In Everything in its Right Place: Analyzing Radiohead (Oxford, 2016), Brad Osborn explores how musical analysis can help reveal the processes through which listeners construct meaning. Drawing from music cognition, sound studies, and music theory, Osborn synthesizes a variety of approaches to illuminate Radiohead’s often enigmatic songs. Everything in its Right Place navigates Radiohead’s oeuvre with the familiarity of a true fan and the rigorous attention to detail expected of a music theorist. This past April, Sean Davis sat down with Osborn to discuss the challenges that accompany writing a book about Radiohead’s music, as well as the impact of Osborn’s theories on popular music discourse.
Sean Davis: How did you get interested in writing a book about Radiohead? What led you to organize it the way you did?
Brad Osborn: It really had to do with my academic employment, believe it or not. When I was hired at the University of Kansas, I didn’t take any time-toward-tenure. So, I had been writing articles and working on stuff for a while and I looked at the bright side of that and said “well, if I have six years to do something I want to do a book because I’ve already done a bunch of scattered articles.”
As to the actual organization of the book, it actually came about from some spreadsheets I created. I said “If I’m going to write a book on Radiohead, I need to know how every single song works.” So, I had an Excel spreadsheet with all of the songs called “Harmony.” Then I did the same thing for rhythm, form, and timbre. It’s only after really poring over that corpus of raw data that you should go thinking about categories for it. You don’t go in thinking “I’m going to list all of the Euclidian rhythms I hear, I’m going to list all the changing meter I hear.” No, you just crunch the data, and then you zoom out and say “what sort of trends do I see from the data?” Once I had the spreadsheets organized that way I thought, well, the easiest way to write the book is going to be just to use those as chapters. Though I did consider organizing the book by album, which would have been more chapters and I think those trends would have been harder to spot amidst a discussion of albums.
SD: Early in your book, you mention that you were trying to fill a gap in Radiohead scholarship, focusing on analysis of the music rather than biographical information or the socio-cultural impact of the band. What was it about Radiohead’s music that encouraged your research and inspired you to fill this gap?
BO: I think that Radiohead’s music responds to a lot of the same analytical techniques that we traditionally apply to composers such as Beethoven and Schubert. This isn’t true of all musics. For example it wouldn’t make sense to write the book I did–applying all these chromatic voice-leading and rhythmic dissonance theories–about a band like U2. So, yes I think it is something specific about Radiohead’s music. But we shouldn’t sidestep the fact that, of course, their music also has socio-cultural importance–you find musics that have one or the other, but I think that theirs has both.
SD: Why do you think so many scholars and authors chose to focus on Radiohead’s biographical details and cultural impact rather than analyzing their songs?
BO: Well, I think that if you look at most books written about an artist or a band, they all focus on biography and context. In that sense, books written about Radiohead aren’t unique. But, something that makes Radiohead biographically unique as a band was certainly what they did in 2007: put out a record under a “pay what you want” model, something that was absolutely revolutionary in the music industry. Also, the group–and Thom Yorke in particular–show this kind of “cagey” attitude toward interviews; that makes them more enigmatic in a certain way. It’s almost like a challenge to a biographer.
SD: One of the most important concepts you explore in your book is what you term salience, which you define as the balance between predictability and surprise. This definition is quite the departure from the customary one–typically referring to something’s most noticeable or prominent elements. What prompted you to choose it as your preferred term, and what does analyzing salience add to music-theoretical discourse?
BO: I went back and forth with that word. I don’t think a lot of people know this, but the first draft of the book was actually called “Everything in its Right Place: The Goldilocks Principle in Radiohead.” Ultimately the reviewers thought that “Goldilocks” was a bit childish, so they suggested that I remove it not just from the title, but from the book altogether. I was thinking about ways to describe that sort of middle space between predictability and surprise and I started re-reading the music theorist Robert Hatten. He uses salience to describe Beethoven’s work, which informed my own thinking. Other terms that I considered using were markedness–another term that Hatten uses and is often applied to Beethoven. I think either of those words works, and I sort of use them interchangeably in the book, but ultimately it does go back to that idea of “Goldilocks” and the middle space. You know, Aristotle talks about the Aristotelian mean, Kant talks about good taste and good judgment as being the middle space between convention and experimentation… there are a lot of people with hifalutin’ ideas about this basic concept. I ultimately chose salience, but I think that both “Goldilocks” and the high-minded philosophers, they’re all talking about the same thing: this middle space between two extremes activating something in our perceptual systems.
SD: In your analyses, you show that Radiohead uses complex forms when the music exhibits traditional harmonic, rhythmic, and melodic traits, while simple forms usually accompany the more experimental tracks. Does this relationship hold true for all of their music? What about Yorke and other band members’ solo work, live performances, or other artists in general?
BO: Let me answer the second question first. In order to make the book manageable, I had really clear lines delineating what I was and was not going to think about. So, side projects I absolutely don’t know anything about, and live performances, well, you know how fans can get about specific concerts? I thought “I’m staying out of that, man!” So, “I don’t know” is my answer to the second question.
In answer to your first question: I was looking more at their output on an album-by-album level, and haven’t gone through song by song to definitively be able to say with a 65% correspondence rate that a high level of rhythmic predictability correlates with a lower level conventionality of form or anything like that. It’s sort of a gut feeling, but I think if you’re zooming out to the level of albums that theory does make sense. For example, the sorts of formal things that they’re doing on Hail to the Thief, which has relatively straightforward instrumentation, versus the sorts of things they’re doing on Kid A, where the timbre is really notable but some of the other stuff is really straightforward.
SD: The concept of Euclidean rhythm provides an intriguing alternative to the standard conception of meter. While you borrow from other scholars, how did you first arrive at this theory, and–assuming you remember–what was the first song or piece in which you heard a Euclidean rhythm?
