The Good, The Bad, and The Cliche

The purpose of this post is not to simply trash all pop music, nor is it to make you change your mind about what you like and what you don’t like. The purpose is to point out good aspects of music and bad ones, and ones that are used over and over again (not necessarily bad). That being said, somebody is going to have to be offended.

I wouldn’t recommend listening to “I Gotta Feelin.” You probably already heard it a million times and know all of the words. This song won a Grammy for Best Pop Performance By A Duo Or Group With Vocals. This album, which is titles “The E.N.D.” was nominated for record of the year, and won Best Pop Vocal Album.

Those of you who have read all of my previous ramblings until now I applaud you, and I also ask you, what do you think of that? First of all, the same four chords repeat throughout. Second of all, there is hardly any singing in this song, and when there is it is mostly on one note aside from Fergie. Also, this song is literally about hoping to have a good time tonight. Each phrase by itself is simply a feel good cliché saying that your average college student would text to their friend on a Friday night. How did this song get so popular to the point where it got so much acclaim? Its catchy, it’s simple, it’s repetitive, and it’s easy to memorize all the words. For the record, what I’m trying to communicate to you is this is an example of a BAD song. Sorry Will.I.Am, no respect.

Aside from instrumentation, what makes people like Mumford and Sons so much? They follow pop song structure, they often employ 4 or fewer chords in most of their songs, and they repeat lyrics over and over in the chorus’. I think a Mumford and Sons fan will tell you (which I am not) that it’s because they can relate with the lyrics, and the fast rhythmic string sections are full of energy. They mostly sing about heartbreak/love and loss, as do many popular artists today, but it’s their characteristic sound they have that makes them liked by so many. I am not a fan of this band, it isn’t my type of music, but I can safely say this is an example of good music. They don’t stray too far from the norm in terms of themes structure and cadences, but they do it so well.  Now let’s shift to electronic

Again let’s analyze why people like Skrillex, and then we will talk about why people do not like Skrillex. Like Mumford and Sons, Skrillex has a very characteristic sound. Unlike most electronic you can’t mistake his work for someone else’s. He uses many commonly used samples in his songs, but also created his own sound that is easy to recognize. Skrillex fans (which again I am not) like him because of how heavy this sound is. It’s aggressive and dissonant which is uncommon for all types of techno which are in general upbeat with straight minor chords. This leads directly into why people do not like Skrillex. His sound is hardly considered musical, it’s very machine-like and atonal (meaning no tonal center, it’s not a musical note). So what’s my verdict on this polarizing artist? I think he does his own thing and doesn’t care what I think, and he will stick to his style that he has been using since Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites. For that I think he should be respected, but on that note…

The singer, recognize his terrible black hair and pale complexion? Yup. Same guy. Is this good music? It’s not fair for me to judge because I feel like I’m outside of the target demographic of pre-teen girls. That’s a joke. The reason so much music targets this demographic is simple: money. By the time most boys (some girls, I’m not THAT sexist just realistic) get of high school age they are full time music downloaders (at least it was in my high school). If you want to make money you target the audience younger than that. Sing about middle school level drama and not fitting in, throw in some electric guitar and you have From First to Last and hundreds of other “pop punk” bands from that era. I find it hard to believe in an artist that can’t relate to their own music, so anything targeting a specific demographic I can’t take seriously. Sorry Sonny.

Let’s listen to some really bad music now

Before we analyze why this sucks so much, there are some thing you probably need to know about what a metal head expects when he presses the play button. He wants to hear some heavy grooves. He wants to hear some angry vocals. He wants some clean technical drumming. We must also make a distinction between metal and alternative. Alternative is, as its name says an alternative to pop. It follows similar structure and tendencies as pop, but it has real instruments and a bit more freedom in songwriting. Alternative started to be a thing around when Pearl Jam and Nirvana were gaining popularity. They are perfect examples of the definition of alternative. They revolutionized the way rock song writing could be done and hundreds of bands have stemmed off of them since then. Now back to the example, I think you can see where I am going with this.

I wouldn’t consider myself a fan of alternative, but there are definitely good alternative bands. This is not one of them. WHAT?! Asking Alexandria is hardcore metal man! They aren’t alternative! I beg to differ. They follow basic pop song structure, throwing in some elements of metal like screaming vocals and rhythmic breakdowns. I am going to tell it like it is AA, screaming and breakdowns do not make you a good metal band. It doesn’t even make you a good alternative band. I will say AA has come a long way since their first album, but they still have a long way to go to get my attention. AA brings nothing new to the world of music; they try and fit into the genre as much as possible. They have no characteristic sound, and they sing about common themes (love/loss, angry at past, bullies, parents). Using this they have become a relatively well known band for their fake metal genre. (If you want some more examples of fake metal to understand better what I’m talking about, Abandon All Ships, Attack Attack, Black Veil Brides, Silverstein, We Came As Romans.)

