To many songwriters and music fans, the title above seems pretty self-evident. Most successful songwriters weren’t taught how to write songs, and besides, songwriting is a form of self-expression, so what’s to teach?
Perhaps surprisingly, speaking as someone who ‘teaches’ songwriting, I’d go a long way towards agreeing with this statement. There is no formula for writing a song, and although there are methods and techniques that are in common use, these are so varied that it’s impossible to identify one that works in every situation. But if we assume that most songwriters don’t write their best work on the first attempt, it follows that if songwriting can’t be taught, it can certainly be learnt.
How, exactly, do we learn? If popular song is a form of self-expression, it could be viewed as a kind of language, with its own grammar, structure and rules. We can learn a (second) language by buying a phrase book or working with a teacher, but it’s easier just to go and live in the relevant country – and of course we learned our first language just by growing up hearing it every day.
The first teaching method is to ensure that the student has heard lots of songs, and by ‘heard’ I mean really listened in detail. If you love a particular songwriter’s work, it’s worth putting the hours into working out exactly how their songs are constructed. How many bars are in the intro? How many times per bar do the chords change? What rhymes, images and syllable-counts are used in the lyric? Is the melody mainly scalic (consecutive notes), static (repeated notes) or intervallic (leaping between notes)? We don’t necessarily have to copy all of these characteristics all of the time, but a little bit of this sort of geeky analysis can help us to understand what we love about our musical influences. By analysing repertoire, we can build up an arsenal of songwriting weaponry from which to choose when we’re writing. Our song could begin with four bars of Pearl Jam-style half-bar chord changes, have an opening lyric with some Joni Mitchell-esque visual lyric imagery, using descending scalic melody sequences reminiscent of JS Bach. And because we’re only copying compositional characteristics (as opposed to the actual music or lyric) we’re still being creative. This method can help us to break existing musical habits: paradoxically, using someone else’s techniques can make our own songs sound more original.
The second teaching method is to apply all of the above to our own songs, and learn about our personal songwriting styles. We all have subconscious musical rat-runs in our songwriting. One of my own students recently discovered, through self-analysis, that he’d written an entire album where every melody phrase started on the second beat of the bar. Once he’d realised this he could choose to allow or avoid the tendency; in this way he developed new creative options in his songwriting, making his albums more interesting for the listener.
The final, and perhaps most important teaching method, is disappointingly obvious. In a word – practice. Songwriting is a musical (and literary) skill and it gets better the more you do it. A guaranteed way to make your songwriting ten times better is to write ten songs and trash your least favourite nine.
But this is all unnecessary, cry the naysayers. The Beatles were never taught songwriting – they just wrote from the heart. Well, not taught perhaps, but they certainly learned. Strumming along to Little Richard and Carl Perkins records in Liverpool living rooms – and six-hour covers band sets in Hamburg clubs? Repertoire analysis. Co-writer negotiations between Lennon and McCartney? Self-analysis. And the journey from ‘Love Me Do’ to ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’? Practice.
So no, you probably can’t teach songwriting. But every time we listen to the radio, go to a gig or play a cover version, we’re learning to write better songs.
Below are the slides (with playable YouTube examples) from a recent lecture I gave to BA Commercial Music year 1 at Bath Spa.
The songs we discussed in the session are;
- My Sweet Lord (George Harrison)/He’s So Fine (Ronnie Mack) – copyright case, 1971 and 1976
- Live While We’re Young (One Direction, 2013) and Should I Stay or Should I Go (The Clash, 1982) – subjective similarity
- History of the Black Night riff – a ‘copyright orphan’ excerpt, following its history from George Gershwin in 1935 to Deep Purple in 1970 (and, some argue, to P!nk’s So What many years later)
- Bitter Sweet Symphony (The Verve, 1997) and The Last Time (The Rolling Stones, 1965) AND The Last Time (the Andrew Loog Oldham Orchestra, 1966).
We also talked about other famous examples, including the Puff Daddy Every Breath You Take sample, after which the students asked lots of questions relating to their own creative practice (mainly, “but why can’t I sample other songs?!” and “but really, why?”).
I’m in the process of writing up these examples into a formal research paper, which will discuss the issues relating to the privileging of melody in copyright disputes, and will be presenting a conference paper about melodic similarity at the PopMAC conference 2013 in Liverpool. Abstract here.
If the embed below doesn’t work for you, here’s a link to the Google presentation.
[This is a live blog - hit 'refresh' in your browser throughout the evening and the most recently performed song will appear at the top. As in 2012, each song will be scored as we hear it. Geeky musicological commentary will be added wherever possible. As always I'm going to try (and will probably fail) to pick a winner.]
