Like most western popular music, Rock considers melody to be the most important ingredient of music. When writing a new song, a rock musician tries to come up with interesting new melodic content without straying too far from the Rock framework. Rhythmically, rock is usually pretty consistent, and doesn't vary too much from standard Rock beats. Tonally, most rock bands are less than imaginative. Although some guitarists take great pride in their "sound", this is mostly lost on the majority of listeners, and most guitarists rely on standard clean and overdriven sounds or variations thereof. In the 60s and 70s, mainstream rock musicians experimented with new electronic organs and electric pianos like the Fender Rhodes, Hammond B-3 and the Wurlitzer and some bands still use these classics. In the 80s a few bands started using analog and FM synthesizers. Most of these newer sounds are rarely (if ever) heard in modern popular rock. Even when guitarists like Tom Morello come up with new and exciting ways of coaxing sound out of their instruments, they don't seem to have much of any influence on anyone. This is part of why I became dissatisfied with rock - it seems like most rock musicians are content. They are happily repeating what they've heard from other musicians. They aren't innovating anymore, not even bothering to try, and when you stop moving forward, you and your genre will die. Maybe its because a lot of guitarists aren't aspiring musicians, they are aspiring Rock Stars (TM). Rock Star first, musician second. I'm not saying that all guitarists are like this, but you have to admit, there has been quite a bit of Rock Star Syndrome going around in the past 20 years. Elvis, the Beatles, Van Halen, Metallica and Nirvana - their rock star excess has killed the genre that spawned them by drawing to it a crowd of eager fame-seekers, willing to do anything to achieve stardom. The rock star wannabes never sold out, because they never had any genuine feeling to express in the first place. There is an undeniable connection between sex and rock stars going back to Elvis at least, and it's common to hear of guys learning guitar or drums so then can join bands and get chicks. Hardly a noble motivation, and unlikely to produce intelligent, meaningful results. Don't get me wrong, I still love rock and I've been playing guitar for 12 years. It just isn't going anywhere with those kinds of people behind it.
Radiohead - "Saviours of Rock"
Radiohead experimented, or more correctly, borrowed from the experiments of innovative rock groups that the recording industry tossed aside as too weird for mainstream. They sampled old 8 bit drum machines (which Hip-Hop and electronic music has been doing for years), brought in a few of those fantastic electronic pianos from the 70s and analog synths and generally livened things up with an experimental sound that has never touched the mainstream. And you know what? They don't fit so well into that cosy "Alternative" or "Brit Rock" category anymore, and will probably suffer financially for it. That takes some guts, so they have my respect for breaking out of the mould.
Traditional classical music is very strongly melodic, fairly rhythmic and almost no imagination tonally :). Orchestral instruments have been around for hundreds of years, and we are all very accustomed to their sounds and I'm guessing that most classical listeners would rather hear their usual staple sounds anyway. William Orbit's Pieces in a Modern Style is a selection of his favorite compositions by classical titans like Barber, Cage, Beethoven and Handel arranged for synthesizers. I thought it was fantastic, but it seems to have been poorly received by more traditional critics. Many classical musicians have the idea that their instruments are "supposed" to sound a certain way, and there doesn't seem to be all that much leeway tonally.
Hip-hop relies primarily on rhythm, especially vocal rhythms, and is pretty short on melodic content, and except for variations in individual voices, doesn't particularly explore tonal qualities. I like music with strong melodic and tonal content, so I'm not a real big fan of this genre, although lately I've been warming up to it more, in part because of the influence of its had on electronic genres, especially Triphop and Drum n Bass.
Electronic Music - The Bastard Child
Most Americans regard electronic music with disdain, while erroneously referring to what little they hear as Techno, (which has a much less general meaning), or Electronica, (which means, in its original tongue: "A Name that Marketing Guys Made Up.") I prefer simply electronic music, which is a pretty loose catch-all term which includes Trance, House, Drum n Bass, Jungle, Happy Hardcore, Breakbeat, Hi-NRG, Trip hop, etc. There's a lot of different genres and sub-genres, not all of which I like, and I will probably misuse a few terms, so the experts may feel free to correct me.
