A Little Bit of Theory – Part 1

Let’s start at the very beginning…

To appreciate the art and craft of songwriting to its fullest, it helps to have a grasp of one or two concepts from the field of music theory. I intend the following to bring you the reader to the level of ‘keen bluffer’ if indeed you are not already of such a standard. If you are already a keen bluffer (or perhaps even a ‘nonchalant expert’), I highly recommend doing something far more fruitful with your time than reading the remainder of this section. Go ahead and fruit. If not, or you feel you need a refresher, then read on. It shouldn’t be too painful.

The only prior understanding required for what follows here is a familiarity with the Do-Re-Mi-Fa-So-La-Te-Do musical scale and how it sounds (you may find yourself singing it later on), and an appreciation of the notes which comprise the musical alphabet (A, B, C, D, E, F and G – there, you’re already more knowledgable than you were when you started).

Intervals, semitones, tones

Much study of music is based on the relative musical distances between different notes. These distances are, entirely unintuitively known as intervals, (and have sadly nothing to do with the interval we all know and love, i.e the one which involves ice-cream.) We might use intervals to investigate how the notes of a successful melody relate to each other as they proceed one after the other (as a series of melodic intervals), or how the notes of a blissful chord are stacked up on top of each other to create harmony (harmonic intervals).

The two smallest and immediately useful intervals to get us started are the semitone and the tone.

The semitone constitutes the smallest musical step it’s possible to take on a piano keyboard or guitar fretboard (I use these examples advisedly as neither instrument easily allows its player to access ‘the notes between the notes’ as other instruments do, the violin for example.) So moving up or down a single fret on a guitar, or a single key on a keyboard (black and white notes included) would be to move by the interval of a semitone. Luckily for me, I need not labour the point too much further as you will most likely be very familiar already with the humble semitone, whether you know it or not. You need listen no further than that most famously pant-wetting pair of musical notes which open the main theme from the film Jaws. Those two alternating notes (E and F), which speed up to a maddening intensity and have become international shorthand for ‘for heaven’s sake, get out of the water now’… are a semitone apart.

If we were to continue the series of semitones on our chosen instrument, we would hit 12 uniquely named notes, known collectively as the chromatic scale, and individually as per the keyboard diagram below.

piano-keyboard-keys

Here you can see clearly the arrangement of the notes of the musical alphabet across the white notes of the keyboard. As you are of the observant persuasion I’m sure you’ll notice furthermore that the pattern repeats in a strict order. You may even spot that each white note has its own unique position among the familiar pattern of black notes. For example, the note ‘D’ (and there are plenty of them evenly spread up and down the keyboard) is always to be found between the black notes arranged as a pair (rather than between any two of those in the trio of black notes). Beginner pianists will have been taught one of a number of ways to remember the note positions (e.g. “D is in the Dog House”), and from here can go on to work out the positions of the other notes with relative ease. You’ll be pleased to hear that the positions of the notes will be equally true whether you’re sitting at a piano in Durban or Derby.

The # symbol, now far more commonly known as the hashtag, has believe it or not a far longer history in the world of music as the sharp symbol. The other potentially unfamiliar symbol, which looks uncannily like a lower-case B is known as the flat symbol, though when its written properly is a little more flouncy. As you can see, sharp notes (or simply, “sharps”) are always to the right (i.e. up the keyboard, higher in pitch) than the note from which they take their name.

Conversely, flats are always one note to the left (i.e. down the keyboard, lower in pitch) than their namesakes. Therefore each black note on the keyboard has two names. Like Elton John. (Reg Dwight to his friends, plumber, accountant etc)

Hopefully the final thing you’ll have gleaned from your intense study of the musical keyboard is that some white notes do not have corresponding sharps (namely B and E), and similarly others lack corresponding flats (C and F). Deal with it.

Where a note is played without it being sharpened, or flattened, it is said to be natural. Makes sense. What makes perhaps slightly less sense is that sharps and flats are also known as accidentals, presumably as they are constantly making musicians stumble, fall and require medical attention.

sharp_flat_natural
Sharp, flat and natural symbols

Oh… and a tone equals two semitones. There… far more straight forward. So, in the pursuit of a note one tone above another, a pianist would play the note two semitones away from the original note, encountering black keys and white keys alike, and a guitarist would move two frets up (i.e. toward the body of the guitar). If you’d like for the sake of completeness to know what one of those sounds like… then imagine in your mind’s ear (a very handy tool to have in these situations) the first two notes of Strangers In The Night… i.e the notes that the two syllables of the word “strangers” sit on. There!

Scales

We can arrange specific combinations of these tone and semitone building blocks to create different musical scales, which you can think of as the set of notes around which songs are based, or a note-palette if you will. Scales are often one of the first pieces of music theory that instrumental students get to (or fail to get to) grips with in practice. If we arrange our recently befriended intervals in the following order…

Tone – Tone – Semitone – Tone – Tone – Tone – Semitone

…then we get the notes of the major scale (i.e. the familiar Do – Re – Mi – Fa – So – La – Te – Do pattern). Regardless of which note we start on, if we follow that pattern, we will hear the familiar, generally jovially mannered major scale. For example, if you were to begin on the note C at the piano (the root note, or ‘tonic‘ of the scale), then you’d form the C Major Scale by playing…

C   D   E   F   G   A   B   C

…all the white notes from one C note to the next C note on the keyboard.

You can test the formula out by singing up the scale Do – Re – Mi – Fa and then repeating Mi – Fa – Mi – Fa… now see how long it takes before you start to feel the eerie presence of a certain shark as you alternate between these two notes, a semitone apart. Or you could try singing the first five notes of the scale ‘Do – Re – Mi – Fa – So’ and seeing if any gritty London-based soap operas come to mind. The one you’re hopefully thinking of happens to feature the first five notes of the major scale, in ascending order, right there for you on a musical plate.

To get serious for a moment, it’s important to know that each scale is ‘spelt’ such that it only features each note of the musical alphabet once, (not counting the repetition of the root-note which really just satisfies our need for things to be nicely rounded off.)