So what encompasses good alternative then?

Right away the chords they use are for more interesting than anything you heard in the AA song. They are thicker (more notes) and make the song flow smoothly. Notice it still follows pop song structure (verse chorus verse chorus bridge etc). Why is this better than AA? Besides overall song writing skills (oooo burn) it’s distinctly Deftones. Any Deftones fan will recognize the sludgy guitars and long droning vocals right away. The way this is written is so simple, the chords change usually once per phrase, and the dynamics naturally build and resolve. They definitely are influenced by other alternative bands such as Pearl Jam and Nirvana, but they add their own distinct flare to their music. It has character and stands out without throwing the listener too far out of their comfort zone.

Now it’s time for the REALLY heavy stuff.

Yeah now THAT is metal. Even I can make no argument to the contrary. Is this an example of good metal though? Based on the points I have made above, no, it is not. It’s got heavy grooves, fast technical drumming, and angry vocals, but what else does it have? TAIM doesn’t exactly stand out from other death-core metal bands (Whitechapel, Chelsea Grin, Oceano). It definitely encompasses everything that a fan of the genre would expect, but it doesn’t have any character.  Nothing about it stands out, nothing is memorable.

Can you tell the difference between that band and this one unless you are very familiar with both groups previously? Not really. The vocals are a little different, the grooves are a little different, the drums are a little different, but in general it’s all the same.

Is there even such thing as good metal then? It all sounds the same to me anyway!

Ok well… I guess that’s different. Right when the opening riff comes in (at :15) you can tell this is going to be different. Once the groove “drops” at :47, you can identify the characteristic sound of Meshuggah. It’s still a good groove, with angry vocals, and fast technical drumming, but it stands out with its own style. For those of you who have been following along this is also the Finale of the album, notice the aspects of a Finale it has.

Why is it impossible to make a good metal music video? Anyway, again this is still very distinctly metal, but does it have its own character? This is sad for me to admit, but no. I really like periphery, this is right up my ally. The problem is there are songs like this

and this

that produce a very similar overall sound. All of these bands try to play with the metering (time signature) to sound like they are somehow a more intelligent form of metal, without adding the one thing that is most important to me in music: character. It’s not to say every song by all three of these bands sounds the same (this is hardly true for any band) but in the case of these three particular songs, there is nothing that stands out to me. See? I even said some negative things about music I actually like.

The next post will be a bit different. I will talk about the state of the music industry, the”meta” if you will (like before with both popular music and heavy metal), and where I think it is heading.

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Anal bum Cover(putting songs in the right order)

Listen to the opening number from this album by Between the Buried and Me. This is a pretty long album, especially in today’s market, so I wouldn’t recommend listening to the whole thing just yet. The first song ends at 1:40 where a distant guitar riff slowly gets louder to introduce the rest of the album. Skip ahead now to 1:10:08, this is the last song on the album. Without listening to the whole previous 70 minutes you can tell this is in the same key as the opening song, and the singer even repeats the lyrical line again “goodbye to everything” (on a very satisfying PAC I might add). It comes full circle, and it lets the listener know this is the end, we have said everything we need to say now. I’m not going to talk about this album anymore in this post, but BTBAM are the kings of album structure and overarching themes in the metal world. I encourage you to set aside an hour and 12 minutes of your time to really appreciate the hard work these talented gentlemen put into creating such a record.

Let’s say we are making a full length album (none of that EP B.S.). We make some good songs, some ok songs, some songs full of feeling, and some songs full of fun. How do we decide what order to put them in? To make this easier lets split all songs into 5 categories: openers, hits, fillers, content, and finales. Everything in this post is assuming that the listener intends to listen to the album from front to back and have them be most satisfied.

Openers

A good opener is a song that really sets the tone for the rest of the album. Not all albums have an over-arching theme and sometimes the individual songs are all relatively different from each other. So how do you pick a good opener on albums like this? In my opinion, it is best to not give away the rest of the album, but instead pick a song that is tamer, has some pretty chords and some nice lyrics that won’t deter first time listeners. The way people discover music today is mostly on the internet through mass distributers like iTunes, Spotify, Vevo (on youtube) Last.fm etc.  I don’t know about you but when I get recommended a new band or by other means land on a new band or album, I listen to the first song. What do you want a random listener in this situation to hear?

It has a nice intro section that isn’t always necessary for a song, but for the first song of an album is vital.

This features a sample of an orchestra tuning, and gradually builds upon itself using electronic effects that lead directly into the 2nd song of the album Doomsday. It is interesting enough to make you want to listen to the next song without giving too much away in terms of what style the rest of the album will be.

