IASPM session 2a – Australia and New Zealand

Dialect and DespairSession 2a – Australia and New Zealand. Chair: Eric Hung

The Architects of Culture: Developing the Concept of a ‘Shared Listening History’. James Cox (Macquarie University, Australia)

[abstract]

As Schloss (2006) has suggested, Hip Hop practitioners are mindful of the culture’s history and traditions. This is true of Hip Hop artists in Australia and New Zealand, who are keen to promote their knowledge and respect of the culture’s history and traditions.

This paper will examine the ideas behind such a conservative selection of cultural works that form the basis for Hip Hop music. As Dimitriadis (2009) has suggested, a Hip Hop identity is often “worked through” by a complex positioning and re-positioning of texts between peoples. The selection of such texts forms a ‘Shared Listening History’ among Hip Hop artists in Australia and New Zealand. This allows for the construction of a Hip Hop identity worked out through interaction with these texts. A point reiterated by Australian Hip Hop artist Dialect, “[my music is] straight up Hip Hop music, concerned with preserving and respecting the culture’s traditions and origins [as] laid out by the architects” (Tang 2011, p.22).

Drawing on ethnographic research with Hip Hop artists in Australia and New Zealand, the paper exemplifies how a ‘Shared Listening History’ provides an important structure within the genre. Australian and New Zealand Hip Hop artists engagement with the “architects” of the culture has important implications on the ways in which these artists then construct their music and remain “authentic”.

IASPM session 2 – Re(listening) Popular Music History: Tin Pan Story, Keir Keightley (University of Western Ontario, Canada)

TIn Pan Alley

Tin Pan Story, Keir Keightley (University of Western Ontario, Canada)

[abstract]

Between 1910 and 1919, a spate of stories set in Tin Pan Alley (the New York sheet-music publishing district) appeared in mass-circulation magazines, newspapers, and cinemas. These contributed to the growing popular knowledge about how popular music was manufactured and promoted; thus they can offer us useful views of the workings of the early music industry, from a perspective that differs somewhat from non-fictional accounts of this period. My paper will explore what these stories tell us in particular about the evaluation of popular music and its frequently fraudulent industrial practices. These largely “romantic” narratives are driven by a conception of Tin Pan Alley as a place where authentic love and authentic musical creation/production can become, against the odds, intertwined and interdependent. Here also we glimpse the rising prominence of “backstage” or insider accounts of cultural industries in the 1910s, prior to Hollywood’s mass of self-revelations and self-mystifications of the 1920s. Together, these insights can contribute to a broader historicisation of contemporary notions of authenticity in general, and of their mainstream, mediated roots in particular. This paper represents the next phase of my current work on a genealogy of “mainstream” authenticity, first presented at my Liverpool 2009 plenary, “Tin Pan Allegory”.

IASPM 2013 keynote: Prof Simon Frith

To anyone who is involved in the academic discussion of popular music, Professor Simon Frith is perhaps one of our megastars. I was delighted to hear that he was the keynote speaker for this conference, as he is one of the driving forces behind IASPM itself and our journal – Popular Music. That this is his final conference (he intends to retire within the year) made his speech all the more poignant.

Teatro

[with apologies to Simon for any inelegance or misrepresentation in the summative text below – I found the keynote extremely engaging, and have tried to balance my own interest in his points with the practical necessity of live blogging!].

Simon opened his keynote with a comment about his preference for the avoidance of nostalgia – and noted that Bruce Springsteen will be performing in Gijòn this week! He talked briefly about his influential book Performing Rites, written in the 1990s, and then discussed where popular music scholarship might be going today. His interest has always been partly located in the arguments of what constitutes ‘value’ in popular music, and notions of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ popular music. As an academic he takes what is still a very brave approach – of using academic tools to analyse highly contextual social considerations of aesthetic value in music.

IASPM 2013 – Gijòn, Spain – with Abbey Road and some Japanese Prog

Joe at IASPMI’m here at the 2013 IASPM (International Society for the Study of Popular Music) biennial conference. I’m one of about 20 British popular musicologists and there are several hundred of us from all around the world. We’re at the magnificent Laboral Ciudad de la Cultura in Gijòn, Spain. I’ve attempted to blog the sessions – including the abstracts and a brief summary – here. I do so with apologies to the presenters for any unintentional misrepresentation.

joebennett.net/category/iaspm

You can’t teach songwriting! (from Total Guitar magazine)

This article originally appeared in Total Guitar magazine issue 231, September 2012. Reproduced by permission. Words: Joe Bennett. Illustration: Andy Watt. Click the image to download a pdf.

