Take me down like I’m a four-chord loop

DominoI’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
  • David Guetta ft Sia – Titanium
  • 6 Olly Murs – Dance with Me Tonight
  • 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)

Some numbers;

  • 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.

Is There An Artificial God?

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).

Me and Nutella…

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!

Art of Record Production – paper session 5

Continued blogging from the Art of Record Production conference 2010…

13:15

Brian Rossiter – University of Edinburgh

“Ain’t That a Bitch?”: Prince, Camille, and the Challenge to “Authentic” Black Masculinity

Brian Rossiter at ARP 2010

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.


14:20

Michael HajimichaelUniversity 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.


14:50

Brandon Vaccaro – Kent State University

Decoding Faith No More’s “Just a Man:” The Role of Production in the Interpretation of Recorded Music

Faith No More

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!!!

When web democracy fails – Wikipedia and Musipedia

[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.

Daves Big Society plan - surgeons or pilots need not apply
Dave's Big Society - surgeons or pilots need not apply

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.