Music Theory Is Your Prison

If you let it be.

There are some huge misunderstandings about music theory. The two that go hand in hand at the top of the list are 1) music theory is a set of rules that we need to follow and, as a result, 2) music theory kills creativity. If you ever believed either of these two ideas, thenrameau_greuseyou need to radically change your relationship with music theory. The truth is that music theory can be one of your greatest tools as a musician, but first, you need to understand what it really is.

It’s called music theory. Not laws, not rules, but theory. The purpose of music theory has historically been to document what composers have done. This is why music theory is not necessarily solid and has changed dramatically over the years – as composers stretch beyond what has been done, the scope of music theory also grows, and many times, old ideas are discarded.

Music theory should serve you and not the other way around. As I mentioned above, theory could be one of the best tools a musician has – it can help us to understand what we’re paying more fully, and, as songwriters, help us to understand what’s been written before, what’s worked and not worked in the past to help us avoid continually reinventing the wheel!

Is music theory your prison? Try thinking of music theory as guidelines of ideas that have worked in the past. If the guidelines don’t fit what you have in mind, try something new and maybe someday someone will write a theory book about it!

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The Many Benefits of Learning Music

Learning music leads to greater intellectual, social, creative, and personal development (Hallam, 2010; Kaschub et al, 2009). In many of these studies, as Miendlarzewska and Trost (2014) point out, there is only correlational evidence to support claims about the benefits of music lessons. There may be other factors that cause the positive results.

This is true. But the fact is that whether the benefits can be attributed directly to playing and learning music or not, the process still facilitates these benefits! Besides this, the end result is a skill that you can have fun with and potentially share with others.

Dewey-Finn-School-of-Rock-teaching

Among the benefits of learning and playing music are:

  • Heightened scores on standardized tests (Schellenberg, 2004)
  • Increased IQ (ibid)
  • Enhanced creativity (Kaschub, et al, 2009)
  • Increased ability in language learning – native and foreign (Hallam, 2010)
  • Sharpened critical thinking skill (Topoğlu, 2014)
  • Increased social capital and strengthened community (Wright, 2012)

 

So what are you waiting for!

 

References:

Hallam, S. (January 01, 2010). The power of music: Its impact on the intellectual, social and personal development of children and young people. International Journal of Music Education, 28, 3, 269-289.

Kaschub, M., Smith, J., & MENC, the National Association for Music Education (U.S.). (2009). Minds on music: Composition for creative and critical thinking. Lanham, Md: Rowman & Littlefield Education.

Miendlarzewska, E. A., & Trost, W. J. (January 01, 2014). How musical training affects cognitive development: Rhythm, reward and other modulating variables. Frontiers in Neuroscience.

Schellenberg, E. G. (January 01, 2004). Music lessons enhance IQ. Psychological Science, 15, 8, 511-4.

Topoğlu, O. (February 21, 2014). Critical Thinking and Music Education. Procedia – Social and Behavioral Sciences, 116, 2252-2256.

Wright, R. (January 01, 2012). Music education and social transformation: building social capital through music.(new approaches to music education: transatlantic musings)(Essay). Canadian Music Educator, 53, 3.)

Universal Responses to Music – We Are All Pavlov’s Dog

In a study by Hauke Egermann, et al. (January 2015), it was found that humans seem to have a universal physiological response to sound – specifically music in this study. The tests were performed with forty Congolese Pygmies and forty Canadians. In all subjects, there were similar physiological response to musical examples, even when the music was very familiar to one group and not the other!

What makes this study so interesting is the fact that members of each group, when questioned about how the music made them feel, reported different emotional responses, despite having the same physiological response. “This crowd-789652_640suggests that subjective emotional ratings might have been more subject to cultural influences than physiological responses to the stimuli.”

The complexity of intellect and emotion attached to the physiological response to music is amazing. Like Pavlov’s dog we feel sadness when a certain music is played, not because, as was believed in the past, the music itself is sad. The physiological response has been paired with other information which is triggered when the music plays.

The ideas in this study, I believe, can be applied beyond music. For instance, everything we experience with any of our senses can produce a physiological response and attached to that is a body of emotional and intellectual information that defies mere explanation. How can understanding these responses help us to better facilitate learning, more easily solve our most important social issues, and better understand ourselves?

