How do you hear? What do you hear?

Coming to agreement about something rooted in perception is by definition a doomed exercise. But that means the best thing to do is not so much to agree as to talk about the music – about what you hear – and not just the labels.

Amidst glib online comments and the micro-fragmentation of genre, it’s hard to get anyone to give you a straight answer about just what’s going on in electronic dance music. That’s ironic – because, at its essence, it’s pretty straightforward. The situation has gotten worse: as “dubstep,” the relatively underground and fairly specific genre, has influenced mainstream artists and big acts, fans and journalists alike have tended to “mislabel” music that doesn’t fit the original meaning.

Enter into this discussion a video from artist Bassnectar, produced from an impromptu interview in a van. The California-based artist is a well-respected musician who does make work that can be safely classified dubstep. And he cuts straight through the distractions and describes, in clear and precise terms, just what’s going on in how he hears the music – not only with dubstep, but with the beat structure of electronic music more generally, at least in the way it tends to be classified. The visualization, added by an unknown YouTuber and produced in, a presentation tool, is a bit like looking into one artist’s mind, as thought processes become visual.

Several readers disagree with the notion of genre here more generally – which I can actually get behind as an artist – but I think what’s nice here is that the modes of hearing that motivate those genre labels are well-described here. You may hear differently, and you may not find the classification useful, but this demystifies where those categories originate.

You don’t need an advanced degree in music theory to understand this. (Believe me: I’ve got one, finishing another, and “you don’t need one” barely begins to cover it.) Nor do you need a lot of background even in dance music. You – and perhaps less-musically-educated friends and family – have undoubtedly heard these rhythms. Seeing them explained and hearing them in clear, simple terms can help you to understand what you’ve already got in your ears. It’s lovely. (Some of it is debatable, yes – “dub” gets a thrown-aside mention there that doesn’t really make any sense – but hearing him beatbox his way through what he hears for me at least gets to the essence of how one producer’s listening habits work.)

Wheat Williams, who sends this in, observes:

Bassnectar must be an extraordinarily organized thinker! His off-the-cuff explanation created a perfectly coherent outline which the video artist rendered from his word-for-word delivery.

Remarkable on several levels.

Like you, I’ve interviewed a lot of musicians in my journalist days, and rarely do you come across anybody who’s so clear and straightforward in his thinking and his ability to describe his music.

For the original interview – and proof this was all off-the-cuff:

More from that site:

Best comment on YouTube:

dubstep is my favorite artist, yay´╗┐ deadmouse!!

(Don’t worry, they are kidding.)

Side note:

I’ll, uh, defend the four-on-the-floor regularity of techno by pointing out that those kinds of regular duple meanings have a long, long history in European and European-influenced music. That, in turn, may explain why European audiences stomach them more easily – not because of the maligned image of the polka band in a German square, but because of a broad and varied tradition of folk and Classical music based on similar on-the-beat regularity. And the mechanical repetitiveness of some techno, too, has roots in the 20th Century love affair with machines, and a worldwide sense of trance states brought about by loops that may even have biological connections. Your brain, after all, reaches certain states of regular oscillation. At the same time, I understand why Bassnectar goes a different definition, one influenced by jazz and hip-hop and soul – and American, English, and other dubstep producers all share a deep generational fascination with those rhythms that crosses all kinds of backgrounds. (PS: I also like polka. Don’t knock it.)

But understanding dance music categorization as lying between the broken and regular beat makes absolute sense. And as in many musical evolutions, the tension between ideas can be enormously artistically inspiring.

Updated: The interesting question is whether that general categorization – which has become common, indeed, in the USA in conversations I hear – is really fair. It may have to do with the self-conception of producers. But while the bass drum is regular in many of these genres, they, too, often rely on polyrhythms and syncopation influenced by genealogical lines of music like jazz. Our friend Primus Luta (@primusluta) wonders via Twitter if this dichotomy is really the best way to understand things. But at least, for the purposes of the argument Bassnectar is making, he does a good job of beatboxing his way through the way in which many people hear these genres, the perception of how they work. In other words, it’s a useful illustration of how Bassnectar hears them. Because it’s music, and intrinsically about perception, it’s that question of how things are perceived rather than some objective, universal fact that matters – and can by definition be heard radically differently by someone else.

What he omits is the mention of certain timbres or samples, for instance (thanks to John Alfred Tyson for raising this on Facebook; I agree). But I think that omission also says something about how people hear or what they find important as they self-indentify with what they’re making.

Now, if someone can just do some infographics illustrating brostep… (there is, at least, a hilarious definition)

Speaking of dubstep, for the record: America did not ruin music. America ruined the global economy. Look it up; get it straight. Then again, the night is young: my New Year’s Resolution for 2012 is definitely to butcher music, or anything else I can get my hands on. U.S.A.!