Music is the best.
So is delayed-gratification.
If you’re an adult–a successful one, I mean, regardless of what it is you have found success at–you are likely familiar with and practice the concept of delayed gratification, which is itself a function of self-control.
By this, I mean the idea that you forego a short-term pleasure or gain now so that you can set yourself up for better, more lasting pleasure or gain in the future.
This can also be thought of as long-term thinking (eternity sure is a long time, don’t you think?).
Or you can think of it as the future vale of something, such as money, the idea being that a dollar is worth more in the future than it is now, thanks to, let’s say, investing it.
Or maybe delayed gratification can be seen as avoiding a Pyrrhic victory. See, in 280 and 279 B.C., King Pyrrhus of Epirus, a region of modern-day Greece, defeated the Romans in two battles. However, these battles inflicted such heavy losses on his own army that Pyrrhus is reported to have said that any more such victory would undo him.
Pyrrhus later lost the war.
So what does all this have to do with music?
A lot, really. The concept of delayed gratification can be applied to art in general in that it’s all about rhythm and timing–think set-up and payoff.
What better medium than music to discuss this?
The thought came to me the other day as I listened to the following song, “The Carpenter and the Dainty Bride” by Primus. It’s a long one, but it might be one of the band’s best.
If you made it to the end, you heard what I meant. Though up-tempo, the song is a slow burner, staying relatively quiet and moody until that big buildup in the middle where the heavy guitar comes in…and then goes nowhere.
“Argh!” your ear says, pretending for a moment that it can talk. “I was expecting a crescendo! An explosion! A catharsis!”
In other words, resolution, or the payoff.
But the song pulls back, teasing your ear in a manner that can be related to an act I’m sure you’re all familiar with and has much in common with how music works.
So the song continues, and at the end we hear that same build-up. Anticipation grows and shivers run along our skin as we wait for it, that climax we expected to hear, wondering if we’ll just be teased again until…
There are the drums! The guitars! The frenzy! That’s what we expected to hear!
And if we had heard this earlier, it would have nowhere near the same impact it does at the end of the song.
It’s an awesome concept. And it explains why so much punk, metal, and other heavy music bores me. There’s little subtlety or artfulness. It’s just a raging inferno, all the time instead of controlled bursts from a flamethrower.
A raging musical inferno can be great! As long as your songs aren’t a million years long (note: all times are approximate).
Mastodon is good at this since their ragers tend to be precise. Same with the Ramones or the Dead Kennedys (“I LIKE SHORT SONGS!”). And though I’m not a huge fan, I have to tip my hat to Tool, who are at times surprisingly effective at this.
One heavy band also adept at this nuance thing is Faith No More. I could pick a bunch of examples from across their career, but here are two from 2015’s excellent “comeback” album, Sol Invictus: “Separation Anxiety” and “Cone of Shame.”
Both songs sound like they’re going somewhere, but are stuck in second gear.
Until the the end.
Reaching back into the groove-yard of yesteryear’s hits, we find The Who. Typically slagged for being overly bombastic, here is the oft-played “Baba O’Rielly,” a surprisingly effective example of musical delayed gratification in action.
You’re hearing the piano and bass play those three chords again and again, waiting for something to happen.
And then the guitar chimes in. Boy, does it chime.
(Note: Feel free to windmill your arm as you play air guitar. I won’t tell.)
What happens if the payoff never comes? How does that work? Can it work?
Yes. In the hands of skilled songwriters and musicians, it can work shockingly well. Take “The Hero’s Return” from Roger Waters’ swan song with the band, 1983’s off-neglected follow-up to The Wall, The Final Cut.
When those snare drums hit like gunshots, you expect the song to take off. But instead, it pulls back even more, making an already somber song more distant, leaving you frustrated and a little bit confused.
It’s a conscious choice made by the songwriter. Here’s why it works.
This song, like the whole album, is about the lyrics (which is, in fact, a common criticism of this album). Here, our narrator, a World War II vet who is actually the mean teacher from The Wall, can’t express his feelings about what he saw during the war, not even to his wife:
Sweetheart, sweetheart, are you fast asleep?
‘Cause that’s the only time that I can really speak to you…
By retreating into its insular musical shell, the song’s lack of resolution adds to the emotion conveyed by the lyrics. It’s a tease, yes, but an effective one.
The gratification, in this case, is delayed until the next song.
These are just some examples I came up with off the top of my head. What examples of delayed gratification in music do you have?
Let me know! I’d love to hear them.
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