Top Six Songwriting Methods That Could Make You Rich

prisonerBruno2There are songwriters who believe that everything they do needs to be fresh and new – I’m one of them. But the sad truth about songwriting is that the fresh and new usually doesn’t sell! Acts that we think of as “ground-breaking” have usually borrowed quite a bit from the artists that came before them who were actually fresh and new – the waters have already been tested and they’re now safe…

What you are about to read is a list of some of the most common songwriting techniques that the big players in the industry use to construct their songs. Bear in mind that the title says “could.” There is still quite a bit more that goes into success. Looking good or interesting helps considering the mind-numbing shallowness of most the world. Having connections in the industry is a big plus – without contacts your chances of being struck by lightning are greater than your chances of being discovered! An intense amount of energy combined with a solid work ethic are essential for indie/DIY artists, and certainly help the well-connected. If you have any combination of these things, you have a pretty good shot. Now you need the last part – your songs!

1) Technique number one is the one that can get you into the most trouble – it’s Theft! Yes… some people, like Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams, think this is a legitimate songwriting technique. They took an old song and wrote their own words to it. This, however, will almost always end badly!

2) I call technique number two Slight Alterations. This is just one step above theft. In this technique the songwriter takes a hit and changes some element. Two examples jump immediately to mind. First, check out Rihanna’s “Shut Up And Drive” and compare to New Order’s “Blue Monday.” She kept the chords and melodies the same but altered the instruments and words. The second example is Sam Smith’s “Stay With Me” as compared to Tom Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down.”  In this example, Smith slowed the tempo, changed the instruments and words, but still had to pay Petty money for copyright infringement despite the fact that he arguably created something new and many feel, better!

3) The third technique is Deconstruction/Reconstruction. This is reportedly what Nickelback’s Chad Kroeger does. OK Go! seems to have done this obviously with “Here it Goes Again” from Billy Joel’s “Still Rock and Roll to Me” because the chord progressions and song structure are almost identical!

In this third technique, the songwriter takes an already existing hit song, takes it apart, analyzing chords, rhythms, melodies, textures, and makes a blueprint based on the song, from which a new song could be built. Artists that use this technique pay close attention to the details, and though they sometimes alter the song quite a bit, they try to capture the recipe that made the original song a success.

It’s difficult to find a direct example of this method, but if you want to learn more about it, I describe the method in greater detail here!

Unlike the first two techniques, and despite my disdain for some of the artists who claim to use this one, I don’t believe this technique is that bad and could actually yield some original stuff.

4) I like to call the fourth technique Frankenmusic. This technique is also just a step above outright theft. It is the borrowing of parts from many different songs, and like Frankenstein’s monster, the new is created when these different parts are put together. Kid Rock recently borrowed (stole?) the riffs from Warren Zevon’s “Warewolves of London” and Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama” to make his terrible song “All Summer Long.”

An example of this at a micro-level is Bruno Mar’s “Uptown Funk.” These guys did a great job at finding many of the influences that led to the travesty, and huge hit that Uptown Funk has become. Bruno and Mark Ronson didn’t just pull two or three different parts together, they took riffs, melodies, rhythms, and chord progressions from dozens of songs, and like building with musical legos, they put a new song together that sounds completely familiar, though it’s tough to put your finger on why. The lyrics are often built in the same way from cliches.

Unlike the barbaric technique used by Kid Rock, Bruno and Mark Ronson are master thieves, stealing little bits from here and there and putting them together in such a way that they most likely won’t get sued.

5) The fifth technique is Stylistic Imitation. This is what Bruno Mars did with “Locked Out of Heaven” which he proudly admits sounds like a Police song. Using this technique, the songwriter needs to listen to a lot of music from a particular artist and get to know their style – growing up listening to an artist makes it all the easier. Once the sound of the artist has been absorbed, a new song is created from elements of the original artist. This is different from all the rest of the techniques so far because the result could very well be a brand new song – musically original – in the style of another artist. Listening to Locked Out of Heaven, it sounds like Bruno wrote an original Police song, not a Bruno Mars song.

6) The last technique I’ll mention here is the Art of Simplicity. It seems too easy. Play two or three chords and sing a few notes from the pentatonic scale, and you could have a hit. Most people, especially non-musicians, like to avoid challenge when it comes to listening to music. Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep” is a perfect example. Maroon 5’s “Moves Like Jagger” is another. There are thousands more… seriously, just pick two chords and fool around. You’ll be surprised what you can write!

This just scratches the surface. There are many more techniques to use, including revisiting the standards like the blues, old time rock and roll or country, or even dipping into classical music. I have a list of the top ten chord progressions in pop and rock. Any of these chord progressions are fair game and are immediately familiar.

The best technique, in my opinion, is to write music you want to hear, really follow your heart. This is what art is all about, after all. You could be a brilliant songwriter using the techniques listed above, but you might never be an artist.