So, to the predictions. I am typing this at 22:07 on the night, and will, as in previous years, leave my (inevitably wrong!) top 3 here for posterity, and afterwards will post the actual winners below these. I got two of the top 3 right in 2012, but I’m worried this was a fluke. I really want Greece’s ‘Alcohol is free’ to do well, but I fear that there may not be enough irony in mainland Europe to fuel its deserved propulsion up the ranks. I’m also concerned that my grumpiness about Ireland may be misplaced – people might just buy those lyric clichés. They’ve done it before, and will carry on… till the end of time…
2013 Eurovision – my predicted top 3
—————- [edit - 23:30pm]
2013 Eurovision – actual top 5
So all of my top 3 were in the top 5 – but I missed two big songs (Azerbaijan and Ukraine) by a fair distance, only scoring them as 61% and 64% respectively. But the blog successfully predicted the winner in both 2012 and 2013 (albeit after a total disaster in 2011, where I failed to get any of the top 3).
Overall, I thought the song quality was way higher in 2013 than in previous years, with a general consistency of good quality songwriting across the board. See you next year!
—————– [end of edit]
26 Ireland • Ryan Dolan • “Only Love Survives”
Don’t say ‘Dancing ’til the morning light’… don’t say ‘Dancing ’til the morning light’… don’t say ‘Dancing ’til the morning light’… don’t say ‘Dancing ’til the morning light’… don’t say ‘Dancing ’til the morning light’… don’t say ‘Dancing ’til the morning light’… oh, you did. And did I hear a ‘Till the end of time’ in there as well? Dolan, you have wasted a perfectly good title by copying other people’s homework. Detention for you. But there is a lot of big synthy production here, and this might distract a fair few people from the slightly meandering chorus and downbeat melody on the title line. Apparently a lot of people like this, but I’m not one of them.
25 Georgia • Nodi Tatishvili and Sophie Gelovani • “Waterfall”
First things first. This is a duet, so will not win. It’s a pretty good big ballad, though. The chorus is based on a standard diatonic four-chord loop but with a nice variation at the end of the chorus. And… wait. That was a great key change – wonderful use of a vocal pivot note. And because they made us wait, it sounded like a bigger key change than the semitone rise that it actually was. Not bad at all, and should at least make the top 10, perhaps even the top 5.
24 Norway • Margaret Berger • “I Feed You My Love”
Really well done, this. The tension in the verse is built brilliantly, by using the same melodic lick over and over as the chords descend ominously. A strange combination of hope and threat. No pre-chorus, and rightly so. The rising melodic chorus line “I can see” (notes of F#-A-B) is nearly the pitch peak of it, and is just trounced in the next line (the word ‘feed’) which hits the 9th of C#, creating a lovely melodic shape over the title. Magnificent.
23 Italy • Marco Mengoni • “L’essenziale” • The essential
If you’re going to do a slow power ballad, you might as well apply the adjective with some commitment. This is around 62BPM. And they threw in the key change (Ab to A) somewhere around verse 2. That’s just wasting your ingredients, like stirring icing sugar into the cake mix. The chorus is really well sung. Not sure why they didn’t go further with the harmonies, though. Nice b7 chord at the end of the chorus. Biggest power-to-tempo pro rata ratio so far, I reckon.
22 Ukraine • Zlata Ognevich • “Gravity”
That’s cheating! You can’t put the last chorus key change IN the chorus! Perhaps the Lithuanians loaned them their harmonic randomiser. The title hook is nicely incorporated and that descending 4th over the word ‘Gravity’ works well (descending… gravity… see what they did there?). Unspectacular melodically, particularly in the verses. Fair to middling.
21 Greece • Koza Mostra feat. Agathon Iakovidis • “Alcohol Is Free”
Oh yes! Some ska! In a sort of Greek way. And THIS is how to do a singable chorus – just repeat the title over and over! The loop in this one is Dm-F-Bb-A. This is a huge crowd pleaser in the hall, and I hope it’s not one of those songs that is more giggable than it is memorable. I think that this is so good that the Greeks must be panicking. If they win, what will the the 2014 gig hosting do to the economy?
20 Azerbaijan • Farid Mammadov • “Hold Me”
No amount of weird melody lifts in the verse can disguise the inevitability of the imminent four-chord loop in the chorus. But I do like the economy of the writing here – especially the short verse. They’re using form really well and not wasting any time structurally. A standard semitone lift (Bbm-Bm) in the final chorus, and a nicely-done downbeat final line, without losing any of the power created by the key change and dynamic. Big chorus hook, but might be too difficult to sing. Hotly tipped, apparently, but not doing it for me.
19 Iceland • Eythor Ingi • “Ég á líf” • I am alive
A very restrained power ballad, but I think they are keeping some dynamics back in secret Icelandic underground pop arsenal silos, ready to unleash all their weapons near the end. Nice simple A-B-C# rising melodic motif. And…. THERE IT IS. Key change and dynamic lift straight to B major without a passing chord (basically, the same melodic pickup as in Whitney Houston’s version of I Will Always Love You. But I think they left a few important guns back at base. The wedge of cheese was not wide enough here. Nice melody though, and should do quite well.