TG231 screenshotTo 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.

TG231 illustrationThe 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.

Copyright and plagiarism in songwriting – some case studies

Riff
The Bitter Sweet Symphony riff. How much of ‘The Last Time’ do you recognise?

Below are the slides (with playable YouTube examples) from a recent lecture I gave to BA Commercial Music 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.

Eurovision 2013 live blogging


Logo[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

  1. Denmark
  2. Norway
  3. Russia

—————- [edit – 23:30pm]

2013 Eurovision – actual top 5

  1. Denmark
  2. Azerbaijan
  3. Ukraine
  4. Norway
  5. Russia

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!

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26 Ireland • Ryan Dolan • “Only Love Survives”

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.

“You Won’t See Me” – in search of an epistemology of collaborative songwriting (abstract)

Here’s a forthcoming paper I’ll be presenting at the ARP conference this year in Québec. I’ll publish the full paper here later in the year. Here’s a paper I presented at the 2010 ARP conference (perhaps less glamorously, but no less interestingly, in Leeds).

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2013 ARP Conference
The 8th Art of Record Production Conference
July 12th – 14th 2013
Université Laval, Québec

“You Won’t See Me” – in search of an epistemology of collaborative songwriting
Joe Bennett, Bath Spa University

Abstract
Collaborative songwriting is an effective music industry creative working model, and a significant number of hits have been written by teams[1]. However, little is known about the operational specifics of the creative processes undertaken by successful songwriters, and academic research into songwriting creativity is constrained by a number of methodological challenges. This paper aims to analyse and compare the observation methodologies available to researchers, and to evaluate the reliability of the available evidence bases. Analysis of a finished creative work such as an audio recording may tell us little about the way it was created, so the search for usable evidence should perhaps start with the songwriters themselves. John Sloboda[2] identifies four methods by which we may gain understanding of a composer’s creative process – examination of manuscript; ‘general and retrospective’ interviews with composers; ‘live’ observation of composers; and observation of improvisatory performance. The first and last of these are discounted, respectively, because of the lack of iterative music notation generated by most songwriters, and also due to the non-real-time nature of songwriting, particularly in a technology rich environment such as a studio. This leaves interviews or real-time observation, but these two methods’ integrities, and even their status as primary sources, may be questionable. Interview subjects, for a variety of personal or economic reasons, may not be incentivised to provide reliable information to researchers about the reality of their creative processes. Real-time observation of a collaborative songwriting session partly solves this problem, but generates massive amounts of qualitative data, which must be reduced, necessarily destructively, to a manageable size before it can be a meaningful and usable research evidence base.
When these data have been evaluated and analysed, the researcher is left with an overarching philosophical question, common to much creativity research, and addressed by Csikszentmihalyi[3] and Boden[4] – does a case study only become meaningful after the work is proven to be societally ‘successful’? The paper will discuss approaches to this problem and possible strategies for triangulating evidence bases, toward an informed understanding of the collaborative songwriting process.


[1] T. F Pettijohn II and S. F Ahmed, “Songwriting Loafing or Creative Collaboration?: A Comparison of Individual and Team Written Billboard Hits in the USA,” Journal of Articles in Support of the Null Hypothesis 7, no. 1 (2010): 2.
[2] John Sloboda, The Musical Mind : the Cognitive Psychology of Music (Oxford [Oxfordshire]  ;New York: Clarendon Press ;;Oxford University Press, 1985).
[3] Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, “Society, Culture, and Person: a Systems View of Creativity,” in The Nature of Creativity : Contemporary Psychological Perspectives, ed. Robert Sternberg (Cambridge ;;New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988), 325–339.
[4] Sloboda, The Musical Mind : the Cognitive Psychology of Music.

The Song Remains The Same – Why? (from Total Guitar Magazine)

This article originally appeared in Total Guitar magazine issue 228, June 2012. Reproduced by permission. Words: Joe Bennett. Illustration: Naomi Hocking. Click the image to download a pdf.

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TGR228–evolution

Every song is different. Different words, different chords, different melody. If parts of a song sound similar to another, the musicologists get busy and the lawyers move in. But when you think about the way songs are constructed, you might say that they have more similarities than differences.