With that in mind, let’s try another example, this time beginning on the note G. The resultant major scale (G Major, of course) would look as follows…

G   A   B   C   D   E   F#   G

A piano player here would need to play the black note one semitone higher than the F note to maintain the correct tone / semitone formula for the major scale. Likewise, a guitarist would have to play one fret higher in order to sharpen the F note. Either way, we have added one accidental, in this case a sharp to find ourselves firmly playing the G Major scale.

Some scales require notes in the sequence to be flattened rather than sharpened, to sound correct and to maintain the correct scale spelling. F Major for instance can only be expressed as follows… F G A Bb C D E F. No scale yet known to man features both sharps and flats. The thought!

The formula for the more melancholic minor scale (using exactly the same building blocks, just in a different order), is as follows…

Tone – Semitone – Tone – Tone – Semitone – Tone – Tone

I will offer two examples here which have relevance to the C Major Scale. The first, C Minor as the name suggests, begins on the same note, and in fact features some of the same notes elsewhere in the scale too, but as we’ll later discover has one particularly significant alteration. The notes of this scale are C, D, Eb, F, G, Ab, Bb, C. Certainly as far as keyboard players are concerned, this is a trickier scale to master as it involves those pesky accidentals too. These two scales are said to be parallel in nature (i.e. C Minor is the parallel minor of C Major). By far the easiest minor scale for the keyboard player is the A Minor scale, as it too features only the white notes of the keyboard, but starting with A, rather than C, i.e.

A   B   C   D   E   F   G   A

The scale of A Minor is therefore said to be the relative minor of C Major, and vice-versa.

While popular songs and classical music are obviously very different in many respects, pop songs tend to be written from one of the two starting points above (major or minor), in the same way that classical music often does. There are other flavours of scale (called modes) which are formed using different combinations of tones and semi-tones. Each one adds some kind of nuance to a major or minor base, like putting mustard in your ham sandwich.

Each degree of the scale has a specific name, not all of which are particularly intuitive. For the record, they are follows.

1 – Tonic

2 – Supertonic

3 – Mediant

4 – Subdominant

5 – Dominant

6 – Submediant

7 – Leading note

The most important ones for our purposes are the tonic (also often called the root, or “home” of the scale) and the dominant which is the note of the 5th degree of the scale, and is the “away” to the “home” of the tonic, as we’ll see later.

Key signatures

Good, now that’s out of the way, let’s press on. The key signature of a piece of music is an expression of the musical scale around which the music is based and therefore tells the performer(s) which notes he/she/they will more than likely be needing, I.e. which scale they will play (major, minor) and which note will be used as the root of this scale.

When music is written down formally, the key signature is written at the beginning of the piece or section. When pop musicians get together and jam, they have to agree on which key signature they will use as a starting point, giving them one less thing to argue about later on when they’re famous. “Let’s play something slow in G Major” for instance. In either case, the musicians will know that they’d best avoid playing an F natural, or they may find themselves quickly back in their old job.

When musicians begin learning an instrument, particularly keyboard instruments, they tend to begin playing in ‘easy keys’ for their instrument. The key of C Major for instance is a favourite among teachers of beginner keyboard and piano players as it involves no sharps or flats i.e. the white notes, C, D, E, F, G, A and B (whereafter the pattern repeats an octave higher).

More intervals

Let’s return to our discussion of intervals now. Both semitones and tones are known as steps, and a melody which moves up or down by either one is known as step-wise .The largest interval we’ve discussed so far is the tone, but often, particularly when discussing harmony, we’ll need to refer to intervals larger than a tone, drawing on what we know about scales and key signatures.

If we lay out a musical scale in front of us, then each note has a different distance (or interval) to the root note (the note after which the scale is named. For example, in the key of C Major, the interval between scale degrees 1 and 2 (i.e. Do – Re, or C – D) is known as a 2nd. The interval between scale degrees 1 and 5 (i.e. Do – So, or C – G) is known as a 5th and so on. Oddly, the interval between scale degrees 1 and 8 is known as a octave. (You can kind of see why… octopus, octagon etc, but still…)

Depending on the exact relationship between the note and it’s reference point, the interval will take on one of three main qualities (perfect, major or minor), and more rarely one of these (augmented, diminished). Within the major scale, the rules are that the 4th and 5th (C – F and C – G) intervals from the root note (C), are perfect. They sound pure and unemotional, whereas the 3rd interval (C – E) has a major quality (4 semitones to be precise), which is largely why the scale sounds its jolly self. The 2nd, 6th and 7th intervals are of a similarly major quality, though these have less of a bearing of the overall emotional feel of the scale. Conversely in a minor scale, while the 4th and 5th intervals remain perfect, the 3rd interval is a minor interval (C – Eb, 3 semitones), and its this which to a large extent makes the minor scale sound the way it does.

The Circle of Fifths

So where is all this leading? If only there was some neat way to represent all of this complex information about different key signatures in a clear(ish) and concise way. Well, look no further than the natty little graphic below, the circle of fifths. Named partly on account on it fitting almost uncannily into a circle (and a clock-face at that), and also due to the fact that each key signature around the circle is a perfect 5th interval from its nearest neighbour.

Circle of Fifths Image.001As you can see from the diagram, C Major (and it’s musical brethren A minor) are at the top of the circle and require the use of no sharps (#) or flats (b). Hence if you were to play the following series of adjacent white notes C D E F G A B C, on a musical keyboard (and I highly recommend that you do), you’ll hear the C Major scale. You’ll then feel the irresistible compulsion to start singing a song about a female deer, and drops of golden sun. Trust me, you will.

