Roughness Part 1 supplement — Bob Dylan

Bob Dylan.  Image via .

Bob Dylan.  Image via


In the previous post, we considered architect and theorist Christopher Alexander’s concept of Roughness, an element of wholeness in his schema.   The irregularities and imperfections that produce roughness help imbue a design with a sense of life.

“It is certainly noticeable that all great buildings do have various small irregularities in them, even though they often conform to approximate overall symmetries and configurations. By contrast, buildings which are perfectly regular seem dead.”

Christopher Alexander, Book One, The Nature of Order, p.214

Rock and roll abounds with examples of how roughness suggests the life force at work in the music.  For example . . .


Bob Dylan’s voice has been derided as toneless and out of tune.  These complaints miss the point.  Note how much more alive the words sound precisely because of his growling tone and sour tuning, which actually enliven the words.

As Shierry Weber Nicholsen notes . . .

The resulting combination of local symmetry and roughness, Alexander suggests, is the product of forces tending toward a larger order and integration . . .  

Shierry Weber Nicholsen
The Love of Nature and the End of the World p. 191

An intuitive listener knows not to hear Dylan’s gritty tone and tuning as shortcomings.  To her ears, the song comes to life through its rough presentation.

Another great version of the song, by the Byrds, has less in the way of roughness.


Whichever rendition of the song one prefers, and there are good arguments for both, we can hear the tradeoffs when Dylan’s grit and twisted tuning is replaced by the more pleasing chorale of the Byrds’ harmonies.  The Byrds by no means abandon roughness, but note that as the singing gains tuning and tone, the words lose some of their bite. 

Thank you for reading.