Hits

These are the songs that get played on the radio. These are the songs your fans know all the words to. There is really no bad place to put them on an album. In my opinion the biggest hit(s) should be 2nd or very near the beginning so that as the listener hears it early and gets hooked. The reason I don’t recommend putting the hit first is because if you do that, you gave away your best work right away and it’s all downhill. Putting it 2nd or 3rd allows the listener to have already heard something different so that they know there is more to the album than just the hit.

This song was p!nk’s ‘hit’ from the album “The Truth About Love.” See I’m not just making this stuff up

Another example of putting the hit in the 2nd slot from Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way

Usher’s “scream” is 2nd on his album “Looking 4 Myself

Also, discussed above was the opener from Nero’s Welcome Reality, which leads into the hit from that album Doomsday.

Fillers

Almost every artist has a few of these on every album. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, as long as there aren’t too many and they are spaced throughout the album. Fillers are songs that are relaxing to the ear, and often easy to produce. An example would be a song that sticks to a formula that has been used before, therefore the listener is in a comfort zone and knows what to expect as the song progresses. Usually these songs don’t stand out in the album and are easily forgotten. A good place to put these is directly after a hit or a content piece. This way the listener has some time to transition between two different themes or types of songs. This is assuming of course there are any fillers at all. Some artists avoid these all together and only have hits and content.

An example of a filler. What purpose does this song serve on this album other than a transition from Panic Station to Survival? I personally would never listen to this song by itself, but it fits in this context. Another example:

Nothing much really happens in the song, but its right after the emotionally charged song “A Media Friendly Turn For The Worse” and before “Blood Burner” which both have totally different thematic material. They decided to include a filler so as to let the listener have time to adjust for this change.

Content

These are the songs that contain the thematic material. Often a hit is also a content song, but not all content songs are hits. If one song has a particular meaning and another has a different one, it is good to put filler in between. A way to avoid this is have a transitional period at the end of the song that leads into the next. Example of this method:

All they do is repeat the theme a few times at the end, but it is enough to avoid having a filler between it and “Too Afraid To Love You” which have totally different grooves.

Content songs make up the majority of most albums; they are really just songs that go somewhere in the middle and don’t have a particularly strong beginning or end. This leads me to the last type of song that every album needs.

Finales

Self explanatory, these songs usually have a good buildup and release which gives the listener a strong sense of resolution at the end of an album. In extreme cases they also are a summation of all the songs before it, but this is difficult to do if you have more than one prominent theme in your record. Finales are often longer than most songs, and usually have an extended “outro” or coda as described in my previous post. It has hard to describe the feeling of this grand resolution that finale’s should aim for, so I’ll use a few examples to help understand.

Not only is the the last song on their album Danza IV, Alpha and Omega, but it is now known this is their last album they will ever make as well. The lyrics specifically say “and so with every beginning, there is always an ending.” After all the chaotic polyrhythms and atonality throughout the whole record, it ends on this melodic progression. It really grabs your attention and gives you a feeling of resolution.

Asylum is mostly a dark angry album, as all Disturbed albums are. This song however is in a major key, and seems to be a love song/a song about searching your inner self. If they put it anywhere except last, it would have been like, what are you doing Disturbed? Due to it being last the listener can assume that they are supposed to take away from the album that despite all the rage contained within, this band still has deeper feelings. That’s another thing about finales; they give you the freedom to write a song in a style different to what you usually do.

There are many bonus tracks on this album, but on the original release this is the finale. Again, notice a more emotional and softer feeling than most of their work in this song. It simply repeats a 4 chord structure over and over while the vocals sing on “ooooo” but it is a great closing thought to end an album on. Then there is a “hidden track” called Rocks. The reason they included this afterwards, on the same track, is up for speculation. I think they did this to end the story that the album is telling. The lyrics are depressing, while the song is upbeat in a major key. This is to say that although “we fall apart” it isn’t the end of the world, it isn’t sad at all In fact, “why can’t I see what’s right in front of me?” They put this track after Nothing Left To Say to end on the brighter note that the artist feels about the situation, even though at first they were upset about it. This is why they combined the two completely separate songs as one track, they both are the finale of the album.

Now that you know not only how to write a pop hit, but also how to arrange these on an album for best effect, go make your millions just like the artists in this post. If only it were that simple. I feel like I have given myself some validation in these first 4 posts, so now it is time to share my opinions with the world. My next post will be dedicated to what makes music “good” what makes it “bad” in popular genres, while mostly focusing on the one true genre of music, heavy metal.

Cadences (the magic of V I)

Français : Deux cadences imparfaites - image p...

