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Archive for the ‘Songwriting Tips’ Category

Why Being Catchy Isn’t Good Enough

Posted by Keith Freund On September - 2 - 2009COMMENT ON THIS POST

Today I was checking out one of my favorite blogs, Musformation, saw their post on this topic, and got inspired to finish a draft I started earlier in the year. Without further adieu:


Even if you’re not a musician, this scenario will probably be familiar to you: a group of people are debating the merits of a popular song (particularly one which can be considered objectively terrible) and someone* interjects, “but the melody gets stuck in your head.” Everyone nods in agreement because hey, if it’s catchy it must be a well written song. Right?


While a great song with a catchy melody is doubly effective, a terrible song that gets stuck in your head is still worthless. Some of you may remember the children’s show Lambchop’s Playalong, with its devastating outro, “The Song That Doesn’t End.”



But you won’t see Lambchop coming up on my playlist any time soon. In fact I would probably pay iTunes the 99 cents to never hear it again.


In other words, it’s not enough to merely write a memorable hook, and you can’t defend a song by saying it’s catchy. Though it can be tricky to write a catchy melody, catchiness has no value without the substance to back it up.


Catchiness is like a built-in reminder: if your song is great, people will be constantly reminded to buy it, seek it out, go to your show, etc. If your song is annoying, it will only remind people that you’re annoying.


Shari Lewis


*UPDATE: A day later, I’m checking out comments on Asher Roth’s “I Love College” video on YouTube and stumble upon this gem in response to commenters saying he sucks:

Evermorefading (9 hours ago) Show Hide
no but it is catchy and this is what pops up when you search catchy? rap although its not rap

The Answer to “Everything’s Been Done.”

Posted by Keith Freund On August - 25 - 20093 COMMENTS

If you spend a lot of your time around artists and musicians, you’ve probably heard this more than once:

“Nothing is original. Everything has been done before.”

If someone makes this statement in a group of people, one of two things will happen:

  1. Everyone agrees and gets a sheepish look on their face as if to say, “Yeah. I guess we suck.”
  2. Frustrated with the idea of their aspirations hanging in the balance, someone references a specific work or artist as a counterargument. The two people then volley back and forth ad infinitum. Or worse, someone defers to the age old bore-fest “…but what is art, really?” Usually in these cases I just keep my mouth shut. If I’m feeling playful, I’ll chime in with something about collage art and sampling or ask for opinions on how tools affect originality.

But the answer is simple:


Yes, everything has been done. But not everything has been done well.


Now go create.

“Amazing” by Kanye West: A Compositional Analysis

Posted by Keith Freund On August - 20 - 20096 COMMENTS

Key Signature: C minor
Special Songwriting Devices Used: V minor chord, starting the chorus on a chord other than the root

Note: This post requires a basic knowledge of intervals, solfege syllables, and voice leading. If you don’t understand a term underlined with dots (like this), move your mouse over it for the definition.


The other day I was messing around with “Amazing” by Kanye West on guitar and noticed that it uses an often neglected chord in modern pop music, the V minor. Before we get into why the V minor is unusual (and what Kanye has in common with Coolio), here’s the chord progression:


Verse: C minor (2x), G minor, C minor
Chorus: Ab major, C minor, G minor, C minor


Or in Roman numeral analysis form:


Verse: I minor (2x), V minor, I minor
Chorus: bVI major, I minor, V minor, I minor


In “Amazing,” G minor is the diatonic V chord–the triad built on the fifth note of the scale. But V chords in today’s minor key pop songs almost always have either a major third (making it a V major chord borrowed from the parallel major) or no third at all. The diatonic V minor chord is rarely used.


Origins of the V Major Chord in a Minor Key Context


Most American pop stems from jazz or blues harmony, but if there’s one songwriting device that has carried over from classical, it’s borrowing the V major chord from the parallel major key in the context of a minor progression.* In these situations, there is a non-diatonic note: the V chord’s major third, which will always be the leading tone of the key. This note has a very strong tendency to resolve up to the root note by a half step. The result is better voice leading back to the root than a V minor chord would provide. Since a V chord resolving to I (or more specifically, ti going to do within that resolution) is considered the strongest tendency in any key, the voice leading is (apparently) so important here that composers have been using this non-diatonic chord for ages.


But Kanye doesn’t swing that way.


If you’ve ever studied classical music, you know that the concept of proper voice leading is meant to make things sound “smooth.” But smooth can often turn into boring, particularly in the context of non-orchestral music. By using the V minor chord, Kanye adds some much needed harmonic interest to a relatively sparse arrangement.


