Man, does that song ever suck!

Originally posted  January 11, 2011

I love all styles of music – well not all to be honest, but most. There are certainly some genres, composers, and bands I’m not a big fan of. But that doesn’t mean I can’t always appreciate the music that I may not choose to listen to.

People enjoy varying genres, performers, or bands for different reasons. Too often, however, some people get the terms “good” or “bad” confused with “like” or “dislike.”

There are types of music that I fully acknowledge as “good” musically speaking, but that I don’t necessarily “like.” I need to be careful not to say something is of poor quality simply because I don’t enjoy it. And the terms “good” and “bad” are mild compared to some of the adjectives people toss about so vehemently regarding a particular song, singer, or band. I’ve heard (or perhaps been a part of) some pretty intense “discussions” in the past that seemed almost as divisional as politics in the U.S. these days.

So what determines what we like and don’t like musically? I’m certainly not a psychologist, but I’ll take a stab at it simply based upon personal experiences and observations.

I would argue that the vast majority of our personal tastes are formed when we are quite young. Many of my personal musical likes and dislikes are rooted in my early childhood. I grew up hearing a lot of classical music being played in the house – on the piano by my father and on his stereo. I started to play the piano at a fairly young age, but it was never forced upon me. My Dad as well as my older brothers had several Beatles albums kicking around which I’m sure I wore out on my cheap little turntable (and being in the mid-70s this was when the Beatles were “old” people’s music according to many of my friends – but I persisted in listening). So my early musical experiences were associated with positive times. Of course there are exceptions to the experience having to be positive. Beethoven was often awakened in the middle of the night by his drunken father and forced to practice until the sun came up. I’m very grateful this didn’t deter him from a life dedicated to composing!

Another phase of life when music is very influential is teenage-hood. Most adults these days will tend to favour the music that was part of their culture when they were teenagers or young adults. It’s at this phase that strong emotional bonds are made between peers, and young generations are trying to find an identity. Music has always been a very powerful means of uniting people and providing cultural role models. Most of us can imagine someone we know saying something along the lines of “Music these days just isn’t the same as it used to be when I was your age.” The funny thing about this is that every generation as they become parents experiences the same thing!

Another important element in enjoying a certain style of music is the ability to understand it. Some music simply isn’t all that easy to listen to, and takes focus and concentration. A great number of Bach fugues are tough to follow unless you understand some of the intricacies of counterpoint. But when you work at it long enough and begin to understand it, there comes an “Aha!” moment when you “get it.” A lot of progressive jazz and rock is very similar. Most of these styles of music tend to be more appreciated by musicians, who would be more likely to understand more of the detail involved. But of course I am generalizing here, as I’m sure there are many exceptions.

And of course, tastes can change over the years and new tastes be acquired. If this weren’t so, I’m sure no one would be a coffee drinker. But for some reason (probably wanting to fit in), most of us persist and eventually come to like it (or addicted to it). It’s the same for music. The more you hear and become familiar with a style of music you may not have previously liked, the more it may grow on you. That’s what happened to me as a teenager, as many of my friends were into heavy metal. As a result, some thought I was a bit odd as I would finish listening to an album of Chopin Etudes, and then put on Sad Wings of Destiny by Judas Priest (which I still love by the way – you know, they just don’t make music like they used to!).

On the flip-side, there is plenty of music I don’t “like.” It’s not a matter of not appreciating it, but for unknown reasons I simply don’t enjoy listening to it. The Eagles are an example of this – amazing song writing – musically and lyrically, amazing playing, and amazing production. They have all of the elements of a great band and have stood the test of time. But I just don’t like them. Why? I have no idea. Maybe my older brother was beating on me when the music was playing in the background sometime in my early childhood, and listening to them now makes me feel like I have bruised arms. Well, I’m being silly here, but you get my point. The same for U2. I just don’t actually like most of their stuff, but you would never hear me criticize them. I’ve even given screamo a fair shake (that is if you call allowing my daughter to have it on once in a while a fair shake), but I just can’t do it. Perhaps it’s nothing more than an age and noise tolerance thing. Maybe if I locked myself in a room and played Eagles, U2, and screamo albums all day I may come to enjoy them more (or go crazy). Who knows? But I can’t be bothered, as I have no shortage of music to listen to that I do like – old and new.