Français : Deux cadences imparfaites – image personnelle sous GPL (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If notes are the building blocks of music, cadences are the walls. A cadence is usually used in conjunction with lyrical phrases. In this example, right at the beginning (before the vocals even come in) we have what is called a perfect authentic cadence. Basically what that means is the phrase by itself resolves and could stand alone as a ‘mini song.’ Every 8 bar phrase in this song is either a perfect authentic cadence (PAC) half cadence (HC) or inauthentic cadence (IAC). these are the only 3 types of cadences you will find in all classical music up to the modern era, and of course almost all modern pop songs.

After the instrumental introduction, the choir line repeats what the orchestra just played, a PAC (5 hallelujahs). The next 8 bar phrase is modulated up a few steps, and at the end of the next 5 hallelujahs, this is a perfect example of a HC. If you take that phrase out of the song by itself, it doesn’t sound like it’s done, it doesn’t resolve right. Even with no music theory knowledge our brain knows this based on what they have heard before in music. There isn’t much else to say about this piece for what I am going to cover today, Handel plays around with PAC, HC, switching up the order in which they occur, until one final grandiose PAC at the end of the piece. Sweet resolution.

How did your brain know the difference between PAC and HC without knowing what they meant previously? It’s simple math actually. To form any cadence, you start on the root of the key you are in. For instance if you are in C major, you start on C, if you are in G minor you start on G. It’s the first note of the scale you are using for the song. Then you have some freedom in between the beginning until right before the end. The notes in between aren’t that important, the important part is how you resolve at the end of the phrase. For a PAC, the resolution is always V I, or the 5th note in the scale back to the first again. A HC sounds like the 3rd phrase of the Handel piece, it doesn’t resolve back to the first note of the scale, instead it resolves on the V. It is impossible to end a song on a HC, hence half-cadence. It just doesn’t sound right. Once you hear the first note of the song you know it has to end on that same note. That’s how cadences work. Time for some examples

After an introduction that goes on for a while, we hear JT’s lady killing voice come in at :44. He says, “I can’t wait till I get’chu on the floor good lookin.” Based on what your brain knows, the root note has been established in your head. Did  this phrase end on that note? It should sound like this isn’t quite the resolution, therefore this is a HC. “Goin on so hot just like an oven” again, it hasn’t quite resolved yet, another HC. Come on JT let’s see that music theory in action! “…but its so fine” Ahhh that V I in action. It’s so sweet. He really had us hanging there with not 1, not 2, but 3 HC before finally resolving on a PAC.

Lets skip ahead to 1:21 for redundancies sake. “As long as i got my suit and tie…let me show you a few THINGS” a PAC. The chorus then repeats the PAC with different words, well done JT I knew you wouldn’t leave us hanging.

Whew. I don’t know about you but Justin Timberlake is always hot.

Now that you see how cadences work, it’s time to show you why all songs have become 4 chord songs.

If you don’t know every word to this song, you will one day when you go to college. It’s so catchy, easy to remember, easy to feel. With our newfound knowledge of cadences we can figure out why.

Ignore the melody and the singing for now. Listen to the background chords. what do you hear? One note per measure for 4 measures, repeated over and over again. The same 4 notes. The scale used is irrelevant; the steps are what our brain associates with resolving chords. The steps here are I V mVI IV. Apply it to any scale, repeat, add in emotional lyrics about love, proceed to make millions of dollars.

No, but really

What kind of cadence is this? You lied to me, you said all PAC are V I not IV I! What is this strange new cadence that all of these songs are using?

At last we get to the last type of cadence I haven’t talked about yet the Inauthentic Cadence. The reason that this cadence is used in nearly every pop song post 1990, is that it can be looped back upon itself over and over. It doesn’t quite resolve, but it doesn’t leave as much to be desired as a HC.

Sure its a funny video, but seriously hundreds of artists get away with using only one single cadence per song repeated over and over until the end. Its almost magical how perfect this cadence is, it’s so GOOD. Right?

I can’t be the only one who thinks this is lazy song writing that anyone with a keyboard and a computer could make in a few hours. The only actual decision you need to make is what words come next.

That is more 90’s-00’s, there is a new type of cadence in town being used in pop music. let’s take a look at it.

The verse is the part to notice, the chorus follows the 4 chords guide above (facepalm)

Again the verse, the chorus demonstrates a  different 4 chord structure while still an IAC

That’s right, the new cadence that is all the rage is I I I I. I mean who needs notes anyway? lets just pick a note and some cool beat above it and repeat it for the whole song. That way we can make a song in  1/4th the time it would take to make a 4 chord song! People only care about the lyrics these days anyway nobody will notice that we are slowly sucking any music theory that is left out of the industry. Plus its only 99 cents! (well, now its 1.29 on itunes)

Please don’t give these people your money. Don’t reward lazy songwriting and over-production. There is more to music then a beat and words. I know it’s hard because it’s catchy, it’s easy to dance to, but I for one will not stand in silence as the recording industry destroys the theory that classical composers have established for the last 3 centuries.
In my next post I will talk about album song order, the good the bad and the cliché.