18 Denmark • Emmelie de Forest • “Only Teardrops”
Three phrases in the verse, then straight into the pre-chorus. Not messin’ about! Wonderfully melodic chorus. Some difficult to sing consonants (e.g. the sibilant ‘s’ at the end of ‘times’) that could have used some edits, but I think the melody is so strong that it compensates. That piccolo/fife melody is a great secondary hook, too. They achieved the feeling of a key change without actually leaving A minor behind – unless it started lower and I missed it (this is a real-time blog – can you smell the fear?). The classic chord loop Am-F-C-G will be much strummed by guitarists if it wins. And I think it might. My personal favourite so far.
17 Hungary • ByeAlex • “Kedvesem” (Zoohacker Remix) • My darling
I am typing so fast that I don’t have much time to look up at the performers, but these guys seem to be the biggest mismatch between dress code and musical content. Looks like an urban carjacker, sounds like Peter Sarstedt. Chorus hook is annoying – more phrases that don’t really listen to the chords. Far too understated to make an impact. Folky-ish – but bland and uninteresting.
16 Sweden • Robin Stjernberg • “You”
Proper Scanda-pop, this, and delivered with a whole lotta pop tricks, including some simple chord loops and a tempo of around 128BPM (the most popular tempo of 2012, as stated in a previous blog entry). The tension is lifted nicely through what feels like a double pre-chorus, which pre-signifies the chorus proper. We’re in F# major, which makes that chorus melody phrase based on notes of G#-A#-C#-A#-G# (and a drop off at the end of the melisma down to F#). This could be our first palindromic chorus hook of the evening. Perhaps the Swedes are only this good at making hooks because they catch so many fish…
15 United Kingdom • Bonnie Tyler • “Believe in Me”
Here’s the UK’s entry, which is the only one I’ve heard plenty of times in advance. A fair to middling mid-tempo power ballad. The bridge has a nice b7 F major chord (we’re in G major) to open it, and the chorus ends with a slightly shorter phrase with the rest truncated. A well written song technically, but not quirky or interesting. And that 75BPM slow tempo is, as they say in Yorkshire, neither nowt nor summat. We need to do better than this if we are to compensate for the fact that so much of Europe isn’t keen on us.
14 Romania • Cezar • “It’s My Life”
Nondescript verse, though I do like the lift to the D major in the harmony. The half time feel in the choruses certainly does highlight that bonkers falsetto vocal. This was, with hindsight, a mistake on the part of the arranger. It should have been disguised with many riffs. And… there’s the key change. Only up a semitone to Cm, but I’m amazed he had any headroom. Graham (Norton, UK commentator) has rightly just said “just because you can do something, it doesn’t follow that you should”. Amen to that. This guy is an amazing singer, clearly, but these octaves have had no place in my life since 1982. Melodically, a strange combination of dull and unpleasant.
13 Netherlands • Anouk • “Birds”
Where are these chords going? This is madness! But it’s beautiful – I think I’ve spotten 3 key changes so far – not sure, but I think Ebm, Bbm and A major. And now we’re ending in B major with some weird b6-melody inspiring Em chords and mixolydian A majors thrown in. I love the chorus melody too. Musicologically, the weirdest one so far. In a good way! Cannot win. I can’t see the people of Europe linking arms over this, but I love it.
12 Armenia • Dorians • “Lonely Planet”
Composed by Tony Iommi of Black Sabbath, apparently. And here’s the verse. Surprisingly diatonic and riff-free considering his input. Horrible chorus pitches. I hate it when people sing the fifth of the scale without taking account of the underlying chords. It’s in B major and that G#-F# two note fragment that makes up the chorus ‘melody’ is grim. Key change was OK – up a tone to C# major. So far, no one has beaten the Russians in the biggest-interval-in-a-final-chorus-key-change contest (a private contest that only happens in my head every year). And I don’t think anyone will beat them – going beyond a minor third is just too damn dangerous. Listening to the production, there was a time in my life when I would have forgiven this song’s mediocrity because of the twiddly metalhead guitar licks. But that time was 1985, Tommy Vance is gone, and I now listen to Radio 2.
11 Germany • Cascada • “Glorious”
Why don’t we just let it show / tell me what you’re waiting for / I can feel the music in me. This is cut ‘n’ shut lyric writing. I don’t mind a good cliché – in fact I’ll tolerate them until the cows come home. Not convinced by this chorus. There are just too many long notes. Yes you can create big texture that way, but it doesn’t help people to remember the chorus. The Eb-Gm-F-Bb chorus chord loop is fair enough, but I think they’ve stacked all those layered synth chords over it to try to hide the underlying mediocrity of the chorus writing. Nothing to see here.
10 Russia • Dina Garipova • “What If”
Nice use of rhetorical lyric repetition on the verses. How are they going to use the title in the chorus if they’ve used it up in the verse. Could this be an AABA form 32 bar standard? Ah. No. They’ve just used the ttle again in the chorus. Brave. I like the anthemic chorus harmonic A | C#m| F#m-D | Esus, and the supertonic pitch peak against the minor iii chord. And… blimey! A minor 3rd key change! These guys are on fire! Very fine. Could score well.