As you go round the circle in a clockwise direction from C Major at the top, you’ll see that more and more sharps are added to each key signature. So the key of E Major for instance has 4 sharps, and it’s scale would be played thus… E F# G# A B C# D# E. Go and find a piano this instant and try it out. Again, your mind will be flooded with images of deer and raindrops and names that you call yourself and this is because the notes follow the same pattern of tones and semitones as all the other major scales, as we discussed earlier. Exactly which notes need to be sharpened is shown on the circle, determined by a pattern for which a range of bawdy acronyms have been devised involving Father Christmas and exploding electric blankets.

All kinds of interesting things can be gleaned from representing the different key signatures like this. For example, if we look at a particular key signature, then those which are scattered nearby (i.e. the relative major / minor, and those of the adjacent keys either side) form a nice little palette of chords which can be used to create harmony for a song. If we look at the key of C Major, we can see that A Minor, G Major, E Minor, F Major and D Minor are all within reach, and as such could all play their part in a song’s chord sequence.

The circle also neatly sets out the extent to which different keys are related. We already know that the keys of C Major and A Minor share all their notes (as they are relative keys). The Keys of C Major and G Major have all but one note in common as they are directly adjacent (i.e. 12 o’clock and 1o’clock respectively). This could give the songwriter clues about which keys could work together in different sections of a song. The further away you jump around the circle for your new section, the more drastic (and potentially awkward) it is likely to sound. For similar reasons, a very close variation of the circle of fifths is used by many DJs to help them make decisions when blending songs in a musical way, avoiding musical clashes.

Chords

Of course, its not all about melody, wholesome though they may be. We all need somebody to lean on, and in the case of music, melody more often than not needs something to underpin it, have its back, when the going gets tough etc etc. Enter the chord. Chords are combinations of notes played simultaneously. Chords are often comprised of three notes (and are known as triads if this is the case). There are a few different flavours of triad chord, each of which has its own specific feel. The two most common are major and minor chords. Both chords feature a root note, which is the note the chord is named after, and a fifth which is appropriately a perfect 5th interval above the root. The other note sits somewhere in between and is known as the third. As you may have ascertained, it is this note which gives our chord its specific flavour.

Major chords are built from an interval of four semitones between the root note and the third, and then a further interval of three semitones between the third and the fifth. So a C Major chord would comprise the notes C E and G, in ascending order of pitch. If you refer back to the piano diagram above you’ll notice that these notes are each separated from the next by one intervening note (D and F).

Conversely, minor chords are built from an interval of three semitones between the root note and the third, and then a further interval of four semitones between the third and the fifth. So a C Minor chord would comprise the notes C, Eb and G. You’ll note that the root note and the fifth are the same in these chords, with the third changing only by one semitone, but creating drastically different emotional whack.

Two other common triads are the diminished triad (three semitones and another three semitones), and the augmented triad (four semitones and another four semitones). These triads are lesson common in popular music, though can be used to different shades of tension and release if deployed sensibly.

Triads can be tweaked, inverted, manipulated and generally man-handled to create all kinds of different effects within a song, and different instruments will generate different ‘voicings‘ of these chords by virtue of the way the instrument is generally played. As an example, most triads played on a guitar (having 6 strings) will include some notes of the chord more than once, potentially in different octaves.

Harmonising scales

Just as the key signature tells us which notes to choose from to create a melody, it also tells us which to use for our chords too. By building chords on each note (or degree) of the major scale, we create a palette of chords which can be guaranteed to work well musically in a sequence (commonly known as a chord progression) in the chosen key. Below are the chords which comprise the harmonised C Major scale.

C Major – D Minor – E Minor – F Major – G Major – A Minor – B Dim

By virtue of the arrangement of tones and semitones (with which we are of course now eminently familiar), three of the chords created are major chords, three are minor, and one (there’s always one) is diminished.

Just like the “formula” of tones and semitones to create a major scale, this pattern also holds true of all major keys. With that in mind, we could (and indeed shall) write out the harmonised major scale using roman numerals to replace the specific root notes above, a bit like replacing specific numbers with letters (like x, y and z) in algebra, but the other way around.

I Major – ii Minor – iii Minor – IV Major – V Major – vi Minor – vii Dim

Again, as you are no doubt incredibly observant, you will notice that the major chords have capitalised numerals, while the minor and diminished chords have lower case numerals. The three major chords are also known as the primary chords of the key, and these can be easily related to the primary colours of visual art, as they constitute the simplest and boldest choices when devising a chord progression. The relationship between the V chord (aka. the dominant chord) and the I chord (aka. the tonic chord) forms the basis of much popular and classical music, more blatantly in some cases than others, and derives its power from the tension which is created by the V chord as it desperately seeks to be resolved by the I chord.

As you might expect, the minor scale can also be harmonised in the same way, though you may not have expected that there are in fact different types of minor scale, just to add a little spice to things. Since we’re dealing with the process of harmonisation, it makes sense to use what’s known as the harmonic minor scale to generate our chords.

i Minor – ii Dim – III Augmented – iv Minor – V Major – VI Major – vii Dim

The other main types of minor scale are the melodic minor scale and the natural minor scale, but the main advantage of the harmonic minor scale is the major chord on the 5th (or Vth?) degree of the scale, as this generates a very strong sense of momentum back to the tonic (i) chord.

Songs that get me every time

This blog is so named as an acknowledgement of that special power that some songs possess, to give us an intense emotional jolt. Songs at their best are revelatory, in all sorts of ways. They make us laugh, cry (or both), present us with truths we never even knew we didn’t know, shocking, inspiring or merely entertaining us, but always revealing to us something no matter how small, about ourselves.

I thought I would take stock of some songs that definitely get me every time, or at least did at one one time, get me every time… for a time.

White Wine In The Sun – Tim Minchin

I don’t tend to go in for overtly ‘funny’ music. Tim Minchin however expertly mixes music and comedy, and his writing is so expertly crafted that I can’t help making an exception.

Being from Australia, Minchin’s song is if nothing else, a good reminder that not everywhere is a snow-covered winter wonderland at Christmas (as if Band Aid’s ‘Do They Know Its Christmas?’ hadn’t made it clear enough).

Beyond that though, its possessed of a lovely conversational tone.

