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“Ready, Able” by Grizzly Bear: A Compositional Analysis

Posted by Keith Freund On November - 14 - 200932 COMMENTS

Key Signature: A minor, C Lydian
Time Signatures: 3/4, 4/4, 6/8
Special Songwriting Devices Used: Three-bar phrases, Polymeter, Polyrhythm, Modal harmony
Structure: Verse-Refrain-Verse-Refrain-C-D-C-D-C-Outro

Hover your mouse over terms underlined with dots (like this) for more information. If you’re following along with the album version rather than the video, subtract 5 seconds from any time stamps listed below to account for the video lead-in.


This blog mostly concerns itself with what can loosely be considered pop music, but today’s song violates what is perhaps pop’s most sacred and universal characteristic: structure. It’s not that “Ready, Able” has no structure, but it certainly isn’t your typical verse-chorus-verse. While a traditional pop song is designed to grab your attention and get to the hook ASAP, Grizzly Bear has no patience for people with no patience. And to those who wait, the payoff is that much sweeter.


A Narrative Of An Average Listener Experiencing This Song For The First Time (click to enlarge:)


A structural analysis of Ready, Able by Grizzly Bear.


“Ready, Able” starts with a sparse and confusing instrumental passage, which you eventually realize is part of the verse. Like the claymation monsters of the video that appear both happy and sad, you can’t tell whether to be scared by the droning, tribal mysteriousness of the rhythm section, or amused by the playful, almost upbeat vocal melody. You’re relieved to hear a chord–the first one in the song–at 0:42. This is the start of a new, more palatable section: the refrain.* Here Grizzly Bear builds anticipation for something that never comes. Right as the music sounds like it’s about to reach the tonic, the whole damn thing cuts back to the verse like a movie that ends on a cliffhanger, cutting to black at the most crucial moment. (And you still have no idea what “Rosebud” means…)

And now you’re brought right back into the verse. A push-and-pull dynamic is created with two different kinds of tension:

  • The verse draws its tension from rhythmic confusion, sparseness, and lack of harmony.
  • The refrain creates tension with full, but unresolved harmony.


After the second refrain, you are led to a surprising, but also cohesive and highly gratifying climax at 1:53 (the C section) which starts on an A minor chord and continues to build throughout the second half. It’s gratifying not only because of the lush production and arrangement elements that kick in, but because it took 2 damn minutes to get to the I chord! As shown in the image above, the music video works in the opposite manner. It starts off a little odd and then morphs into something truly bizarre. To better understand what’s so off about the verses, let’s go right into a rhythmic play-by-play:


Two Time Signatures Simultaneously – Polymeter



Disclaimer: Phil pointed out to me that the verses of this song could be more succinctly written and understood as 12/8, rather than my more complicated explanation of calling it 3/4 and 4/4 (with the later sections in 6/8 half time). If you count the verses in 12/8, they begin to make a lot more sense. I instinctively heard this section in small beat groupings (possibly because of the odd rhythmic patterns and lack of a steady drum beat), however, so I’m keeping this section as is for the sake of posterity.


The verses consist of 24-beat phrases demarcated by a kick drum. It’s hard to tell what’s going on: the vocals don’t quite match up with the percussion and those harp glissandos seem to sneak up and jump out at you from behind the bushes when you least expect them to. What’s going on here?


What you’re hearing is called polymeter–the simultaneous use of 2 or more time signatures sharing a common pulse. The verses in “Ready, Able” juxtapose a 3/4 waltz (the vocals and harp) on top of 4/4 (percussion). In this case, the shared pulse is the duration of the quarter note. Only after 24 beats do both time signatures start their down beats at the same time.


24 is a good number for polymeter because it can be evenly divided by the most common beat groupings: 2, 3, 4, 6, and 8. As a consequence, these 24-beat phrases also transition nicely into the refrain in 6/8 at half tempo. Now let’s move on to polymeter’s evil twin sister: polyrhythm.


Two Types of Beat Divisions Simultaneously – Polyrhythm


Congratulations, you’re about to dive head first into the metaphorical deep end of music theory. Drummers and music nerds, get ready to geek out.


Polyrhythm is when two different kinds of beat divisions are used simultaneously (not to be confused with beat groupings–that’s polymeter). In Western music, beats are typically subdivided in half.** This type of division is called duple meter and looks like this:

One whole note = two half notes = four quarter notes = eight 8th notes = sixteen 16th notes = thirty-two 32nd notes

But there are other types of divisions, the most common of which is a triplet: when two beats are divided into three beats. For example, three 8th note triplets take up the same amount of time as two regular 8th notes.


During the C section (1:53), the lead synth (a Synclavier?) has a tremolo effect that creates 16th note tripets over the regular 16th notes of the other instruments. Here’s a simplified notation of this rhythm (click to enlarge):


UPDATE: I think it’s safe to say that this is an Omnichord, not a Synclavier.


Grizzly Bear "Ready Able" Polyrhythms


Welcome to Polyrhythmville. And what’s really trippy is we’re in 6/8. While 6/8 rhythms are grouped in sets of 3, each beat is still normally subdivided by multiples of two. But here the total number of 16ths per measure is 18–you don’t see that number often in music–and all this on top of 12 beats–a concept so mindblowing that only underline and italics at the same time could possibly come close to expressing the insanity. Half way through the D section, we hear this pattern again with a lofi hi hat sample. We’re beginning to see the number 3 take shape as a major theme in this song: beats grouped in 3s, beats divided by 3, and finally, 3-bar phrases:


Unusual Phrase Lengths
(See our explanation of bars, measures, & phrases for help with this section.)