09 Malta • Gianluca • “Tomorrow”
A-B9-D-A loop in the verse – quirky and fun, at a sedate 93BPMish. The ukulele is like McFly at their most recent and playful (in fact isn’t it the same loop as ‘If This Is Love’?). Smiley and enjoyable vocal. I love that 9th chord in the verse, and the loop doesn’t outstay its welcome on the run up to the pre-chorus. The ‘ohhh…oooh’ hook is going to go down well I think. He’s hitting A above middle C. Pretty good while running around and grinning with his fellow bumpkins. Cutesy but maybe too much so. I love it, but my cheese tolerance is greater than most people’s.
08 Belarus • Alyona Lanskaya • “Solayoh”
There are always a few that do some solid Eastern European syncopations, and this is a pretty good. The verse builds the power and tension nicely. It goes very cleanly between E harmonic minor and E Aeolian, and sounds completely natural doing so. The chorus isn’t all that easy to remember after one listen, which might count against it, but actually by chorus 2 I was hooked. A drum breakdown – lovely. Is there going to be a key change up a semitone? Yes! And we’re in F minor. A good place to end. The crowd like it – and so do I. Good combination of simple melody fragments and interesting harmonic bed.
07 Estonia • Birgit • “Et uus saaks alguse” (So there can be a new beginning)
Inoffensive piano ballad intro, clearly waiting for a dynamic lift to an inoffensive mid-tempo chorus. And…. there it is. The Csus4 resolution is a bit of a poor man’s ABBA, as is the use of inversions in the pre-chorus (or second half of the verse, depending on how you analyse the form). The chorus is a nice lift. Where’s the key change? Come on, people – this chorus is begging for it. Offend us with an offensive key change! No? Really? Trailing off on a bendy electric guitar note? Shame. A bit dated, harmonically, and not in a good way (by which I mean, ABBA).
06 Belgium • Roberto Bellarosa • “Love Kills”
Just the two melody notes for the start of the verse, then. There are altogether too many C# notes in this song – it makes the verses dull, and they then have to work harder with the arrangement and dynamics to lift it out of the melodic sludge. But the hook ‘Love Kills, over and over’ is great – almost like it comes from a better song than the rest of it. Oooh nice middle 8 – Db to A – wasn’t expecting a major third drop from the tonic chord in such a diatonic song. And the big return to the repeated chorus is gratuitous but entirely justified. The memory of this chorus is slowly erasing the trauma of listening to that verse melody.
05 Spain • ESDM • “Contigo hasta el final” (With you until the end)
Big anthemic pipes intro in Ab major, into Ronan Keating-style plain vanilla acoustic pop guitar strumming. It picks up nicely in the classic wedge of cheese style. And here’s the chorus. The romance languages sound so great with big singable vowels. But I think this might be style over content. It’s a very ‘produced’ chorus, with big vocals, but for me the dynamic leaps between the big chorus and small acoustic bits are too obviously contrived to create peaks for the listener. Not bad at all, but not interesting enough to rise above the pack.
04 Finland • Krista Siegfrids • “Marry Me”
This is more like it. Punk-pop no-nonsense verse. F-Gm-Eb-Bb loop for most (all?) of it. Chorus is cracking – really simple and extremely singable. The ‘o-o- a ding dong’ is classic Eurovision and is effectively an extra chorus for free. Oooooh! Rock breakdown section! That was unexpected. And it’s a crazy 142BPM – excellent up-tempo fun to be had. I have no comment to make on the gay kiss. This is musicology, not sociology.
03 Moldova • Aliona Moon • “O mie” (a thousand)
Also in Dm, like the previous one. But the order is randomised, so unavoidable, I guess. Four-chord Dm loop for the verse. Fair enough. I like the descending melodic fragment on which the chorus is based but it’s not singable enough for the crowd. And now the key change – nicely done. They’ve left enough pitch room for the vocal pyrotechnics, and she’s obliging well. In Leona’s frock. Pretty good, and pleasingly melodramatic, but too shrieky to do really well, I think.
02 Lithuania • Andrius Pojavis • “Something”
Dull verse. And this guy is singing nearly all of it so far below middle C. I’m hoping for big pitch peaks later. Mediocre vocal. Errrr… was that the chorus? I missed it. The chorus is hardly higher in pitch than the verse. “Because of the shoes I’m wearing today…” – is this really a reason to fall in love with someone. Harmonically it sounds like they can’t decide what chords to play – the changes to F and to Dm always sound like they are created by some kind of harmonic-randomiser plugin. Hmmm. I’d quite like to have a go on one of those.
01 France • Amandine Bourgeois • “L’enfer et moi”
The verse sounds like Another Brick In The Wall slowed down to 90BPM and transposed into C#m. I do like the lift into the relative major (also taken from ABITW). The chorus is trying to succeed on pitch breadth, I reckon. That high C# octave works pretty well, but makes it less singable by the crowd. It’s great to have some good solid rock opening the show. But it won’t win.
When I heard that choral intro I wondered why it all sounded like an ABBA masterpiece – skipping cross rhythms, playful inversions, massive anthemic chorus, loads of big vowels. Then Graham explained that it was the new Eurovision anthem We Write the Story written by Benny and Björn (with Avicii).
