Radiohead Music Theory, Pure and Simple

The most intelligent bunch of musicians to ever sell out an arena are the subject of rich, in-depth critical analysis. Have a highlighter and headphones handy.

Everything in Its Right Place: Analyzing Radiohead

Publisher: Oxford University Press
Price: $24.95
Author: Brad Osborn
Length: 220 pages
Format: Paperback
Publication date: 2016-11

The basic career arc of Radiohead -- as unique as it is -- has been chronicled in countless articles and reviews: an ambitious band of British 20somethings release a decent Britpop debut album (Pablo Honey) in 1993, emboldened by a freak hit (“Creep”). This is followed by an even stronger sophomore album, The Bends, and a few more college radio mainstays (“High and Dry”, “Fake Plastic Trees”). Under normal circumstances it wouldn’t be out of the ordinary for Radiohead to continue churning out the same guitar-heavy alt rock, resulting in an indifferent fan base and eventual irrelevance.

But in 1997, something interesting happened. Radiohead unleashed their third album, and from an artistic standpoint, OK Computer was a quantum leap forward, leaving the previous two albums in the dust. Since the release of that epochal, paradigm-shifting masterpiece, Radiohead was never the same again. Version 2.0 was the new standard, and they rewrote the rule book by essentially throwing it out the window. They were no longer contemporaries to lesser bands like Oasis, The Verve, or Suede. They were a genre all to themselves.

Calling Radiohead the most important band since the Beatles -- and many have -- isn’t off the mark. This is a band (with the still-intact lineup of Thom Yorke, Jonny Greenwood, Colin Greenwood, Ed O’Brien and Philip Selway) for which there is no sonic equivalent. Their influences aren’t just pop and rock -- their musical stew mixes in the cacophonous jazz of Charles Mingus and Alice Coltrane, the bold classical dissonance of Olivier Messiaen and Krsysztof Penderecki, the hypnotic krautrock of Can and Kraftwerk, and a host of electronic and experimental ideas that when combined, can only be Radiohead.

Needless to say, the music of Radiohead -- which manages to both satiate fans with typical motifs in addition to shattering expectations with every new release -- is ripe for deep critical analysis. Brad Osborn, Assistant Professor of Music Theory at the University of Kansas, has written what is quite possibly the definitive critical assessment of the band. Everything in Its Right Place: Analyzing Radiohead is a granular, often dizzying exploration of the various aspects of the band’s music. This isn’t a biography, and it doesn’t even really delve much into lyrics. This is music theory, pure and simple.

Will Radiohead fans with little to no knowledge of musicology enjoy this book? In my opinion, yes: if they’re willing to work a little for it. The basic tenets of music theory are explained, to some degree, although you may occasionally find yourself going back a few pages to have something re-explained to you. You could even do what I did and keep a highlighter handy. I realize it sounds like a bit of a task, especially if you’re not getting college credit for it, but the music of Radiohead is full of such Byzantine complexity that it demands this kind of scrutiny. Also, the payoff is satisfying: it affords fans the opportunity to hear the music in a completely different light. Osborn even gives Radiohead fans credit ahead of time: “I generally assume you all to be a pontificate, cerebral bunch,” he writes in the preface. “Rather than water down technical descriptions of this music, the technical apparatus of music theory is wielded with whatever tools strike me as most necessary for addressing the music.“

Largely bypassing the first two albums, Everything in Its Right Place analyzes OK Computer (1997), Kid A (2000), Amnesiac (2001), Hail to the Thief (2003), In Rainbows (2007), and The King of Limbs (2011). Last year’s A Moon Shaped Pool was released as the book was in production. “I occasionally reference features of these new songs that recall Radiohead’s work from 1997 to 2011,” Osborn writes, “but, alas, a more sustained analysis will have to wait for a second edition!”

Rather than approach the music chronologically, Osborn divides the book into four parts, breaking down distinct musical parameters: song form, rhythm, timbre and harmony. An additional chapter is added which is devoted entirely to one of Radiohead’s most complex pieces, “Pyramid Song” (a fan favorite that guitarist O’Brien once called “the best song we ever recorded”). Tacking this long-form analysis to the end of the book is a brilliant move: not only is the song a perfect specimen for the task of “checking under the hood,” as it were, it also gives the reader a chance to put the tools introduced in earlier chapters to good use.

The four main sections of the book do an admirable job of breaking down the songs in the applicable categories, both textually and through the use of figures and charts. In many cases, tables pick apart everything from “through-composed form in ‘2+2=5’” to “the macro- and micro-form of ‘Idioteque.’” In terms of form, Osborn writes at great length about the concept of the “terminally climactic form”, a process whereby the standard verse/chorus is met with a monumentally structured contrast at the song’s end. This form is used often in Radiohead songs and provides the kind of structural unpredictability that the band has been known for since they began conceptually shifting their sound 20 years ago.

Gear enthusiasts have plenty to chew on here. Guitar effects are scrutinized and there’s even in-depth analysis of all the times multi-instrumentalist Jonny Greenwood used his favorite obscure vintage instrument, the Ondes Martenot. Needless to say, you’ll want the entire Radiohead catalog at your fingertips for reference as it definitely adds to the experience. The only time I felt the energy level begin to sag was during the rhythm and meter chapter, which involved an awful lot of math (and this is coming from someone who plays the drums, although the fact that I haven’t taken formal lessons in 30 years may have been a factor in my confusion). Otherwise Osborn’s analysis is refreshing and enthusiastically presented.

This isn’t the first critical assessment of Radiohead (some individual albums have already been the subject of analysis, thanks to Bloomsbury’s 33 1/3 series). It certainly won’t be the last. As A Moon Shaped Pool showed us in 2016, Radiohead still has plenty of creative spark left, and as long as there are music obsessives still out there, there will be exciting, unique music available for analysis. Osborn has given fans the tools to study the music and has given what is probably the most intelligent bunch of musicians to ever sell out an arena their proper critical due.

PM Picks
Pop Ten

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independently owned and operated.