So rare is the V minor chord in pop** that hearing it played on a single instrument (piano in this case) sounds a bit unusual, even medieval. The expectation of that leading tone over the V is so strong that, even for me, it was difficult to sing the minor 3rd instead of a major 3rd.


Combined with a dragging groove of an upright piano, it ends up sounding more like something to be played in the background of a saloon shoot out scene from a Western/Cowboy flick than a hit single for a mainstream rapper.  In fact, if you remove the characteristic elements from this chorus–play V major instead of V minor and change the first I minor to IV minor (more on this below)–you’ve got Gangsta’s Paradise, choir and all:



Chorus Root Chord Placement


As I talked about in my analysis of “Kids” by MGMT, starting a progression on something other than the root automatically sounds more intelligently written. While pre-choruses and bridges often start on other chords (in order to build tension for the inevitable release into the section that follows), choruses almost always start on the root chord. When one doesn’t, it almost always ends there. “Amazing” is no exception and falls into the latter category.


But what’s interesting is that the chorus also has another root chord: the second one of the progression.  So to expand on what I said in the previous paragraph, here are your root chord placement options for choruses with four chords or less, listed in order from most to least common:

  • Option 1: Starting on the root chord. This option solidly establishes the key from the outset, allowing the chords that follow to create new flavors and define the overall emotional content of the chorus in relation to the root. By far the most common option.
  • Option 2: Ending on the root chord. In these cases, the beginning chords lift the listener up, create tension, and eventually resolve to the root–using the harmony to create dynamics. This is a fairly common option, but also very powerful and can be a good way to shake up your songwriting or cure writer’s block. Examples include “My Hero” by Foo Fighters and “Go With The Flow” by Queens of the Stone Age.
  • Option 3: Using the root as chord #3 out of 4. This technique tricks you into thinking that it’s going to be a three chord progression, then adds a fourth chord which says “nope, it’s still going, the thought/feeling isn’t done yet.” Can create a cyclical feeling. This option is not totally unheard of but it’s rare. MGMT’s “Kids” is one example.
  • Option 4: Using the root as chord #2 out of 4. By far the rarest option and probably for good reason. I have no idea how to characterize what this option does emotionally, but in the case of “Amazing” it’s a defining characteristic.
  • Option 5: No root chord at all. I can’t think of any pop choruses that do this, so if you can, leave it in the comments!

(Note: Although the above is applicable to most choruses, obviously the emotional results may change with different combinations of these options or a greater number of chords. And by the way, you won’t find this list in a text book.)


So not only does the chorus start on a chord other than the root (in this case the bVI major), but the progression goes back to the root on the second of four chords, which is highly unusual. The result is a unique, signature chord progression (in pop you only have to be unique within about 10 years).


Well folks, that about wraps things up. As with all of my analyses I expect some good counter points (ha…) and a healthy dose of “this song sucks” / “this song still sucks” comments. But before we part ways I want to answer a question that Phil posed in his latest blog post:

“When was the last time you at home got a record, sat down, and listened to it? Really listened to it. Didn’t put it on while you clicked through Facebook or checked the local news. Just listened?”

My answer to his question is 808s and Heartbreak. And when “Amazing” came on for the first time, I had no idea Young Jeezy was going to come in because he wasn’t listed in the song title. I’ll be honest, I’ve had mixed feelings about Jeezy since day one, but when I first heard his voice come in over this strange track with the reverse reverb, I thought it was the hardest shit I’d ever heard.*** I got chills. And the fact that I wasn’t expecting it made it 10 times more powerful, supporting Phil’s theory that the less we know and see about the music before we listen, the better.


Kanye West - 808s & Heartbreak (Bonus Video Version) - Amazing (feat. Young Jeezy)Purchase “Amazing” by Kanye West on iTunes.
Purchase “Amazing” by Kanye West on Amazon MP3.


Read more posts from my Compositional Analysis series.


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*Actually, classical music**** tends to use a V7, which is based on a V major with a minor 7th on it, forming a tritone between the 3rd and 7th of the chord and creating an even stronger pull to I. Though we typically think of classical music as triadic, this is the one 7th chord that classical composers used regularly.


The V7 chord is dominant-functioning, which in layman’s terms means our ears hear it as having a very strong pull to another chord, in this case back to the I major. This movement is called dominant resolution. The V chord builds tension while the root chord releases it. Since we have this strong expectation of resolution from listeners, the voice leading used for this transition is considered to be particularly important.