Having said that, I do think it’s important to give all styles of music a good try, especially newer stuff or styles you haven’t necessarily previously enjoyed, as we don’t want to fall into the “Music just isn’t the same these days” trap. And there certainly is authentically “bad” music out there, but I don’t worry about it too much, as it never usually sticks around for long. And of course, it’s also important to remember not to criticize someone because of their musical tastes, no matter how much you may dislike it.

Anyhow, off to play some Ludwig on the piano and then listen to some old Priest. Ah, the good old days!

I went to a concert last night and was reminded of how easily I get bored.

Originally posted February 3, 2011

At the Centennial Concert Hall here in Winnipeg last night I saw, more importantly heard, the world famous string quartet Kronos perform. I was reminded of how easily I can get bored at concerts – not because Kronos was dull, but quite the opposite. Once the main program was over, and following three encores, I realized how entranced I had become. I had been fully engaged in the performance and had become completely unaware of my surroundings. This is how any concert of any genre, or movie, or play, or any type of live performance should be. Unfortunately, more often than not I find myself daydreaming or wondering what’s for dinner the next day. But not last night.

So I began to ponder why this is. In a previous blog I had discussed how I felt that “melody” was the key factor in a song that stands the test of time. But last night I began to wonder what is the essential ingredient, the pièce de résistance, of a good live performance. After thinking through the elements of a great concert: superb acoustics; good lighting; creative visual displays; a very receptive audience; and technically and brilliantly executed playing of good repertoire, I realized that I had experienced all of these aspects before in many other concerts and had still been as bored as a pacifists pistol.

However, what Kronos had was “ownership.” They owned the stage, the repertoire, the playing, and most importantly the audience’s undivided attention. They did this through a confidence that was sensed as soon as they walked onto the stage – not an arrogance – but a confidence in what they knew they could and would do.

And here is the crux of the whole matter. They are able to accomplish this confidence because they “own” the musical phrasing and expression. Although each member of the group is a technically superb player, it is their exceptional ability to shape musical phrases within an enormous dynamic range that draws you in and holds your attention. I’ve heard many performers on a wide array of instruments of all genres, from classical to heavyrock, who play with mind-blowing technique and precision – but many of them are just plain bland. Without authentic musical expression, it just puts me to sleep (or daydream about dinner). In fact, I have heard some amazing performers play all sorts of wrong notes, but because they are focused on musicality and expression, those errors are easily forgiven. And of course, when great technique combines with powerful expression, true magic happens – as Kronos has demonstrated.

Currently I am studying composition with Winnipeg composer Jerry Semchyshyn. We are working through a wide array of contemporary repertoire to study what techniques and creative devices the composers have employed. Anyone familiar with contemporary “classical” music – music by composers such as Penderecki, Corigliano, and Glass, will know that most often traditional harmonies and rhythms are not used. Art music such as this is often thought of as weird and often dissonant. But what Kronos exemplifies is that with proper expression and control, true music is not dependent upon any particular harmonic system. True music lies within the artist’s ability to communicate – to keep you on the edge of your seat as a phrase is seductively spun out.

By no means does this concept apply only to classical music. It applies to ALL music. Some of the greatest rock bands of all time know this. Great guitarists like Jimi Hendrix, David Gilmore, and Brian May know this. Great singers like Freddy Mercury, Robert Plant, and Bono know this. They understand musicality – the ability to communicate clearly and passionately through their instruments and voices. And a singer doesn’t even need to be all that great pitch-wise. They just need to be passionate and have confidence.

But as I said before, this passion, confidence, and expression when combined with great technique leads to a whole new level of brilliance. As has sometimes been attributed to Beethoven, “To be a musician, you must have the spirit of a gypsy and the discipline of a soldier.”

Getting Better with Age – Why Elton Rules

Originally posted  May 23, 2011

It had been a few years since I attended an arena-style rock concert, so I wasn’t quite sure what to expect when my wife Shannon and I went on a recent Saturday to see Elton John perform live in Winnipeg.

Well, I actually did expect it to be pretty good, as that was what I had heard about his concerts. But I figured he was getting pretty old by now and perhaps didn’t have the energy and passion he used to have. Boy was I wrong!

