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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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.

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!

Dissonance Makes It All Worthwhile

Dissonance is the most hated, least understood, and most important aspect of music. Simply put, dissonance gives music its purpose, much like the villain in a movie. There would be no movie without the villain – at least not a good movie. This is true for music too, though to varying degrees and depending on the purpose you have in mind. It also depends on your understanding of dissonance.

Let’s begin with the chord. One chord holds consonance and dissonance. A C major chord, for example is built within the frame of a perfect fifth, less consonant that an octave, but still considered a perfect consonance. The note nestled in between the C and G that make up the fifth is an E, which, in this context is still considered by many to be consonant, though the major third between the C and E, and the minor third between the E and G are less consonant that the fifth. For the sake of example, we will also consider the thirds consonant entities.

In the key of C, there are two other major chords – F and G. Let’s move now from the C to the G. The G chord is built with the same relationships as the C – its notes are G – B – D. Once the G chord sounds, it is the same kind of consonance as the C chord. However, in relationship to the C it causes dissonance! Though we can’t hear the C chord in the physical world, our minds hold it, creating an implied dissonance. It’s this tension which is mostly just in our heads that, in my opinion, gives music purpose.

If you played the two chords together, you would hear a nice clash between them, especially between the B and C notes, which is a minor second (or major seventh), the harshest of our tonal dissonances. Because it is only an implied dissonance when the two chords don’t sound together, it doesn’t hit someone who hates dissonance the wrong way. It does, however, create a musical longing to return to the C chord. Even more so if you add the seventh to the G chord.

It’s the dissonance that makes our ears return to that C chord throughout the course of a piece of music. In most of the popular forms of music today, the relationships are pretty simple. The song writer starts with a chord that they usually return to again and again. Good examples are the standard 4-chord songs we hear. in C the most popular is C – G – Am – F. Right away we hear implied dissonance between the C and G. Moving from G to Am adds even more dissonance, though the move to Am actually brings us closer to C because the two chords share two notes (C has C, E, and G and Am has A, C, and E). From the Am we move to F which, in relation to the C causes as much tension as the G but it shares two notes with the Am (F has F, A, and C). When we finally get to C you can feel the relief.

Try it yourself. Play the four chords in a row. First, stop on the F chord. Pay attention to what happens in your mind. Do you finish it in your head by thinking a C?

Next, play it again and this time, add a C chord after the F. How does this feel?

This is a simple exercise, though many people aren’t consciously aware of the pull dissonance has. The clearest example of tension and release is Bdim to C. Play the notes B and F together a few times followed by C and E. This will do it.

I’ve just scratched the surface – entire college courses could be taught about dissonance. The best way I know to deeply understand it’s power is to experiment and trust your ears. If you really trust them, they won’t lie to you.

Music Theory, Liberator or Great Destroyer?

Music has been evolving for as long as there has been language. At least that’s what some theorists think. A few think music is older than language and even facilitated the evolution of language itself.

mersennestarSince those long past days, music and language have continued to intermingle but have continued their development along separate paths. One of the main contributors to changes music has seen has been the music theorist.

Music theorists seldom reach the heights of adoration that composers and songwriters do, and I think that throughout history, they have been the most feared and hated of musicians, but they play a remarkably important role.

On the surface we might say that the music theorist simply follows the composer around and works to understand and explain the rules the composer followed to create her work. However, it’s more complicated than this.

On another level we might see the theorist as an oppressive force, setting down a series of rules that composers must follow. To destruction, some composers actually try following these rules, and this can be a creativity killer!

Finally, we come to what I think their most important role is – the archiver. They explore and document what composers do. This has a few different effects – some of which appear to be terrible.

First, by documenting, they drain the essence of spontaneity out of the compositional process, and I would argue that, at least in the short run, music may suffer. Composers, writing in a specific style, can easily fall into the trap of repeating old ideas. This is just part of the growth process.

Second, they reduce what we hear to a series of predictable events. This can kill the joy. When listening to a piece and hearing the chords you expect pass by, you lose interest because you remain unchallenged.

But, third, this all leads to a deeper understanding of the unofficial sonic boundaries we set for ourselves. After struggling with the rules, this drives some courageous composers to burst through those boundaries! This is how new styles and forms arise from the old. The documentarians, like the old map-makers, show us the territory we already instinctively know, helping us to also intellectually know it and preparing us for our journey into the sonic wild.

The caution should be placed on what we do with this knowledge. As we learn theory, many of us are, at least temporarily shackled by it. We need to understand that it’s a tool! It’s there to help us. We need to look at music theory as a map of what has been done and fight the misconception that it’s a documentation of the only realm of possibility. Zealots defend this idiotic notion to the detriment of many composers. Fight it!

I believe that music theory can be the destroyer, but only if we allow it. It is entirely our perception and understanding that will make it either a prison or a map to help us find greater creation.