“I really like Christmas, its sentimental I know, but I just really like it.”

…and it certainly chimes (pun 100% intended) with my own feelings about Christmas. There is a neat juxtaposition between cynicism in the verses,

“and yes, I have all of the usual objections to consumerism, the commercialisation of an ancient religion…”

and the choruses which acknowledge Christmas as a time for family.

“I’ll be seeing my Dad, my brothers and sisters my Gran and my Mum, they’ll be drinking white wine in the sun.”

But its the bridge and what happens afterwards which is the real sucker-punch for me, where the lyrics shift focus from Minchin himself, to his daughter Violet.

“And you, my baby girl, my jet-lagged infant daughter… when you’re twenty-one or thirty-one, and Christmas comes around, and you find yourself nine thousand miles from home. You’ll know what ever comes, your brothers and sisters and me and your mum will be waiting for you in the sun.”

The music knowingly brings out the emotive big guns which give these lyrics a little extra push (as if that were needed).

I could go on, but I’d rather you just give it a listen yourself and hopefully you’ll see what I mean. It may do nothing for you, but at least we can say we tried. So, rather than labour the point, I’ll leave you with a list of other notable emotion-jerkers (in my humble opinion) on various subjects including time, friendship, war, love and murdering superstars. Some are fairly obvious in their mode of emotional manipulation, others perhaps not, but all for me represent something special in terms of lyrical and musical writing that has at one point or another, reduced me to little more than a blubbing fool.

The Right Moment – Gerry Rafferty

One Minute – Judie Tzuke

Friends of Ours – Elbow

Harry Patch (In Memory Of) – Radiohead

1952 Vincent Black Lightning – Richard Thompson

If The World Ends – Guillemots

Don’t Give Up – Peter Gabriel

Lover You Should’ve Come Over – Jeff Buckley

Laura – Bat For Lashes

 

There… I’m sure there are plenty more, and I’m sure I’ll write more about such things as this blogs continues. All the songs mentioned above can be found here.

Bibliography

True, E (2014) “White Wine in the Sun by Tim Minchin – a Christmas song for the non-believers.” Online at https://www.theguardian.com/music/2014/dec/23/white-wine-in-the-sun-by-tim-minchin-a-christmas-song-for-the-non-believers

“Moments Passed” UKSC 2018 Finalist!

IMG_0491

Earlier this year I entered four songs into the UKSC 2018 songwriting competition and I’m pleased to announce that one of them, ‘Moments Passed’ was a finalist in the Adult Contemporary category, scoring 9 out of 10, a score which apparently only one or two percent of the entrants into a particular category are awarded.   

So, I thought I would share some thoughts on the writing of this song. Here’s the demo I submitted.

I’m sure I’m not the first person, (particularly one of a mid-to-late-thirties vintage) to write a song about getting older, and though I often brush off thoughts around the ageing process, it can’t help but rear its little head on occasion. The lyrics perhaps exaggerate my own take on things a little, and its often interesting to write from a more extreme (or indeed totally opposing) point of view from one’s own. Anyway, that’s my story and I’m sticking to it. The song was conceived at the piano, with the chord sequence and melody materialising first.

Without wishing to sound too much like a music teacher (difficult, I am one after all) the song has a compound meter (i.e. beats with three sub-divisions, “1 – and – a – 2 – and – a – ” etc.) I don’t write too much in this meter, although when I do I often find lyrics are easier to sit over this meter than simple meter (where the best divides into equal halves). I have on occasion written lyrics with a compound meter in mind, only to squeeze them into 4 / 4 at a later stage.

Lyrically, each verse comprises a snapshot of life at a particular age. The first verse sums up the sense of foreverness felt by a young person, with seemingly limitless time to idly dream about the future.

Verse 1

We could easily sit here all evening, thinking up things to believe in, just to watch them dissolve.

We just might have laid there all night, just talking until it was light then forget everything that we’d said.

The second verse is written from the point of view of the same character a number of years on, looking back with a mixture of regret and fondness.

Verse 2

I could easy think of a million details that I would do different, if I could have my time again.

But I’d still raise my glass to those days with time on our hands just to chase our tails as the seasons rolled on.

The choruses continue the rueful retrospection. The second chorus is twice the length of the first (a favourite technique of mine), the second half adding further weight to the cautionary tale.

Chorus 2

I still can’t believe I just didn’t see, the things that I’d longed for were already passing by me.

I wouldn’t be told, as I watched it unfold, the sunlight would fade out so soon as the evening took hold.

Evening takes hold.

There then comes an instrumental break across both the verse and chorus progressions. The final verse acts as short coda to the track with a sparser arrangement, the lyrics are again from the point of that same character, now much older, thinking about the people they’ve known over the years.

Verse 3

I should call all of those people, that I not so long ago needed, before its too late in the day.

Musically, the song is fairly simple. The chord progression is an example of me trying to push my chordal writing into more interesting territory. Here is a basic representation of the chords, created using the excellent iReal Pro.

Moments Passed Chords

For the modally inclined, the verses have a largely Dorian feel (i.e. the natural minor key of C Minor but with an sharpened 6th (A natural) to put the modal cat among the… tonality pigeons). The final chord in each verse line is the parallel major of the first (i.e. C Major and C Minor), which I hope sounds just nicely unexpected, preceding a sombre dip in the 3rd of the chord from major back to minor as the line begins its second repetition. When the chorus does come round, rather than dip again, the progression continues to lift (harmonically, if not so much lyrically) as it moves up a semitone from C Major to Db Major and through via Eb6 up to F Major. I’ve pondered in retrospect how these chords might be analysed from a functional harmony perspective. Even as their writer I feel there are a few different ways to make sense of them. If anyone fancies engaging in some analysis on my behalf, do feel free! Either way, as is often the case, I can’t 100% recall how I happened upon this particular progression. Most likely it came from me ‘noodling’ at the piano until something that sounded nice occurred (which probably sums a larger proportion of what constitutes songwriting than many songwriters would care to reveal).