The reason I was expecting it to be pretty decent in the first place was because I figured he had the money to put on a great stage show – plenty of special effects, choreographed dancers, and whatever other gimmicks big name performers use these days to keep the audience’s attention – but he had none of that. There was a large video screen behind the stage, as well as two smaller ones on either side. However, what struck me almost immediately was that the stage was relatively simple in nature, and that the lights were fairly basic. It became quite evident rather quickly that the show was about great music being performed by great musicians. Any modest effects were purely icing on the cake, being very secondary to the music.

With no warm-up band, the concert started right on time (well, actually 4 minutes late, which is technically “early” in the rock concert world). And it went on for almost 3 hours without a break – song after song after song. He performed several of his biggest hits as well as some of his newer lesser-known material. The entire sold-out arena was completely engaged from beginning to end, as Elton and his band delivered the goods with utmost precision.

As the show progressed, it became clear as to why Elton has been able to maintain a strong career for over four decades. His fame and accomplishments are the result of authentic talent. His songs are true songs, many of which defy being “dated.” He simply knows how to write great melodies, accompanied by great arrangements. And he can play the piano and sing far better than I had expected him to be able to do in a lengthy live situation. Even at his age, he performs with a passion which exemplifies an authentic love for what he does.

Many other performers have come and gone over the years, even filling stadiums and arenas for a season or two. But few have been able to maintain the high profile career that Elton has. Audiences can quickly tire of special effects and other stage antics that are often needed to keep them engaged. But when the music at its heart is great, being performed by a team of top-notch passionate musicians, all else fades into the background.

Apart from the fact that I found it too loud (OK, so I’m getting old), and I had to endure the sight of a couple near us that were clearly reliving a high school moment of grope-dancing, I will gladly go to see and hear him and his great band again anytime, anywhere. Saturday night was indeed alright.

How Great Film-Makers Break the Music Scoring Rules

Originally posted March 16, 2011

As I’ve currently been composing the score for the film Torn by Windy City Productions, I’ve been reminded of the various unique ways that music can be used in film. A well-composed score will enhance the desired emotional effect that the director is seeking. When a film score is properly written, it won’t distract from the visual elements. In other words, the viewer shouldn’t be overtly aware of when the supporting music comes in and out. However, if it is written well and mixed well with the audio from the scene (dialogue, etc.), it can have a powerful influence on the viewer’s emotional response.

However, as is often the case, the exception proves the rule. I will explore three famous scenes from three war films. In each of the scenes discussed, music is used in a unique way in which the viewer is very aware of the music and its impact.

As the main character Adrian Cronauer (Robin Williams), in Barry Levinson’s 1987 film Good Morning Vietnam, plays from the army base radio station the 1968 Louis Armstrong song What a Wonderful World, the film cuts to images of the war, specifically of the more questionable elements of the conflict and how it was impacting the average citizen. For those who have seen the movie, most will remember the scene, as the paradox between image and sound creates a strong emotional and reflective response on the inhumane aspects of war:

The second clip to be discussed is the famous helicopter scene from Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now released in 1979. Most often, film music is non-diagetic – meaning that the characters in the film do not hear the music. Diagetic music, on the other hand, is music within a scene where the characters are aware of it, such as a radio playing in the background, or music in a nightclub scene. Coppola brilliantly mixes these two techniques with the use of a recording of The Ride of the Valkyries from Richard Wagner’s opera Der Ring des Nibelungen. In this case, we can see the commander of the Air Cavalry Lieutenant Colonel Bill Kilgore (Robert Duvall) use a recording on tape to blast the music from a loudspeaker as the helicopters attack the village. If the music were used non-diagetically (as is normally done), it would still have worked very well. But because it used diagetically, it has the profound effect of creating a strong image of the pilots and soldiers, as they seem to be attempting to glorify the battle and to treat it almost as a game – and for those who know the movie, they do indeed end up surfing as the battle is still raging.  (Sorry – the embedding feature would not work for this clip – please link to the video below):