Dig out the chord sheet and lyrics for the last song you wrote, and play it through. Chances are, it’s in 4/4 time, lasts between three and four minutes, features the title in the chorus, has 4-bar sections, and stays in one key throughout. The chord changes probably occur on the barline or the half barline, and there will be two or three verses with rhymes at the end of each line – all sung by a first person character. Even if it doesn’t have all of these characteristics, it probably has most of them. Almost all successful songs do.

There’s no law that says we have to write songs within these constraints, and yet we keep coming back to them. Why should this be? One theory is that there’s a form of evolution going on, through a version of what Charles Darwin described as variation and selection. The logic goes like this: thousands of new songs are created every day with different characteristics. Music fans ‘select’ – through CD purchase, gig attendance, downloads, viral sharing etc – the songs with the characteristics that appeal to them the most. Most new songs don’t become popular, ie, they ‘die out’, while only a minority ‘survive’.

But evolution can’t exist without reproduction, so how do songs ‘reproduce’? In interviews, songwriters love talking about their influences. When we write songs, we’re affected by all the music we’ve ever heard. Chuck Berry begat the Rolling Stones, and the Stones gave birth to Primal Scream, who had a baby and named it Kasabian. As Darwin might say, songs inherit characteristics from their parents. When we write songs, we add new creative ideas to the mix; if enough people like our new song, it might become a success, and go on to influence other songwriters. Variation, selection and reproduction.

Of course, extreme ideas are constantly being tried. New songs might have long durations, non-rhyming lyrics and unusual time signatures, particularly in specialist genres such as metal or prog. But take a look at any list of classic favourites. Hardly any of them feature these more exotic characteristics, but they very often have some slightly quirky feature that makes them different enough to avoid cliché but not so ‘far out’ that music fans walk away.

Through the efforts of all songwriters, song evolution is constantly trying different mutations, and music lovers keep selecting the ones that they like the most. The result is a form of music that is always changing and refining itself, with each new song being a unique individual but resembling its ancestors in some way. Influential songs have themselves evolved from other successful songs, and so on back into history, presumably all the way to the prehistoric cave gig that started it all.

EvolutionAs songwriters, we already subconsciously know the ‘rules’ of song form, having absorbed them through a lifetime of listening to music. Over hundreds of years of songwriting and listening, songwriters and fans alike have learned these rules and passed them on. Eventually we’re not even aware of them – we just assume we’re going to write an intro, verse and chorus, and be finished before the egg timer pings.

Does this mean that we’re not creative as songwriters? Are we just recycling the same song over and over? Far from it. A haiku has seventeen syllables. Most movies last longer than one hour and less than three. Video games have goals, progression and achievement. Novels are usually more than 100 pages and fewer than 1000. All of these art forms have their own rules, geniuses and classics. Form doesn’t restrict creativity – it defines it.

Most of the really great songwriters listen to lots of other songs. We can’t escape our influences – they live on in every song we write. Darwin may have missed the birth of rock ‘n’ roll by around 75 years, but he sure seemed to know a lot about songwriting.

Drum groove – your help needed

Dear music lovers,

I’m working on some research at the moment that involves working out how common a particular bass drum pattern is – particularly in 1980s (or earlier) R&B and Hip-hop. So the question is – what songs do you know that feature this groove? Facebook or Tweet me with your answers, or fill in the ‘Other’ box in the poll below. As ever with these things, I can’t reveal more detail, but rest assured that your answers will be helping a songwriter.

Image

Don’t Bore Us – Write a Chorus (Techniques for Songwriters)

This article originally appeared in Total Guitar magazine issue 227, May 2012. Reproduced by permission. Words: Joe Bennett. Illustration: Naomi Hocking. Click the image to download a pdf.

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Here’s a psychology experiment. Tell a group of mates that you’re going to ask them to sing the verse of a well-known song, and that they have to start singing as soon as you reveal the title. Get them to breathe in deeply and be ready, and then tell them the title is… All Right Now. Everyone will sing the chorus, even though you had asked them to sing the verse.