Sonically, for the demo I was trying to get somewhere near Beck (Morning), Damien Rice perhaps, and I’m sure there are plenty of other influences in there that I’m less consciously aware of.

The song is destined to appear on the next full length release by Divisions where many of my songs end up.

What exactly is a song anyway? Part 1: Duration

[All the songs mentioned below can be listened to here]

Much debate (often in the pub, and not always of a particularly academic standard) has been had in the name of trying to answer the age-old question of just how long a song ought to be. Three and half minutes is a figure often touted, and by this metric alone (and many others you may argue), Britney Spears’ Baby One More Time has got it well and truly nailed. Well, that may be the case, but I suspect its more complicated than that.

A word on technology

In fact, song length in the early days of recorded pop music had as much to do with technology as it did any lofty artistic intentions. Seven-inch, 45 rpm vinyl singles could be considered the earliest widely available format at a price consumers could afford, and were breaking into the market at a time when teenagers were starting to find themselves with money in their pockets, and a new found freedom to squander listening to pop music. These records were the fuelling formats of the jukebox, and radio. (Winterson, 2003. p108).

“In November ’52 EMI launched the first 45s, and pop’s truest format – the firewood for future youth clubs, mobile discos and furtive fumbles at teenage parties – was born… the three- or four-minute playing time was much better suited to pop [than classical music].”  (Stanley, 2013)

Since those days, during which the medium itself imposed its own restrictions on the maximum feasible length of a song (leaving songwriters little choice but to comply if they wished their work to reach a wider audience), many new formats have come along, with varying degrees of longevity. Rapid advances in technology saw formats adapt and evolve to suit the song as it evolved away from the three-minute pop nuggets of the 50s and 60s to the sprawling rock epics of the 70s. In a Vox magazine article entitled A hit song is usually 3 to 5 minutes long. Here’s why, Kelsey McKinney analyses a body of data on song duration over the years, writing that…

“…the length of songs had its biggest jump, according to this data, between the ’60s and ’80s,” (McKinney, 2014)

However, technology’s impact has been muted in more recent years and the continued, massive changes in the way we consume our songs don’t appear to have had a particularly profound effect on prevailing duration, even now the constraints of physical media have been removed altogether. While it would be fair to say that in general songs have been getting longer, as McKinney points out…

“The average song length is still — even as the industry has evolved almost entirely to digital media — under five minutes.” (McKinney, 2014)

One constant, in the face of all this development has of course been radio, and in particular commercial radio, where longer songs mean that commercials (its raison d’être) are less frequent, making selling things that little bit more difficult. So important was it in the early days for a song to be suitably lean, that it could expect be cut short using that most imaginative of editing techniques, the fade-out.

To meet the demands of radio, or the limited runtime of one side of a vinyl single, they had to make the record fade out early. (Weir, 2014)

In fact, it turns out there lots more to the fade-out than might first meet the… ear. Check out the rest of Weir’s slate article here. Its brilliant.

Short Songs

I recently took it upon myself to engage in some (again, not incredibly scientific) investigation, into the lengths of some of the most popular songs of our time, and as a result of my amateur sleuthing, I can reveal that of the all time top 100 best-selling UK singles, no less than 13 come in at under three minutes. Furthermore, corroborating our discussion above regarding formats, of these 13, all but three date from 1965 or earlier (including five by The Beatles alone.) The three anomalies are the uncommonly brief Tainted Love by Soft Cell (1981), the epically concise You’re The One That I Want by John Travolta and Olivia Newton John (1978) and the temporally bijou Wannabe by The Spice Girls (1996), unlikely trio I’m sure you’ll agree.

On the subject, my particular favourite particularly short song (sadly missing from the top 100 list) is College by Animal Collective. After a pre-amble of some vocal and sonic befuddlement, it delivers a clear, and somehow liberating message which I’ll leave you to discover for yourself, just once, and then its all over. I suppose it could be argued that such a song, whose ideas don’t breathe and develop in the expected way is rather literally selling itself short. However, I will go out on a limb here and say that its brevity (53 seconds) plays a major part in its impact. Just as the more obvious musical elements (melody, harmony etc) are deployed to convey meaning in a song, so too I would argue can sheer duration. Much like a short-story when compared to a novel, when a message is simple, it doesn’t need hammering home using a thousand metaphors when eight words will do.

In skilful hands, short songs can pack a beautifully succinct punch, stripping away the fat of an already fairly streamlined form to even barer bones. As fellow blogger Gary Ewer puts it in his post entitled ‘Can Songs Be Too Short?’

Brevity in songwriting is often a blessing. The more succinctly you can communicate something through music, the more powerful the effect it will have on a listener. (Ewer, 2017)

Long Songs

At the other end of the scale, the longest song on the top 100 list is the original 1983 release of Blue Monday by New Order. At over seven minutes, the song was released on 12-inch vinyl single, a format adopted heavily in the dance music genre for its increased playing time. The 1988 re-release of the song was a more modest four minutes or thereabouts.

Other songs at this end of the scale, all edging six minutes plus in their fullest form, include Earth Song by Michael Jackson, Never Ever by All Saints (no, I hadn’t expected that either), and Get Lucky by Daft Punk, though as we’d expect, shorter edits of all three were made for radio-play.

Moving outside the top 100 for a moment, let’s take a look at couple of nonetheless incredibly successful examples, this time from the Led Zeppelin catalogue. Both Stairway to Heaven and Kashmir last 8 minutes, give or take a few seconds, both over twice the length of most “standard” pop songs. Daniel Rachel, in his amazing compendium of songwriting conversations, Isle of Noises explains…

“[Jimmy] Page’s designs would run to unorthodox lengths and were constructed in movements more usual in classical composition than pop music.” (Rachel, 2013, p153).

Jimmy Page himself in the same book recalls the band’s preference for slowly developing musical ideas as a track unfolds…

“I had very much the view that music could set the scene… ” (Ibid, p177)

and recounts how they were not driven by the desire to write songs of radio-friendly duration.