How to use song structure (when there is meaning in more than just the lyrics)

Preface with some back story, in case you don’t know the story of Beethoven’s life

Fast forward some years after Mozart is dead, this guy is born. His father, a huge fan of classical music especially Mozart, decided that no matter what Beethoven was going to become a professional composer. When Ludwig wasn’t so successful l he wanted to quit. Because of this his dad verbally and physically abused him. Once Ludwig was old enough and his father had passed, he  began to write  music professionally. He wasn’t a child prodigy, it took him years of training and practice to become well known.  His first 4 symphonies were not as successful as he wanted. During this time he started to notice a ringing in his ears.  The doctor diagnosed that he was going deaf. Imagine having your hopes and dreams crushed in a single moment, knowing you will lose the one tool you need to make your dreams a reality. Imagine failing not only yourself, but your dead father who you so badly wanted to impress and now think you never will. What would you do? Beethoven contemplated suicide. Between losing his hearing and the inability to create the masterpiece he wanted, he found little meaning in his life. Then something amazing happened…

Everyone on earth knows this motive, DUN DUN DUN DUNNNNN    DUN DUN DUN DUNNNNNN

This motive represents “fate knocking at the door” as he described it, or the inevitability of his own hearing loss/thoughts of suicide. Notice that not only are the two melodic lines using this motive, but the entire ‘A’ section uses only this motive, moving around the orchestra on different pitches. Literally the whole thing is that same rhythm used in a different way until part B. Fate is knocking, and he’s not going to stop.

Then part B comes, (:55)and it is peaceful, beautiful, juxtaposing the first theme in part A. why did Beethoven do this? Parts A and B are supposed to be similar, often in the same key, same tempo, but this is totally different. Which is exactly what Beethoven wanted. This is a different emotion that you are supposed to feel at this point, this is Beethoven realizing, I may be going deaf, but listen to how beautiful music is! listen to what I can create! I will not let fate prevent me from this feeling. It follows a more typical format for a B section. Finally at 2:56…

DUN DUN DUN DUNNNNNN

Fate is still knocking, Beethoven is having conflicting feelings, he plays with the theme originally introduced in part A a lot more this time than was ever heard of in classical music at the time. It’s like a psychological battle within himself, on one hand he knows he is going deaf and that will ultimately lead to him being unable to hear his own music, but on the other hand he won’t let that stop him, he won’t commit suicide, he will follow his dreams. The piece was an instant masterpiece and the first movement is easily the most well known piece of classical music of all time, his motive from part A being recognized all around the world.

He didn’t necessarily change the structure, he still uses exposition, development, recapitulation. He revolutionized the world of music with his new improved use of song structure. He uses the structure to help the audience understand what feelings he is trying to portray and tell the story he needed to. This post is going to be about using song structure effectively. It doesn’t necessarily have to be different, it doesn’t even have to be very intricate (Beethoven’s 5th mvmt 1 is simply A B A B coda) but it is used to send a more powerful message than you can send with just lyrics or melodies.


For our first example, I’m using a band that is often looked down upon for “selling out.” their first album, is almost entirely screamo, and totally my kind of music. Over time they slowly developed more and more pop-like tendencies. Anyway…

The structure in this song is a bit more complex than those in the previous post. It starts with an A part, then a B, then C, then a D, finally coming to the chorus. There are many distinctive themes here, parts A through C are eerie and creepy, and as if telling the story of 2 lovers who are destined to fail, then part D and the chorus are more melancholy, as if regretful of the result of the relationship. The song goes through these parts again, then as per rock norm enters a bridge section, which goes back to the eerie foreboding feeling, before introducing a very dramatic and sad chord progression (and a female vocalist). The song goes back and forth between this theme of a evil-foreboding sound and a melancholy sad sound. Why do they do this?

The lyrics can help us understand here.
Parts A-C are from the voice of a more sinister protagonist, telling the story as it happened (“before the story begins…”) he seems to be pretty dark and angry, he tells us in the first verse that he, “ripped her heart out right before her eyes.” Once the sad feeling part D and the chorus begin again he seems to be regretful and mourning his decisions in the past, as he is looking back from the future. They use the different parts of the song to represent the protagonist at different points in his life to tell the story in this way. One voice is acting as he did during the relationship. He becomes resentful and breaks her heart with seemingly cruel intentions, but now that he has matured he realizes what they had was good but he can never get it back. The structure of the song  helps tell the story by making it clear to the listener which voice is speaking. If it wasn’t for the change in tone due to the structure of the song the listener would probably be confused, as the lyrics seem to change meaning and go back and forth between anger and sorrow. The next example also uses structure to portray two different voices.