You’ll find this trick works with any title-based classic – try it with All You Need Is Love, Sweet Child of Mine, Smoke On The Water, No Woman No Cry or Blowin’ in the Wind. Why should this be? I think it’s because the title of the song has put the chorus into people’s minds, and these particular songs use the title in their choruses. Rock music history has proved time and time again that music fans like songs with big choruses more than they like chorus-less songs. Take Radiohead – a band that (I’m sure we can agree) has done some work that’s pretty challenging and ground-breaking, including lots of songs that don’t have anything you’d call a ‘chorus’. But if you look up their most popular songs on Spotify or iTunes you’ll find the chorus-heavy Creep right at the top of the list every time. Try the same with 1970s prog rockers Yes, or their contemporaries Genesis. At the top of their respective lists you’ll always find big-chorused tracks such as Owner of A Lonely Heart and Invisible Touch rather than the more complicated ‘album track’ material. Whether you prefer these popular singles or the less well-known stuff is a matter of personal taste, but the message from the download charts is clear – lots of people like big choruses based on a simple title.
We already know that well-loved choruses are usually higher in pitch than the rest of the song, meaning we tend to put more energy into singing them (see TG215’s ‘Rules of Thumb’). But we can learn from their other characteristics too. Have you ever thought about that word ‘chorus’? The original ‘Greek chorus’ was a group of singers who would comment on the action in the theatrical plays of ancient Greece, summarising the story for the audience or revealing the characters’ innermost feelings. In songs, the job of a ‘chorus’ – to summarise meaning for the listener – can be just the same. For a straightforward example look no further than The Beatles’ She Loves You; the verse provides background plot about the characters’ relationships, and the chorus simply chants a summary of the song’s meaning. Not all songs do this of course, but run the numbers: it’s amazing how often a chorus follows that ancient Greek wisdom.
So we know that many successful songs have big choruses based on a simple title, are higher in pitch, and summarise the meaning. Now reverse-engineer the logic. You want lots of people to listen to your songs? Write big choruses based on a simple title that are higher in pitch and summarise your meaning. Simples!
Or it would be, if we did not fear cheese. Lots of songwriters say that they don’t want their music to be thought of as ‘obvious’, ‘cheap’ or  – for some the worst crime of all – ‘commercial’. So we sometimes stay away from simple successful ideas like repeating the title in a chorus. Is this ‘cheesy’? Not many Van Halen fans would use that word to describe Runnin’ With The Devil, Jamie’s Cryin’ or Jump, all of which have title-heavy choruses. REM-lovers are pretty pleased with Everybody Hurts, and no Chili Peppers show would be complete without Californication.
There are techniques we can use to break these ‘chains of cheese’ that can push our creativity into unproductive self-doubt – and our songs away from popularity. If you’ve got a good title, try singing it over and over, trying out different notes and phrasing until you hear something you like. Push your voice so you’re singing towards the top of your range, and if it isn’t working or doesn’t feel right, try changing the key or underlying guitar chord and see what comes out. This will give you the pitch peak and might go some way towards suggesting a chorus hook. And while you’re chanting that title, perhaps a summary of the song’s overall meaning is starting to form in your mind. Look behind you. Standing at the back there’s a bunch of Greek guys in masks…

Lyric rhyming in songwriting

This article originally appeared in Total Guitar magazine issue 226, April 2012. Reproduced by permission. Words: Joe Bennett. Illustration: Naomi Hocking. Click the image to download a pdf.

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There once was a guy from Japan,
Whose limericks never would rhyme,
He tried really hard,
But couldn’t do it,
And after a while he gave up!

If you raised a faint smile reading the paragraph above, it’s because the first line of the poem promised rhymes that never appeared. We’ve all heard hundreds of limericks, and the form requires a specific AABBA rhyme scheme, where the first, second and fifth lines rhyme with each other, and the third and fourth lines rhyme as a separate couplet. That expectation of rhyme has been hard-wired into your brain by all the limericks you’ve ever heard.

A similar expectation is built into the brains of music fans through years of listening to popular songs. There are examples of successful non-rhyming songs, but these are pretty rare – almost all songs use rhyme in some way. For the songwriter, rhyming your lyrics really goes with the gig. And if you’re writing in the English language, pretty soon you run into the universal songwriter’s problem: all the best rhymes have been used.

A large part of the craft of writing songs is the ability to be a problem-solver, and rhyming could be viewed as a simple word puzzle, where our task is to find the solution. Let’s say you want to convey a classic song idea such as “You’re the one I love”. There are only three ‘perfect’ rhymes available for the word ‘love’, and they are ‘glove’, ‘above’ and ‘dove’, all of which have been so heavily used by songwriters for hundreds of years that they’re near impossible to use without sounding clichéd. One solution is to choose a ‘forced’ rhyme that doesn’t quite work so well, such as rhyming ‘love’ with ‘enough’ or ‘of’. This works some of the time, but again it’s a well-known rat run for songwriters. The love/of rhyme appears in thousands of songs, such as the 1928 jazz standard I Can’t Give You Anything But Love, Baby, which rhymes the title phrase with the slightly tortuous ‘That’s the only thing I’ve plenty of, baby’.

