Chapter 3: Mazy Music

What harmony is this? My good friends, hark.
GONZALO Marvelous sweet music!

—Shakespeare, The Tempest (3.3.23-25)


  •  Free Radio (feat. Jeremy Indelicato) – “The Maze”
  •  Wu Tang Clan – “Gravel Pit” 
  •  Billy Preston – “Will It Go Round in Circles”
  •  Maze Featuring Frankie Beverly – “Joy and Pain”
  • Joni Mitchell – “The Circle Game” and “Both Sides    Now”
  •  Regina Spektor – “Up the Mountain”
  •  Pat Martino – “Footprints” 
  •  J.S. Bach – “Little Harmonic Labyrinth”
  •  Alex Guilbert Trio – “L’homme arme”
  •  PerKelt – “L’homme arme”
  •  Taylor Swift “Labyrinth”


From Maze (featuring Frankie Beverly) to the rapper Labrinth, pop musicians have long drawn from the meanings and energy of mazes and labyrinths to give their music that special something. Mazes are fertile compositional and performing ground for musicians. The recursive and repetitive nature of the seven- or eleven-circuit labyrinth’s paths easily correspond and translate to a musical setting of seven notes in a diatonic scale or 11 notes in a chromatic melody, a musical loop or rhythmic phrase repeated in a song, a complex melodic or rhythmic or harmonic pattern.

            And that’s not just for math rock. The labyrinth image or diagram can become the stuff of pattern poetry for lyrics, or circular musical notation on the page or score. A labyrinth can be songwriting inspiration for the mental state of the narrator in a Taylor Swift song (a love labyrinth). It can allow a musician to express confusion, entrapment, danger, or a sense of being lost. It can be a rapper’s name and handle and persona. A labyrinth is where the Grateful Dead and their spinoff bands find themselves a couple of minutes after the vocal, when the guitars explore paths that seemingly lead away from the song’s center, only to find their way again when one musician offers a melodic thread to lead the band home. And the winding twists and turns of a labyrinth offer a way for listeners to apprehend the intricate chromatic lines of a jazz master tearing through another breakneck chorus on his way to a repetition of the song’s main theme, or “head.” Whether used as analogue, metaphor, or structural pattern, mazy music draws from maze energy for meaning, depth, movement, complexity, interest. It can even be the center of an image for Jah Wobble’s Invaders of the Heart’s 1991 Rising Above Bedlam album, or Slowdive’s 2023 album everything is alive.

            Labyrinths’ musical threads extend back far beyond 21st century music, to Mozart and J.S. Bach, and further back to the music of medieval monks. Masses, canons, motets, operas—medieval and baroque composers used complex musical forms to explore the complex physical and symbolic forms of the labyrinth. In classical music, composers who want to tap into the labyrinth have usually employed either harmonic musical inversion (“contrary motion expressed in terms of pitch”) or retrograde motion (“contrary motion expressed through time”)—for example, when a melody is played backwards in a second half of a musical phrase. Pop musicians, whether or not they are trained in music theory, use those same techniques in their mazy music. Today’s raps, vamps, jams, and rave-ups join a long musical lineage when they incorporate labyrinthine and mazy approaches and themes.

            A select playlist exploring some of the variety and roots of mazy music scratches the surface, but it’s a start. Hit play on the following tracks, repeat, and add your own choice cuts.

I. Free Radio (feat. Jeremy Indelicato) – “The Maze”

Here’s a 21st century pre-pandemic blues cried out from the workaday maze of life circa 2012 by a couple of rappers who sound like lifelong friends, with some help from a singer-songwriter who also feels the pressures of the 9-to-5 (or the graveyard shift). The “Cosmic Appalachian” flavor is in their broad vowels and in the bluesy sampled guitar groove. The bass and kick hit insistently like the rent man pounding on the door, and a bluesy, whiskered electric guitar riff connects the dots from “Susie Q” to “Smokestack Lightning” with the attitude of a Link Wray and a burr of distortion seasoning the sound like fatback simmering in greens. 

            Guides to the get-lost-in-the-groove, rappers Johnny Reynolds and Austn Haynes put the listener in the maze with them immediately out the gate, with a voice starting the track, reflecting on the good days and bad times, “the bad days / with some good minutes.” Perfectly placed spondees (bad days, lab rat, Mad Max) establish the flow and hammer the cadence, and, without making a big literary deal out of it, they allude to several maze meanings—puzzles, the desert, confusion, desperation, entrapment. And that’s all in the first verse.

            After a soulful, edgy chorus (“Every time I turn around / My whole wide world feels upside down / Can’t seem to find my way / Out of this maze”), another verse proceeds pell-mell. Now the song becomes an anti-consumerist protest, indicting U.S.-style capitalism for rapacious mistreatment of foreign workers. “I keep second-hand blood on my hands and my palms / Just from these goddamn Nikes that we put on.” Add another labyrinth-adjacent trope, the mask. “Got my mask on walking through life.” Is there a way out of this maze? Possibly: awareness, awakeness. “Wake up!” interjects one of the crew at the end of a line. “It’s time to give myself a couple face smacks / Douse myself in cold water / I want to travel town to town like a globetrotter.” Success of the touring-rapper variety might provide a way out of this maze. But it’s hard to imagine these rappers writing a more raw, urgent, streetwise, hungry, desperate, and edgy bomb track even if they were to blow up and rock arenas. This is independent DYI hip hop par excellence.  And with the maze, they find their perfect spit-rhyme terrain and pathways. There’s even time for an “Eleanor Rigby” reference in the outro.

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