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Foreword on Salience

Avant-propos sur la notion de saillance
Brad Osborn

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Salience and the Goldilocks Principle

  • 1 Brad Osborn, Everything in its Right Place: Analyzing Radiohead, New York and Oxford: Oxford Unive (...)

1My book, Everything in its Right Place: Analyzing Radiohead (Oxford UP, 2016) came out a few months before the May 2017 symposium that spawned this collection. One of the book’s guiding tenets is the concept of “salience”. Defined most concisely, the salience that I hear so often in Radiohead’s music occurs in passages that (if you would forgive the self-plagiarism) “maximize the balance between banal predictability and sheer surprise”.1

2Unbeknown to me (I was unable to attend the symposium), this principle would turn out to be a point that a number of participants returned to time and again. But here’s a little known fact: the word “salience” doesn’t appear in the original drafts of my book. The original title was Everything in its Right Place: The Goldilocks Principle in Radiohead – referring, of course, to the child Goldilocks, who prefers the porridge that maximizes the balance between hot and cold. Reviewers were split right down the middle about Goldilocks. Half of them thought it was perfect—why use fancy terms when a story we all know so well explains exactly what you’re going for? But the other half thought a children’s story trivialized Radiohead’s sophisticated compositional output.

3And so, I took out all references to the child Goldilocks (except one, snuck into Chapter Six, which was added only in the second drafts after I realized I’d barely touched on “Pyramid Song”!). Before ultimately deciding on this concept of salience, I had entertained several other ways to explain Radiohead’s balance between predictability and surprise. In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle explains courage as the balance between cowardice and avarice. Kant anticipates my argument by about 150 years in his third critique when he states that “taste is the discipline of genius”. Just as Kant suggests that great art balances conformity and imagination, Nietzsche finds the greatest art to be that which balances Apollonian order and Dionysian drunkenness.

  • 2 Maria Witek, E. Clarke, M. Wallentin, M. Kringelbach, and P. Vuust, “Syncopation, Body-Movement an (...)

4There are now even accounts from modern psychology that bolster these heady claims. Maria Witek, Eric Clarke, and others conducted a study on dancing to groovy music which demonstrated that participants became most physically involved (i.e. danced to) “not the ones that have very little complexity and not the ones that had very, very high complexity, but the patterns that had a sort of balance between predictability and complexity”.2 I just read an article on the neurobiology of hyperpolyglots suggesting that speakers of many languages

  • 3 Judith Thurman, “The Mystery of People Who Speak Dozens of Languages,” The New Yorker, September 3 (...)

show less brain activity when working in their mother tongue; they don’t have to sweat it. As the language in the tests grows more challenging, it elicits more neural activity, until it becomes gibberish, at which point it elicits less—the brain seems to give up, quite sensibly, when a task is futile.3

  • 4 Roger T. Dean (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Computer Music, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.
  • 5 Though which key they choose is always fascinating to me, since the album version is halfway betwe (...)

5Radiohead has, of course, never given us music that is so complex that the task of hearing and interpreting it seems futile. Granted, they’ve come close. “Hunting Bears” and “Treefingers” are austere electro-acoustic works that one might expect to hear on a concert given by a university professor teaching a class on Max/MSP.4 At the same time, there are very few songs after OK Computer that are in the “mother tongue” of modern pop music. “No Surprises” might come the closest. I’ve heard wedding bands cover it.5 Most of Radiohead’s music from 1997 onward is salient: it maximizes the balance between musical experimentation and adoption of musical conventions.

Salience in OK Computer (and beyond)

6Radiohead is most salient when they’re balancing convention and experimentation in three musical domains: song form, timbre/instrumentation, and rhythm/meter. But they didn’t really start doing any of this until OK Computer, which is why I suppose I was asked to write a foreword for this collection. Before OK Computer their style was more or less yoked to the conventions of early 90s rock (or, perhaps more specifically, British Rock, Brit-pop, or even grunge). In all three of these domains, Pablo Honey (1993) and The Bends (1995) are just not that exciting. This isn’t to say they aren’t great records—they just “discipline the genius” a bit too much to be considered properly salient.

  • 6 See Brad Osborn, Analyzing Radiohead, op. cit., 22-30.
  • 7 Ibid., 30-37.