“… we weren’t actually writing music that was designed to go on the AM stations in the States at the time. You had FM, they were called the underground stations, and they would be playing whole sides of albums.” (Ibid, p178)

Finally on the long-song front, if you’ve got some time on your hands, I recommend giving Mother by Goldie a go. It takes a simple musical (arguably song-like) idea, and stretches it across a much longer time-frame. The track develops at such a pace as to feel almost static, and at 1 hour, 11 minutes and 53 second (yep, seriously!) you really have to mean business, but in the right frame of mind and with nothing in the diary, its a rewarding listen.  There are shorter versions, though oddly, this one is labelled the ‘radio edit’ on Spotify! Admittedly, this piece (see… I’m struggling to use the word song), probably pushes the boundaries of what most would consider to be a song in anything like the traditional sense, as would a number of other efforts in this, and related genres where anticipation and transcendence are valued above immediate impact.

Memory and perception

As Terry Pratchett put it…

The important thing is not how long your life is, but how long it seems. (Pratchett, 1992, p6)

So let’s turn now to the perception of time itself (blimey, that escalated quickly). I’m sure I’m not alone in feeling that my favourite pieces of music are over too quickly, and that my least favourites go on way too long. Shine On You Crazy Diamond by Pink Floyd for instance is around 13 minutes, yet to my ears the song and others like it seem to invoke some kind of time-warp whereby time passes by as if I were listening to just another three-minute romper, whereas in fact, even by the three minute point, the drummer’s not even taken his coat off. While the time for me feels like it flies, I’m sure there are plenty of people who will be looking for excuses to leave and get on with their lives even before the first chord change, and of course the old adage “time flies when you’re enjoying yourself” definitely holds just as true for music as it does for everything else. I fear though that there’s more to it than just how much we enjoy a song.

We are all no doubt aware of the somewhat elastic nature of our perception of time. I know that my own perception both on short and long term time-frames can be influenced such things as my mood, the amount of coffee (or beer) I’ve imbibed, my levels of alertness, stress, hunger etc, but it seems there something about the music itself which influences how we perceive it. Everyone’s favourite nihilist progressive rock extravaganza, Bohemian Rhapsody lasts 5 minutes 54 seconds, which is admittedly not short for a contender for “most successful song of all time” by any means, but for reasons I hitherto couldn’t quite fathom, I’d always thought about it as being much longer than it is. In his book on Music and Memory (called… wait for it… Music and Memory), Bob Snyder explains…

“What we perceive in a given amount of time to some extent determines our sense of the length of that time […] A time period filled with novel and unexpected events will be remembered as longer than an identical (in clock time) period filled with redundant or expected events. (Snyder, 2001, p213)

Let’s be honest, Bohemian Rhapsody is nothing if not “a time period filled with novel and unexpected events”. It has very much a through-composed structure, in that it features very little repetition, certainly much less than many a modern song, and lurches from one musical style, key and dynamic to the next with little warning. So, it turns out that I am remembering it as longer than it actually is as I was forced to process more incoming information than a more straight-forward song (including a good few Bis-mi-la’s and Scaramouches). Equally, I might recall a less musically involved song, (even of the same duration) as being shorter, as I don’t have to think about it quite as much.

A musical passage filled with repetitive events can seem, in retrospect, shorter than one filled with unpredictable events. (Ibid, p214)

As there’s just so much going on, its unlikely you’ll find yourself clock-watching at the time of listening. As Snyder says…

Duration as experienced tends to be the opposite of duration remembered. (Ibid, p214)

So while it might have flown by at the time, you might just feel looking back that you were under its spell longer than you actually were. Other research into memory in Snyder’s book would indicate that the first time we do something (say… go on a particular journey, or hear a song, particularly a complex one) it will feel longer than on subsequent repetitions of that thing. Its all rather fascinating.

Outro

Writing a song which feels right in terms of its length is a delicate balance. Good songwriters have always been keenly (if not always consciously) aware that their finely crafted musical ideas need adequate time to reveal and embed themselves in the listener’s consciousness, often through repetition albeit with subtle variation, yet they ought not be too late to the party, or leave too soon before they’ve been properly introduced. At the same time, great musical ideas certainly ought not outstay their welcome (to extend the ‘party’ metaphor), belabouring their point while everyone gets bored and goes home.

There are plenty of songs which do break the conventional pop song mold in terms of duration, and ultimately, as with so much else in life, it transpires that its not so much how long it is, its what you do with it that counts. Three minutes or even less is often all that’s needed to fully express and develop a simple song-worthy concept, if those minutes are put to good use with not a second wasted (a three minute song only has 180 of them after all). Conversely, “going long” can totally work if the content is worthy of the container it is looking to fill. As is the case with many forms of expression, some ideas are just too profound, some stories too twisty-turny to be curtailed.

Just for good measure, elsewhere in the same top 100 list I used to inform much of the above, you’ll find no less than eight Christmas songs, eight double A sides (if you’re not sure what these are, ask an old person), two versions of Mary’s Boy Child, two entries by Engelbert Humperdinck (again, ask an adult), one by Ken Dodd, one Ghostbusters Theme and a Gangnam Style. The UK music buying public’s taste it seems, is nothing if not eclectic.