**The only other recent V minor example I can think of offhand is “Clocks” by Coldplay, although in this case the V minor is used to help establish the song’s Dorian tonality. The opening piano arpeggio can be analyzed as follows: I/3, V-/5, IV/5 or in other words: I major (1st inversion), V minor (2nd inversion), IV major (2nd inversion).


***This transition is shortened on the YouTube version.


****Yes, I’m using the term “classical” in a colloquial manner here; I’m not referring to the Classical period. This is terrible… even my asterisks have asterisks.

UPDATED: July 19th, 2011

I listen to all types of music, but I think you’ll see from this blog that pop music is what gets me excited. From years of working as an audio engineer, I’ve found that many pop songwriters (except the old school ones at the very top) have little, if any, formal music education. But the internet is changing all that, and I want to help in any way that I can. I’ve researched modes online to see what’s out there, and frankly most of it is either downright confusing or written exclusively for guitarists. So without further adieu…


Keith’s Crash Course on Modes For Self-Taught Musicians


You probably already know that there are two types of keys: major and minor (aka the “happy” and “sad” scales, respectively). But what if I told you that there are also 5 other exciting, sexy scales to choose from?


pianoPlay a major scale. Now play those same notes, but this time start from the sixth note (or “degree”) of the scale. You’ll notice that it sounds dark–you’re playing what’s known as the “relative minor” of your original major scale. Every major scale has one. Take C major and A minor, for example: they are comprised of the exact same notes (the white keys on the piano) but sound very different.


Already knew that? Here’s something you may not have tried: start from another degree of the major scale other than the first or sixth. These scales are called modes. You’ll notice that they have an unusual but not entirely unfamiliar sound. Each mode has its own general vibe. Technically, the major and minor scales are also considered modes, but songs written in these two most common scales are not thought of as “modal” music. Listed in order of degrees that they start from on the major scale:


1 – The Major Scale (aka “Ionian Mode”) – The most common scale there is.


2 – Dorian Mode – Minor with an exotic twist.* Often associated with the Eastern world, particularly Asia, or psychedelic music (see: the first half of “Come Alive“). Minor scale shape with a raised 6th degree (starting from the root of this Dorian scale, not from the relative major scale).


3 – Phrygian Mode – Darker than the regular minor scale. Most commonly used in metal and rap (see: “Swagger Like Us“). Minor scale shape with a lowered 2nd degree.


4 – Lydian Mode – Major with an exotic twist. Used mostly in film music and dreamy rock (see: intro to “Dancin Days“). Major scale shape with raised 4th degree.


5 – Mixolydian – Major with a rock edge. Defined the 90s pop rock sound (see: “Since U Been Gone“). Can sometimes sound Eastern. Often referred to as “Mixo” for short. Major scale shape with a flatted 7th degree.


6 – The Minor Scale – All styles. More specifically called “natural minor” or “aeolian mode.” I sometimes call it the “regular minor” scale because everyone knows what that means, but that’s not an academic name for it.


7 – Locrian Mode – A very unstable, confusing-sounding version of minor. (see: “YYZ“) Some argue that our ears cannot perceive a song as being Locrian for reasons which I will not get into. Minor scale shape with a flatted 2nd and 5th degree.


To make things even clearer, you can play the following scales with the notes CDEFGAB:


C Major, D Dorian, E Phrygian, F Lydian, G Mixolydian, A Minor, and B Locrian.


Now you’re probably wondering: “if all these scales use the same notes, how do we know what mode a song is in?” After all, if you read my compositional analysis of “Kids” by MGMT, you know that major key songs don’t always start on the root note.


Unfortunately that answer is mostly beyond the scope of this article and not always definitive. Each mode has its own identifying characteristics in a compositional context (versus a soloing context), but for now, try to hear which root note/chord feels like “home,” and use that information, along with which scale degrees are being used, to deduce what mode you’re in.


It can be tough to write something that actually sounds modal, because certain chords will cause the listener to hear the song in the relative major or minor key (the one that has the same notes as whatever mode you’re in). For this reason, there is typically very little bass movement in modal music.


Modes are not the end-all be-all of music or scales. Far from it. There are many other harmonic possibilities including pentatonic scales (5 notes per scale instead of 7), harmonic minor (regular minor with a raised 7th), songs where the key changes from section to section, songs that borrow chords from parallel keys, secondary dominant chords, and even songs with two different keys at once (polytonality). The list goes on. Nonetheless, being aware of modes will give you yet another tool for your songwriting toolbox.


