Re-thinking Convention and Innovation

By: Nicholas Lockey (Sam Houston State University) //

 Closing scene of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986)

The end of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986) defies the conventions of film endings. After the credits are over, the music has stopped, and the screen has faded to darkness, we are suddenly confronted with an interior shot of Ferris Bueller’s (Matthew Broderick) home. Is this the start of a new movie? Did the film’s editors make a mistake and forget to remove some material from the final product? The mystery is resolved when Ferris (or perhaps it’s meant to be Broderick speaking to us?) appears, breaks the fourth wall, and addresses the audience with bewilderment: “You’re still here? It’s over. Go home. … Go.”  We realize that the director has played a humorous game with our expectations. American audiences in the late 20th and early 21st centuries have come to expect that a darkened screen after the closing credits means that the movie is over and, except for a company logo or two, there is nothing else to see. Ferris Bueller presents us with these conventional ending cues and then defies our expectations by not ending when it is “supposed” to. This scene surprises us precisely because we have reason to expect something different to happen—expectation that is built on the establishment of, and our familiarity with, conventions. In the decades since Ferris Bueller (and similar movies) first appeared, more and more films have included post-credit scenes. Sometimes, innovations themselves can become conventions.

Music has conventions, too. Many have changed over time and some are strongly associated with a specific culture or musical tradition, but they all tend to shape audience expectations in ways that provide a foundation for recognizing and appreciating deviations.

Consider, for example, the way the finale of Franz Joseph Haydn’s String Quartet in E-flat Op. 33, No. 2 (1781) ends. The opening melody of the movement returns, as if the piece is about to start over; we hear it once (with several pauses added to grab our attention), and then we hear just the beginning of the melody before it is abruptly cut off. Similar to the ending of Ferris Bueller, we might at first get the impression that someone forgot to end the piece where it was meant to conclude.

The Hugo Wolf Quartet performs the finale of Haydn’s String Quartet in E-flat Major Op. 33, No. 2 (“The Joke”).

Having acquired the nickname “The Joke,” this celebrated movement does not conclude with the type of sounds that were conventionally used to signal the end of a movement in a late-eighteenth-century string quartet. A more typical ending can be found in the finale of Haydn’s String Quartet Op. 76, No. 1, which concludes with big, loud chords in the home key.

The Chicago Q Ensemble performs the finale of Haydn’s String Quartet in G Major Op. 76, No. 1 (1797).

A large part of the interest in the ending of the Op. 33, No. 2 quartet derives from the way it defies our expectations. If more quartets from Haydn’s day ended as this one does, the punchline of “The Joke” would garner far less attention and admiration than it has.

But convention is not just a backdrop for recognizing deviations; it is inextricably linked to innovation. On the one hand, conventions tend to originate from new ideas that are so widely replicated that they themselves become established and eventually lose their sense of novelty. For example, around the year 1600 composers began writing for solo voice with basso continuo accompaniment—that is, a bass line, usually for a specific instrument or group of instruments, and often written in abbreviated notation. The resulting sounds were (and still are) praised for their expressive power since the accompanying harmonies could more easily be coordinated to underline the emotions expressed in the moment by the singer. Basso continuo accompaniments subsequently became so common throughout the Baroque era (roughly 1600–1750) that we can identify them as a convention of the Baroque style. 

On the other hand, if and when innovations become conventional, they can provide a catalyst for yet another generation of innovations. We can see this in the recitatives (sung speech, usually employed for monologues and dialogues) of George Frideric Handel’s operas and oratorios from the earlier part of the eighteenth century. By this point in time, accompaniment by basso continuo (now called recitativo secco) had become a conventional sound for recitative. When Handel wanted a way to signal something extra special, he could now deviate from the conventional accompaniment and use recitativo accompagnato (recitative accompanied by the orchestra). If, instead, recitativo secco had not become so conventional by Handel’s day, we have to wonder whether he and his contemporaries would have been interested in using recitativo accompagnato as a new form of expression. Handel employs both types of accompaniment in Part I of his oratorio Messiah, as the narrator alternates descriptions of the shepherds (recitativo secco) and the angels (recitativo accompagnato—the special, orchestral sounds signaling the divine nature of the angels).

