Why We Love Innovators

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Jimi Hendrix played his guitar backwards and upside down. Look at headstock and cutaways–that’s not a left-handed guitar, that’s a right-handed guitar worn “wrong”. But then the strings are put on backwards, so the highest string is still on the bottom: see ~1:48. Oh, and it’s tuned a half-step low.

Eddie Van Halen is playing a customized guitar–notice the humbucking pickup at the bridge. And he’s playing through a modified head on the amplifier, to get that particular kind of distortion. And he’s playing ‘wrong’, with both hands on the fretboard and not even using the pick.

In 1817 Beethoven (no live video clip, sorry) was shipped a state-of-the-art Broadwood piano, bigger, louder and more responsive than anything else at the time. And he played it ‘wrong’, big crunchy chords in both hands, dense crowded handfuls of notes down low in the bass. The works from this period are hard to play, some of the most difficult pieces in the standard repertory.

In 1966 George Harrison recorded a guitar solo that would be used **backwards** on the recorded tracks, for “I’m Only Sleeping” for the Beatles’ album ‘Revolver’. In order to make this come out right with the normal tracks, Harrison had to imagine the notes in reverse time-order. This is ferociously hard; his engineer later described long grueling late-night sessions as the Beatle worked it out note by note.

This singer is doing an arrangement which has her doing a call-and-answer with her own voice. Listen deeply to the cadence that starts at 1:33. Composer Yasutaka Nakata writes it ‘wrong’: there is a “pre-echo” of the main vocal part that arrives ‘too early’, then the main part arrives. But Nakata has so arranged his melody that the pre-echo serves as a harmonization against the main vocal line. This is what in J.S. Bach would be called a ‘canon’, overlapping a theme with itself–the most difficult form of counterpoint.

Now go back and deep-listen again. Lean in, right through the whole cadence. If you have good speakers and good ears, you’ll hear the post-echo, the same line again, *following* the main vocal, mixed very low. And it still works harmonically. Triple-layer canon. That’s crazy hard composition. And getting the melody early to the chord resolution of the cadence is of course ‘wrong’–it’s not supposed to work like that.

Here’s the thing. If it wasn’t hard; if everyone was already doing it; if it was ‘correct’—-then it wouldn’t be an innovation, would it?

When it gets really difficult. When Tech Support says “It doesn’t work like that” (I’ve heard this half a dozen times in the last two weeks–software synthesizer routings, you don’t want to know); when the software accepts your commands and then just sits there spinning its wheels for hours with no result; when the notes you want to write don’t exist on the piano (OR in any of the pitch tables on your synthesizer)—THAT’S when you know you’re on the right track.

If it was easy, everyone would be doing it.


The Three Most Important Chords In Pop Music – The Police: Every Breath You Take

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If you’ve just started learning guitar (if you haven’t, stop reading, go buy one, and start now), then you’ve probably heard about being able to play thousands of songs with just three chords. Start with G, C and D, and you’re off and running! Those would be, in the key of G, the tonic (I), the subdominant (IV), and the tonic (V). The numbers come from the pitch in the scale they are built on.

These, actually are NOT the most important chords in Pop Music.

They *are* the most important chords in Country & Western music. And 12-bar Blues, of course. Maybe even Gospel and a few others. But pop music, no. The Axis of Awesome have put together a wonderful act on **four-chord** rock:

And I certainly won’t argue with their point–all those songs use four chords in precisely the same order: I – V – vi – IV as a cycle. Different songs start at different points in the cycle, so it doesn’t necessarily have the same feel every time. When this marvelous piece gets to the four-chord cycle at the chorus, it starts on the minor chord (the vi), for example:

These lyrics are in Japanese; I don’t even know what this song is **about**, and I absolutely love it, just for the music alone. Okay, and the synthesizer sounds, love the synths too. This is genius composer/producer Yasutaka Nakata at the top of his game.

Sorry, got distracted there. This post is supposedly about the Police’s number 1 hit from exactly thirty years ago, “Every Breath You Take”.

The Police launch right into a four-chord sequence of their own, but not in the Axis of Awesome order. Their song gives us the same four triads, but the order is I – vi – IV – V.   They cycle it two different ways, one is called the ‘deceptive cadence’, where the V leads to vi instead of the more ordinary V – I (‘full cadence’), which is a cadence that feels more like returning back solidly to the ‘home’ chord. Unlike Axis of Awesome 4-chord, this one can’t really start and end just anywhere. Because of the V-I, it **has to** start on the I. Otherwise you’d be left hanging, waiting for the V-I to arrive.