I hope you’ve enjoyed this post. If there’s something you still don’t understand, feel free to leave a comment and I will do my best to clarify it. Theory won’t make you a great songwriter, and it’s certainly not required for becoming one, but you can think of it as a toolbox for understanding what you love or hate about certain songs and a potential cure for writer’s block.


*A great rock guitar player on getting through jazz solos: “play dorian over everything and people will think you’re hip.”

How Do I Sound Like John Bonham?

Posted by FixYourMix On March - 12 - 200914 COMMENTS

johnbonham001

I hold no pretense of being a Led Zeppelin expert, however John Bonham’s drum sound is one that practically everybody wants to emulate.  Whether you actually want to play like him is another story, but it would seem like every drummer would love to be as bombastic and aggressive as Bonham.


The truth of the matter is that if you want to sound like John Bonham, you really need to play like him. You probably shouldn’t be ripping off 32nd note paradiddles at 140 BPM on your Iron Cobra. Moreover, your playing style, the orchestration of your tune, and your own nuances will directly inform the possibilities for your sound. This isn’t to say that you need to be on the same level as Bonham to sound like him, but there are songwriting elements that anyone can use to help accomplish a desired sound.


Listen to any Zeppelin record and you’ll notice that he is very, very simple with his beats in the vast majority of his tunes. Sometimes he only hits the kick drum twice in a measure. This leaves a ton of room for him to have that gigantic bass drum sound that we all know and love.


In most of his kits, John Bonham had a kick drum well over the standard 22” in most commercial kits these days. His bass drum was truly a bass drum often measuring 26 inches. His kick sound is very open lots with of ring and resonation without much dampening. This was pretty normal in a lot of records in the 60s to mid 70s.  In all likelihood it would’ve been similar in much earlier recordings if the technology existed to reproduce those low frequencies.


In the 70s, dance music reduced the kick drum to a very tight, short tick as opposed to the bass foundation for the tune. This kept mixing kick drums simple, the dance beats driving and easily distinguishable, and allowed tunes to be more lushly orchestrated (especially in the bass range which was great for diversity in the dancehall).  However, it put the idea of a big bassy bass drum on the back burner in favor of a more punchy kick sound.


Now to sound like Bonham, you don’t need a 26” monster of a kick drum. What I do is take out all of the dampening in the bass drum:  pillows, towels, everything. Put single ply heads on the kit so that they resonate more (single ply heads have longer sustain, multiple plys are used to make things more durable). Then, detune the kit as low as possible without it sounding like hitting loose paper (more on this in a later article on tuning drums for the studio). The aim is to achieve a deep, long, low sustain. Once you’ve achieved the maximal effect like this, you can tailor the decay by applying dishtowels or something light to the front heads to dampen slightly.


Look at the picture above.  You’ll notice two microphones on Bonham’s kit in the studio.  One is a U87 and the other looks like  a Unidyne 57.  You’ll also notice that he has no hole in the front head and doesn’t have a D112 shoved up in at and against the beater head.  This provides a barrier that reduces the tick of the beater and increases the boom of the resonations from the head and drum bodies.


If you are ripping off 32nd note paradiddles at 140 BPM, there is simply no room for you to sound like John Bonham with this kick drum sound—it’ll end up being a gigantic bass wash. All that steady low-end will severely restrict the amount of loudness you can get out of your song since low frequencies take up such a huge portion of the power spectrum. Because of this, either your kick drum is loud and your tune is quiet, or your tune is louder and your kick drum is quiet. Let that kick drum resonate, give it space to be appreciated and you’ll start moving closer to that Bonham sound.


It is also crucial to understand that in a mix, no sound is an island. In order for something to be big, something else has to be small. So when you listen to a Zeppelin recording, you’ll notice that there is an awful lot of space in the other instruments that frame the drums very nicely. Jimmy Page doesn’t just machine-gun power chords through the Big Muff which would result in a gigantic square wave. He has a lot of single line melodic elements that are often in the higher register that juxtapose Bonham’s big boisterous drum sound (see “All of My Love”).


Try approaching your tunes with some prior planning—if you think you’d like a John Bonham type of drum sound, then orchestrate the part like it would be a Bonham tune. You’ll find that from the onset, your drummer will sound more like Bonham and your engineer should have an easy time getting the sound you want out of whatever mic set-up you have—no matter where you recorded it, no matter what gear you used.


Oh yah, and smack the shit out of the drums…Bonham would be proud.

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