Bibliography

Ewer, G. The Essential Secrets of Songwriting (Blog) – Online at https://www.secretsofsongwriting.com/

Longdon, V (2018) Why are pop songs 3 minutes long? – Classic FM article. Online at https://www.classicfm.com/discover-music/why-are-pop-songs-3-minutes/

McKinney, K (2014). A hit song is usually 3 to 5 minutes long. Here’s why. Vox Magazine. Online at https://www.vox.com/2014/8/18/6003271/why-are-songs-3-minutes-long

Mugan, C (2006) The 12-inch single: When size really matters. Independent article. Online at https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/music/features/the-12-inch-single-when-size-really-matters-6096741.html

Myers, J (2018) The best-selling singles of all time on the Official UK Chart. Online at http://www.officialcharts.com/chart-news/the-best-selling-singles-of-all-time-on-the-official-uk-chart__21298/

Pratchett, T (1992) Truckers. London: Ladybird

Rachel, D (2013) Isle of Noises London: Picador

Snyder, B (2001) Music and Memory, An Introduction MA: MIT Press

Stanley, B (2009) You spin me right round – Online at https://www.theguardian.com/music/2009/mar/27/45rpm-vinyl-singles

Stanley, B (2013). Yeah Yeah Yeah. The Story of Modern Pop. London: Bloomsbury

Sturges, F (2010). Pop songs: does size matter? Independent Article. https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/music/features/pop-songs-does-size-matter-2036779.html 

Van Buskirk, E. (2008) Is 2:42 the perfect song length – Wired magazine article. Online at https://www.wired.com/2008/04/is-242-the-perf/

Weir, W (2014) A Little Bit Softer Now, A Little Bit Softer Now. Slate.com article. Online at https://slate.com/culture/2014/09/the-fade-out-in-pop-music-why-dont-modern-pop-songs-end-by-slowly-reducing-in-volume.html

Winterson, J, Nickol, P & Bricheno, T (2003) Pop Music – The Text Book London: Peters Edition

 

What exactly is a song anyway? Introduction

I’m sure I speak for a great many people when I say I have a deep fascination with, and love for the humble song. From an early age I could be found on a Sunday afternoon creating primitive mixtapes by recording my favourite songs from the top 40 on Radio 1 onto cassette tapes. These were then played pretty much constantly until their untimely, warbly, chewed up demise. As I grew up I learned, mainly by ear, to play some of my favourite songs on the keyboard and later guitar, and would sing along making appropriately impassioned faces as I did so, while no-one was looking. It was here I started to appreciate, almost subliminally how these songs were constructed. I’ve continued to do that ever since, particular as a member of a function band which plays classic cover-band fare. Now I write songs myself, or at least I try to, for various projects. I write for my originals band Divisions which I’m sure I’ll talk about in future posts, but I’ve also written songs for friends (including one as a substitute for a best-man’s speech). I am proud to say that I know at least one of my songs has brought a tear to at least one eye, and a lyric to another has been inscribed indelibly on a friend’s arm (through choice I should add). Maybe one day I’ll write a song that is known the world over, and/or that facilitates my early retirement, but regardless, I believe that songwriting is something that I will always want and need to do, whoever is listening.

But what exactly is it, this song, whose variations and permutations beguile us so? What are the parameters, the rules-of-thumb, the absolute no-nos, the tolerable aberrations, the norms and the extremes of popular song? Is there such thing as the perfect song? Has it already been written? Would we know it if we heard it? And if has, then I demand to know by whom! I hope in this, and forthcoming posts to address at least some of these questions.

To begin, we should probably nail down exactly what a song is, in a legal sense. The song could reasonably be considered the basic unit of the music industry, its ‘bread and butter’ if you will. When all the glamour, groupies, debauchery, cocaine, sponsorship deals, suspended stage-lemons and general ridiculousness of the music business is stripped away, the song is still what sustains the whole shebang, making some people very ‘comfortable’ in the process. A song is actually the coming together of two, potentially quite separate endeavours, namely the creation of a musical work and the writing of lyrics. For a song to legally exist, it has to take some kind of physical (or digital) form, which can become particularly useful when disputes arise (as they do with, it would seem, increasing regularity) to be able to establish the true originator of a song, much to the delight of many an entertainment lawyer.

You can think of a song in its widest sense as a collection of words, set to music. In many cases, this set of words (the lyrics) could be considered to be poetic, (though I’m sure many poets might take exception to that). Beyond that, making further generalisations about songs becomes a rather slippery endeavour. The song is by no means the only artistic statement that combines music and words (there are operas and oratorios, motets and masses, and of course, the Go Compare advert), so let’s dig a little deeper into the song as a particular art form.

I’d like you to think about your favourite songs. Pick maybe three, or five, and consider if you will what they have in common, and how they differ from one to the next. While your selection may be infinitely varied in terms of genre, era, prevailing hairstyle etc, I’ll wager they share a great many attributes in common too. I’m going to hazard a guess that they all last roughly the time it takes to make a cup of tea (including boiling the kettle, and perhaps buttering a fruit scone). While they may be infinitely varied in terms of their overall structure, I’ll guess they entail an amount of repetition both musically and lyrically, and while they may incorporate a wide range of instrumentation from bouzouki to banjo, that instrumentation can be grouped into only a small handful of more universal ‘layers’. Of course you may be delighting in the fact that you’ve chosen an exceptionally short, long, unpredictable, sparse, dense or otherwise unusually constructed song, but I’m sure you’ll agree these represent the extremes of the bell-curve, and not the part from which the bell dangles.

Putting the above rather more succinctly, Cliff Goldmacher, in his blog post on “how not to suck at songwriting” sets out a few longstanding characteristics of the song.

“Most songs are between 2 and 4 minutes, have about a 12 second intro, rhyme, get to the chorus in under a minute, are about love and relationships and have a big repeatable, sing-able chorus.” (Goldmacher, C. http://www.cliffgoldmacher.com/how-not-to-suck-at-songwriting/)

While this (knowingly on the part of the writer, I’m certain) rather over-simplifies matters, I hope in forthcoming posts to expand these ideas a little, to try to get to the bottom of what really makes a song a song.

Bibliography

https://www.copyrightuser.org

https://www.copyrightservice.co.uk/copyright/p01_uk_copyright_law

Long weekend of Songwriting: Part 2

To round off my long weekend down in London, I went to see Neil Tennant in conversation with Michael Bracewell at the new EartH venue in Hackney. The interview can be streamed here. In his introduction, Bracewell earned a cheer for his positing the notion that aside from the Beatles, Pet Shop Boys have written more great pop songs than any other group, which sounds plausible at the very least. Neil was interviewed for around an hour or so, and it was good to hear him speak in some detail about his songs in his usual thoughtful, often humorous manner. He wasn’t afraid to pause to digest a question before delivering an answer.  Questions were also taken from audience members. I would have asked something about middle eights I’m sure, but sadly didn’t get my moment!