Oh and they’ve gone for the key change. Had to be done. Now the mixolydian overdriven guitar countermelody riffs are coming, in between the chorus phrases. Just like the Voulez Vous album. Heaven.
I’ve been analysing the PPL’s list of the top 10 most played pop songs of 2012, and discussing it today on BBC Radio Ulster with music journalist Chris Jones.
Here’s the list, and I’ve made a playlist of all the songs;
- 1 Jessie J – Domino
- 2 Gotye ft Kimbra – Somebody That I Used to Know
- 3 Emeli Sandé – Next to Me
- 4 Maroon 5 – Moves Like Jagger
- 5 David Guetta ft Sia – Titanium
- 6 Olly Murs – Dance with Me Tonight
- 7 Kelly Clarkson – Stronger (What Doesn’t Kill You)
- 8 Rihanna and Calvin Harris – We Found Love
- 9 Carly Rae Jepsen – Call Me Maybe
- 10 Maroon 5 – Payphone
From memory, I recalled that all of these songs had some similar sonic characteristics, so I did some basic analyses to see which music/lyric elements they shared. I found the following;
- All of them are love songs of one type or another
- 3 of the love-related lyrics include references to dancing
- 5 of the songs have a tempo of 128 BPM (or pretty close)
- The lowest tempo is Next To Me (96BPM)
- The highest tempo is Dance With Me Tonight (a crazy 166BPM – but it’s a 1950s pastiche)
- All the songs are in 4/4 time (OK, pretty obvious, that one)
- 6 of the songs use 4-on-the-floor kick drum in the chorus
- All of the songs use four-chord loops over 2, 4 or 8 bars
- 5 of the songs use one four-chord loop throughout
- All of the songs are in chorus form (none are AABA) and most have very similar forms
- 2 of the songs contain specific references to other hits (Titanium opens with a sample from Every Breath You Take and Dance With Me Tonight uses the 8-bar chord loop from Stand By Me)
- Mean average intro length is 11 seconds
- Mean average BPM is 124.4
- Mode and median intro length is 4 bars
Here are my stats if anyone wants them. Methodology note – I measured the BPM using a click-along manual counter (BPM Counter widget for Mac) so some of the BPMs might only be accurate within a tolerance of 1 or so. Corrections welcomed.
What can we conclude from this? Well, it certainly appears that the centre of popular mainstream has some pretty clear norms. Previous readers might remember that I ascribe some of this to economic Darwinism applied by listeners to songwriters via the marketplace. One might argue that the PPL list itself is unrepresentative, as it mainly represents songs that are playlisted in large numbers (i.e. it’s a DJ/radio station poll rather than a true measure of listener interest) but I don’t agree with this point of view. Yes, playlists influence listener preferences, but any radio station that didn’t play songs that people liked would lose listeners overnight. And the playlist does also include TV performances and venues – including pubs, shops etc. I think it is impossible to argue that these songs are anything other than extremely popular. Which, for me, makes them worthy of analysis.
I am of course fascinated by the prevalence of four-chord loops here (more in this annual top 10 than in any previous chart top 10 I’ve analysed), and I wonder if, in some types of mainstream song, 4-chord loops have become like choruses, breakdowns or intros – they’re just a part of the form that becomes a musical constant against which the track’s variables (lyric, performance, melody, production) are contrasted. Certainly when listening to them I don’t get bored by the loop itself. I’ve briefly alluded to chord loops as an evolved constraint before.
Most surprising to me was the prevalence of 128BPM. Not just 120+, but almost exactly 128BPM, in half of the songs. The mean BPM (124.4) is a fair bit higher than the mean average over the previous 60 years of US/UK chart hits (around 119BPM). Only Emeli Sandé is keeping us relaxed (96) and only Olly Murs is crazily jivin’ (166BPM).
All of this is to be poured into the songwriting creativity studies that will form the PhD thesis to be published in late 2014.
After several years of planning, research, pitching, composing, transcribing and recording, the new Rockschool syllabus was released on 1st May 2012. Here’s one of my contributions – a Led Zeppelin-style rock track, co-written with the estimable Noam Lederman, who also played all the drum parts.
One of my favourite speeches from one of my favourite writers was, until recently, available online at http://www.biota.org/people/douglasadams/
For some reason when I tried to access it recently the link was down, so I quickly grabbed the below-pasted text from its cache. I don’t know who owns this text, if anyone (and will take it down if this post infringes anyone’s copyright) but have pasted it here to keep it alive online because it is one of the most moving – and intelligent – things I have ever read. It is a transcript of an address Adams gave in 1998, and appears in his final book The Salmon of Doubt (buy it here). Read more…
Here’s an advert soundalike track. They’ve even copied the Cuíca drum. Not a single note or chord is the same as Me And Julio Down By The Schoolyard, of course. But the arrangement and production clearly references the Paul Simon original – and the casual listener is left in no doubt of the source. This is the challenge of soundalike works in music publishing – technically copyright can subsist in any part of a musical work, but it tends to be interpreted (in law and in the making of the work) as only being based around musical notes i.e. if it can’t be notated, it isn’t copyright.
