Why We Love Innovators


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


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.