George Frideric Handel, excerpt from Part I of Messiah (1742), illustrating recitativo secco (“There were shepherds”), followed by recitativo accompagnato at 1:12 (“And lo”), recitativo secco again at 1:33 (“And the angel said”), and concluding with recitativo secco at 2:05 (“And suddenly”).

Likewise, a similar cycle of emergence, establishment, and generation of new ideas can be seen in popular music. For example, the blues-based rock of The Rolling Stones’s “The Last Time” (1965) exhibits several characteristics that had become conventions of rock music in the 1960s: the use of electric guitars and drums; harmonies that focus on a few closely-related chords; rhythms that emphasize the backbeat; prominent melodic lines that are constructed from short phrases of relatively equal length; lyrics that are relatively direct in their meaning; and generally brief instrumental solos.

The Rolling Stones, “The Last Time” (1965), demonstrating many of the conventions of blues-based rock.

But these same conventions had once been the innovations that made rock and roll an exciting new chapter in music history during the 1940s and 50s. In turn, many of the exploratory features of psychedelic and early progressive rock—such as the use of harpsichords, distorted sounds, tape loops, synthesizers, and complex harmonies and rhythms—stand out precisely because they depart from the norms featured in songs like “The Last Time.” In listening, for example, to “Caution (Do Not Stop on the Tracks)” (1968) by The Grateful Dead, we recognize several conventions of a rock song (guitars and drums, blues-influenced lyrics, a standard rock percussion pattern), but these are gradually abandoned as the track progresses and we are instead struck by a vast array of unusual sounds that seem to follow each other in no apparent order. Eventually, the various instrumental and electronic noises completely take over and, by the end of the track, we have lost all sense of listening to a rock song.

The Grateful Dead, “Caution (Do Not Stop on the Tracks)” from the album Anthem of the Sun (1968). This track displays numerous departures from previous conventions of rock.

To take another example, a big part of the uniqueness of the The Beatles’s song “Because” (1969) stems from the use of electronically synthesized sounds (including an imitation of a harpsichord), strange harmonies, mysterious lyrics, and an absence of drums or a standard rock beat, together with an incredibly inconclusive ending. These features form a strong contrast from most of the conventions of rock, and this distinction is further emphasized by the sequence of tracks on the album Abbey Road: “Because” is surrounded by songs that make clearer use of rock conventions.

In the 1970s, the innovations of psychedelic and early progressive rock became a set of conventions used by artists from a tremendous variety of stylistic backgrounds. Not surprisingly, by the later 1970s the very features that had once been considered progressive in our examples by The Grateful Dead and The Beatles had become so commonplace that many performers and audiences sought new music that included a return to simpler harmonies, easier-to-understand lyrics, shorter songs, and emphasis on guitars and drums as the dominant instruments of a rock band.

Other Avid Listener posts about virtuosity and genius reflect on how we often place high value on people, skills, and ideas that we believe push the boundaries of human skill and creativity. But rather than seeing conventions merely as offering a lack of new ideas, perhaps we can approach music in a way that accepts—even values—conventions. The challenge is to reflect on what each convention contributes to a given piece of music, be it a particular harmonic progression, a cadence, a rhythm, a form, etc., and how these conventional approaches interact with more distinctive ideas. In a sense, this is a view of music that treats conventions and innovations as different tools for musical expression—elements that can work together rather than in opposition. This has important implications for how we think about music history: we can acknowledge and appreciate the value of tried and tested ideas rather than focusing more heavily on the story of musical innovations.

For Discussion

  1. What does our uneasiness with formulas and established stylistic factors tell us about the way we understand and appreciate music?
  2. Choose one of your favorite pieces of music to listen to. What conventions are being used? Why are those conventions being used? What do they contribute to your experience of the moment?
  3. What might be some ways that innovations can exist without conventions?
  4. What are other benefits to having musical conventions?

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