There’s plenty of smart chord choices in this song, but the one I’m getting to is the long coda, which starts at exactly 3:00. Just before this, Sting has sung the line “I’ll be watching you” using the deceptive cadence twice in a row, for the first time. Wait, what about the full cadence?

It’s gone, that’s what. There’s not going to be another one for the entire remainder of the song. They switch to a **three** chord cycle for the close: I – vi – IV. No dominant chord (the V). It’s too much “on the nose”, it nails down the home key **too** obviously. So now the cadence comes around as IV – I, known as the “plagal cadence”.

THOSE are the three most important chords in pop music. They give subtlety and emotional depth to the music, where there would otherwise be, I’m sorry, obvious music for children. Case in point, there are only two chords in “Row, Row, Row Your Boat”, guess what they are?? (hint: no vi, no IV, no interest). There are three chords in Barney’s “I Love You, You Love Me” song–guess which? (hint: think Country & Western).

The Police take us to exactly the right place by dropping out the V chord. It’s superfluous at this point. Just as this song oscillates between the deceptive cadence (mournful) and the full cadence (assured) earlier on, at the end it now moves in and out of mournfulness **without** assurance. No V.  This one deliberate omission makes the song–well, the ending of it, anyway.

I’m not claiming this choice made it #1, there’s plenty of other reasons to pin that to, even just sticking to the music (and ignoring the let’s face it creepy stalker lyrics). But this subtle, unnoticed and unremarked change gives it something extra, something important. The heightened significance of the subdominant is critical here as well–but that’s a whole ‘nother post. Probably a couple of dozen. My examples for those all concentrate on the Three Most Important Chords In Pop Music, too. When you write your own songs (buy a guitar, get a sheet of paper, **write your songs**, etc), remember these: I, vi, IV.  In G, that’s G, E minor, and C. Easier than Country & Western, even. And way more interesting.


Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon

Pink Floyd’s best album came out 40 years ago, one of the most successful ‘concept’ albums in rock history. In addition to the other aspects which tie the songs here together is a musical relation also found in many other classic rock pieces.

We hear it in this album right away, in “Breathe In the Air”: two chords, one minor and one major, which form a repeating cycle, over which we hear both guitar licks and the main vocals. This two-chord harmonic loop returns for the famous improvised vocal which closes Side 1, although this time in a higher key. Then it comes back *again* for the third song on side 2, in yet again a different key.

It’s a great sequence for open-ended improvisatory jams, and Pink Floyd makes the most of it. Having this musical shape distributed across these songs helps tie the whole album together musically, strengthening the ‘concept’ and giving the impression that these songs belong, together in this order, as one large work in multiple sections.

The same chord sequence is used in another monument of rock, by the way, in “Stairway to Heaven”, as part of the brief musical interlude between verses. It’s a very effective harmonic progression.

For the purposes of “Dark Side of the Moon”, here’s the thing: these two chords never give you the actual key of a song. Ordinarily, they would not appear together. For “Breathe In the Air”, the chords are E minor and A major. If you’re in the KEY of E minor, you don’t have an A major chord, it would be A minor (the subdominant or iv chord, for those keeping score). If you’re in A major, then you have E Major, an even more important chord (the dominant, or V chord).

So this loop leaves you hanging. Conceivably you could interpret these as the ii chord and V chord of a key–but sooner or later you have to reach the I chord (the tonic). Lots of songs do just that, ii-V-I, very common.

Pink Floyd never does. This song finally rotates out of the loop through a sequence of chords that would ALL be in other keys, and **sort of** claims a very ambiguous E minor by the end, just by returning to this two-chord loop.

There is ONE place where Pink Floyd does touch down, so to speak, harmonically, exactly 3:06 into “The Great Gig In the Sky” on the end of side 1. We’ve been vamping the two chords, G min and C, for a long time, and finally it DOES go through as ii-V-I, which in this key is G min, C, to F, right at 17:41 into Side 1. And then it takes right off into outer space again…

It’s an amazing moment. Harmonically Pink Floyd has held the listener suspended all this time–the payoff at this single moment owes its impact to all that floating back and forth which went on for such long periods before.