Most people like this song for the sick guitar solo at the end, and probably haven’t heard many other Coheed songs (maybe the suffering). This song is not much like the rest of their work, but for this case a great use of structure for effect.

Long ass instrumental intro that repeats two times, not much to say here.

Ah at long last some lyrics. We can call this part A. The singer, and the progression that pounds itself into your head by the end, seems to be building up, angry towards his significant other, accusing them of being dishonest, not really loving him, using him, etc. Then we get to 1:54, the song changes, and so does the feeling of the singer. Now the lyrics seem to say that he is upset that the relationship is ending. Confusing when put together with part A but since the structure causes this change it makes more sense to the listener.

At 3:32, as per all the rock songs previously posted, and in expected fashion, after A B A B we here a bridge which leads into the guitar solo mentioned above. The lyrics end on a point of indecision, “please make up your mind girl, before I hope you die” then back into the angry, building chord progression that has been going on in the verses for the entire song. Here he uses the lyrics to transition WITH the structure back into the part A feeling. “…before i hope you die” is definitely an angry thing to say, but “please make up your mind girl” is more like the singer really wishing that he didn’t have to be left in the dark while his woman plays with his feelings, in a sad context.  The lyrics used in conjunction with the structural transitions really add to the effect of the song?.It tells how the narrator is both angry that she is playing with him, but also sad because he really wants to be with her, and he can’t quite decide what action to take as he waits for her to commit to him.

Now for something entirely different

Time to force my opinion on you, as this is one of my favorite songs by my favorite group The Dillinger Escape Plan. Lets stay focused on good use of song structure to enhance song meaning here, I feel this is an especially strong example as it pushes the boundaries of music theory to its limits (grain of salt again, I am very biased).

The song starts off right away, no intro, no anything, into its chaotic madness. This is part A. at :19, there is a brief interlude between parts, then they play part A once again. After this a new theme is introduced at :43, a fast descending line and constant snare hits. Then it changes again at 1:04 into a quarter note triplet feel part C,(used in almost all electronica during the build section, as this part is also a build section. just a fun fact)  At 1:13, after a huge snare hit, and a vocal pickup the song has a sort of ‘drop’ while retaining the triplet feel, then finally at a 1:21 all members of the band nonsensically pound on their instruments and slowly descend into calm nothing, before a piano (a piano?!) picks up at 1:51.

Due to the way DEP is, we will consider everything before this point as part A. While it splits up into a bunch of different themes, they have a way of randomly changing the groove to go along with the vocal line, not following any particular key of rhythmic patterns for an extended amount of time. At 1:51, this changes into a 4 chord progression as you are probably more comfortable listening to, this whole section will be part B, including the slight change at 2:50. Hopefully based on the previous 3 examples at this point you notice something has probably changed in what the song is about, even if you had no idea what he was saying pre-1:51. The structure lends itself to say that this is different than part A, and is probably representing something different. I’ll explain the meaning of the song after we finish chugging through the rest of the structure.

This part concludes at 3:15 on what in music theory is called an Inauthentic Cadence. My next post will be about Cadences and will go more in depth on what that means, but basically it leaves you feeling like this isn’t quite the end of the song, and you are prepared for something more. Even as someone who has never listened to something like this before, at this point you should expect the song to change once again into what we will call part C. Sure enough…

Wow, no matter how many times I listen to this song it catches me off guard every time. It is so incredibly chaotic,and angry, even more so than part A. Yet another, 3rd idea is being portrayed here. Every example discussed previously has gone back at this point to repeat part A, based on the exposition, development, recapitulation structure used by Mozart, but this seems to be an entirely different theme.

So what does it mean? its time for me to come clean. The lyrics in part A are by the singer looking back on when he believed in god, and how he had his doubts but he held onto his faith due to the teachings of popular religion (I know this is a slippery slope for some of you, I don’t mean to offend you this is just my interpretation of the lyrics) “backwards is your fascination myth” saying, that religion was not founded based on the stories in religious texts, but that the stories were created to justify the religions greater being, “it seems fiction is hard to break.” He ends part A at the point where he eventually does lose his faith, and a sonic representation of this feeling of finally giving up is the madness at 1:21. Then we get to part B

Part B is now the singer as himself just after losing his faith, questioning those who still believe. “How do I live without you?” “you are the ones who build up walls around yourselves to shield your lives from fear.” “if there was no consequence could you stay inside the lines, leave your guilt behind?” During this part he is not so much angry as he is trying to convince others to stop believing , as he now realizes he was in the wrong for all those years and they too can be saved from the fear of a greater beings consequences. Part A was him losing his faith, part B is a call to those who still have it, now we get to the finale part C
I’m sure if you are a fan of music (which everyone is let’s face it) you have a favorite set of lyrics. These in part C are mine. Grain of salt time, take it as you will. In this last part the singer is very angry with popular religion; “those lips, crooked sadistic words” meaning preachers try and convince the members of their religion to live in fear of a greater being. The final line is repeated “suffering is love” several times until the last time he changed it to “suffering is NOT love” meaning that living in fear, or suffering, due to a greater being, is not how you should live.

