Now this looks interesting… comprehensive online “conservatoire” dedicated to learning how music works. Great design. Excellent price. I’ll check out the content this week and post back anything worth sharing. In the meantime, why don’t you try a lesson or two and let us know what you think.
I generally agree with all the recommendations thus far and am especially fond of Toch’s Shaping Forces of Music.
I’ve also found a lot of inspiration, guidance, and clarity from the more recent publications on music and the brain. Composing “good” music is as much about how it’s perceived by the listener as it is about melody, harmony, form, orchestration, etc. While the latter are essential tools, these books have informed how I use those tools and the musical decisions we composers make in every bar of our music.
“Education is a process of learning how to become the architect of your own experience and therefore learning how to create yourself.”—Elliot W. Eisner. The Arts and the Creation of Mind (p. 24). Kindle Edition.
This was posted on the “corporate blog” of a software company. 5 minutes could be well spent pondering as to why we should see this kind of thing happen more often.
It could also be called “Everyone Should Make Some Music” or “Everyone Should Write a Story” or “Everyone Should Make a Dance”. Different mediums, but will likely have the same generally positive effect.
In each of these cases the same will likely be true… Your painting/music/story/dance will suck. The good part, of course, is THAT’S NOT THE POINT!
My favorite line: “The only way you can go wrong is by being too self-important with the whole thing.”
Good heavens how I wish I could go to this tonight. It is precisely what classical music needs more of right now. Take the old yet timeless, infuse it with the now, then revel in the what-will-happen of it all.
In response to Emilymaxine9’s question about Honey White by Morphine, let’s go ahead and do a full 5-part review of this tune, since it’s the first 4 parts of musical speech (sound, rhythm, melody, harmony) that ultimately create the 5th part (form).
Sound: This is a driving rock tune in the classic sense with a dark, fuzzy sound. but they get that sound from a unique instrumentation, namely from two baritone saxophones supported by a rather dry sounding bass guitar. But they sound like a velvet sledgehammer when playing the hook in unison. Another sound issue that stuck out to me was the drummer alternating between using the hi-hat and the rims on various sections. Listen closely and it really changes the whole texture of the band’s sound from wet to dry.
Rhythm: The rhythm is pretty straight forward here… a driving rock tune in the classic sense. So you have a tempo somewhere around 145bpm (I’m guessing) and 4 beats per bar. The drummer is hitting the backbeat on 2 and 4 nice and loud. There’s also a subtle bit of “hemiola” in the hook but not enough to really unpack it here. But that, more than anything, is what gives the hook its hook.
Melody: Most of the melody here is in the hook: Ba da do DEE da do da do DEE da do. Ba da do DEE da do… dwe dwe dwe dwe do. Vocals are more of an impassioned statement than a melodic phrase. But clean crisp melodic vocals would be out of place in this song anyway.
Harmony: There’s no chordophones at work here… no guitars or keyboards generating several pitches at the same time. So the harmony is really driven by the melody, which means it’s driven by the scale: the collection of pitches being used in the melody. It’s a decidedly minor, blues harmony at work here. The minor part gives it the darkness; the blues part gives it grease, or perhaps “a little more fat” is a more appropriate phrase.
Form: The interesting component of this piece, and the one that emilymaxine9 asked about, is the form. All the other components of this song would point to a standard verse/chorus approach to the form, but Morphine instead does something of a rondo here. Rondo is a classical music term for a form that looks like AB AC AD AE etc. There’s a main theme (A) followed by a departure… something that’s different (B). Then the theme comes back (A) and then another departure ( C) different from the last departure. This continues until the composer decides to stop. In the case of Honey White, A is the hook. Here’s how I would map out the form:
A - A1 - A1 - B - A - A1 - C - A - D - A2 - A1 - A1 - B
Here’s how each section corresponds to the music
A: after the initial trills it launches into the hook, just bass and bari saxes, no vocals
A1: then the vocals come in, sounds like a new section because you’re focused on the melody, but listen to the instruments underneath and they’re still playing the hook, or a subtle version of it. Basically the same musical material with a slight twist, hence A becomes A1
B: Vocals sing “Oh honey”. Drummer thins out the texture with rims instead of hi-hat. Bass plays a “pedal” which simply means stays on the same bass note for a long time, which takes the harmonic motion and calms it down.