How to Write a Song Using the Deconstruction/Reconstruction Method

Using Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” as a test song, let’s look at the song structure, instrumentation, and chords – take it apart as briefly as we can and build a new song.

First, the structure is simple – (Intro) – Verse – Prechorus – Chorus – Break. Repeat this three times with a solo thrown in over a chorus before the third verse.

It’s deceptively simple – the whole song, besides the break, has the same four chords (F – Bb – Ab – Db), but they’re played differently in each section. The intro is a chorus that starts with solo guitar. The drums pound their way in and bring us to a chorus-like intensity. This is followed by the verse which is bass and simple drums with two notes played on guitar at the beginning of each phrase. The prechorus is the same as the verse with the two notes repeated in quarter notes throughout – the words change to “hello hello hello how low” and there is a build up to the explosive chorus. In the chorus, the drums increase intensity and complexity again, the guitar plays loud, distorted power chords, and the voice becomes more gravelly and sings up the octave. Then the break brings us back to the next verse with a rising and falling line in the bass (F – Gb – C – Bb – Ab). The guitar plays F – Gb – F – Bb – Ab in power chords.

The melody is the stickiest part, and many artists don’t bother putting it in the blueprint aside from perhaps basic shape and feel. For instance, in Smells Like Teen Spirit Kurt sings a melody that starts in a comfortable range in the verse, steps down in the prechorus, and ends with the highest parts in the chorus. This is actually not that unusual.

The shape of the melody in the verse is as follows: three steps up and a jump down (load up on guns) – back up to the highest note from which we take three steps down (bri-ing your friends) – up one step followed by three more steps down (it’s fun to lose) – finally two more steps up, followed by three steps down (and to-o pretend). This repeats. The verse has two jumps – from the third to the fourth note and from the fourth to the fifth. Interestingly, the third and fifth notes are the same note, and it’s as if that fourth note didn’t belong. However, it’s the fourth note that makes that melody interesting and memorable!

What we have just done is create a blueprint. In an extended blueprint you would look at all the shapes of all the melodies too, but this part is already too long! Now you take the blueprint and build a new song, using all the elements, changing up the chords and maybe instruments – for instance, start with bass instead of guitar, play the chords in reverse order and turn the melody upside down, change the rhythm up a little. But follow the guidelines in the blueprint and you might have a hit!

I’ll be posting a video example of the working of this song soon!

Did Led Zeppelin steal the riff for Stairway to Heaven?

The estate of the late Randy California is suing Led Zeppelin. They claim that Jimmy Page stole the opening riff to Stairway to Heaven from a song written by California called Taurus. Did Jimmy steal the riff? I think the simple answer is “yes.”

It’s not simple though. The riff that opens Stairway to Heaven is almost identical to the opening of Spirit’s song Taurus. Led Zeppelin opened for Spirit on their first American tour and wrote Stairway two years later. Perhaps the riff was lifted, but this was how many musicians approached songwriting. Ideas were borrowed and reused all the time! Just watch RiP! A Remix Manifesto to see some more examples of this and why it’s ok!

What’s more interesting and important is the fact that Randy California knew and based on comments he made over the years, didn’t seem to mind. If he was alive today, I don’t think this lawsuit would be happening.

Finally… this reusing of ideas seemed to be all Led Zeppelin could do…

If you listen closely to any music at all you can find ideas and influences that come from other sources. After years of resisting this idea I’ve come to the realization that this is how music evolves – we take old ideas, turn them around, try out new ways of playing them, and eventually something new emerges. In the case of Led Zeppelin, they may have relied heavily on those other sources but performing in their original style did bring something new to old ideas which is what is, perhaps, most important. Don’t get me started on how I feel about the blatant, bald-faced plagiarism in most pop music today. The lifting of this riff seems like nothing compared to the feeding frenzy the pop industry is engaging on the corpses of any other pop song from any era!

Infectious music – How Songs Get Stuck in Your Head

Have you ever gotten a song stuck in your head and no matter how you tried, you couldn’t get it out? Usually it’s just a snippet, a small piece of the song, maybe the chorus or part of a verse. This is called an earworm or, in academic circles,  involuntary musical imagery. This can be a good thing, as in replaying a song you love in your mind, or it can be a terrible thing, like when that song you hate keeps surfacing and making you want to scream! There are a few reasons songs get stuck in our heads, some of which I’ll discuss below, followed by some ideas about what might make a song catchy that you can use to experiment and maybe, create your own infectious songs.

