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!

Advertisements

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.

beethovensnippet

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!

Boy Bands, Some of the Devil’s Finest Work

The Boy Band phenomena isn’t new. Some argue that the concept goes back to theThe-Osmonds Doo-Wop bands of the 50s but I think the concept is different today and should be traced back to the Monkees. Some believe that the Beatles, who the Monkees were based on, were the real innovators, but I disagree. There are some key elements that make up a Boy Band, and a Girl Group for that matter, that the creators of the Monkees pioneered – the concept is the engineering a band. The Beatles were too real.

First, the band is made up of different manufactured personalities that will each appeal to different people, thus extending the audience. The Doo-Wop bands didn’t do this on purpose, if it happened it was real. The personalities created for the Boy Band are usually the heart-throb, the brain, the clown, the introspective artist, and the jock. There are variations, but these are the five I’ve noticed. Kiss did this with their make-up, though I’m not sure their intentions were the same. The boys in the band then need to play these roles whenever they’re out, which has the unfortunate effect of turning their lives into one big performance and increasing the risk of total burn out and breakdown…

Next, they all need to be pretty. Each person in the crowd they’re appealing to is interested first in how good a mate they would be. There is a profound shallowness in relationship between band and fan based on the combination of appearance and false persona. Luckily for the fans, they’ll probably never meet their “love” so it can fade on its own before any kind of soul-crushing disappointment can occur.

Finally, the band will need to be able to perform music and dance… The music is somewhere in the mix, but is less important. Their handlers chose the music for them, and if they have a hand in it creation at all, it’s just suggestions here and there while the real work of music craftsmanship (not composition or artistry, mind you) is handled by the corporately-approved songwriters and psychologists who craft trite, mostly meaningless songs that will get stuck in your poor head and drive sales just far enough to make a few people millionaires before the song is forgotten and replaced by another meaningless piece of garbage. Of course… this is just my well founded and deeply researched opinion…

In the end, the Boy Band isn’t the culprit. The Boy Band is a symptom of the cancer in our society that makes nearly everything stink. Our quest for money, which is really just a form of power and control, is to blame. But that’s for another extremely long post.

Why I Teach Guitar

About 26 years ago I was asked to take my first guitar student. I had been in and out of the guitar shop for six years leading to this. I struggled to teach myself guitar for 5 years and had one year of classical guitar training (I was a rocker at heart but they only offered classical at the university).4181823128_a8b4b9c806

The kid they wanted me to teach was considered to be difficult by the guitar teachers at the shop. They said he was tone deaf and had no rhythm. They thought that these traits were a permanent part of the kid, unchangeable, and not things that could ever improve. I didn’t know any better than them. I was a 19 year old who never taught anyone anything (at least not intentionally).

I worked with the kid for about a year, and gradually I noticed his rhythm and his ability to hear differences between notes improving. At the time, I didn’t realize the influence this would have in my life. I began to realize that anyone, with a desire to do something, could eventually do it. In retrospect, I think the other guitar teachers, by branding the kid with the traits mentioned above were actually working hard to cover their own shortcomings as teachers.

Since then, I’ve taught hundreds of kids and adults and I learn something new every day. Every guitarist plays and learns differently, is motivated by different music, and different parts of the music, and brings me new challenges. There is no right or wrong way to play beyond the basics that keep our wrists free of tendinitis or carpal tunnel and our bodies free of stress. Listen to what your teachers say because they most likely have your best interests in mind, but remember, anyone who tells you they know the only right way to play is a fool.

Finally, one of the things that I’ve grown to feel strongly about is the idea of student-centered teaching. Each guitarist who has come to me over the past 26 years has had his or her own vision of how the music should sound, what music is good, what aspects of the guitar are most important.

From shredders to folk guitarists to classical guitarists to straight ahead rockers, they all knew what music they wanted to play. Most of the time, this vision was radically different from my own, and if I had tried to force mine on any of them, their learning experiences would have suffered, and worse, they might have abandoned music altogether!  It’s easiest and far more motivating when you’re learning what you want to learn. We should use the music the students love as a bridge to the musical concepts they need us to teach and we should help them to find their own voices in the music so it becomes a greater affirmation of who they are!