Of course, it is impossible to own the copyright in a musical technique, whether it be strummed semiquavers on an acoustic guitar or a Cuica ‘laughing’ drum. But if the combination of musical decisions in the original work is unique (strummed 16 acoustic, Cuica drum coming in a few bars later, fingerboard muting over a 3-chord/2-bar loop, all at the unusually fast tempo of 210BPM), it’s fair to say that the soundalike track is referencing a specific work rather than just a musical style. And if this is the case, it’s presumably been done so that the casual listener will ‘recognise’ the original; thus, the copyist is benefiting (in this case commercially) from the endeavours of the original artist – without licensing the track or asking permission.
Disclaimer – I make these observations only as an interested academic and musician. There is, as far as I know, no copyright infringement case associated with these works, and if there is I am unconnected with it. But if anyone connected with the publishing of ‘Julio’ is reading this, I hope you go after them!
Continued blogging from the Art of Record Production conference 2010…
Brian Rossiter – University of Edinburgh
“Ain’t That a Bitch?”: Prince, Camille, and the Challenge to “Authentic” Black Masculinity
Vocal performance has long been regarded as one of the most potent and direct signifiers of identity – the recorded voice, in particular, often assumes the role of “interiorising notions of identification” (Stan Hawkins, The British Pop Dandy, 2009). Normally this tendency to attribute vocality to a definite personalor social identity stems from the notion that musical sounds must somehow offer a reflection or representation of those peoples who produce them, thus tempting us to envisage a linear correlation between one’s sexual or racial status and the ways in which one presents oneself through the act of musical performance. As Simon Frith (“Music and Identity”, 1996) has shown, the problem with this conception is that it fails to recognise that identity, particularly as encountered through the act of music making, is both an experiential process and an act of “becoming”, and therefore never a fixed state of “being”. Performance, as such, opens up an expansive arena where identity moves fluidly, drawing upon a vast array of bodily, emotional, and mental dispositions made tangible through the cultural quirks of sound and style. For recording artists, the range of possibilities through which one might explore the transitory aspects of one’s identity has been expanded evermore by the development of technologies that enable one to experiment freely with the pitch, texture, and resonance of the voice. The performer is therefore capable of constructing an imagined audio image of him- or herself that transcends the limitations of what is possible in the “real” context of live performance.
Using Frith’s position as a theoretical anchor, this paper contrasts two songs – “If I Was Your Girlfriend” and “Bob George” – by the African-American artist Prince, on which he exploits contemporary advances in recording technology in order to radically manipulate the character of his voice, both manually increasing and decreasing its pitch, and by doing so problematising the concept of his identity by continuously calling into question his own relationship to his gender, sexuality, and racial heritage. In particular, he maximises the potential of these effects in order to challenge and subvert traditional notions of patriarchal black masculinity, either by offering a radically alternative performance sensibility to that expected by patriarchy, as in the first instance, or latterly by appropriating and then exaggerating the stereotyped behavioural tropes of this ideology in a satirical manner that fully underlines the pitfalls of a one-dimensional view of “authentic” black masculinity.
Rossiter makes some insightful observations about Prince’s pitch-shifted ‘Camille’ persona, quoting many popular musicology scholars’ work on gender, including Richard Middleton. He plays excerpts of Prince songs including ‘If I Was Your Girlfriend‘ and ‘Bob George‘ and discusses questions of masculinity and wider issues of racial identity and sexuality.
Michael Hajimichael – University of Nicosia
Virtual Oasis – thoughts and experiences about online based music production and collaborative writing techniques
Over the last 10 years virtual studio collaborations, net based artists and music labels have emerged as a by-product of the “Web 2.0” revolution. While the early stages of the Internet can be characterised through Voltaire’s sentiment of ‘every one tending to their own garden’ Web 2.0 and particularly social media web sites have in contrast redefined relationships between users/audiences and creators/producers. These changes are prevalent in areas such as music/audio/sound, image/video/photo and text/narrative/writing. Traditional methods of production and communication in music, radio, TV and journalism have in a multitude of ways adjusted to these changes – leading to the creation of multi-media based online portals. Approaching these changes in relation to independent music production and song writing is a challenging task mainly due to the sheer volume of net based releases located on web sites such as MySpace, Reverb Nation and Soundclick. My paper will focus on a number of insights on qualitative transformations concerning commerce versus creativity and the role play -dynamics of writing and producing collaborative songs and projects online. Reference will be made to practical collaborations based on observation and experience as an artist, participant and music producer. These will consider the glass both half full and half empty by raising a number of key questions. What happens when people collaborate in writing songs online, how do people approach each other? What can go right – what can go wrong? Is virtuality a substitute for more traditional methods of physical collaboration? Or is it just an emerging guerrilla production technique being embraced by independent musicians on very limited budgets with boundless creative enthusiasm and net access? I will focus primarily on a case study of a recent release I completed entirely online with Dub Caravan called ‘Virtual Oasis’ (DubMed Music Label); as well as a song project produced by Steffen Franz called ‘Harmony4Humanity’ – written in two locations – San Francisco USA and Nicosia Cyprus over a time period of 48 hours from start to finish. I will also refer to a number of experiences, examples and contexts where things have not worked out with the intention of exploring some of the possible drawbacks and limitations of recording online. These negative elements of the process are just as significant as the positive dynamics as together they give a more holistic approach, one that is grounded in a wide range of dynamics embracing social relationships, technological capacities, understandings on musical genres, and the ethics of copyright/writing production credits. Online production processes can be like an elusive virtual oasis, they can also be a burden, a bad ‘collab’ or a liberating creative experience.