And these rhyme challenges are the same for all of us. The word ‘heart’ is the only really useful noun in English that works as a decent metaphor for ‘feeling’, ‘spirit’, ‘my emotional self’ etc. And the only useable rhymes (apart from the obvious rude one) are ‘start’, ‘art’, ‘smart’ and ‘part’, plus related two-syllable words such as ‘apart’ and ‘restart’. This limited palette is endlessly recycled by songwriters, but the Heart-shaped well shows no signs of drying up. The difficulty is that some of the rhymes can force the song into particular phrases. How many times have we heard ‘back to the start’, ‘tear us apart’ and ‘playing the part’? It’s a fine line between classic and predictable.

Sooner or later – usually sooner – every songwriter runs into what I like to call a Rhyme Trap. This is where you write one line, then end up actually changing the meaning of what you’re trying to say just because you need the next line to rhyme. The character in Oasis’s Supersonic seems pretty macho, and perhaps isn’t the kind of guy who would drink ‘gin and tonic’, but the rhyme works, and the phrase sings well, so Noel chooses singability and rhyme over meaning. He’s a bit of a serial offender – the character in She’s Electric has a ‘cousin’. In fact she’s got about a ‘dozen’. By the third line, the verse’s AAA triple-rhyme structure has run out of perfect rhymes, forcing the ending with ‘oven’ (this is called a double assonance rhyme, poetry fans).

So what’s a poor songwriter to do? Going back to our example, we could simply tweak the phrase ‘You’re the one I love’ until it reads ‘I’m in love with you’. This leaves us with the much easier problem of rhyming ‘you’. Suddenly our rhyme pallette is enormous, giving us well over 30 perfect rhymes including ‘blue’, ‘clue’, ‘do’, ‘shoe’, ‘through’, ‘to’, ‘view’ and ‘who’. Fleetwood Mac’s Big Love shows this technique in action; the song sidesteps the ‘love’ rhyme trap by putting the word in the middle of a line, so that the lyric reads ‘Looking out for love in the night so still / Oh I’ll build you a kingdom in that house on the hill’. No hands in gloves, turtle doves or skies above to be found here. So, if there’s no solution, change the problem. Or take those tricky rhymes and wobbl’em.

All You Gotta Do Is Sing – lyric processes in songwriting

This article originally appeared in Total Guitar magazine issue 225, March 2012. Reproduced by permission. Words: Joe Bennett. Illustration: Naomi Hocking. Click the image to download a pdf.

Lyrics are not poetry. And a poem is not a lyric. Poems have their own ‘music’, made by the natural rise and fall of the vowels, the rhythmic flow of the syllables and the breaks at the end of lines. As songwriters we can use melody to control how the audience receives our lyric. Melody has the power to give a few simple words a powerful emotional impact, in a way that neither a poem or an instrumental tune can achieve on its own. But how do we choose words that show our melodies in the best light?

To make a lyric singable, the vowels have to work properly. When a singer performs a song, the audience hears vowels more easily than consonants. Try singing the two-syllable word ‘calling’ over any two musical notes in the middle of your vocal range. Sing it out loud and long, and enjoy the feeling of those big vowels passing over your teeth. Now, using the same two notes, try doing the same with the word ‘quickest’. Doesn’t feel as good, does it? ‘Calling’ sings really well because the ‘aaaaa’ sound opens up your mouth and gives you a meaty vowel, whereas ‘quickest’ sounds unmusical because it contains more vocally restrictive vowels and tougher consonants, especially when you get to the ugly ‘st’ at the end of the word. And sure enough if you research the lyrics of any style of music, the word ‘calling’ is much more likely to appear than ‘quickest’, even though they’re both pretty common words. Songwriters tend to favour words with big vowels that avoid tongue-twisting combinations of hard consonants. As a rule of thumb, we should avoid sibilant words (with lots of ‘s’ and ‘t’ sounds) whenever we can.

And listeners prefer single-syllable words most of the time. Read that last sentence back and try to sing it. Whatever notes you choose, it all starts to come crashing down when you sing ‘listeners prefer single-syllable’, but the phrase ‘words most of the time’ sings really well. You can stretch a monosyllable out over lots of notes (this is called a ‘melisma’) – for example the word ‘fire’ in Kings of Leon’s Sex on Fire is spread over three notes – but it’s impossible to make a two-syllable word fit a single note. Overdoing melismas when they’re not needed is generally considered a crime against music, but let’s not lower the tone with talk of Mariah Carey.