Critical Pedagogy for Music Education

Critical Pedagogy is a way we can fix our world. Paulo Freire, in his work, Pedagogy of the Oppressed lays down the framework for this educational philosophy designed to give oppressed people the tools to understand their oppression and take constructive action to end it. Though I believe critical pedagogy can be applied in any form of teaching and there is more work to be done in critical pedagogy, I have collected dozens of resources in a livebinder, specifically geared toward Critical Pedagogy for Music Education.

Below is embedded my video introduction to the livebinder (in which I go off script and “um” quite a bit) as well as the loose script I used to make it.

*–start script–*
This is an introduction to a livebinder I created to collect dozens of resources relating to Critical Pedagogy for music education. I’ve broken the livebinder into 5 categories, each represented by a tab at the top of the livebinder page.

The first, which I called “introduction” simply contains this introductory video. If you’re viewing this video on youtube, the link to the livebinder will freire be below in the video description.

The second category is called “what is critical pedagogy.” The main page that I link to under this tab is the wikipedia page, which give a good overview of what critical pedagogy is.

Critical pedagogy is an educational philosophy that was created by Paulo Freire, a Brazilian educator, who’s book, Pedagogy of the oppressed, I placed under the first tab. Though the book, written in 1969, was available through the 70’s, it wasn’t until the 80s that this educational philosophy was expanded and really brought to the United States by Henry Giroux, whose work I also have links to in the binder.

Critical pedagogy is basically the critical reflection about the values that inform our teaching while we help students to be able to critically self-reflect on the knowledge and values they find in the classroom and to recognize connections between their problems and experiences and the social contexts in which they live. Giroux says, it’s [an] “educational movement, guided by passion and principle, to help students develop consciousness of freedom, recognize authoritarian tendencies, and connect knowledge to power and the ability to take constructive action” (Giroux, 2010).

In America we still have a straight, white, middle class male hegemony. Our school systems were originally built on this as a tool to enculturate our population, and since our educational system was adopted in 1852, it’s served this purpose pretty well. I say adopted, not created, because it was based on the 18th century Prussian system, created by the king to provide “not only the skills needed in an early industrialized world (reading, writing and arithmetic), but also a strict education in ethics, duty, discipline and obedience” (Prussian Education System on Wikipedia). Kids who don’t fit the description of white middle class, many kids of color, kids that aren’t neurotypical, kids from different cultures, are often made to feel inferior and inadequate. Critical pedagogy should correct this problem.

Originally intended to be used to teach adults in Brazil to read, the ideas of critical pedagogy that Freire developed have since been used to teach oppressed people all over the world. The reason I think it’s important to multicultural education in the music classroom is because music has been a source of resistance for centuries! This brings me to my next tab in the binder which is called “Music as Resistance.”

In this tab I have placed a number of articles and videos describing how music like African American slave songs, south American protest songs, Irish songs, punk rock, and reggae have all been important in changing things in the world for the better. It’s also important to remember, especially with the modern genres, there are many sub-genres that develop, some dark and negative – it’s important to understand where the music is coming from. Much of this music will be valuable in your curriculum.

This brings me to the next tab, “Critical Pedagogy for Music Education.” In this tab I draw heavily on the work of Frank Abrahams who developed the ideas of Critical Pedagogy for Music Education. Abrahams draws on the work of critical theorist Jurgen Habermas, sociologist and philosopher Pierre Bourdieu, and critical pedagogs bell hooks, Henry Giroux, and Paulo Freire to develop his system that begins with four questions: Who am I? Who are my students? What might they become? and What might we become together. He challenges the traditional structure of the classroom which has a definite heirarchy, with the students right at the bottom. He instead seeks to validate the students by acknowledging and honoring what they already know, what they’ve learned outside the classroom, the richness of knowledge that they bring with them. Freire called the traditional teaching method “the banking method” in which the teachers are to deposit knowledge into the students who are seen as empty vesels. Abrahams then uses the knowledge of the students as the bridge to the curriculum we as music educators need to teach.

