Subject: A Thousand Songs and a Song: Five Decades of Mizrahit and Rock Songs in Israel – musical analysis
Supervisor: Prof. Naphtali Wagner
Abstract: Tension between global and local cultural influences is prevalent in popular music in Israel. The two prominent genres of the late 20th and early 21st centuries—Mizrahi Music (Musiqa Mizraħit) and Israeli Pop-Rock—each display a unique mixture of global and local characteristics. In addition, both genres are dynamic categories, as they change over time and mutually influence each other. Mizrahi Music, which was initially excluded from the mainstream of Israeli music by the cultural establishment, had eclipsed Israeli Pop-Rock as the dominant musical genre in Israel by the beginning of the 21st century.
This dissertation establishes a discourse regarding Israeli pop that revolves around the musical substance of the two main genres. Israeli pop music has so far been primarily analyzed from sociological and cultural perspectives. This research adds the music-analytical perspective to the growing body of knowledge on the topic, tracking the modes by which specific musical features emerge and evolve over time in relation to the cultural definitions.
The research is based on a digital database that encodes a dataset containing musical analyses of 1001 songs. The songs were chosen mostly from the Hebrew annual charts broadcast on Israeli public radio, and an effort was made to maintain a quantitative balance between the two main genres and along the five decades of the dataset. The genre of each song was determined by the socio-cultural context of its performer, drawing on previous research by Regev and Seroussi, whose published monograph is entitled Popular Music and National Culture in Israel. The rhythmic, formal, harmonic and timbral features of each song were manually analyzed, encoded, and documented in the database. In addition, song lyrics were documented and briefly examined. The database containing all of the dataset analyses is freely accessible online for research purposes, and is in itself a contribution of this dissertation.
The research findings describe in detail the gradual changes in Israeli popular music from the 1970s to the 2010s as they occur in specific musical features such as the electric guitar timbres; the use of Mizrahit-associated instruments and electronic and synthesized timbres; the typical rhythmic patterns of each genre; the particular ways by which the Phrygian mode—also known as “Mediterranean tonality”—is employed; and others. Those findings are presented as statistical evidence arranged by genres and decades, and function as a point of departure for qualitative analyses of specific test cases. Those, in turn, lead to more focused discussions of unique phenomena in Israeli pop, and how they change over time, while suggesting possible cultural explanations for these processes. In addition to the statistical analysis of the data, some machine-learning methods were used for data exploration.
The findings also function as a basis for a theoretical discussion—that is, the spiral model for the pop song form is schematically conceptualized, and further developed, in light of statistical evidence regarding formal features in the dataset. Simultaneously, the formal spiral model is applied in qualitative analyses of unique song forms in the dataset. In the harmonic domain, a newly found harmonic sequence—one hitherto unknown in the pedagogic literature—is discussed.
Another central issue examined in this study is musical complexity. Throughout the years, Musiqa Mizrahit has been repeatedly discounted in the Israeli public sphere as a genre of inferior quality. But while “quality” is a subjective aesthetical criterion, complexity is an empirically quantifiable criterion. Based on the manual analyses of the dataset’s songs, four quantitative complexity indices were developed, one for each of the four musical features that were analyzed: rhythm, form, harmony, and timbre. In addition, an automatic rhythmic complexity index was developed by utilizing the song’s audio features. An original algorithm was constructed to receive an audio file as input, calculate its rhythmic cross-correlation values, and output the song’s rhythmic complexity value. The manual and automatic rhythmic complexity values were combined to form a weighted rhythmic complexity index. Eventually, the four parametric complexity indices were aggregated into an overall complexity index that rates all of the dataset’s songs according to their respective overall complexity. It was found that, since the 1980s, the overall stylistic complexity of Musiqa Mizrahit exceeds that of Israeli Pop-Rock, and that the complexity gap between the two genres is growing over time. The empirical findings related to complexity also serve as a point of departure for a qualitative discussion about complexity and simplicity in Israeli pop songs. Once the presentation of the findings is complete, the discussion moves beyond the data to highlight some of the central trends in Israeli popular music during the 2010s.
Power relations in late 20th-century Israeli society have asymmetrically shaped the field of popular music. On the one hand, Israeli Pop-Rock was perceived as the default genre of mainstream pop, while enjoying critical acclaim accompanied by an aura of artistic “authenticity.” On the other hand, the genre of Musiqa Mizrahit was initially regarded as inferior, as having low production values. Later, as it began to achieve commercial success, it was portrayed as shallow, cliché-ridden entertainment. This perception, which reflected an aversion to “industrialized pop,” was also the result of prejudice, racism, and the clinging of cultural gatekeepers to their sources of power. The findings of this research underscore the difference that lies between the complex and diverse musical reality of Musiqa Mizrahit in the 1980s and 1990s, and the public image of the genre as “shallow” and “trivial” pop—a false image that lingers to this day.
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MA Honors Program 2011/2012
Rotenstreich Stipend 2016/17
Presidential Stipend 2015/16