A: back to the hook, instruments only
A1: vocals come back in over the hook
C: Vocals sing “Devil made of honey”, another departure from the hook, but different material from B
A: back to the hook, instruments only
D: vocals sing “She said…”, another departure from the hook, but different from B and C, this is a “breakdown” where most of the instruments drop out and the texture gets very thin, often used to build up to a big release in the next section.
A2: Voila! Big release in the form of a solo for the bari saxes. But again, the hook is the underlying musical material here, hence A becomes A2 (because it’s not the same as A1)
A1: vocals come back, singing exact material as the very first A1 “Honey white”
B: Back to the pedal in the bass with vocals singing “Oh honey”
So there you have it. Honey White by Morphine is a rock ‘n roll rondo.
I am trying to figure out the song form for Honeywhite which is sung by Morphine. I love the intro and that they play with no guitars. It's just a saxophone, 2 string bass and drums.
Hi Emily. Wow… I totally missed this message. For all I know you could have sent this years ago (because tumblr doesn’t seem to date messages).
Anyhow, cool song. I’ve listened to it a couple times now and will write a post about the form later this week. Basically it’s a “rondo” form, but it takes a little more explanation than that, hence the post.
“I read a profile of her once in which she talked about the black holes of outer space, not the soul. She told her interviewer the note that emanates from them is a deep and constant B-flat, a key she loves. She added, too, that a man who once played bass for her had synesthesia—meaning that when he played notes, he saw colors—and that when he played a B-flat what he saw was “very, very, very black.””— Nell Boeschenstein on Emmylou Harris, in a piece for The Morning News that is about much more than Emmylou Harris (this is not to say that Emmylou Harris wouldn’t be a totally laudable focus for a reflective essay). (thx, Edith’s longreads!)
We had a white rat. Whenever I took out my conga drums to practice, Lady J. would stand up on her hind legs and sway to the beat. She appeared absolutely mesmerized by the rhythm. When I stopped drumming, she stopped swaying. When I started up again, she started swaying again.
“Fun and art are natural allies (despite often appearing separately), and forcing them to do battle just divides us into tinier and tinier camps, where we can only talk to people who like precisely the same kinds of culture that we do. That benefits absolutely nobody — not artists, not audiences, and not the quality of discourse.”—From a fantastic article about “cultural omnivores” by Linda Holmes @nprmonkeysee. I think it pretty much sums up the whole point of Do You Speak Music.
Josh Jackson runs a radio show for WBGO in Newark called The Checkout. Every week he interviews prominent jazz musicians about their latest projects, and at the end of the interview he asks each of them the same question… “What does it mean to live with music?”
Quite simply, to live with music is to see the world through another lens.
Consider for a moment that words and language are the tools of thought. They are the manifestation of our ideas, and when we speak of things, we speak of them as they are represented within our minds.
For instance, the French do not drink red wine. They drink wine-red. In French the adjective follows the noun, not the other way around like in English. Consider how this subtly changes the relation of those two concepts in the mind of the French speaker, and thus subtly changes their idea of red wine, or wine in general.
In China, no one gives a clock as a birthday gift because the word for “clock” is pronounced the same as the word “to end”. So giving a clock as a birthday gift would be like wishing someone that their birthdays would end… bad gift. So simply because of the language itself, those two concepts are linked in the mind of the Chinese speaker in a way that doesn’t exist to the French or English speaker.
Now consider the notion that music is a language. That means that understanding music gives you a new set of tools for understanding the world. Speaking the language of music gives you a new way of relating different ideas, of translating concepts, of perceiving your environment and communicating with others. It allows you to understand the world in a deeper, more profound way than you had before.
To live with music is to live a richer, more vibrant, more meaningful life.
God has wrought many things out of oppression. He has endowed his creatures with the capacity to create and from this capacity has flowed the sweet songs of sorrow and joy that have allowed man to cope with his environment and many different situations.
Jazz speaks for life. The Blues tell the story of life’s difficulties, and if you think for moment, you will realize that they take the hardest realities of life and put them into music, only to come out with some new hope or sense of triumph.
This is triumphant music.
Modern Jazz has continued in this tradition, singing the songs of a more complicated urban existence. When life itself offers no order and meaning, the musician creates an order and meaning from the sounds of the earth which flow through his instrument.
It is no wonder that so much of the search for identity among American Negroes was championed by Jazz musicians. Long before the modern essayists and scholars wrote of racial identity as a problem for a multiracial world, musicians were returning to their roots to affirm that which was stirring within their souls.