While I don’t intend to recount the entire interview here, Bracewell asked two questions inspired by Brian Eno (another musical favourite of mine). The first examined the extent to which pop music is concerned with ‘creating new imaginary worlds, and inviting people to join them’, and it was clear that Tennant sees the Pet Shop Boys as fitting into Eno’s definition comfortably, specifically as a result of their disparate and often unusual influences (including American Hip-Hop and Russian history) which create a unique world to which the listener is invited, and also through the visual imagery that each new incarnation of the Pet Shop Boys incorporates.

The second Eno inspired question was about how the best songs are encapsulated by their title, to the point where the ‘story’ of a song is almost contained there in its title alone. I’m intrigued by this idea, though not sure I can 100% subscribe to it. A pithy title isn’t always borne out by an equally eloquent song, and equally, otherwise good songs can of course have ropey, or at least unhelpful titles. But I like the idea that a solid concept can be boiled down and expressed pretty concisely, in a sentence for example (as is the case with a number of Pet Shop Boys song titles including You Only Tell Me You Love Me When You’re Drunk, How Can You Expect To Be Taken Seriously and the particularly cumbersome This Must Be The Place I Waited Years To Leave).

I was also reminded of the fact that unlike many pop stars of his time, Tennant was into his thirties before he found any kind of fame as a songwriter (there’s hope for me yet!), though he was previously a successful music journalist. It turns out that he’s older than my Mum.

The book itself promises to be a good read, with each of the songs accompanied by an explanation by Tennant himself, along with an introduction by the author. There are plenty of his songs with which I am still fairly unfamiliar, others I feel get far less credit than they deserve (King of Rome, The Theatre, Don Juan and Kings Cross to name but a few). I’m sure I will refer to the book in future posts.

So the weekend as a whole has given me plenty of food for thought about the craft of songwriting, and pop music in particular. I look forward to reporting on lots more long weekends of songwriting.

Long weekend of Songwriting: Part 1

So… my not-so-long awaited weekend of songwriting is upon us. The weather is good, the arrangements are made, and London is its usual bustling, exciting, unfinished self. When will they finish London?

First up, I’ve been taking part in my first ever pop music songwriting workshop.

Having booked up fairly late in the day, taking a chance of an offer from Music-Match (very useful website for music job opportunities), I didn’t have too much time to prepare (which was probably for the best, as I am prone to nerves in group situations, which is perhaps odd for a teacher, but there we are). The workshop took place at Tileyard Education in London, a short walk from King’s Cross. The Tileyard Complex it turns out is a sort of industrial estate of creative organisations of various kinds including some 90+ studios, writing rooms, management companies, publishers etc.  The two-day course was run by Emma Stakes and Penny Foster, both accomplished, published songwriters among much else. The students on the course ranged in age, location, but all were incredibly talented, friendly and passionate about their craft.

Day one was all about introductions, discussing the often brutal business of songwriting and the music industry more widely, a look at some current songwriting briefs (i.e. actual artists looking for actual songs) which made it feel very real indeed. We spent some time listening to songs written by both the workshop leaders and attendees, which was a good eye-opener to the quality of songs and production out there among us mortals.

Being truly woeful at small talk, I found the experience initially daunting, but certainly by the second day, had found it within myself to get immersed come what may. As it turned out, day two presented an incredibly fulfilling opportunity to collaborate on a song as part of an impromptu songwriting team. Having been initially trepidatious about writing in groups, our particular team (myself and three others) turned out to work incredibly productively together, and I hope some future collaborations will follow from here. We managed to write, record and produce to a decent level a verse, pre-chorus, chorus and breakdown of a song with working titles of ‘Bite the Bullet’ and later ‘Stubborn’, along the theme of a relationship on the rocks. After initially attempting to respond to a specific brief discussed the previous day, the track took on perhaps a darker mood than we had intended, but given the tight deadline, we reached a point-of-no-return and thus followed the idea through. Each member of the team made fantastic and vital contributions including lyrical material, melodic and harmonic ideas, and production, and it was incredibly gratifying to feel so instantly comfortable with a group of strangers, and be able to create something with real potential in such a short space of time. We intend to finish this track between us remotely and see where it goes! I am therefore a collaboration convert and I hope to do a lot more of this kind of work going forward.

I have learned a great deal from this songwriting camp. In particular, I am now certain that to demo a song successfully, particularly when working towards a particular brief, the production needs to be top notch, and the vocal must leave no room for doubt in terms of emotional expression.

In relation to the crafting of the song itself, I hadn’t appreciated before this weekend the importance of the concept of ‘top-lining’, i.e. composing a melody and lyrics, as a distinct part of the writing process, and moreover that this is something that is often done by a single, dedicated individual. While obviously a song needs a melody to carry the lyrical content, I’d up until now considered that just another part of the process, more or less equal to the others. Of course, melody is a massively important part of the songwriting process, but perhaps for pop music, melody is just that little bit more important, while harmony takes a back seat.

Its also abundantly clear that a song needs a hook, not just in a melodic sense, but also from a conceptual viewpoint. While this is obviously not songwriting rocket-science, I guess sometimes these things need hammering home, and again, I would argue that within the pop world, this conceptual hook is even more vital.

The weekend has given me just a little more self belief. I hope this is true of all the students on the course. For myself, I pledge simply to write more songs, believe in them, see them through to a high demo standard when I feel they have the ‘legs’ to justify it, and then to attempt to push them towards the places I feel they belong, to give them a life beyond the studio.

This evening, as my long weekend of songwriting comes to a close, I will be going over to Hackney Arts Centre to witness one of my songwriting heroes, Neil Tennant talk about his songwriting, as he releases a book, ‘One Hundred Lyrics and a Poem’.