Part A is in voice  1, speaking of how he used to believe, part B is voice 2, questioning those who believe, with sympathy, part C is voice 3, directly calling out the leaders of popular religion in anger to stop their teachings. If the whole song was just a mindless mush of chaos like parts A and C are, the listener would have trouble interpreting what the lyrics mean, but due to the way they structured the song they can more easily understand that each part is representing a different idea.
Hopefully now when listening to a song, you will easily be able to identify the structure of the song and appreciate the way the artist uses it to assist in sending the message they wish to tell. In the next post we will learn about Cadences, or as you might think of it chord progressions, and get to the bottom of why every song just uses the same four chords over and over again.

Song Structure 101 (why do all these songs sound the same?)

Many years ago this guy names Johan Sebastian Bach decided he was going to write an absurd amount of music. It was like his job. He wrote hundreds of pieces, ranging from chorals, sonatas, to string quartets. His music was then arranged over and over for every imaginable group of instruments so that anybody could play it. How did he write so much music in his 1 mortal life?

Formula.

He had a winning formula that he could apply over and over again to produce a new piece of music with very little creative effort. You simply pick a key, a time signature, and an instrument and then plug in notes in his formula until you get to the end. Does this method sound familiar? it should because it has been happening ever since, even to today’s “pop” music.

Over time the formula “meta” changed. Meaning a new formula would start to get popular and everyone would use that for a while, until a new one came out again etc. Around the time of Mozart a form called sonata form was very popular. almost every 1st movement of almost every symphony of that time period was in sonata form. sonata form is like this: exposition, development, recapitulation. (http://library.thinkquest.org/22673/forms1.html) To put it into lamens terms, first you write the beginning, which is supposed to introduce the theme of the piece, then you write another theme, then back to the first. Then you have the development, which leaves a bit more freedom to the composer, where the bulk of the music happens. After that you literally do the first part again with small variations, which mean maybe changing the rhythm a little or the order of notes, but the two themes are the same. Finally you have the coda, the end, the grand finale. Self explanatory what that usually sounds like. to make it even easier, you have part A, part B, part A, part C, part A B A again.

Now I’m going to try and force my opinion on you.

For this reason, I can’t stand to listen to Mozart. Don’t get me wrong, he contributed a lot to the world of music and has a few standout masterpieces, but all of his music follows this formula. once you have heard one song, you can essentially know exactly what is going to happen next. For some reason, people loved this aspect of his music.  They wanted to be able to sit down and enjoy the talent of the musicians and the spectacle of an orchestra without having to think anything about what was going to happen. The reason this works is over time, once you know what to expect, it makes the music more gratifying to the ear. You think to yourself “ah I love that part that comes next, I can’t wait for it to happen even though I already know what it is.”
“just wait for the drop!”

Do you see what I’m getting at?

Now that I got the boring history lesson over with, let’s see how a current song in american pop culture formulates itself, then see if we can find anywhere that the same formula duplicates itself. We will start with this one:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NOubzHCUt48

The song starts off with the chorus, introducing what the song is going to be about (which I will leave open for speculation to stay focused on the song structure here)

Right at 37 seconds, did you realize you knew exactly what was going to happen, yet still couldn’t help but nod your head to the beat as it came in? how did you know that?

Shortly after this initial “drop” the into is over, and the first verse begins. Lets call it part A. Then a melodic line comes in at about 1:08, lets call this part B (even though the chord progression stays the same, it is different, just as the 1st and second themes in a Mozart piece would be). Now at 1:22 the chorus introduced at the beginning of the song comes back. From this point forward in the song, after reading this, you should be able to predict exactly when this chorus is going to come back again. We will call the chorus part C.

So far we have C A B C

After this at about 2:08 what i have called part A returns. Then part B again. After part B we are expecting to hear part C once again, instead the artist delays the entrance of C in order to add some flavor, or something. Well played Ke$ha.  Alas, after a few measures it does return with the final part c.

The structure start to finish was C A B C A B C

Exposition, development, recapitulation, development, recapitulation. looks like ke$ha knows a thing or two about our old friend Mozart. lets do another song, with an entirely different artist.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qQkBeOisNM0

Again the song begins with part C, or the chorus, almost in exactly the same fashion as Die Young, the beat comes in immediately after. Once the beat is established, the verse starts, followed by a slightly different part, then back into the chorus.