Much of the power of our Freedom Movement in the United States has come from the music. It has strengthened us with its sweet rhythms when courage began to fail. It has calmed us with its rich harmonies when spirits were down.
And now, Jazz is exported to the world. For in a particular struggle of the Negro in America, there is something akin to the universal struggle of modern man. Everybody has the Blues. Everybody longs for meaning. Everybody needs to clap hands and be happy. Everybody longs for faith. In music, especially this broad category called Jazz, there is a stepping stone towards all these.
A common form in jazz is the 32-bar AABA song form. Like the 12-bar blues, the letters AABA represent song sections and their respective repetition and variation. This time, each section is 8 bars long instead of 4. So four sections, each of them eight bars long, gives you 32 bars.
This time I’ll let Miles Davis provide the examples.
Then there’s “Bye Bye Blackbird”. Listen to the shape of the melody and how it changes on the B section.
Finally there’s “Oleo”. It’s fast, but just listen for the B section… it always stands out.
You’ll notice this is just like the 12-bar blues but with an extra A section at the end. Psychologically this makes a lot of difference because now it’s dealing with memory on a deeper level. Whereas the blues gave you two repetitions and a change (AAB) this form gives you the repetition, the change, and then a reprise. When it brings back the A section at the end it’s returning to something familiar… engaging your memory for pattern recognition.
This creates sort of a B section sandwich that makes that section stand out more. Sort of like a lighthouse helping remind the musicians and the listener where they are in the tune. This is important because, like the blues, jazz musicians will play several choruses of an AABA song and solo over them. So not only does the B section (often called the “bridge”) provide the necessary variation throughout the entire song, it also helps prevent the musicians (and the listener) from getting lost.
Also like the blues, musicians will vary what they do from chorus to chorus. Most commonly, they will simply change soloists… trumpet takes 3 choruses, then tenor saxophone solos for another 2 or 3 choruses, maybe a bass solo, then the original melody again.
Try This: Listen to the examples again and try to count the number of choruses they play. Listen for the bridge; can you hear how the harmonic progression underneath it is different from the A sections? Listen for the beginning of each new chorus. How are the first four parts of musical speech changing to signify this?
The most obvious way to understand the form is to listen to the lyrics. Take the BB King track:
I’ve been downhearted baby, ever since the day we met.
I’ve been downhearted baby, ever since the day we met.
You know our love is nothing but the blues, woman, baby how blue can you get?
12-bar blues is often referred to as AAB because the first stanza repeats and then is followed by a different set of lyrics. Each of these stanzas is four bars long. So three stanzas of four bars each adds up to a total of 12 bars… hence, the 12-bar blues.
There’s a a lot of repetition and variation going on here on a lot of levels. First off, the lyrics themselves present this rather obviously. Sing one stanza, then sing it again. This creates repetition. A pattern is established and your expectation is that the pattern will repeat again, but it doesn’t. It’s followed by a different stanza… variation.
However, there’s repetition in each stanza because they all rhyme. So while the beginning of the A and B stanzas are different, the ending is similar.
The harmony deepens the repetition and variation. The first A section is always on the I chord where as the second A section is always on the IV chord. Don’t worry what a I chord or a IV chord are, the point is that they are different harmonic colors. So while the lyrics are the same in each A section, the harmonic color changes. Repetition and variation again.
Each of the three stanzas added together equals what musicians call one “chorus” of the blues. All of the repetition and variation discussed above happens inside of just one chorus. But a blues song might play the chorus 10 or 15 times. So on a larger level there’s a lot of repetition and variation from chorus to chorus.
The repetition, or the constant element, is the chorus itself… the length is the same (12 bars) and the harmonic progression is the same within that chorus. It’s a cycle that just repeats over and over. And within that cycle the musicians do different things:
Every chorus presents a new set of lyrics.
Sometimes there’s a guitar solo instead of singing.
Sometimes they play the chorus loud with lots of drums and horns; sometimes it’s soft with just the bass and soft drums.
Sometimes they do hits where the band plays short patterns with lots of empty space in between (check out the BB King song towards the end).
All of that is variation on top of the repetition of the 12-bar cycle.
Try This: Hop on YouTube and do a search for “Blues”. Listen to three different samples and see if you can hear the different elements described above. Find the pulse and see if you can count out the 12-bar pattern. How do you know they’ve started a new chorus? Listen to the harmony; can you hear when they change chords at each new section? How are they varying the song from chorus to chorus?