The aforementioned disdain for my favorite set of genres has long confused and disturbed me. Some people call it "that disco shit", because a lot of House music contains disco elements, especially House from French artists. There's also a lot of disdain for Disco in general, probably because a lot of white guys are too macho to dance, and resort to making fun of those that can :P I must admit that a lot of crappy electronic music has somehow found its way to the mainstream, and a lot of this is called Hi-NRG and yes, I hate it as much as you do, but it's hardly representative of electronic music. A lot of electronic music is dance music, so it has a strong rhythmic quality to it. All dance music, including the waltz, swing, etc. is rhythmically repetitive. The drum sections of Trance, Techno and House influenced sub-genres usually have what's called four-to-floor beat which is that boom-boom-boom-boom that reminds everyone of Disco. As in any genre, some musicians deviate from the standard elements that define the genre and some stick with the tried-and-trusted formula. Educated listeners are able to distinguish between what's unique and what's formulaic.
The lack of meaningful lyrics in some electronic music also causes people to hastily reject it, although I venture to suggest that crappy electronic music suffers from insipid lyrics just as much as crappy pop music does. Most modern popular music contains strong vocal content, and very good instrumental music like Jazz and Classical has drastically fallen out of favor. Why the lack of interest in instrumental music? In my opinion, people don't take the time to learn to appreciate these extremely beautiful forms.
Its easy to connect with someone singing about their love and their heartbreak, but it takes a truly dedicated listener to hear someone express the same sentiments through music alone, and many music listeners are unfortunately unequipped to understand expression in this way. In some songs, the actual meaning of the lyrics is a mystery, but meaning is still conveyed in the singer's delivery. Expressions of happiness, anger, sadness and pain can be adaquatly expressed without meaningful lyrics. When people listen to music, they are listening for a human connection. When they encounter a foreign form of music, people often lack the ability to form this human connection, leading to quick pronouncements that its rubbish. So it is with electronic music. This desire for a human connection is reflected in the desire for live music. People like to see it being performed, to see someone interacting with their art, giving them a context and increased ability to "correctly" interpret the music. Sometimes at clubs, I see people crowded around the DJ who is doing nothing particularly special, and often isn't really interacting with the music any more than they are. Yet, they crowd around, wanting to see, wanting to visualize some human element. Lucky for me, as an electronic musician, I am the human element in the music.
An amusing side note: One day I ran into my neighbor after practicing guitar rather loudly. He commented he watched me through the window for a while during my practice session and he remarked that I had improved since he had last overheard me. Naturally, I keep a close watch on my guitar skills, and I don't think I had improved very much at all in the previous month or two. As a non-musician, he would probably be unable to detect any improvement in such a short time, but obviously, being able to see me play as well as hear me enhanced his experience.
Another objection to electronic dance music is "It's repetitive and boring." All music is repetitive. Repetition is used as form of variation in the Classical music formula of Theme and Variation. Pop music has the traditional verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus-chorus repetition, and Blues has the 12 bar Blues. People who are accustomed to listening to Rock or Pop have a hard time with lots of electronic music because they are so used to listening for melodic variation, and when they don't hear it, they promptly label it boring. In fact, they are listening for the wrong things. A lot (though not all) electronic music is melodically repetitive, but rhythmically and tonally extremely complex, which is really the aim. Electronic musicians often focus on innovating tonally, with huge arsenals of sound available to them, and tonal and rhythmic exploration is a cornerstone of electronic music. This is really a huge strength, because it gives an aspiring musician a great deal of freedom when composing, a freedom to draw on his or her own personal sonic palette. Jazz, Classical, Rock, and even traditional African and Asian sounds, rhythms and melodies are popular. To the astute listener, electronic music is a complex array of complex rhythms and sounds drifting in and out, complementing each other, fighting for dominance, combining with each other in fantastic rhythmic interplays, and constantly morphing, evolving and revealing themselves to the listener in a highly kinetic symphony of sound.
New listeners hoping to unlock the great unexplored treasures of the electronic music world must cast off their usual approach to listening to Rock or Pop music, and open their minds. Be prepared to dance :)