Daft Punk’s New Album

Daft Punk’s new album “Random Access Memories” is now #1 on the U.S. charts. I’m going to review it for the things I care about in music, so it’s about to get ugly. If you’re a Daft Punk fan, skip down towards the bottom, because I think they just made music history, and I’m going to finish with a gigantic compliment.

A lot has been made in the news and reviews around this album about the retro nature of its production. Omigod, Daft Punk spent all this enormous amount of money on assembling live musicians and using analog equipment, instead of using digital versions. Well, then It’s a shame all that money and time was spent on such forgettable chords, melodies, and rhythms (I told you I was going to review what I care about—these music fundamentals had better be top-notch in any music labeled “great”). Yes, the production is amazing, the surface feel of the music is polished beyond belief.

Yawn. I’d rather listen to any of hundreds of songs recorded in mono on cheap gear in the 40s, or for that matter, hundreds more recorded in extra-brittle Redbook Audio-spec digital in the 80s, than return to the musical materials on this album for any more listens (I’ve been through it four times, which is three more than the *music* itself, as music, deserves). This is a classic case of silk purse out of a sow’s ear. Where are the brilliant melodies, groundbreaking rhythms, stunning chord progressions? Absent, that’s where.

A lot more has been made about the retro styles of music on offer here: funk, disco, 70s soft rock, a rock opera from 1974. Whatever. Personally, if I want 70s popular music, I’ll just play some—I don’t need it recycled in forgettable vehicles like the ones I found on this album. You’re not going to find me playing disco in any case, so I’ll admit to falling well outside the apparent taste domain there. Correct me if I’m wrong, but the appeal of Daft Punk in previous incarnations was not clumsily done musical-style nostalgia, it was the amazing shock of the new: Daftendirekt is going to blow my mind no matter how many times I hear it, apparently; the vocal of “Harder Better Faster Stronger” was a revelation worth having.

Yes, it’s a concept album, with all sorts of odd bits tacked on—an interview, the radio communication near the end, sudden stops and starts, instant changes of texture. Probably it will be fun for some listeners to connect the dots on the concept, so have fun, and again it’s a shame to waste all that attention to structure and meaning on a vehicle with such weak musical materials.

The voice at ~36 minutes in (“Touch”) is painful to listen to. The fact that it provides a striking contrast to the textures just before it does not pay for the severely flawed technique, the wobble, smeared pitches, the choked and strained timbre—Yes, yes, it’s **supposed** to sound that way, it’s on purpose. **I get it**. I’m saying that is far from enough to justify my ever listening to the thin-to-the-point-of-disappearing music that’s going on here.

BUT. Here’s the thing. There are dozens of points on this album when Daft Punk **does** use their more modern tricks, and the main one I’m after here is the vocal processing, specifically the vocoding that transforms dramatically the way the text gets to your ears (technically, the frequency spectra of an actual voice is used to modulate a second sound source, which could be practically anything, as long as it covers the frequency bands). “Game of Love” uses this voice throughout.

In the past, vocoding and its aural cousin autotuning was a kind of sound engineering stunt. We paid attention to it for its novelty, but it had a definite flattening effect on the emotive quality of the sung melody. Okay for fun electro-dance pieces, bravura tricks like “Do You Feel Like We Do”, and of course used a thousand times (not least by Daft Punk) to evoke a robotic quality. That was a pretty narrow playground of ways to use this processing trick. If you’ve been following pop music the last few years, you’ve heard an enormous wave of backlash against radical autotuning in particular.

But now, these techniques are suddenly out of their ghetto. Daft Punk has taken the state of the art FAR forward in this album. The moment at ~9:07 in “Game of Love” is marvelous: “I just wanted you to stay” is a vocal sound that can stand up next to a lot of great, deeply felt popular music (classical is another question entirely), in terms of pure expressiveness. I’m not saying it’s Robert Plant doing the last line in “Stairway To Heaven”. That’s still another league entirely.

I **am** saying, Daft Punk just broke the field wide open in terms of vocal possibilities for the next several decades of popular music. Used with extraordinary skill (always true of vocals of any kind, processed or otherwise), this approach can successfully carry the listener through a wide range of passionate emotions. Daft Punk just proved it. I will grudgingly accept that Daft Punk accepted a big challenge, and succeeded, by placing those vocal sounds in these retro materials and ultra-smooth sound. We already know what those soft rock/punk/disco vocals are supposed to sound like in typical human singing voices. If they failed to match their vocoded sounds to the *feel* of that music, the effect would have been glaring and painful indeed.

