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Riddle: How Is Dubstep Like Picasso?

Thanks, Internet, for all you do.
Thanks, Internet, for all you do.

Although dozens of EDM subgenres are brain candy to me, I haven't personally given in to the auditory assault that is dubstep (mostly... maybe). However, I'm here to say that there is actual science to appreciate behind the work of Skrillex and many others.

If you think about it, many people argue over EDM's relative worth as much as they once debated (or even still do) the merits of rap music, pop hits or rock and roll. Somebody out there is trying to quantify polka and reggae too, simultaneously.

Regardless, EDM is a growing genre. It's the music of the future, literally. It's made with machines and robotic things that make silver-plated noises. But electric guitars, sitars, mandolins and banjos also all make sounds that involve a combination of integrated technology and talent.

Dave Grohl: Possibly not the biggest dubstep fan.
Dave Grohl: Possibly not the biggest dubstep fan.
Photo by Marco Torres

Take the talent away, and there's nothing to hear. Humans, after all, created whatever you just heard. Noted EDM critic Dave Grohl has already said something to that effect last year at the Grammys, this year at SXSW, and probably somewhere again yesterday.

In the most general terms, dubstep is the harmonically dissonant and deviant sound whose popularity took hold in London during the '00s and quickly spread around the world. Today it's the most popular form of EDM, and although many people are as quick to dismiss it as I might want to be, still others love it.

Dubstep has since developed into many subgenres, including the American-bred "brostep" developed by the DJ and producer Skrillex. At the complete opposite end of the spectrum, the older form of dubstep is more rooted in reggae and dub music, and is actually quite chill. But both types of dubstep engage in syncopation, a big word meaning the placement of rhythmic accents or stresses where they typically don't occur.

Syncopation ranges from somewhat simple to relatively complex, but it always involves calculation and is never random. It is, in fact, fundamental to many other genres of music, such as jazz, funk, reggae, hip-hop, metal, samba and ska. (I still like ska, even silly third-wave ska, though many see that as an annoying '90s fad.)

I'm thinking that dubstep has more of a pop future than ska once did, not only because it's the sound of the future and all that, but because it has shown more room for development beyond even what it has already become.

 

Syncopation in Beethoven's String Quartet in A Major, Op. 18, no. 5, III, variation I, m. 7-8: It happens in classical music, too.
Syncopation in Beethoven's String Quartet in A Major, Op. 18, no. 5, III, variation I, m. 7-8: It happens in classical music, too.

The earlier, British-bred dubstep generally involves a greater tie to rhythmic syncopation, whereas the "drops" in more recent dubstep scramble syncopation to an almost hyperbolic degree. (Strains of dubstep in other parts of the world are also less aggro and more spaced and experimental, though these artists are not as widely known in America as their brostep counterparts.)

In a sense, early dubstep could be likened to Pablo Picasso's early painting "Girl in Chemise," possessing a more structured, passive beauty, whereas the mind-blowing bass drops of more recent dubstep would be closer to the same artist's famously violent "Guernica."

Even so, later dubstep's off-kilter beats only sound like a head explosion of mass chaos, but the music is still calculated enough to have spawned several mass hits. Furthermore, the American "brostep," which draws more influence from harsher electronic music and heavy metal, is only the most aggressive strain of this sound.

That all being said, I still like to find some harmony in the music I listen to, whether aggressive or not. Dubstep's "wub... wub, wub-wub-wub" remains an artfully calculated sound, to be sure, but all the same, I think I'll pass.



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