Finally, there’s a hidden benefit beyond bringing our students closer to real liberation. Abrahams found in his studies with sixth graders in critical pedigogy in music education that when they “were interviewed four months after they completed their music course. Results showed that they were able to discuss the concepts presented, remember the musical content, and had overall positive feelings about their experiences in the general music class. Furthermore, they were able to meet benchmarks for students in grades 5–8 as articulated in the National Standards for Arts Education” (Abrahams, 2009?).

By the end of 6th grade, through critical pedagogy these students had hit all the benchmarks they needed to hit by 8th grade!

My last tab is called “Other Resources.” It’s not specific to music or critical pedagogy, but it’s a collection of interesting supporting materials regarding education, social justice, ethnomusicology, and sociomusicology.

I fully endorse critical pedagogy for music education. The resources I’ve placed in my livebinder will take some time so examine, so I’ve placed the most immediately helpful pages first under each tab. Explore, enjoy, and thank you!

*–end script–*

The Prussian Education System

John Taylor Gatto, Against School, Originally published in Harper’s Magazine

Giroux, H. A. (2010). Lessons From Paulo Freire. Chronicle of Higher Education, Vol. 57, Issue 9

My Critical Pedagogy for Music Education Livebinder

There is no such thing as freedom.

I could leave this post at that, “there is no such thing as freedom.” It says it all. But I know that this statement will be misunderstood by most, and many will disagree with it.

Let me start by saying that this is what I believe and I hope you can prove me wrong. In the interest of brevity, I will only touch on these ideas. Additionally, I’m not very interested in wild conspiracy theories. Everything here is based on things I know for sure and my observation of the world, I try to make a clear delineation between known facts and my own speculations.

Everything we think, every decision we make, every action we take is based on the past. And this past is created by a huge, complicated web of you, family, religion, school, society, laws, political systems, the natural world… what did I leave out? There is a large group of diverse forces pulling at your mind at all times. Even when you think you’re making an independent decision, no matter how “random” or contrary, you’re not.

Krishnamurti believed it was actually possible to be free. Even if it was possible to free the mind, however, there is still the need to eat, stay warm, not get eaten by wild animals, avoid accident, and breath… That seems like a definite cage.

I don’t believe the power elite (those who hold all the money and power in the world) are free either. Of course, I’m not one of them, so I can’t say for sure. I think, however, that they have accepted their slavery and like a matador controls the movements of a bull, the power elite attempt to control the movements of society in desperate attempts to maintain their power. Like the matador, they only control trends and movements, but not the beast itself.

People like Edward Bernays knew about this. Using the knowledge pioneered by his uncle, Sigmund Freud, Bernays created the public relations industry whose sole purpose is to essentially trick us into wanting something. Used mainly to sell us products we don’t need, it can also be used to sway public opinion about nearly anything.

Foucault believed that where there is knowledge, there is also power. That’s not to only say that knowledge is power, but the powerful seek to control knowledge to control the rest of us. Perhaps this is why nearly all of our media is controlled by large corporations, the tools of the power elite.

Further, and this is more speculation, I think the desire for power and vast wealth is simply a mutation of our survival instinct, the result of a broken mind drowning in unhappiness and fear.

The idea of the panopticon (which I also learned about throughpanopticon-image1 Foucault), a circular structure designed by Jeremy Bentham to make it possible to watch everyone in it at all times, has become more than just a building. Most of us have come to the point where our every move is documented online – the internet and our many connections to it through gps, social media, and standard surveillance serves as a modern panopticon in which all of us live.

Still, though I believe that there is no such thing as freedom, I don’t believe that any person, or group of people is capable of completely controlling us. I think the forces that drive us may be partially understood and used by the elite, but the totality is beyond them as recent elections and movements like Occupy and the rising of protests all over the world seem to prove. This system, made of multiple diverse elements that all play on our minds and instincts in complex ways is not yet within anyone’s control… I hope…