hesselink says that in typical pop/rock songs listeners are able to entrain to a specific meter very quickly, and entraining in this way is a highly pleasurable experience. In Radiohead’s “Pyramid Song,” meter is withheld, so the listener is challenged to seek out a meter. Hesselink claims that in this way, the listeners interacts with the piece more by going the “extra mile” to search out a meter, a process which gives the song a whole new sense of personal meaning to the listener. Furthermore, Hesselink cites research that claims that ambiguity is often very pleasing for listeners as long as it provides some sort of resolution.
    Hesselink based his research around responses from participants drawn from six print publications, 13 websites, and 261 individual web entries relating to the rhythm and meter of “Pyramid Song.” Responses were sorted into groups who thought there was an absence of meter, and those who commented on the quality of the meter. Most listeners figured out a meter based on the drum and piano interaction in the second verse, and then assumed that this was also the meter in the first verse. However, the there were those who thought they were completely separate meters. Hesselink goes on in the article to discuss all the different types of metric responses people gave (ex: non isochronous, isochronous, compound meters, 4/4 with swung 8th notes, mixed meters, etc). The main findings of the article were that rhythmic “ambiguity in the form of underdetermination created a rich forum for participation as listeners grappled with the song’s rhythmic organization and developed strategies for entrainment,” and that with the new highly connected Internet communities, problem solving and looking at questions has been opened up to a sort of mass collaboration. This article opens the door for further research using mass sourcing of Internet communities. It also begs the questions of whether there is something intrinsically intriguing and participation eliciting about ambiguous meters, or if looking deeply into a song in general is what pleases listeners.

  2. Thanks for the comment Jenner. A note for future posts: Your posts don’t need to be as long as Jenner’s: I am mainly looking for reactions to get us started for class discussion (see instructions in original post).

  3. I think that much of London’s investigation of rhythmic perception has been centered around the expectation of pulse. Hesselink’s account of Radiohead’s “Pyramid Song” both conforms to this concept, and yet at the same time challenges to broaden the necessity of fulfilling rhythmic expectations. Hesselink mentions that the song features rhythmic underdetermination leading to London’s “metric vagueness” (a feeling of regularity, but a regularity that is difficult to quantify). And yet Radiohead’s “metric ambiguity” doesn’t quite lead in a linear manner to a resolution of the ambiguity in which the meter is clearly presented. Rather than the listener needing to impose a metric context on the song, as London tends to favor, Radiohead creates more of a wavering sense that breaks down any expectations.

    Hesselink quotes Thomson in saying that the rhythmic skew creates a temporality out of the ordinary experience, and in this way, the listener adopts a less rigid sense of meter. I think that Hesselink’s argument is that people can adopt different metric interpretations, forming their interpretations, is a bit misguided because listeners who are merely listening to the song rather than trying to rationalize the song are not consciously constructing a rhythmic scheme. It may be more informative to examine how individuals spontaneously react in different ways through physical gesture in live audience settings to truly gauge how people adopt this less rigid sense of meter.

  4. This study is less quantitative/controlled than many of the studies we looked at and are attempting to emulate, but it still maintains an amazing rigor, perhaps even surpassing that of some cognition studies. If found it fascinating how he used and coded thousands of responses of people around the world to represent archetypes of how listeners interact with this striking instance of metric instability. It’s this crowdsourcing which makes the study so appealing, that many peoples’ viewpoints are represented and analyzed to show patterns in cognition and understanding without putting hundreds of people in a lab, under a microscope. And to add to the “legitness,” he peppers in quotes from academicians about metric ambiguity and the various ways it is perceived.

    Also, the recurring conflict between “don’t think it, just feel it,” and trying desperately to figure out the meter shows the emotional and intellectual investment the ambiguity brought out in listeners. This occurs not only between listeners, but internally; as Jane says, “Ever since I realised that after hearing it 3 or 4 times, I have to deliberately try to make myself not realise it, in order for it to sound as good as it used to, which is difficult but possible. I preferred back when I thought it was some kind of weird alien time signature, lol” (12). There is a sense of worry that overanalyzing could mar some extrasensory meaning from the song, but there is also an insatiable curiosity for something so different from what we are used to hearing on the radio.

  5. From Harrison: “The thing that struck me as most interesting about this study was its unique take on the rhythmic properties of popular music. This is the first study I have read that has decided to view the presence of rhythmic ambiguity along the lines of its effect on social discussion and a specific niche of culture (the internet). However, I found myself feeling distinctly dissapointed in the conclusive stance over what I found to be inconclusive evidence. The author’s conclusion is worded in an absolute manner “the community that coalesced around the rhythm/meter of “Pyramid Song” represents a diverse and energetic body (that demonstrates patience, etc.). I could not help but think that the nature of this conclusion is considerably subjective. The author labels the community as patient, sophisticated, etc. based on highly selective evidence of insight in a community. No statistics are given, based on the nature of discussion posts for example, that can objectify this analysis. Furthermore, the author explicitly states that he is analyzing the “community that coalesced around the rhythm/meter of ‘Pyramid Song'”. However, I would argue that the subject population he analyzed was simply the community that socializes through the medium of the internet. There are likely many people who are equally intrigued by this song but not motivated to brind discussion to an online forum.

    Despite these qualms, I do think that as a whole, this article and study is very interesting in its approach and question, and is most certainly very thought provoking.”

