Human After All & Rhythmic Consonance
Human After All, perhaps the most controversial record in Daft Punk's oeuvre, also stands as the group's most unique project to date. Everything about it - most noticeably its rough and dreary character - goes counter to everything else the group has done. This difference also manifests in the way the record was created. According to Thomas Bangalter, the duo's silver-helmeted half, Human After All was written within a self-imposed two week time limit.
The short amount of time available to create a full-length record seems to have affected the writing, resulting in a process of Daft Punk deriving as much material as possible out of only a few musical ideas. We're going to focus on a more subtle, yet incredibly important technique that's used throughout the album in this vein: rhythmic consonance.
"Rhythmic consonance” refers to when two (or more) individual sounds play together at the same time.
When a kick drum and tambourine play at the same time, they're perfectly rhythmically consonant.
When they play at completely different times, they're perfectly rhythmically dissonant.
Consonance is marked by unity and stasis. Dissonance is marked by contrast and movement.
The concept is simple enough. So how was it used by Daft Punk in order to write music efficiently?
Let’s put ourselves in their shoes for a moment: we’ve just found a really catchy sample that would work perfectly as the basis of a track:
and we’d like to incorporate a vocoder melody along with it. It’s important that the two work well together in order to form a cohesive whole (as all great songs function as). We're also looking for simplicity and economy in our solution, as doing so will allow us to make the most of our limited time. How can we accomplish this?
Here’s how Daft Punk did it: they derived the rhythm of the vocoder entirely from the rhythm of the guitar chords already present in the sample. Hear how they sound together:
They simply recycled the rhythm of the guitar to get the vocoder's. In fact, the notes of the vocoder melody are the exact same as the sample’s bassline (which is completely rhythmically consonant with the two as well).
They didn’t even have to write the vocoder melody in a sense, as they were able to derive it entirely from what was already present in the sample. Talk about frugality!
The Prime Time of Your Life works off the same process, albeit with an original melody that Daft Punk wrote themselves. It wouldn’t be a stretch to assume that they wrote the vocoder melody first, then derived the rhythm of the accompanying material from it afterwards. Hear the rhythmic relationship between the vocoder, the synth line (which has some independent moments in order to fill the silence of the melody), the bassline, and the drums:
We can clearly see rhythmic consonance at work in these examples. It should be no surprise, as it’s an incredibly efficient and quick way to derive accompanying material.
This brings me to this last feat of rhythmic consonance: its ability to accentuate. In a 2007 interview with Q Magazine, Bangalter commented on Robot Rock by saying that it’s “a tribute to the power of heavy rock chords. In a way I think we were exploring if you can take the essence of rock—that power—and mix it with dance.”
Rhythmic consonance serves as the foundation for the power he mentions here. There is an overall sense of impact, emphasis, and authority when musical elements reinforce each other in this way. It’s similar to a bunch of kids bouncing on a trampoline: if they coordinate their jumps well enough they can all land on the mat at the same time, creating a single immense force (which often sends them all flying afterwards). Oppositely, the impact of this combined force would be progressively diluted for each kid that lands at a different time from the whole.
Our goals differ from grade-schoolers on a summer’s day, however. If a song is only rhythmically consonant, it takes on the force's characteristics to the extreme: the music becomes static, leading to monotony and boredom. What is one to do, then, to keep the music from being too consonant throughout? This is where rhythmic dissonance comes into play.
Rhythmic dissonance exists in many forms and to many degrees. We’ll see our first example in the intro of Television Rules The Nation:
The drum pattern here is incredibly similar to the rhythmic dissonance example at the beginning of this article. Having two elements alternate between themselves in this way instantly causes a driving force to manifest; the technique has been a mainstay in the dance music canon for exactly this reason. The resulting motion makes us want to move as well.
We see another example, though of a much different character, between the vocoder and synth melodies later on in the song. At first, the two lines don’t coincide at all. The synth line starts the musical phrase off, with the vocoder melody entering atop it afterwards. The vocoder is initially embedded within the synth’s first note, essentially. Finally, once the two lines reach their last two notes of a figure (specifically, on '-vision' and 'nation'), they conjoin rhythmically.
The nature of this rhythmic dissonance accomplishes something much different than the one found in the drums:
1) The initial activity of the vocoder melody is to fill in the gap of inactivity left by the synth’s longer first note, preventing a halt in momentum (similar to the vocoder vs the synth at parts in The Prime Time of Your Life above).
2) The initial rhythmic dissonance between the two lines makes their final two notes of complete consonance much more impactful via contrast.
The entirety of the interaction is like a play between consonance and dissonance, rather than expressing just one of the forces in its most concentrated form. It’s a relationship with more subtlety and nuance, much less extreme than the other examples shown up to this point.
Similar to its consonant counterpart, there is such a thing as too much rhythmic dissonance. An excess of dissonance results in unintelligibility and chaos. Simply play two instances of a song slightly out of sync with each other for an extreme example.
Rhythmic consonance and dissonance are fairly useless on their own, as neither can sustain a piece of music by themselves in the long run. The real value, then, lies in the interplay between the two: the force of consonance-dissonance. Striking the right balance at any moment for the desired effect is key.
There's a lot that we can infer from the music itself on how Daft Punk seem to have approached the record's writing, as we've shed a bit of light on today. This is just the beginning, however. Consonance-dissonance exists in many different shades that one can explore for countless of musical effects and sensations. I leave this to you to discover in full. Pay attention to these phenomena when listening to music, and even try to write a little song around these concepts. It will give you a new perspective to absorb and to think about music from.
I'll be Tweeting additional content related to this article for the next few weeks as I work on the next segment in the series. You can find my Twitter here. Make sure to subscribe to the e-mail listing near the bottom of the site to get updates on when I make a new posting as well!
See you next time,