Let’s test our syllable-count theory on a couple of classic songs. The Beatles’ We Can Work it Out opens with the lines ‘Try to see it my way / only time will tell if I am right or I am wrong’. That’s 18 words, 17 of which are monosyllables. Hey Joe begins with ‘Hey Joe / where you goin’ with that gun in your hand (x2) / I’m goin’ down to shoot my old lady, you know I caught her messin’ round with another man (x2)’ – 39 words, 34 monosyllables.

If lyrics are not poetry, neither are they the same thing as prose. This means you can take serious liberties with the English language and get away with it, as long as it sounds good when sung. Having melody on your side means you can say things in a lyric that are grammatically incorrect, such as Paul McCartney’s famous line “…ever-changing world in which we live in” (from Live and Let Die). You can cram in some dodgy rhymes, such as Kurt Cobain’s ‘self-assured / dirty word’ (from Smells Like Teen Spirit).You can make up words, as in ‘Pompitous of love’ (from Steve Miller’s The Joker). Or just use any old sounds. Be Bop A LulaNa Na NaNo DiggityGoo goo g’joob. And if the phrase sings well, it might notmatter if the song’s overall ‘story’ doesn’t make much sense, such as Deep Purple’s Black Night or Oasis’ Don’t Look Back In Anger. To misquote Duke Ellington, if it don’t mean a thing, all you gotta do is sing.

For the songwriter, the best and most obvious way to make a lyric singable is simply to sing it and see if it works. A lyric that looks great on the page may not work so well when you shine the cold light of melody upon it. Even if you’re not a singer yourself it’s worth singing out loud when you write – regardless of the quality or tuning, if you hear the words in context it’ll become obvious where the tweaks are needed. And if your lyric doesn’t read like the finest English poetry, no-one in the mosh-pit is going to complain.

Melodic shape in songwriting

This article originally appeared in Total Guitar magazine issue 224, February 2012. Reproduced by permission. Words: Joe Bennett. Illustration: Noami Hocking. Click the image to download a pdf.

If you ask songwriters how they create melodies, you’ll get a pretty vague answer. Something like ‘well, I just get inspired by the lyric’ or ‘it’s whatever sounds good when I sing it’. Of all the creative decisions we make when we write songs, melodic choices are perhaps the most mysterious. We don’t really know where they come from, so we sing whatever feels right and take it from there.

Many of us, as chord-literate guitarists, come to melody writing in this self-taught way, and on a good day it helps us to write melodies very freely and quickly. But on a bad day this instinctive approach can turn out meandering or predictable melodies, leaving us struggling to write something that the listener will remember. Sometimes the chords distract us from thinking about the all-important shape of our tune.

Songwriters who create melody are in control of two things – the pitch of the notes and the rhythm of the syllables. Every time we sing a note, the note that follows it can be higher, lower, or the same note. Movement between notes can be adjacent (scalic), as in ‘We don’t need no education’, or a larger leap (intervallic), as in ‘Rooooox…anne’. Think about the pitch shape of your songs: what are your habits? Do you tend to linger on one note, do you write scalically, or do you sing lots of ‘leaps’? What direction do your phrases usually take – starting high and descending, staying on one note, or rising from a low note to a higher one as you sing the line? These tendencies help to define your personal melodic writing style, so it’s worth listening back to your old demos to see if any patterns emerge.

And pitch is only one half of the melodic story. The way syllables fall against the beat (scansion) is an essential part of what makes the audience listen to a melody. Let’s say we were working on the lyric “I’m falling through the sky”. One obvious setting of this line would be for ‘I’m’ and ‘sky’ to be long syllables, and all the other syllables to be short, much as if we were speaking the phrase in conversation. But that’s just one approach. We could ‘run up’ to the final word with a lot of very short syllables, before screaming the word ‘sky’ to the heavens on a single long high note. Or we could play around with the word ‘falling’ so that its big ‘fall’ syllable descended over several notes, stretched over the vowel. (There’s songwriting fun to be had here writing a descending melody over the word ‘falling’). There are dozens of other rhythmic interpretations, for this and every other lyric, and the first idea we try may not necessarily be the best.