Let’s dive a little bit deeper into some common musical forms, dissecting the different sections and why they work. The musical form known by more people in the western hemisphere than any other (whether they know it or not) is the Verse/Chorus song form. From glam rock to hip hop to club pop, this song form is heard by more people more often than any other. A small but wide selection is below. Have a listen.
Try this example from the glamiest of glam rock bands, Poison.
Try this example from that most decadent disco diva, Lady Gaga.
The Verse/Chorus song form is repetition and variation at its most fundamental. Every time the verse is played the lyrics change, while the lyrics of the chorus stay the same every time. The musical material during every verse is the same, The verses, however, provide their own sense of repetition and variation because while the lyrics change with every verse, the musical material (rhythm, melody, harmony) stay pretty much the same.
This is a very old musical form that evolved from the “call and response” form of folk and religious music. Think about a southern baptist church with the preacher making an impassioned statement and quoting from the bible and the congregation responding with “Amen!” in unison.
One of the places this form was often used was in telling oral histories. An important story about a king, or a battle, or a fateful relationship would have a central theme or overarching moral. This was encapsulated in a short chorus everyone could sing. Then the lead singer would sing a verse or two that told the story, and the people listening would respond by singing the chorus. This happens over and over until the whole story is told. A great modern example of this is “American Pie” by Don McLean as he tells the story of a tragic plane crash that killed three popular musicians in the early 60’s.
The Verse/Chorus form plays heavily on memory. You get to know the chorus because you hear it several times. So the next time it comes back in the song you recognize it, like an old friend, and by singing along you get to participate in the music; you take more ownership of the song. You make a prediction (“I know this part of the song! It goes like this…”) and you sing along with it and are rewarded by being right… the music and lyrics unfold just as you remember they did last time you heard it. That’s why this song form works so well in popular music: it’s very rewarding and it’s easiest for the audience to participate and take ownership of the music.
Now there’s usually more to a song than just the verse and chorus. While these two sections make up the bulk of the musical material, there are usually a few extra sections that fill out the rest of the song. Here are the two most common:
Intro: When you have company over for dinner, you don’t typically launch into conversation as soon as they step in the door. Instead, you take their coat, you fix them a drink, you get comfortable in the living room, and then the conversation starts. It’s the same with music. You generally don’t just launch into the verse. You need to set the stage, lay the groundwork, introduce the tune. All three of the examples above have an Intro. Listen to them again and see if you can tell where the Intro ends and the Verse begins.
Bridge: While the verse and chorus create a sense of repetition and variation in and of themselves, after a while it can become predictable (verse - chorus - verse - chorus - verse - chorus and so on). To mix things up, song writers will throw in a totally new section of different musical material. This is called the Bridge. Several parts of musical speech usually change in this section: new melody, new harmonies, different rhythm, even new sounds. In the Poison example the Bridge is a guitar solo which changes up the sound and the melody. Lady Gaga has a bridge where she raps instead of sings and the rhythmic patterns change. Listen to those two examples and see if you can hear the Bridge.
In my last post I asked you to listen to some of your music and ask the simple question, “What will happen next?” This is a question we ask of ourselves probably dozens of times a day.
Can I cross the street or will another car come by? What will happen next?
Should I speak up and offer my idea in this meeting or will it just get shot down? What will happen next?
That’s a cute dog. Can I pet it or will it be startled and bite me? What will happen next?
Should I buy that stock or will it go down in price tomorrow? What will happen next?
This is perhaps the ultimate survival question. Answering it correctly was often a life or death issue for our caveman ancestors, so it’s one of the most hard-wired thoughts in the human mind.
That’s what makes musical form so compelling. When that chorus to Freebird comes back, or the Beatles sing the “na na na na” section from Hey Jude, or just about any of your favorite musical moments… it’s rewarding because it’s playing with your sense of expectation. You’ve made a prediction and the composer has responded to your prediction.
There are essentially two ways a composer can respond to your prediction: (1) they can fulfill it, or (2) they can avoid it.
This boils down to two things: repetition and variation. Those are the two ends of the seesaw that is musical form. They are the extremes between which the musical pendulum swings, creating momentum and keeping our interest.
Here’s how the game of musical form works: the composer creates within you an expectation, she causes you to ask, “What will happen next?” and you come up with an answer; you make a prediction. Then the composer responds to that prediction. Either she delivers and you feel rewarded that your prediction was accurate (this is repetition… you identified a pattern and predicted it would repeat). Or she takes a sharp left turn and delivers something other than what you expected and you get a surprise (this is variation… the pattern changed and offered you something new.)
