Is that Musically Difficult?

I have a friend that is obsessed with a band called Halloween, Alaska.  This friend of mine, let’s call him Barry, is not a musician and the other day he emailed me to ask me “how difficult that is (hot pink) musically on a scale of 1-10 in your opinion”.  “Hot Pink” is a song on Halloween, Alaska’s latest record (see review).  This got me thinking (small bubbles spawn from head).

From what I can tell, Barry’s question carries 2 assumptions:
1.  He is asking me because I am a musician and he respects my opinion on the topic
2.  He is assuming that we have the definition of what makes something difficult musically

Assumption number one is logical.  I’m not a studio musician and I do not make a career playing music.  However, I have been paid to play music, I have studied music theory/composition and consider it a huge part of my identity.  As with anything, the opinion on a topic given from someone who knows more than you carries value.  I’d love to hear what the Edge thinks of my guitar tones or talk to David Bazan about lyric’s because they are people who are masters at what they do.  I’m not master, but at tier up from Barry.  I think we can all agree that this is sound logic.

Assumption number two is where the confusion gets heavy.  At first glance I quantify “difficult musically” as something that strictly deals with speed and accuracy.  Can the musician play something that sounds like only a robot could play?  Stong examples of something like this are Steve Vai and Dream Theater.  I can also assume that most of their concerts are full of dudes that spend 60% of their life playing hot licks at Guitar Center on guitars shaped like spiders.  Halloween, Alaska does not fit into that category.  Outside of some of the things that the drummer, Dave King, does most of the parts are actually pretty simple.  Although, the parts sound simple, I don’t believe that just any musician could show up and play them and this is the reason that I believe Halloween, Alaska is musically difficult.  Here is a list of th attributes that make me want to believe this:

1.  Use of silence – to be a musician in this band you have to understand that silence is a powerful weapon to have in your arsenal. 
2.  Dynamic’s – the arrangements all bring the listener through an adventure via musical dynamic’s
3.  Feel using syncopation – sometime having a rhythmic pattern (tonal or not) that lines up on the downbeat every 3 or 4 measure will create the deepest groove earthly possible (check out Steve Reich).
4.  TONES – fullest bass tones ever, have you ever heard another bass player make these tones? 
5.  More tones – Guitar tones, pads, vocal effects are all so unique in this band that it must be considered when taking about musically difficult.
6.  Feel (groove) – HA has the ability to synch up with the listeners heart beat – this is difficult to do.

The point that I’m trying to make is more to the non-musician.  I’d rather people not rate music difficulty at all, however if they do rate it please take into account some of the things listed above.  There are other things to account for also, like arrangement and voicing.  When making music you have near infinite why to approach what is being played and I believe that awareness and ability are the two things we should consider when looking at Barry’s question; typically people take awareness out of the equation.

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2 Comments

  1. haha valid!
    i like the definition of difficulty as speed and accuracy.
    my idea of difficulty would be considered who could and could not play that if given the music. kind of like a hierarchy of musicians.
    or better yet, someone who is just learning how to play certain instruments would find it easier to play music that is not as difficult.
    you dont put someone learning to play the piano on Chopin, at least until they master Jesus Loves Me for This I know.

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