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GKaYOW9zMoY

The third example is from the 1998 film Saving Private Ryan by Steven Spielberg. This is very unique in that the scene below uses no music at all. The entire sequence has not a single note of music – from when the landing crafts touch down on the beaches of Normandy, until over twenty minutes later when Captain Miller (Tom Hanks) finally has a very brief moment to reflect on the battle. This length of footage with no music score is very rare in modern film-making. The film’s composer John Williams could have very easily written a great cue for the scene, and it likely would have worked very well. But Spielberg took a calculated risk. He was trying to create a sense of realism (quite effectively from what I’ve heard about people who were actually there on June 6, 1944). The lack of film score is accompanied by a “shaky” hand-held camera technique, used to create a sense of “being” there. Spielberg depended on great acting with great characters to draw the desired emotional effect from the viewers. The soldiers were depicted as very human and full of fear, as they were thrown into a very inhumane situation (unlike the too-cool-for-his-own-good Rambo-style movies). The superb special effects were used to serve the story well, and not just used because Spielberg had the budget to do it. The powerful audio sound effects of the battle and the lapping waves become the “music score” of the scene. I believe that adding non-diagetic music in this case would have diminished the impact of the scene rather than enhance it. It’s the attention to these little details that makes Spielberg such a great film maker:

As a composer, I’ve often been tempted to “over-score” a film. It’s especially easy to fall into that trap as computer music software has become so powerful. But just because one can certainly does not mean that one should. And as can be seen and heard by the above examples, music has a very powerful effect when used properly in films – and great film makers and film composers know when and when not to employ it. As Claude Debussy once said, “Music is the space between the notes.”

Is Anyone Else Tired of “In Your Face” Music?

Originally posted  December 30, 2010

Have you ever noticed the volume difference between a current recording and one from 25 or so years ago? It becomes very obvious if you were to play them back to back. Current pop recordings tend to be “in your face” while older recordings have far more dynamic range. So why is this and how is it affecting the quality of recorded music?

To understand what I’m getting at I will have to first give a brief description of audio compression. I’m not talking about digital data compression here (that is, however, worthy of discussing – but for another time), but analog compression that dates back several decades – long before the invention of the CD and mp3 technology. And for the audio engineers out there, I apologize for the lack of proper technical terminology.

When recording a sound, there is a limit to how loud or “hot” the input signal or source can be. If it’s too much, the recording becomes distorted. So essentially the volume of a recording is limited to the volume of the loudest part. For example, if you were recording a song where most of it was fairly quiet, but then had a passage that was very loud, you are essentially limited to keeping the input at a level relative to the louder section. If you had the input higher in order to get the quieter parts stronger, the louder passage would cause distortion when recorded.

A brilliant solution to the problem was the invention of audio level compression, also known as dynamic range compression. Essentially what happens is that the compressor squeezes down the “peaks” in the volume. As a result, the dynamic range is decreased (the difference between the loudest and quietest parts). Consequently, the overall volume level can be raised before distortion will occur. The more the peaks are squeezed down (compressed), the more the overall level can be increased. Even though compression works by squeezing down the peaks and making them quieter, the general effect is a perceived increase in the overall volume.

From a music producer or audio engineer’s point of view, this is an excellent tool. It can be used very effectively to “smooth” out a recording, enabling a much better and consistent mix to be created. For example, if a bass guitar player perhaps played a few notes too quietly, but otherwise played the perfect “take,” compression can be used to “smooth” it out rather than re-doing the take. Essentially, by “squeezing” the louder notes down, the quieter ones seem louder, thus creating a much smoother and consistent sounding recording. Compression works great on recording vocals for the same reason – to smooth the track out and make it easier to mix. Cymbals also sound great with compression, as the decay of a cymbal crash can be drawn out to increase the length of the trail – a nice effect. And not only is compression used on individual tracks of a recording, but is also used on the final overall mix (mastering) to help smooth out the overall sound.

So what’s the problem then? Well, as always seems to be the case, great tools eventually get used for the wrong reason. In the 1960s, competition was fierce between radio stations on the AM band. Each station wanted to “stand out” as a listener tuned the radio dial. Compression was used in the studio to keep the “peaks” down in order to increase the overall volume. Once one station did it, they all had to do it simply to keep up. A tell-tale sign that lots of compression is being used is if the breaths of a speaker or singer are way out of proportion (much louder than normal). TV commercials are notorious for this – I’m sure you’ve noticed how loud and “in your face” they can sound during a break in a movie.

But as time has gone on, compression has been used more and more in the music recording studio, and then is compounded on the airwaves by the radio and television stations that apply their own compression. As a result, everything tends to sound “in your face.”

