Lana Del Love Theme #plagiarism? #songwriting #cryptomnesia

First 8 pitches. Lana is in Bbm. Nino is in Gm. Otherwise the same, at least in pitch terms. Could be cryptomnesia. Thanks to the eagle-eared Simon Troup of Digital Music Art for finding this one.



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.

When web democracy fails – Wikipedia and Musipedia

[addendum – I’m delighted to say that Dr Typke has replied to the blog post personally, with a very interesting point about the development of Musipedia – click on ‘comments‘ at the bottom of the post to see it]

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.