C A B C

The second time, they change things up again. The audacity! they do two sets of A B, followed by another “variation” just like in die young, before once again going into the end half of part C.

C A B C A B A B C

Slightly different from die young, omitting the middle chorus section to spice it up. but still only 3 different parts, and it is still split up as exposition, development, recapitulation, development x2, recapitulation. Ke$ha and Fun should get together to talk about their love for Mozart, because clearly they are both big fans of his song structure.

Now for something a little different.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o1tj2zJ2Wvg

OH NO HE DIDN’T

Yes I did, time to break down an 80’s classic rock tune.

This one doesn’t start with the chorus, instead it is a bit more exciting by introducing the thematic guitar riff that then repeats throughout the song. Cool, good job GnR

then we have part A, part B (when the melody goes down a step or so in tone) then C

Then back to A, then B, then… gosh do you see what I’m getting at?

After the second C, a new part of the song comes in where slash plays a guitar solo, the key doesn’t change, nor do the chords, so this like in some nights and die young is to spice up the song, play with the formula.

Then back to another set of A B C

WHOA there mister know it all music guy, something different happens next! that means GnR is more creative and valid than the 2 songs from current times! yes you got me, this is what is often called the bridge. Rock groups often take this opportunity to play a guitar solo and then slowly build up back into part C one last time. we will call the bridge part D for consistency sake.

So the final form is A B C A B C A B C D C

Well gosh when you put it that way it doesn’t look THAT much more creative, and aside from the bridge there are still 3 parts of the song repeated over and over.

Continuing my rampage, lets take a swing at the Beatles

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iim6s8Ea_bE

A nice little guitar intro, which to be precise is brought back later in the bridge but one step at a time I suppose…

The verse is split up a little differently, that’s just how it was for the time period, but the similarity is still apparent. First it does part A, then goes directly into the chorus. Part B isn’t here. yet.
A C A C
Like in the Guns n Roses piece, at this point the song takes a turn, but since this part is repeated it can now be identified as part B.

A C A C B A C B A C

Alright so the Beatles played with the form a bit here, but if you take a broader look, the exposition is the first set of A C A C and the development is B A C B which then leads into the recapitulation A C.

Are you sick of it yet? well now its time to change it up, this next song I actually enjoy, and while at first seems astronomically different from the other examples you will soon see follows the same guidelines

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QBUgYtRvvkQ

You see, metal is often looked down upon because of “screaming” and its overall aggressive tendency. Look how similar this song is too the ones above.
First, of course an instrumental introduction as most songs in the broader genre of rock always do. Then part A, then a chorus (half chorus to be precise as you will notice later), Then, using the instrumental part from the beginning, part B. then A, C, B again(two times this time). Whats going to happen next? that’s right the bridge/solo section.  Alas there it is. They go right back into C, repeating it  2 times. At this point the song is essentially over, so they have the outro, or coda as per sonata form.

so we have A C B A C Bx2 D Cx2

Again, if you look at the overall structure, the first time through A C B is the exposition, which is played 2 times, then the development section or bridge, and then the recapitulation. even in a genre as “obscure” as metal the form holds true. Mozart you clever bastard.

As you can see the specific parts can be played around with and have the order changed sometimes to add flare and uniqueness to the song, but the overall structure holds true. Surely after listening to the first or maybe by the second example you could predict what was going to happen next in the song, because you have heard it before, a thousand times.

Alright, so what if they all use the same structure? it works! I like all those songs! I can sing along and tap my feet, I don’t have to worry about thinking anything at all while listening, everything happens exactly as I would expect it to.

Is that really all you want from a song? If so, there is nothing for you here. Next time we will observe song structures that do not necessarily follow the rules, but instead use the structure to help tell the story or otherwise make the song more interesting.

Just another frustrated fan

My goal with this blog is to educate the public (you) on what makes up  modern american pop-culture music, and why I think there is something fundamentally wrong with the direction the music industry is going. Sure, take my opinions with a grain of salt because I’m just another frustrated fan of “good” music who wishes people didn’t listen to “bad” music, but hopefully I can at least share my knowledge of studying music theory, history, and composition, and apply it to songs you know. Using this knowledge I hope to expose methods used across the industry to make music that have been established for years and repeated over and over again. This doesn’t mean I’m trying to make you hate what you love listening to, just to understand how it all works so that you actively listen to your music and think about more than just the lyrics and the beat.

I like complexity. I like chaos, dissonance, and above all, I like it when a song really makes you think. So don’t mind me when I try to impose my opinion on you, like I said I’m just another frustrated fan