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There are a few reasons songs get stuck in our heads. First, that song could be stuck in your head because of its association with a powerful event in your life, like your wedding, graduation day, or first kiss,  and thinking of those events or being in similar events brings the song back. Additionally, hearing that song can bring to mind memories of the event itself.

Another reason could include the song’s relationship to a strong emotional event, stressful situation, or trauma. Usually, the relationship happens when the song is playing while the event occurs. Again, in the recurrence of these or similar situations, the song jumps to mind.

In situations like the ones above, it doesn’t matter what song is playing, it get’s stuck, and many times, we are so far from the original event that we don’t even realize that’s why the song keeps popping up!

But what about the songs that are free of these relationships? What about the song you just heard on the radio with the chorus that replays in your head for weeks? What is it about these songs that makes them infectious?

I think it’s important to note before we go any further that simply creating an infectious melody or catchy riff doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re song is great. It’s just a small piece of the compositional process. You need a good chord progression – most of these catchy songs use the same, or at least similar chord progressions. You need relatively good lyrics – silly or nonsensical lyrics could backfire, turning your song into an annoying novelty. Highly negative lyrics could simply turn people off. And I believe its important to add a little artistic continuity to your song, using ideas from the main melody in the bass line or guitar line, integrating vocal rhythms into your drum part, using the meaning of the lyrics to determine the mood of your song, etc. There are many different ways to add more depth to your song which should be the subject of a new blog post!

How do people write that catchy song?

Researchers think they’ve isolated the elements that make a catchy song. According to the researchers, catchy songs share at least these four things (taken from the Wikipedia article).

  1. Longer and detailed musical phrases.
  2. Higher number of pitches in the chorus hook.
  3. Male vocalists
  4. Higher male voices with noticeable vocal effort

Further, they concluded that Queen’s “We Are The Champions” is the catchiest song in history despite the fact that there are hundreds of songs that could fit the criteria just as well.

I personally have a few problems with this assessment. Though the authors claim that they can predict whether a song will be catchy with an 80% accuracy, it discounts much of the music recently heard that was immediately catchy! Songs like Call Me Maybe or Wrecking Ball have caught the ear and don’t fit any of the basic criteria.

I’m not entirely sure what the backgrounds of all of these researchers are, and even though they all study music’s effect on the brain, I think they are all psychologists first and perhaps don’t have the deeper understanding of music to really make all the claims they do above. Since the results of this research seem to me somewhat counter intuitive, lets look at what songwriters themselves think.

playingInTheBandWhat do the songwriters who are making the money say?

First, they agree that there needs to be repetition of short, simple ideas. Looking at the research above, this seems like the opposite of what they found. Simple ideas are easier to remember, and if they’re placed over an equally catchy chord progression (see here), people can almost be compelled to sing it.

A simple idea in music could be a tiny motif, and as an example I’ll use Do-Re-Mi (I hoe you all know your do re mis!). In the repetition of this idea, you don’t need it to be exact. For instance, you might raise it one step like this – Do – Re – Mi (rest) Re – Mi – Fa. You’ve repeated an idea that will be easier for your listener to remember but you’ve avoided being boring and monotonous!

Play around with this idea for a little while and then add variations. Play your melody backwards, upside-down, with larger intervals (Do-Re-Mi might become Do-Mi-Sol), slow it down, speed it up, change keys!

Second, it’s important to grab your listener with something unusual, like a curious turn of words, interesting instrumentation, or just a good riff – anything to make your listener curious enough to pay attention so your melody has a better chance of being remembered.

Third, you should build up to the spot where your hook is. Usually this is the chorus, the part of most songs that everyone sings. To build, again, there are a lot of techniques you can use. You could use a simple crescendo, starting softly and becoming louder through your verse until you reach a forte at the chorus. This can be accomplished by starting with one instrument and adding more as you move to the chorus. You could do it also by raising your pitch, starting with a low melody that rises to the highest notes in the song at your hook.

Of course, there is no rule. You could reverse all the suggestions and create something brilliant. Drop all the instruments but the guitar out and sing the hook and octave lower!

As you play with these ideas you need to constantly check yourself. Does your music sound like something else? Does the music sound the way you want it to (this is actually the most important consideration!)?

For more ideas, there are a bunch of songwriter’s resources online like:

On a final note, I mentioned Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe” above. It was a ridiculously catchy song that made her a bunch of money… but do you know anyone that doesn’t groan in agony when they hear it now? Catchiness can be a double edged sword. If a song is too catchy, I think people eventually know they’re being psychologically manipulated and react strongly against it!