So back to the music and the problem. What the overuse of compression has essentially done over the last few decades is to dramatically decrease the dynamic range in the vast majority of music recordings. Essentially everything is loud – even the “quiet” parts. This certainly has some very practical applications where you may not want sudden or unexpected volume spikes, or the quiet parts to be too quiet – listening to music in your car for example. But the problem is much like the original competition on the AM radio dial – once one does it, everyone has to do it to be heard. And as a negative consequence, most current recordings, especially in commercial pop music (in all genres), have virtually no dynamic range. The ears of listeners over the years have been systematically desensitized. Below is an example to show the increase of overall volume over the years. This is an excerpt from the Beatles song “Something,” as remastered several times over the years. Each time the track gets louder in order to blend in better with the current “sound” on contemporary recordings. Up to the 1993 master, all that’s happened is that the volume has increased – no big deal really. But the problem happens with the 2000 release. You’ll notice that in order to prevent distortion, the highest peaks need to be compressed, allowing the quieter parts to be raised in volume. But as a result, the dynamic range is decreased. In other words, the musical expressiveness of the original recording has been compromised.

File:Cd loudness trend-something.gif

Unfortunately many people now, especially younger ones, who have been constantly bombarded by highly compressed pop music have very little patience for expressive music that takes advantage of a broad dynamic range. I believe that is one of the many factors responsible for the decline of appreciation for classical and orchestral music. It simply isn’t “in your face” enough and requires focused listening.Classical recordings do indeed use compression, as well as radio stations that broadcast classical music, but not even remotely close to the same degree as pop music does. Anyone with children will likely have noticed the same concept being applied visually on kids’ and youth television shows and movies – bright colors, very short fast-paced scenes, and ever-present screaming and yelling  - an overstimulating assault on our senses.

But I have to admit that as a producer I also use it a lot. I simply need to in order to get the songs I produce on the radio. When I’ve had some of my previous recordings mastered for radio broadcast, I’ve asked the mastering engineer to use a good dose of compression – to get that “in your face” commercial sound. Guilty as charged. It doesn’t mean that I like it – I simply need my music to blend in with the current sound. In fact, we can get so used to the current “loud and in your face” sound that when we hear an older recording we sometimes think that something is wrong. It takes a few minutes to “re-sensitize” our ears to a broader dynamic range. And it often requires a quieter listening environment, more patience, and more focused listening to appreciate the subtle nuances of a quality recording with a broad dynamic range.

But once we are in the zone, it’s like a breath of fresh sonic air.

In Defense of Britney Spears, Auto-Tuning, and Electronic Music

Originally posted November 30, 2010

OK, let me be clear right from the top. I’m not a Britney Spears fan. When I have the time to sit down and listen to music, I usually gravitate to towards my favourite recordings of Rachmaninoff, Chopin, or Beethoven. Or if I’m in a more “current” mood, perhaps the Beatles, Pink Floyd, or Philip Glass, to name a few.

So why then am I defending Britney Spears? Well, frankly because I’m not a big fan of music snobbery. And for the sake of this article, I will use the name of Britney Spears simply to represent her type of entertainment, and you can replace her name with whoever you may dislike, whether it be Lady Gaga, Madonna, or the Jonas Brothers.

When I hear people complain about Britney – whether it be about her over-use of auto-tuning or her surgically enhanced body, I think people are comparing apples to oranges (or melons). Her type of entertainment is just that – entertainment. When one goes to a concert by such a performer, he or she is going for the whole package “experience” – the lights, the dancing, the choreography, the special effects, the loud pulsing music, and the crowds. So what if she is vocally and physically enhanced? Even when one knows that, it shouldn’t diminish the enjoyment of the spectacle. Have you ever heard someone leaving a movie theatre say something along the lines of “I’m sure those were only special effects with those spaceships and explosions, even though they looked and sounded real, and I’m sure those actors, even though they were convincing, were only acting. And the main actor/actress (insert your favourite actor’s name here) was just too good-looking to be real – so much so that I just couldn’t look at them. Man, I shouldn’t have wasted my money.” Not likely. It’s called the suspension of disbelief. And that’s all performers like Britney are doing – entertaining, along with all of the included special effects – audible and visual.