  6. What is most interesting to me is why such a thing as ambiguous rhythms even exist in the first place, and what they tell us about the mind works. The idea is that there are multiple configurations of stimuli in the world that can lead to a given percept, and so your mind has to use certain heuristics (or assumptions) about the world to distinguish among them. Most of the time, the contexts in which the stimuli occur serve to disambiguate among the different possible percepts, whereas the multiplicity of such stimuli can be better appreciated when they are presented in isolation– such as in a song like Radiohead’s.

    In other words, ambiguous stimuli remind us that what we perceive is not simply a matter of opening our eyes, but rather, the mind is constantly making assumptions about the world and this influences what we perceive.

  7. This is a fascinating article. I was intrigued by its sociological backdrop – the community of strangers which “coalesced” over the metric ambiguity in “Pyramid Song.” This kind of music scholarship is, I think, both rare and necessary. By surveying the myriad responses to and interpretations of “Pyramid Song,” Hesselink “decenters” his analysis and our understanding. I imagine the Internet makes ethnomusicologists (/sociomusicologists?) feel like kids in a candy store – if it doesn’t, it should. The internet is a wonderful resource for the sociology of musical understanding and taste, and something that should certainly inform our understanding of these important subjects.

    On a totally completely separate note:

    I’d like to challenge the notion that musical ambiguity is pleasurable/rewarding. I think it’s obvious (and Hesselnik knows) that the interaction between predictability and ambiguity is much more complicated. We know that regularity (i.e., ease of entrainment) is pleasurable, too. Both ambiguity (which is musically “difficult”) and predictability (which is “easy”), because they make us feel like more or less “successful” listeners, must be associated with a complex set of emotions involving the feeling of being in control/not being in control, being an active vs. a passive listener, engaging intellectually with the music vs. submitting to the immediate phenomenological surface of the music…. etc.

    I think a really effective musical strategy – one that Radiohead employs in “Pyramid Song” – is to strike a delicate balance between ambiguity and ease of listening. Music that is too simple encourages passive listening; music that is overly complicated might encourage us to “give up,” (at least metrically/rhythmically), also rendering us passive. Radiohead makes use of ambiguity but keeps other musical elements relatively predictable and “easy”; despite its complexity, the song is accessible. They have succeeded, perhaps more than any other band (ever…), in making complex music that is accessible, music that encourages active/inquisitive/intellectually engaged listening but keeps the listener “confident” in his/her musical “abilities.”

  8. My initial reaction to this article was positive. I was impressed by the ways in the which the author demonstrates the role of personality and biological factors in music perception. Specifically, Hesselink shows that our interpretation of music in general and rhythm in particular is based on our own makeup and preferences. It may be argued that such music or rhythmic variability of interpretation is most pronounced in music that has metrical ambiguity or as the author states it “opacity” of rhythm. As an illustration, the article focuses on Radiohead’s “Pyramid Song” which contains little clearly defined rhythm and no beat. In other words, this piece serves as an example of a song with metrical ambiguity. Hesselink argues that we develop strategies to synchronize, based on our biological and cognitive needs to entrain. In fact, the results of his research indicate that the majority of respondents “discovered” some kind of meter in “Pyramid Song,” although the author implies that the range of rhythm interpretations, e.g., simple, mixed, non-isochronous, reflects the obvious variability in the psychology of the respondents. What I find most interesting, then, is how a metrically ambiguous piece can be used as a kind of projective personality test that reveals not only elements of the music but distinctive aspects of the listener’s dynamics. Likewise, I find the author’s emphasis on imagination appealing… it was Einstein himself who claimed imagination is more important than knowledge.

    Hesselink’s research that relies on unedited responses of large numbers of participants taken from publications and websites seems to boast distinct advantages over what is referred to as “individual analytic engagements” often used in music theory studies. Such a broad-based approach appears better able to capture the diversity and complexity of a range of individual responses to music, as reflected in the variety of data from audience interpretations of “Pyramid Song.” The author meticulously categorizes the data in terms of such parameters as types of meter experienced. Again, the author shows how rhythm represents not only an aspect of music but an interpretation by the listener. Although the author’s research design seems well suited to show the range of responses to “Pyramid Song,” one might have concerns about the representativeness of his samples drawn from websites and publications as well as his analysis of the data, based on some degree of subjectivity. Such research might be further enriched by drawing on other samples such as subjects selected as volunteers in advance rather than retrospective analysis of websites. Obviously use of other musical pieces in addition to “Pyramid Song” including those that are more or less metrically ambiguous might yield more generalizable results as well as show the relationship between degree of metrical ambiguity and range of metrical interpretation.

  9. (Sorry this is so late – I had problems accessing the blog yesterday!)

    I thought this article was particularly interesting because, unlike so many of the articles we have read this semester, this study is written from an ethnomusicological perspective (rather than a psychological or empirical one). Hesselink was evaluating and summarizing preexisting responses to a preexisting song rather than conducting his own study on the matter; this of course made the article much more ecologically valid than most of the research papers we have read so far, since it is essentially based on real-world experiences of music. To me, Hesselink’s paper represents a vital intersection between ethnomusicological/anthropological studies and music psychology, and could provide inspiration for future empirical studies on metrical ambiguity as well.

    I was especially interested by the point that Hesselink makes that Radiohead tends to use ambiguity as a way to give their listeners and fans agency, to leave the interpretation of the music up to them and thus empower their fans to take part in the artistic process themselves. It was certainly striking just how much conversation had taken place with regard to the meter of the song. However, despite the metrical ambiguity in the piece, I thought it was interesting that there seemed to be relative agreement on the tone and emotional content of the song. I am interested in whether the property of metrical ambiguity in and of itself contributed to the sense of “aimless wandering” or “ambience” that many of the listeners seemed to report, or whether this song would have produced this response regardless of the metrical content.

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