They did not fail, they succeeded like crazy. This album should send hundreds, thousands of musicians running to their studios, to take their own favorite kinds of music, and figure out (no doubt through endless hours of painstaking accumulation of skills) how to use this vocal power in new musical works all over the map. I want to hear some hard rock done this way; some 12-bar blues. Some opera!

Way to go, Daft Punk, and thank you.


12-Bar Blues Done Wrong?

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The U.S. Postal Service is issuing a Johnny Cash commemorative stamp, using a photo from his album released 50 years ago, “Ring of Fire: The Best of Johnny Cash”. Cash has a large catalog of memorable music–I’m going to talk about Folsom Prison Blues.

The easily remembered parts of songs we love are the tunes (Amazing Grace), the lyrics (A Boy Named Sue), maybe the “hook” (opening to “Whole Lotta Love”). But there are other choices songwriters make that create a particular feel for a song without anyone necessarily noticing.

In Folsom Prison Blues, Johnny Cash writes a song in a very familiar form, a chord progression that has been used many thousands of times, in everything from Cream’s “Crossroads” to the theme from Batman. The musical form is ’12-Bar Blues’–so called because it uses three different chords in 12 bars of music, then the pattern repeats (see below for details).

And Johnny Cash gets it wrong. Five times in a row.

His blues song does NOT have a 12-bar pattern. It’s 11 bars, for three verses and two guitar soloes. It’s cut short, which makes it off balance. There’s a very natural feel to the 12-bar blues that makes a symmetrical pattern. Musicians even have the part right at the end they call the “turnaround”, bringing the cycle of chords to its natural end, and beginning again.

I’m going to start with the assumption that Johnny Cash is not an idiot. Of course he knows what 12-bar blues is. Folks familiar with the song will notice that I said “three verses”. And there are four verses altogether. Verse – Verse – solo – Verse – solo – Verse. It’s the “wrong” blues of the first five passes, combined with that last verse, that provides the genius here, the structure that is deeply felt but not consciously noticed, until you listen and really pay attention.

That last verse DOES have 12 bars. Five passes through “wrong”, and then one that finally has the symmetrical 12 bars.

Why? I have no idea what was in Cash’s mind, but here’s what’s in the song, and it’s the part that jumps out at me: This song is about a prisoner with a tortured mind, a longing for freedom that is made worse by the train passing by. Each of the ‘wrong’ verses ends with an outright statement of his pain: “…time keeps draggin’ on”, “…hang my head and cry”, “…that’s what tortures me”.

But the fourth verse turns it around. The prisoner imagines a future, better time. And he finishes on hope: “I’d let that lonesome whistle blow my blues away.” THAT is the time Cash provides the rounded, proper 12-bar blues–at the time when the lyrics change, demanding a corresponding musical change.

It’s the genius of Cash that he takes the most famous and familiar chord progression ***in the history of music, period***, and finds a way to make that progression sound fresh and satisfying. In order to do that, he has to make a contrast, make us wait for it. The 12-bar blues is really all about feel, about the satisfying resolution of reaching the turnaround and starting the cycle again. But Cash won’t let us feel that in this song, for five full repeats. He twists the ending of the cycle, and defeats our musical expectations over and over. That is a tension that is felt, built from our long memory of a thousand other songs, and over the long span of the entire work.

So that when the resolution finally arrives, sync’ed perfectly with the dawn of faint hope in the lyrics, you feel the rightness of it in your bones.

Holy geez. Three chords, standard song form, simple melody. Cash finds a way to make the most humble of musical materials a uniquely moving musical journey.

I’m glad there is a postage stamp honoring Johnny Cash.

It doesn’t even BEGIN to cover the musical genius on offer here.


Space Oddity – 44th AND 40th Anniversary

David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” has shown remarkable staying power: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uhSYbRiYwTY.

Originally released in 1969, it charted in the Top 40 *again* in 1973. And most recently, received an ***in-orbit*** performance from a U.S. astronaut, a man actually ‘floating in a tin can!’ http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KaOC9danxNo

The anniversary numbers get spooky, because the music I was looking at here all has to do with IV, the chord built on the fourth step of the scale. David Bowie’s music here really is floating in space, and here’s why.