I kind of get the sense that people who complain about her style of digitally enhanced music somehow feel threatened that their favourite type of music is somehow at risk of disappearing. I’m not sure why. The music industry no longer has as much control as it used to. We are currently far more freer than we have ever been to decide for ourselves what we like, without major record companies limiting what we are exposed to. We all know that since the advent of digital recording technology and the Internet, the rules of the music business have changed radically. But that’s a good thing. It has given the unknown but talented music artist an enormous opportunity to get his or her product “out there.” All it takes is a little Internet marketing savvy and some time. Of course this has led to a whole lot of junk out there, with everyone and his or her dog now able to afford high-quality recording technology. But so what? It doesn’t mean you have to like it at all. No one’s forcing you. You are free to work through as much as you want and find the music you enjoy and appreciate. In fact, the same digital and electronic technology that enables Britney Spears to do what she does has given us are own opportunities – the Internet, YouTube, affordable high-quality recording gear, MP3s (debatable of course), and on and on. Anyone who spends anytime on YouTube (admit it, you probably spend way more time on there than you should) can attest to the fact you can find a plethora of talented musical performers – without digital enhancement – to suit your personal tastes. Has Britney ruined this for you? I doubt it.

There have always been large numbers of people who enjoy “pop” music. That’s what pop means – popular. Just like the American Idol TV show. It’s a popularity contest and doesn’t even shy away from that fact, as the winner is chosen by popular vote. And I personally enjoy the show because of the people – the rags to riches stories. And even if it were all “rigged” – who cares? I enjoy it for its overall entertainment value, not the music. To bash the show because of what one may perceive as damaging to the music industry is missing the point. It’s not about the music. It’s about the popularity of the contestants. How has this harmed other types of music and its performers? It hasn’t.

Along with pop music in any given generation, there have always been those with more refined musical tastes. In fact, if it weren’t for the existence of musically “fluffy” pop, there would be no backdrop to highlight more creative and innovative music. Without the crowd, how can one “stick out” of it? The existence of pop certainly hasn’t ruined the performances of my favourite contemporary pianists – Valentina Lisitsa, Evgeny Kissin, Lang Lang, or Hyun-Jung LIM. I can access those artists anytime I like on YouTube, and I’m quite sure Britney Spears has had no impact on their performances whatsoever. Zilch. Maybe that’s a bad example, as pianos are usually pre-tuned and don’t need auto-tuning.

Now, if Britney and her fans were claiming that she was one of the best vocalists on the scene, while obviously employing auto-tuning, then that would be an entirely different issue worthy of criticizing. But even if those claims are being made, I highly doubt anyone is taking them seriously. And performers who do try to pull one over on us eventually get found out (remember Milli Vanilli?). Or if people insist that we MUST like her music and spend money on it, that would also be an issue worth fighting. But so far, no one has knocked on my door to evangelize me into the music of Britney Spears. And I’m always free to change the channel if it gets in my face (as long as the remote is handy).

So I’m quite happy to let fans of Britney Spears carry on and spend their money on her products and concerts. I don’t care. It doesn’t bother me in the least. Like wise old Thomas Jefferson once said regarding other people’s personal beliefs and preferences, “It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.”

Why do some songs stand the “Test of Time?”

Originally posted November 28, 2010

Why do some songs stand the “test of time,” yet others fade into obscurity?

Have you ever wondered what ingredients go into the making of a good song, or why some songs stick around in our collective conscience for years and years? And others that were all the rage in any given generation are quickly forgotten?

Ever since the development of musical notation in the Middle Ages, each generation or so has given birth to songs that have survived not only in written notation, but in popularity. Even more evident in our day and age, since the advent of recording technology, is the endurance of some songs to the next generation and beyond, while the vast majority simply disappear. But why?

First, let’s analyze the elements of a song:

  1. The Melody – this is usually considered the “core” of a song. It’s the part you would typically whistle or hum. The melody in its barest sense is simply a combination of linear pitches and rhythms.
  2. The Tempo and Rhythm – the speed of the song and the “beat” or pulse of the song that supports and gives the song momentum.
  3. The Harmony – you know, the chords – the C majors, F minors, G 7ths, or F# minor 11ths that fill out the sound of the song.
  4. The Texture or Timbre – this refers to the type of sound, the musical colors used, so to speak.
  5. The Lyrics – the words that are sung.
  6. The Genre –  whether it be classical (used in a very loose sense here), country, jazz, rock, pop, techno, hip-hop, and so on. And anyone with children knows just how important this is – one certainly wouldn’t want to confuse “thrash metal” with “screamo.”
  7. The Production – I am referring specifically to “recorded” songs here – the quality of the sounds, mixing, and performances of the players.