Mike’s paper looks at the value of rhetorical exchange online, in relation to his own creative projects working with web-based collaborators. He points out the difference between ‘world is your oyster’ possibility with the fact that, projects don’t always work out creatively. He has undertaken web-based collaborations himself, and reflects in detail on the creation and production of the ‘Virtual Oasis’ album. He discusses the dynamics of collaboration, and draws some conclusions from the collaborative mechanisms and also from the fact of collaboration itself.
Brandon Vaccaro – Kent State University
Decoding Faith No More’s “Just a Man:” The Role of Production in the Interpretation of Recorded Music
In this paper, an analysis of Faith No More’s “Just a Man” is presented, focusing on the way that the recording production, particularly the production of the vocals, supports the interpreted meaning of the song. The song presents two different styles of production which correlate with shifts on the lyrical meaning throughout the song. In that context, the studio production of historic vocal artists is investigated, and the role of recording production in our interpretation of meaning in general is examined by adapting an approach pioneered by Robert S. Hatten. A series of brief hermeneutic readings of historic recordings of popular vocalists are presented, and two production styles and their correlation to expressive styles (cultural units) are established. The two styles of production, the “Shouter” style corresponding to expressive topics of religious and sexual ecstasy, peak experiences, and “testifying” and the “Crooner/Balladeer” style corresponding to the topics of ordinary life, mundanity, and a sense of an “everyman” or “everywoman,” are traced from the 1920s to the 1990s. The dialectic established in these examples is then used in the analysis of “Just a Man,” which uses both of these styles in contrasting sections.
Brandon’s presentation began with a playback of the track, notable for its juxtaposition (as the abstract says) between ‘crooner’ and ‘shouter’ vocal performance styles. He then leads into a straight musicological analysis (although, pleasingly, he includes some observations on lyric meaning – all-too-rare in some pop musicology IMO!). He then discusses production effects in various other songs and the extent to which they (e.g. slapback delay, bandpass/lo-fi filtering etc) can be ascribed a meaning – in cultural terms or even supporting lyric meaning (Buggles’ Video Killed The Radio Star is cited). He briefly touches on the concept of real vs hyper-real audio production (he provides the example of a binaural mic pair vs close-miking).
Interestingly (for my own work), he mentions the effect of early sonic recording bandwidth on vocal ranges in records, suggesting that it is one reason for pop recordings favouring high male and low female versions. In my own paper I have identified a similar phenomenon (that most songs inhabit the vocal range from C2 to C4, and the majority of recordings focus mainly on a single octave – A2 to A3). He concludes with a detailed semiotic discussion of the track, and interestingly the one audience question we have time for is from an ex Faith No More producer!!!
[this is a mirrored post from my Web 2.0 HE blog]
A lot of the posts on this blog have been somewhat one-sided, perhaps even evangelical. This is because I believe that there are serious strategic benefits to Universities and other large organisations of adopting ‘free’ web-based interactive services, rather than trying to source all their IT needs in-house.
But today I’d like to take a different angle on a much-rehearsed debate – the idea of democratically-collated knowledge, most famously exemplified by Wikipedia.
The Wikipedia arguments
I meet academics all the time who are not regular Wikipedia users, and many of them are critical of it because the very concept sounds absurd. To publish an article on which people rely for research, and to make it editable by anyone in the world seems anathema to HE’s methodology of peer review and serious scholarship. But this point of view misses two important characteristics of Wikipedia – firstly, it is not a primary source. Its policy states that entries should cite only verifiable and reliable primary and secondary sources. Secondly, to criticise it based on the potential for malicious damage is to misunderstand the basically altruistic nature of humans; the majority of people seem to enjoy sharing knowledge. Wilful sabotage takes place, of course, on Wikipedia as in physical textbooks (remember those rude pencil drawings in the margin of your teenage classroom copy of Hamlet?), and, this being the web, the online version is instantly published worldwide. But there is a critical mass of opinion that will prevent inaccuracy; try sabotaging an important Wikipedia page and you’ll see what I mean – it will revert to the accurate version within minutes, as a member of the community swoops in to heal the wound.