7Some of OK Computer’s most salient moments come from song forms that transcend the norms of pop music, those being verse/chorus and strophic forms. This is the first time Radiohead uses a form they’ll explore throughout the rest of their output: terminally climactic form.6 Terminally climactic songs begin like normal verse/chorus or strophic forms, but end with a section that is not only new, but which also functions as the song’s memorable high point—even more so than the chorus. “Karma Police” is the archetype for this form. Its subdued chorus (“this is what you get”) is outshined in every way by the terminal climax (“for a minute there…”) which repeats several times—like a chorus—with Yorke yelling the highest notes he’s sung thus far. Radiohead would go on to make great use of this song form, especially on In Rainbows (“Faust Arp,” “All I Need,” and “Weird Fishes/Arpeggi”). Other salient formal experiments on OK Computer include their first through-composed piece (“Fitter Happier”), the extended three-part suite form of “Paranoid Android,” and the classical rondo form heard in “Exit Music (for a film)”.7

8I once heard Christopher O’Riley play a cover of “You” (1993) in which he said “this is the only song I know in 23”. Of course, nobody would notate “You” in 23/8. He was referring to Radiohead’s subtraction of one eighth-note from the fourth bar of what would be a normal 6/8 song in quadruple hypermeter (24-1=23).

9Growing up listening to rock music, one comes to expect simple meters such as 3/4 and 4/4, as well as compound meters such as 6/8. But the 7/8 guitar and bass riff in “Paranoid Android” piques our interest by subtracting one eighth-note from a standard bar of 4/4. Salient moments such as this, where the band triggers a learned expectation only to thwart it by either adding or subtracting one pulse, become part of the band’s signature sound from OK Computer onward (see, for example the 7/8 opening riff in “2+2=5,” and the 5/4 grooves throughout “Morning Bell” and “15 step”).

  • 8 Ibid., 71-77.
  • 9 Ibid., 59-63.

10“Let Down” is the first time the band uses another salient rhythmic device known as grouping dissonance.8 The signature guitar riff that opens the track lasts five beats, but the drums, bass, and voice that eventually join are all playing in groups of four beats, resulting in a 5:4 grouping dissonance. Radiohead’s grouping dissonances in “Let Down” (OK Computer, 1997), “Weird Fishes” (In Rainbows, 2007) “Lotus Flower” (The King of Limbs, 2011) and “Ful Stop” (A Moon Shaped Pool, 2016) all feature an odd-numbered grouping running in parallel alongside the 4/4 beat. This practice, along with Euclidean rhythms (which they don’t explore until 2000),9 result in extraordinarily salient grooves that complicate expected 4/4 meters with accents derived from the inherent asynchrony of odd and even numbers.

11Kid A (2000) and Amnesiac (2001) are (in)famous for their innovative timbres, especially the Ondes Martenot and vocal deformation techniques. But OK Computer has several moments of guitar-deforming effects that strain the listener’s ear. What is making that sound? Is that really a guitar? The Mutronics Mutator—an exceptionally destructive guitar pedal that basically allows the user to completely replace the guitar’s tone—makes its first appearance in the final guitar solo from “Paranoid Android”. It makes a second appearance in the shimmery lead guitar part beginning at 0:10 in the very next track, “Subterranean Homesick Alien”.

12Most rock listeners are completely comfortable identifying a guitar sound when bathed in reverb, delay, distortion, light flange, or even perhaps a little phaser. It’s only in moments where Radiohead uses effects that are outside of this range of expectations (or really cranks up the intensity on normal ones) that the result becomes a truly salient timbre. The delay pedal used at the end of “Karma Police,” for example, begins by altering what sounds like a lead guitar part, but soon grows in intensity and volume until it threatens to distort and overtake the entire track. By the time it’s over, we no longer recognize it as a deformed guitar, but rather a timbral oddity all its own. Bearing in mind that the year was 1997, most listeners would feel the same about the computerized voice heard throughout “Fitter Happier”. Is that a deformed human voice? What effect has been added? Because today we are bombarded by computerized voices, an effect that was once salient is no longer so.

Balancing Salience on future records

13If you believe that OK Computer was the record in which Radiohead tried out all of these balancing acts, then you can hear, to some extent, each of the following records as maximizing salience in one particular domain. Kid A and Amnesiac, as already mentioned, are notable for their experimental timbres. Hail to the Thief (2003), which begins in an off-kilter 7/8, includes some of the trickiest rhythms and meters in the band’s catalog. In Rainbows (2007) has the most terminally climactic forms of any record. Each of these records balances experimentation in one domain (e.g. rhythm) with relative amounts of convention in the other two (e.g. form and timbre). The King of Limbs (2011) is a notable exception for having gone just too far in terms of experimentation—simultaneously in rhythm and timbre—and its sales pale in comparison to all other records.