Bowie starts his song in a way that could be either of two different keys. His verses keep winding up on the IV chord (and iv minor chord), so they never “come home” to the key of the piece. His bridge section “For here…am I sitting…” goes off in one tonal direction away from the home key, and the Interlude immediately following (guitar chords and hand claps) goes off in the completely opposite direction. This piece never settles down into a home key at all, and ends in a completely unrelated key, far from where he started.

Because…Major Tom’s not **coming** home, is he? He’s not in the lyrics, and he’s not in the music. Bowie demonstrates a masterful feel for the IV chord, the ‘subdominant’. Used in the right place, the right way, this chord has a mournful, regretful, looking-back feel. Bowie especially milks that right at “Tell my wife I love her very much”–it’s not an accident that he switches to minor right at that spot.

Bowie’s “Space Oddity” sticks in my mind after all this time because—well, let’s face it, because Bowie is a musical genius, and this piece is packed solid with music magic. BUT, it also works because Bowie knows how chords **feel**, put in a certain place, with the right lyric. In this one, Bowie gets all the orbital mileage he can out of the power of the IV chord.

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For those wishing to keep score, here’s how the Music Theory works:

Bowie starts with alternating C major and Em chords, but this could be a I – iii sequence in the key of C major, or it could be a i – VI sequence in the key of e minor. We can’t tell. Then the next line that ends “put your helmet on” goes to a D major chord, which isn’t part of either C major OR e minor. It begins to feel a little more nailed down to C major when he sings “This is Ground Control to major Tom”, but even that goes immediately to what sounds like a secondary dominant (signaling a key change), an E Major chord which, if we were in C, would lead naturally to an A minor chord, which he HAS already used earlier…except that it goes to an F major chord instead. This opens the F major – F min – C Major chord sequence (switching the subdominant from major to minor to heighten the emotion, as mentioned above), and we cycle around sort of in C for this section.

What we’re missing throughout this song, in terms of tonality and nailing down the key, is the cadence V-I, a dominant chord built on the 5th scale step of the key, to a tonic chord, built on the home note of the key. If we’re in C Major, sooner or later we most often get a G Major to C Major chord progression–but this never appears anywhere in the song.

When Major Tom starts floating around, he does so to an F Maj7 chord, an F-A-C triad with an E natural added at the top. This is a softer, jazzier, more indeterminate chord than just a straight triad, with many possible choices for a next chord. “Planet Earth is blue” takes us around the circle of keys towards the flat side, to a B flat, chord, but immediately after that we go to chords from the sharp keys, the opposite direction tonally: A major, C Major, D Major and E Major.

Bowie doesn’t do a pure circle-of-fifths sequence, so I can’t claim this is depicting an actual circular orbit, but it IS in the neighborhood of that kind of chord order. An elliptical orbit, maybe. Lopsided–hey, maybe that’s why Major Tom can’t recover and and get back home: faulty orbit. If only he had done a strict B flat-F Major – C Major – G Major – D Major – A Major – E Major in the proper order, he’d have made re-entry on target. As it is his musical spaceship is flung far out in the direction of the sharp keys and never comes back…


This Is Why You Love It

Okay, probably not – the pieces of music you love the best have some personal connection to you: the time and place you heard it, the something wonderful that happened that day.

But ASIDE from that, this blog is about the things musicians do that put the best music over the top, that grab you by the lapels and says “Listen to this!”, and then take root in your life for good. The pieces that give you chills, even after listening to them a hundred times.

Sometimes it’s the raw sound, the choices of the instruments and how they’re played. Sometimes it’s recording engineering genius, blending sounds in ways you’ve never heard before. Very often, it’s the passion of the singers.

But it’s also many things that the composers and songwriters do that are the nuts and bolts of music: this pitch here, that chord there, skip a beat **exactly** at that point. Anyone who creates music develops a repertory of special musical features that make their music stand out. Everyone can hear these things, feel their impact. That’s *why* they are in the music, period.

But you can also pin some of them down with careful listening. The things written in this blog will chase down those qualities, explain how they work in terms of melodies, chords, keys and scales, rhythms and beats. For those who know or want to know the Music Theory details, I’ll post those too, “below the fold” if you want to keep reading. If you’ve ever been the least bit curious about why a piece of music moves you, what it’s creator was doing and how they made THAT particular musical choice, I’ll do my best to shine a bright light on it.

So this blog is for music creators and music lovers of all types. Hope you like it.

 

 

 

 


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