BO: It was “Pyramid Song,” for sure. I was driving one day and like most people I started tapping on the steering wheel. That’s when I noticed it. I remember the first time I talked about this was in a 2012 SMT paper. It was one of those things, like “huh, that’s an interesting observation that I just found while tapping on my steering wheel, I wonder if I should write an article about it?” Probably not. But then I just decided to throw into the SMT ring, it got accepted, I gave the talk, and afterward someone came up to me and said “so, where you thinking of publishing this?” I said, “oh, I’m not going to publish this.” He said something like “yes, you ARE going to publish this, and here, take this page of notes I’ve already made for you. This is going to be an awesome article.” Without that encouragement, the SMT talk could have just been a one-off.
SD: Timbre is an oft overlooked feature of music, even in popular music-theoretical discourse. Can you talk a little bit about the unique challenges of forming a theory of timbre, and whether you think Radiohead either exacerbated those problems or made them easier to approach?
BO: Second question: Radiohead definitely exacerbates the problem, but how could you write a book on Radiohead and not address timbre? It seems to be at the forefront of their work, especially with Jonny Greenwood having all those wonderful toys. I think it would be fairly shortsighted to write a book about popular music in general that doesn’t talk about timbre. I taught a course on rock music and the definition of rock always comes up. If I had to pick one thing it’s the distorted guitar–that’s what makes rock music rock music, and it’s definitely a timbral thing.
The difficulties in writing about timbre stem most obviously from a lack of sources. We all have such nuanced theories of harmony because we’ve spent at least six years in graduate school thinking about harmony, but the world of timbre is pretty bare. That also has a plus side of course, you can read things outside of music theory in music perception, you can read sound studies stuff, and then you can craft your own theories informed by those things. I could say that it kind of creates a “Goldilocks” zone for scholarly innovation–you have some stuff to work with but you get to innovate a lot in the field of timbre.
SD: What motivated your choice of “Pyramid Song” as the focus of your final chapter?
BO: Well, I have to give credit to my wife Laura because one day we were running in the woods and I had just gotten the reviews back from the first draft of the book. The reviewers said, “you don’t really have a conclusion. You just kind of end after talking about the timbre chapter.” I thought, oh dear, “I don’t really have a conclusion do I? What am I gonna do? I could write the typical 12-page wrap-up thing where I suggest avenues for further research.” Then while we were running, Laura said “are there any songs that you really like that you haven’t gotten to talk about yet?” And, actually “Pyramid Song” was painfully absent from the first draft of the book. Lord, it’s everybody’s favorite song and I hadn’t really mentioned it much. So, that was a really nice way to kill two birds with one stone–to talk about a song that I really loved but thought was kind of ephemeral and hard to talk about. It seemed to do the song a bit of violence to just pick out a two-chord segment or a little facet about the rhythm and just use what may be the most loved Radiohead song as a quick example of Euclidean rhythm.
SD: Do you have any thoughts about how Radiohead’s most recent album A Moon Shaped Pool may relate to the concepts from your book, especially with the more straightforward songs?
BO:You mean, other than the review I wrote? (laughs). Well, I recently got to hear them live, and that experience really shaped my opinion on the new album. I think it’s a nice follow-up to In Rainbows in that it’s a pretty accessible record. It’s easy to get into, whereas the 2011 album King of Limbs is opaque, it takes like four months to get into that record. It’s interesting to call it straightforward, if you think about the first song “Burn the Witch,” on the one hand it’s really straightforward because it’s all parallel fifths and octaves and major chords. On the other hand, that’s super weird. There aren’t many theories of harmony that can account for all those major chords.
SD: I know that you perform under the pseudonym D’Archipelago, and you have a new album out. Do you consider Radiohead an influence on your music, and did the process of writing this book affect you as a performer in any way?
BO: Well, simply getting those guitar parts under my fingers and getting the drum parts in my hands influenced me. Learning the music is going to affect you in ways you don’t even realize, of course. I think that’s been the strongest influence; having to transcribe that stuff, it leaks in to your performance whether you like it or not.
In terms of how I actually think as a composer, I have to say that I could not be any more different than Thom Yorke, at least the Thom Yorke that Thom Yorke wants us to believe exists. Thom’s mantra is “I just wanna feel it man.” He’s spoken at length not only about how he does not read music but also about how we shouldn’t read music, that you can’t capture music in notation. You know, I have a PhD in Music Theory, I think about every single note that I put in my compositions, why it’s there, why it should go where it does. That sounds stifling and it sometimes is, but that’s a very different approach to composition than Radiohead. If my composition is like anyone’s from Radiohead, it’s probably Greenwood.
SD: Do you think that Greenwood’s work on film scores, or any of his other work might be a potential future avenue of research for you?
BO: I am studying music in music videos right now, so I’m working on this connection between visuals and music. I want to say yes, because I’m interested in a lot of things, but realistically I have a lot going on right now and probably won’t devote that much time and attention to a bunch of Paul Thomas Anderson films. I do love them, but I wonder if I would love them less after really digging into them and analyzing them.▪
Brad Osborn is assistant professor of music theory at the University of Kansas. He is the author of Everything in its Right Place: Analyzing Radiohead (Oxford, 2016). Brad composes and records atmospheric rock music under the nom de plume D’Archipelago, and is currently writing a book on 1990s music videos.
Sean M. Davis is a PhD student in Music Studies at Temple University. An experienced educator, Sean has taught classes in the undergraduate Music Theory sequence and other music classes at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. His dissertation focuses on the process of identity construction and Radiohead’s 2016 album A Moon Shaped Pool.