One could probably list several more subtle elements of a song, but this list should suffice. So, do all songs have the above elements? Although they certainly could, they definitely don’t need to.

So then, what elements can we do without? Although rhythm is always present naturally in the melody itself, an underlying “beat” is not necessary. And of course harmony, in a vertical sense isn’t necessary, as one can sing a song as a single line. A song’s texture can be varied and still be the same song, and the genre doesn’t necessarily define a song either, as a song can often be arranged in an alternate style.

We are left then with lyrics and melody. But one can hum a song without articulating the words. And let’s not forget the thousands of “pieces” of music from centuries past that have survived in popularity, like the works of Beethoven, Mozart, Chopin, Bach, and so on. The majority of the works by these composers are instrumental, with no vocals or lyrics at all. Technically, these works shouldn’t be considered songs, as songs have words by definition, so I’ll be loose with the definition for the sake of this article. And even then one may recognize the melody of a famous aria, but not have a clue regarding the words.

So it simply seems that a song, or piece of music, will stand the test of time if it has a good melody at its core.

So then, what makes a good melody? Well, talking about music is a bit like “dancing about architecture” according to comedian Steve Martin. No amount of technical understanding or analysis can create art. It is said that Paul McCartney, one of the greatest song writers of all time, can’t even read music.

However, there are some basic elements of a strong melody worth mentioning:  a good balance between step-wise motion and leaps – too much of either makes it boring or disjunct; the phrases need to be long enough to develop shape, but not too long that they aren’t somewhat easily identifiable and memorable; and more than one apogee (peak) in the line will result in a melody that is somewhat stagnant and without a climax.

So it seems to boil down to this: one needs to apply the “campfire test” to any given song to see if it will stand the test of time. If you can sing or hum the song easily with a simple guitar strumming accompaniment without the support of a full band, then it may have a chance of survival. Even better if you don’t use the guitar and can easily sing or hum it “a cappella.”

So let’s look at Paul McCartney once again in his days with the Beatles. I believe the reason that so many of their songs have survived well until now is because they have great melodies at their cores. A creative performer or producer can easily transfer many of their songs to other genres, as exemplified by the vast number of Beatles songs that have been covered by other artists. Although many of their songs are somewhat poetic lyrically, one could easily argue that many of their songs are very “fluffy” lyrically. In their original forms, production-wise they were cutting-edge, with their producer George Martin pushing the boundaries of technology and drawing heavily on his abilities as a classical musician. Yet, although many of their recordings sound “dated,” current arrangements don’t sound dated to the 60s at all. And although they used strong vocal harmonies in many of their songs, those harmonies are not necessary in the least to sing the song.

You can apply the same analysis to any song or piece that’s been around for a long time, as far back as you want to go. Can you hum it or recognize someone else humming it easily? Many of the great classical pieces that have survived is because of the simple element of a strong melody. When you peel back the orchestration, the flourishes, and other superfluous elements, you are left with a good melody. The great works of Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven that you would recognize today exemplify this clearly. There were many other contemporary composers around at the time of these composers, but most, along with their music, have faded into obscurity.

Simple melody even within a solo section of a song makes the point as well. David Gilmour’s guitar solo from Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb” exemplifies this well. It is a very “melody-driven” solo, and is very memorable and hummable. When he uses his great technical playing skills, it is done to serve the melody, and not just to “show off,” unlike many of the insanely technically brilliant guitar players of recent decades whose music has been quickly forgotten.

I also believe marketing plays a valuable role in this process. A good melody alone won’t guarantee its survival. It certainly needs to be brought to people’s attention on a regular basis. However, once it is thoroughly established in our ears, its melody will determine whether or not our culture will remember it in the long term.

So, if you have children, and you can’t stand some of the music they listen to, take heart. The vast majority of it will vanish in the near future (in mere weeks for some artists and songs, as they are quickly considered so “yesterday”). But a small number of current songs will still be around in several years, whether in their original form, or redone by other artists to reflect more contemporary sounds.

So the next time you hear a pop song, apply the “campfire” test to it to get a sense if it may be around years from now. But in the end, who knows? I could be completely wrong. Only time will tell.

Kirk Smith