A strong melody needs to strike a balance between complexity and simplicity, and it needs to sound good when sung with the words. If your lyric is very wordy, with lots of storytelling and imagery, you might want the pitches of the melody to be fairly static. Take the verse of Bob Dylan’s Subterranean Homesick Blues. Its machine-gun syllables deliver complex lyrics at high speed using a one-note melody. Contrast this with the chorus of Pearl Jam’s Alive. The lyric ‘Oh I, oh, I’m still alive’ is sung over a complete octave from E to E, and these six vowel-heavy words are stretched out over two whole bars.

So what happens if you don’t like the melody you’ve written – when you feel you’re stuck in a rut? One way out is to try a new method and see what happens. If you usually write melodies by singing over strummed chord changes, and you’re finding that your melodies seem a bit static or unadventurous, try using a keyboard to suggest bigger intervals. If vocal improvising over chords isn’t working for you, try speaking the lyric out loud without music – the natural rise and fall of the vowels might suggest a melody and its rhythm (my favourite example of this is Paul Simon’s ‘Old Friends / sat on their park bench like bookends’ – say it out loud and you can hear the melody within it). And if you can’t get the lyric to scan properly, try singing it over a drum loop to make the scansion more naturally rhythmic. As with all songwriting, process can affect product – so it can be fun to experiment and discover how different starting points might stimulate your creative brain.

Getting started with intros

This article originally appeared in Total Guitar magazine issue 223, January 2012. Reproduced by permission. Words: Joe Bennett. Illustration: Noami Hocking. Click the image to download a pdf.

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Ah, the song’s finished. That last tricky rhyme in the bridge is complete, and that bit of the chorus that was just slightly too dull has now been fixed with a magnificent melodic flourish. Ready to record the demo, and take it to the band to rehearse it up for the next gig. So how does it start? The verse goes Am, F, Am, F – just keep strumming until you’re ready to sing, right?

Well, you could do it this way. But have you ever known anyone listen to a song and say ‘I love that bit at the start when he strums those open chords before the vocal comes in’? Think about the intro from any well-loved guitar classic – Guns ‘n’ Roses’ Sweet Child ‘o’ Mine, Hendrix’s Purple Haze or Metallica’s Enter Sandman for example. Every one of these is instantly recognisable from the opening bar, usually because of a great riff, unusual effect or extra melody. The Doors’ Light My Fire certainly starts with some quirky chords (G, D, F, Bb, C#, Ab, A) but the melodic arpeggios of Ray Manzarek’s organ part turn an inspiring sequence into a masterpiece.

So, assuming we all agree that interesting intros are better than dull intros, how do we write a good one? It could be said that there are five categories of intro, which I refer to as ‘riff till ready’, ‘steal the chorus’, ‘no relation’, ‘take a break’ and ‘straight to the point’.

Riff till ready is perhaps the most common type in rock, and it’s popular because it gives your audience something exciting right from the start. Riffs can be based on the chords of other sections of the song (e.g. Blur’s Song 2 or Alice in Chains’ Them Bones) or they can be original material (e.g. The Rolling Stones’ Honky Tonk Women). There are various approaches you can take to writing riffs (see TG217) but the most important rules are to keep it simple and don’t be afraid to repeat it.

Stealing the chorus is all about playing a trick on the audience. If your intro is based on the chorus melody or chords, the ‘real’ chorus will seem more familiar to the listener, helping them to remember it more easily. You can get away with just playing the chords (Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit, for example) but it’s usually more engaging if you use the chorus chords as a template to give you ideas for a riff or melodic line.

Some intros bear no relation to the parent song, so can be a completely different piece of music. We’ve already looked at Light My Fire, and there are many other classics with intros that are more famous than the song; the intro riff of Paranoid disappears once the verse begins; Johnny B Goode provides 12 bars of double-stopped excitement and is never heard from again. And what about the guitar itself? If you can make your guitar sound more interesting it’s more likely that the intro will stand out. Eddie Van Halen has used a flanger (Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love); Paul Simon, a capo (Scarborough Fair); Keith Richards, an open tuning (Brown Sugar); and the Edge, a delay (Where The Streets Have No Name).

And just because we’re all guitarists, that doesn’t mean we have to take the intro every time. U2’s Sunday Bloody Sunday, Paul Simon’s 50 Ways To Leave Your Lover, Radiohead’s High and Dry and ZZ Top’s Gimme All Your Lovin’ give the drummers a moment in the sun – plus an opportunity for you to tune up, get your bottleneck ready, apply a capo or take a sneaky drink on stage. And you don’t have to rely on the drummer if you want to take a break. Take a listen to The Animals’ We Gotta Get Out of This Place – not only does bassist Chas Chandler provide a memorable 4-bar intro riff before the vocal comes in, he keeps it going for a further 8 bars before the guitar part enters.