There have been attempts to compare online and print encyclopedias, notably the Nature survey earlier this year, and Wikipedia comes out fighting in these cases. But, just like a regular encyclopedia, it is not a one-stop-shop for research – it’s a starting point to get an overview of a subject, leading hopefully to investigation of the reliable sources it cites. Like all academics, I tell my students that Wikipedia is not a source in itself and should not be cited in research (indeed, Wikipedia’s own policy makes this clear). But unlike some colleagues, I do encourage students to use it in order to identify the reliable sources on which the article is based. Wikipedia works. It’s not the fount of all human knowledge, but it does link to it.
These arguments have been well rehearsed in the blogosphere, in the mainstream press, and even in scholarly research. But today, in the interests of balance, I want to discuss a site that falls down precisely because of its democratic, participatory online approach – Musipedia.
What is Musipedia?
It’s a website, founded by Dr Rainer Typke, that attempts to document and make searchable melodic themes from copyright and non-copyright musical works, mainly from Western/tonal music, covering the classical repertoire, popular song and jazz. Here’s the ‘About’ page from the site. Its philosophy is inspired by Wikipedia (although it is a separate organisation) in that it asks the worldwide community of musicians, musicologists and music-lovers to contribute melodies through various web-based interfaces, and then provides mechanisms for visitors to search its database for melodies. The site went ‘democratic’ in 2004 by adding any-user contributions and edits.
And, speaking as a music specialist, it’s very difficult to use. Entries are unreliable, the database is patchy (it includes some really obscure folksongs and omits some massive international pop hits), and it is musicologically underpowered in several ways, making no reference to harmonic context or bar placement, and suffering from an under-developed rhythmic engine (made worse by some contributor entries that contain no rhythmic information). This is not to criticise Typke – he is an eminent published academic with extensive knowledge of music information retrieval systems and some outstanding primary research. But I suggest that it is Musipedia’s Wikipedia-like contributor system that is its downfall.
The idea of a ‘melody dictionary’ is not new. Barlow and Morgenstern published their ‘Dictionary of Musical Themes’ in the late 1940s, and their database (of 10,000 Western classical themes) is now available online. This is much more reliable (than Musipedia), perhaps because of its non-collaborative nature; it was researched by individuals who had a clear overview of a particular musical canon, and more importantly these individuals had a particular level of musical literacy. It’s not flawless – like Musipedia, it omits harmonic context and rhythmic placement, but as a source of monophonic musical lines it’s perfectly usable. Personally I use it in songwriting dispute cases when I’m acting as a consultant to copyright lawyers – it’s a great way of calculating the statistical likelihood of particular pitch choices. And the updated/online version improves hugely on the original print publication because there is a playable MIDI file of each entry.
Musipedia, I suggest, is hampered because there is no measure of the musical knowledge of its contributors, and no quality assurance mechanism to ensure that entries are accurate (plus inevitable legal hindrances related to online music publishing and copyright). But surely one could say that Wikipedia suffers from the same lack of contributor-screening? Certainly, but in the latter case, there are enough suitably-informed people who can spot an error in an instant; the majority of those with an interest in a particular subject can (and do) error-trap Wikipedia articles. Musipedia is different; making contributions requires a certain level of subject-specific skill (aural pitch analysis, music reading etc) beyond the generic research skills of cross-referencing needed to contribute to Wikipedia. Musipedia’s input interface cannot differentiate between an experienced musician and a tone-deaf music fan, and the same problem applies to members of the online community who might error-trap entries by the latter.
For Wikipedians, a democratic approach has achieved a stable welfare state; but I suggest Barlow and Morgenstern’s benign autocracy is more successful than Musipedia’s hippy commune, despite Typke’s excellent architectural drawings for the squat. Hmmm – might have tortured that metaphor far enough now.
There’s a political parallel here in the UK; whatever one thinks of David Cameron’s Big Society arguments, some roles require specialist expertise and can’t be democratised. There are arguments in favour of self-appointed/untrained community religious leaders or even educators, but I’m sure none of us would want to be operated on by a community surgeon, or be a passenger with a community airline pilot. But I digress.
So we’re back to the gatekeepers debate. Wikipedia shows us that democratisation of factual knowledge seems to work – there are enough people in the know (who care enough) to outnumber the saboteurs, the ‘haters’ and the mis-informed. And the ignorant (I use the term in its non-pejorative sense) will mostly stay away from editing Wikipedia articles about which they have no knowledge. There is little incentive for anyone to make malicious edits to, say, an article about a DNA polymerase, and thus it is more likely that such an entry will be accurate because it will, by its nature, attract interested experts as editors.
Music is different. Everybody loves it, and everybody has an opinion about it. But to perform, compose, notate or analyse music requires a set of learned skills that are diluted, not multiplied, by mass democratic knowledge. And if we have no democratically effective mechanism of differentiating between accurate and inaccurate entries, the database’s integrity will suffer.
So I conclude, tentatively, that applying democratic principles to factual knowledge seems to be a recipe for accuracy. Applying them to technically challenging skills such as melody transcription doesn’t seem to bring the same benefits. It’s early days for Musipedia, and I really hope it succeeds, but its wikipedia-like strategy may just be its downfall.
Which is maybe why 99% of the songs on myspace aren’t so great. Sometimes you need gatekeepers.