Too much repetition and the music becomes boring and predictable, like a crossword puzzle for 3rd graders, just too easy to solve.
Too much variation and there’s nothing to follow, nothing to latch onto. Your predictions are constantly thwarted and the music is unrewarding.
Balancing this just right is what keeps it engaging… giving us some wins (accurate predictions) to encourage us, and some losses (inaccurate predictions) to challenge us.
How does a composer use the first four parts of musical speech to create repetition and variation? The possibilities are infinite:
Sound: Play the same rhythm or melody or harmony but on different instruments.
Rhythm: Use the same rhythmic pattern, but play it twice as fast, or twice as slow. Play the same melody line, but change up the rhythm.
Melody: Play the same melodic motif, but move it up higher, or lower, or on a different instrument. Play the same melody but with a different harmony underneath to change the color.
Harmony: Use the same harmonic pattern, but change the melody on the top (this is essentially what most jazz solos are).
This is a very, very basic set of ways to create repetition and variation. The devil is in the details and the possibilities are enough to have created eons of music in every culture in the world.
Try This: Similar to the last activity, hit shuffle on your iPod and listen to three different tracks in a row. This time ask yourself two questions: What’s the same? What’s different? Listen to how each of the first four parts of musical speech play off of each other to create repetition and variation. Usually at the same time… one element staying the same while another changes.
A movie has different scenes. A play has different acts. Poems have stanzas. A book has chapters. And music is made up of sections.
In a novel, words are strung into sentences, which are strung into paragraphs, which make up larger statements around a topic, which are in turn organized into chapters, which add up to a book. Something that expresses a complex idea or a detailed story must be broken down into smaller parts.
So it is with music. A piece of music is made up of smaller sections, each telling their own portion of the story. Each of them adding up into larger sections, and ultimately the entire piece of music.
The most commonly known sections in music are the verse and the chorus. Everyone knows the chorus… it’s the part that keeps coming back, that everyone sings together. It has the same lyrics as the last time they played it. The verse comes in between each chorus and the lyrics of the verse change every time. (there it is again: repetition and variation)
What makes these sections different from each other? Variation. Something changes. There’s no clear cut definition of what a section is in music, no more than there’s a definition for how long a paragraph or a chapter in a book should be. What makes it a section is its sense of completeness. A complete statement is made and then the music changes to make another statement.
Different sections present different musical material and the composer plays with your memory of this material, introducing new material, and bringing back material you’ve heard before, usually changing it in some way. Just like the hero in a movie: it’s the same character in the beginning as the end, but they’ve usually changed in some way, learned a lesson, changed their outlook or behavior, something.
How do you know when a section of music has changed? Listen to the first 4 parts of musical speech…
Sound: Has the instrumentation changed? Are there more instruments? Different instruments? Louder or softer than before?
Rhythm: Has the groove changed? Is it busier with more notes or more sparse? Has it gotten faster or slower? Has the rhythmic pattern changed?
Melody: Is the melody repeating or starting over? Has it been moved higher or lower in the pitch spectrum? Is it a totally new melody, or an earlier melody that’s coming back?
Harmony: Has the harmonic color changed dramatically? Has the harmonic rhythm changed so there a more chords passing by faster? Have we shifted keys?
Jazz musicians talk about the “A Section” or the “B Section”. These are generally 8-bar segments of a 32-bar song. Those 32 bars might last for 1 minute and have the following sections:
A Section - A Section - B Section - A Section
What a jazz musician will do is play those 4 sections over and over and improvise different melodies over the harmony. Collectively, those 4 sections are referred to as the “Head”. They will typically play it at the beginning and end of their performance, with solos in the middle. So an entire performance might look like this:
Head - Sax Solo - Trumpet Solo - Piano Solo - Drum Solo - Head
Classical musicians talk about sections like the “Exposition” and the “Development” and the “Recapitulation”. A piano sonata might have the following sections:
Exposition (includes 2 or 3 different melodic themes) - Development (melodic themes are altered and “developed”) - Recapitulation (melodic themes come back, usually in a different key)
Try This: Put on your favorite song and listen to it 5 times in a row. Listen for the sections. Listen to the first 4 parts of musical speech and ask yourself “What’s changing?” Listen for repetition and variation. Do you notice any sections that are repeated? Is there a particular section that sounds totally different than all the rest? Does the very beginning sound similar to the very end?