Musical Dialectics

Date: 22 May 2022

Author: Comrade Duck

Tags: N. America, Philosophy

Dialectical Materialism is a major tool of the communist movement. It is the method and philosophy which allows us to remain scientific in our approach to all things. While we consciously try to apply the materialist dialectic to political and social struggles, we often fail to apply it regularly to our daily lives. Music is an important part in most people’s lives that we can break down using the Dialectical Method.

We will be using the explanation of the Dialectical Method as written by Stalin in Dialectical and Historical Materialism.

Feature 1: Nature Connected and Determined

All things are connected, nothing is isolated. The action of one thing is impacted by what came before it, impacts what follows, and impacts the surrounding things.

Album sequencing (how songs are ordered in an album): songs are purposefully ordered so they flow smoothly from one song to the next. This is done due to unintentional consideration of this first feature. If the listener is listening to a slow and quiet song and the next song is immediately fast and loud, then it startles the listener (sometimes this is the desired outcome). The listener’s headspace will want to stay at the same level of energy as the song they just finished, similar to the law of inertia. This is the connection and determination found within album sequencing.

This example is obviously a joke but the concept is this:  

Musical composition: we have often heard that it takes heartache and life experience to inspire musicians. Musicians often use their experiences, negative or positive, to write music. This is an example of connection in artists’ lives to their creative avenue. There are also examples found within music theory. Each note produces a different frequency, so certain combinations of notes work better than others. This is why the same chord progressions can be heard in different songs. The order of these chords are considered by how they connect to the chords before and helps to determine what comes next.


Feature 2: Nature is a State of Continuous Motion and Change

All things are constantly changing and in motion, nothing is ever static or still. 

Song development: similar to some album sequences that tell a story as they progress, songs develop within themselves and even have different sections. Sections you might recognize: verse, chorus, bridge. A song would be boring to our ears if it did not change the entire time, so songs don’t stay the same throughout. This is an example of the state of change found within songs.


Time: for the sake of this conversation, time is a fixed thing; in the context of a song, we can only change our tempo (beats per minute, how fast or slow we are playing within time). Even if there was complete silence at some point in our song, no melody or harmony, time would still be moving forward. Time is an example of the state of continuous motion within music. 

Feature 3: Natural Quantitative Change Leads to Qualitative Change

Transitions between sections: as mentioned above, songs have different sections to them, but songs don’t move from section to section abruptly. These sections are usually connected by a transition. We can look to songs that have beat drops as an example. These songs have what is commonly referred to as the “build up”, where usually the instrumental raises the energy of the song by often going up in pitch, notes being played faster, and getting louder until a sudden silence. Anyone who has heard this type of song can tell us what comes next, the beat drop. But how did we get to this beat drop? It wasn’t a sudden change from one section to the next (qualitative change), but instead was a transition by all the elements mentioned in the build up (quantitative change).

This video shows multiple examples of a build up with a beat drop at the end: 

Genres through time: there are several music genres that exist such as blues, jazz, rock, metal, rap, hip hop, classical. When we look at these genres we notice they have a lot of similarities and they even use the same 12 notes to make up their particular genres. How do we tell these genres apart? (What quantitative changes determine the qualitative change of genre?) We see several similarities between blues and jazz, but we also see differences like drumming pattern, jazz uses saxophone, blues often has vocals, etc… Does this mean that using a saxophone while playing blues suddenly makes a song jazz? No, a single quantitative difference alone isn't enough to say blues is blues and jazz is jazz, but when we see several of these differences together then we start to see a clear qualitative difference between the two genres. 


Feature 4: Contradictions Inherent in Nature 

Within all things are opposing forces that struggle against each other. These opposing forces, their struggles and resolutions (which give birth to new struggles), are what drive forward everything.  

A and B Sections: we had mentioned songs above that songs are made of sections, and sometimes the sections are as simple as A and B. These sections are distinct from each other and exist as opposing forces, they are in contradiction to each other. Section B would not exist if there were not a Section A, and vice versa. The purpose of different sections is to add variety and interest to the song, which is achieved by sounding different from each other, usually by causing tension and leading to the next section. In this way, these sections transform into their opposite - creating tension into feeling release. 

The first example is Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire” which has a very clear distinction between the two sections. (“I fell into a burning ring of fire…” is section B, the other sections are A sections.) This example is very straightforward by going from A to B to A to B… one section leading to the next. But the second example exaggerates how these sections create tension and leads to the next section. Chuck Berry’s “You Can’t Catch Me” starts like Cash’s songs with A to B, but the next time is A to A to B and the final time being A to A to A to B. (When he sings “You Can’t Catch Me” it is section B, the rest are section A) Hearing so many A sections in a row makes the listener feel tense and uneasy, desiring to go to the B section. The tension created by this is an example of contradiction driving forward the progression of the song.

Johnny Cash “Ring of Fire”:

Chuck Berry “You Can’t Catch Me”: 

These are just a few ways we can analyze music through the Dialectical Method. It is important for us as Marxist-Leninists to practice engaging in dialectical thought in all things. We shouldn’t selectively use dialectics, but be disciplined in our analysis of all things. Dialectical analysis is a skill and we must train ourselves to use it efficiently.