And if you’re out of ideas, who says you need an intro? Certainly not Queen (Fat Bottomed Girls, We Are the Champions), Don McLean (American Pie, Vincent) or Iron Maiden (Can I Play With Madness?). Other artists that have been known to get straight to the point include Elvis Presley (Hound Dog, Heartbreak Hotel), The Pretenders (Stop Your Sobbing) and The Beatles (All My Lovin’, Hey Jude, Help!, Can’t Buy Me Love, She Loves You). Sometimes having a brilliant song and a world-class singer is all you need. You had me at hello.

What’s in a name? Ideas from titles

This article originally appeared in Total Guitar magazine issue 222, December 2011. Reproduced by permission. Words: Joe Bennett. Illustration: Noami Hocking. Click the image to download a pdf.

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Writing a complete lyric is a big job. You’ve got to think about your characters, the imagery you’re using, and the timeframe and location of the song’s ‘action’, before you even start on the technical stuff like syllable count and rhyming. But writing a title on its own is easy – it’s only a few words after all. And for some people it’s the perfect way in to the songwriting process.

Think for a moment about any song you like, and focus on its title. Is it interesting on its own? If it’s quirky and unusual, does it ‘draw you in’ to the world of meaning provided by the lyric? If it’s a cliché does it still sound authentic when sung? Does it help to summarise the overall meaning of the lyric? Titles can be a very powerful way of getting listeners to engage with a song, but they can also help us to write songs by providing that essential early spark of an idea, on which we can build a complete lyric.

Rhythm guitar – a bad habit?

This article originally appeared in Total Guitar magazine issue 220, November 2011. Reproduced by permission. Words: Joe Bennett. Illustration: Noami Hocking. Click the image to download a pdf of the article.

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This is a songwriting column, and we’re all guitarists. So it stands to reason that we’re writing songs on guitar, doesn’t it? But much as we love our instrument, it may be quietly restricting our creativity.

We all want to write songs that are original, interesting and unusual, and that’s not easy with such a popular instrument. Looking for a new and inspiring chord? Every combination of four fingers and six strings across four frets (or five if you’re feeling athletic) has already been tried. Need a new chord sequence? Every variation of the basic open major and minor chords already appears in a song somewhere.

Live blogging Eurovision 2012

22:16 – Live blog now complete. If you’re reading this there’s no need to hit refresh now. If you’re not reading this, the current sentence may not be available to you.

[This is a live blog – hit ‘refresh’ in your browser throughout the evening. 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, as always, fail) to pick a winner. I never listen to the songs before the show, so these are all first impressions.]

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22:06 – voting about to begin

OK I’m going to predict my top 3. I promise not to change these as the voting patterns become clear – you can check the post dates! So as last year, I’m going to commit, and then leave my inevitable wrongness online for the world to see forever!

EUROVISION WINNER PREDICTIONS 2012

  1. Sweden – Euphoria
  2. Germany – Standing Still
  3. Russia – Party for Everybody

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[edit] ACTUAL EUROVISION WINNERS 2012

  1. Sweden – Euphoria
  2. Russia – Party for Everybody
  3. Serbia – Nije ljubav Stvar

[end of edit]

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21:59 – Moldova – Lautar – 51%

Finally, a song with a gratuitous forced key change at the end. Lots of fun, this, but I’m not sure the lyric phrase ‘this trumpet makes you mine girl’ will enter the European zeitgeist anytime soon. There are some great melodies on the fiddles. I enjoyed singing along to this, but it’s not sophisticated or contemporary enough, even for Eurovision.

Song vs Track – the Picture and the Frame

This article originally appeared in Total Guitar magazine issue 219, October 2011. Reproduced by permission. Words: Joe Bennett. Illustration: Christian Ward. Click the image to download a pdf of the article.

Do you have a favourite song? Do you know why you like it? We all have favourite tracks, of course, but if someone asks us why we like a particular song – that is, the words, melody and chords – we find it difficult to give an answer. Often we’ll talk about where we were when we heard the track: going to school, falling in love, going on holiday, passing an exam or getting a new job. And tracks are great for evoking these memories. But tracks and songs are not the same thing.