  • 10 My initial reactions to salience in A Moon Shaped Pool can be found in a blog post I wrote for Oxf (...)

14Coming back to OK Computer, I can’t help but hear another pattern in their future records: the three most accessible (OK Computer, In Rainbows, A Moon Shaped Pool) are spaced rather neatly about a decade apart from one another. After a decade of experimenting with timbre and rhythm, In Rainbows returns to relative calm in those domains while doing subtle things with form that, while experimental in a large-scale design sense, are not as challenging to the average listener on the surface. I hear this same kind of return to simplicity in A Moon Shaped Pool.10 There are certainly some tricky moments on AMSP—notably the dizzying grouping dissonance in the lead guitar at the end of “Ful Stop” and vocal manipulation throughout “Daydreamers”—but it’s generally a timbrally simple album dominated by minimally altered lead vocal, piano, and strings.

15All of this leads me to believe that there might be a larger, meta-salience unfolding over the course of the band’s career. If you’re a new band wanting to “make it” in the early 90s, you stick with formulae derived from Brit-Pop and grunge (1993-1995). Your first foray into your own compositional language (OK Computer) should be tempered, lest you lose the fans you just made. Once you’ve secured your place in rock history, you make your most experimental records (2000-2003). Now, just in time to revive those OK Computer fans who miss the guitar, release a similar record (In Rainbows—while, you’re at it, also completely revolutionizing the music distribution industry!). Now try out something new—how about with a second drummer (The King of Limbs)? Eh, that didn’t really work out, let’s go back to simplicity (A Moon Shaped Pool). What better way to conclude than with a twenty-year reissue of OK Computer!

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OSBORN Brad, Everything in its Right Place: Analyzing Radiohead, New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016.

OSBORN Brad, “Radiohead’s A Moon Shaped Pool (XL, 2016): reflecting, looking forward”, Oxford University Press Blog, 2016.>, accessed August 21, 2019).

THURMAN Judith, “The Mystery of People Who Speak Dozens of Languages”, The New Yorker, September 3, 2018, 48-55.

WITEK Maria, E. CLARKE, M. WALLENTIN, M. KRINGELBACH, and P. VUUST, “Syncopation, Body-Movement and Pleasure in Groove Music”, PLoS ONE 9 (4), 2014, 1-12.

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1 Brad Osborn, Everything in its Right Place: Analyzing Radiohead, New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016, 1.

2 Maria Witek, E. Clarke, M. Wallentin, M. Kringelbach, and P. Vuust, “Syncopation, Body-Movement and Pleasure in Groove Music,” PLoS ONE 9, no. 4, 2014, 1-12.

3 Judith Thurman, “The Mystery of People Who Speak Dozens of Languages,” The New Yorker, September 3, 2018, 55.

4 Roger T. Dean (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Computer Music, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.

5 Though which key they choose is always fascinating to me, since the album version is halfway between E and F!

6 See Brad Osborn, Analyzing Radiohead, op. cit., 22-30.

7 Ibid., 30-37.

8 Ibid., 71-77.

9 Ibid., 59-63.

10 My initial reactions to salience in A Moon Shaped Pool can be found in a blog post I wrote for Oxford University Press; see Brad Osborn, ““Radiohead’s A Moon Shaped Pool (XL, 2016): reflecting, looking forward,” <>.

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Brad Osborn, « Foreword on Salience », Revue LISA/LISA e-journal [En ligne], vol. XVII-n°1 | 2019, mis en ligne le 12 novembre 2019, consulté le 14 décembre 2019. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/lisa.10536

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Brad Osborn

Brad Osborn is Assistant Professor of music theory at the University of Kansas. He is the author of the monograph Everything in its Right Place: Analyzing Radiohead (Oxford University Press, 2016). Adapting a psychology-based approach known as ecological perception, the book demonstrates how Radiohead’s music means what it does to listeners with varying degrees of prior experiences in common practice tonal music and post-millennial rock. Brad’s other research on post-millennial rock music is published in top music theoretical journals, including a contribution to the 3rd edition of The Musician’s Guide to Theory and Analysis (Norton), a textbook for which he has filmed instructional videos to support the chapters. He is active in the Society for Music Theory, having previously served on the Committee for the Status of Women and as the past Chair of the Popular Music Interest Group. He currently serves the society on the editorial board of the journal Music Theory Online. Active as a rock multi-instrumentalist (drums, guitars, voice, keyboards), Brad writes and records music under the artist moniker D’Archipelago—a “band” composed entirely of him overdubbing all of the vocal and instrumental tracks. (Source:

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