In pop music, chord progressions and phrases typically last 1, 2, 4, or 8 measures. Deviating from this is a great way to shake up your songwriting without venturing into odd time signatures, which often means sacrificing accessibility. It’s hard for the average music listener to dance or rock to something in 5/4 or 7/8,*** but they will have no problem dancing to 5- or 7-bar phrases in 4/4.


That being said, when great songwriters use a device like this there’s a reason for it, whether they’re aware of that reason or feel its effect intuitively. “Ready, Able” uses 3-bar phrases throughout most of the second half, providing two advantages:

  • Vibe: We’re expecting 4-bar phrases, so 3-bar phrases have a cyclical, hypnotic effect. It feels like the thought is not quite finished.
  • Lyrics: If the D section had 4-bar phrases, there would be a big empty space when the lyrics finish, or they would have had to write more lyrics and extend the melody. By using 3-bar phrases, Grizzly Bear is able to keep interest high while retaining their original lyrical and melodic idea.

But there’s a problem. In addition to being super weird and hip, these odd phrases are leaving people hanging. There seems to be no destination. Solution? A 4-bar phrase at the end of each section. Consider your thirst for finality quenched. There’s also an extra bar at the end of the refrain (normally 4-bar phrases) to make room for a IV-7 (D minor 7) which has a strong pull to I- in this case.


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  • Verse 1: Polymeter … 24-beat phrases
    • Vocals/harp: 3/4 (waltz) … 8-bar phrases
    • Drums/muted guitar/etc.: 4/4 … 6-bar phrases
  • Refrain 1: 6/8 half time … 4 bars+4 bars+1 bar
  • Verse 2: (same as Verse 1 except the first 24-beat phrase is cut short by 1 beat).
  • Refrain 2: (same as refrain 1)
  • C section 1: 6/8 half time … 3 bars+3 bars+3 bars+4 bars
  • D section 1: 6/8 half time … 3 bars+3 bars+3 bars+4 bars
  • C section 2: 6/8 half time … 3 bars+3 bars
  • D section 2: 6/8 half time … 3 bars+3 bars+3 bars+4 bars
  • Outro: 6/8 half time … 3 bars+4 bars

»

  • Bullet With A Butterfly Wings” by Smashing Pumpkins – 6-bar phrases during the choruses.
  • Radiohead‘s “Idioteque” – 5-bar phrases.
  • Just Like You Imagined” by Nine Inch Nails (aka “that song from the 300 trailer”) – bar of 4/4+bar of 12/8.
  • The phrase of OutKast‘s mega-hit “Hey Ya” reads like this (in quarter notes): 4+4+4+2+4+4


Single-Chord Harmony
(See our guides to chord abbreviations, tensions, and modes for help with this section.)


If you follow this blog, you’re already aware of the trend of rap songs without music. To the music snobs and hipsters frowning upon that concept, I am pleased to inform you that Grizzly Bear essentially does the same thing during the first verse of this song–there is no progression, only a vocal melody, lost in an enchanted forest of polymeter and the occasional harp gliss. But of course, context is everything. I doubt we’ll be seeing Ying Yang Twins comparisons any time soon.

“Wait’ll You See My D… minor 7.”


During the second verse, Grizzly Bear seems to have added a very faint guitar or bass on the note C. It seems that the key is now C major, the relative major from A minor. With the vocal melody notes included, the overall harmony of this section seems to be a single, but very colorful chord normally reserved for Jazz: Cmaj9(13) (C, E, G, B, D, A). In other words, every note in the key except F, which would be tension 11. 11 is usually considered an “avoid note” on a major 7 chord.


But listen again. There’s a drum tuned to F#, which would be the tritone of the C major. In the absence of a natural F, I’m prepared to say that we’re not in the relative major at all, we’re in C Lydian and the chord is Cmaj7 (9 #11 13), which includes every single note of the key signature. Lydian mode can be described as foreign and magical-sounding and the second verse of “Ready, Able” is no exception. This mode is often used by film composers for dream sequences. What’s even more bizarre is that the #11 drum is the lowest note in the section, making it sound especially dissonant. I wouldn’t call the chord an inversion though, because the drum comes on very weak beats.


Other than C and tension #11, the lead vocal provides every other note in this chord. Don’t get me wrong: not all melody notes should be considered part of a song’s essential harmony, but in this case the tensions (9 & 13) come on down beats at the beginning of the 8-bar vocal phrases, the strongest beats possible during this section.


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For further reinforcement of this harmony, there’s a background harmony with 3, 9, and 7, and the harp hits 7 on its way down to 13. Also listen for faint pizzicato strings plucking between C and G, with a few interjections of perfect fourth dyads (DG and BE) for some exotic flavor. It’s also worth noting that based on the way these notes are stressed dynamically, the string arrangement sounds displaced by one beat–that is, its down beat begins one beat after the drums and palm-muted guitar. This gives the strings a light, playful feeling but also makes them sound somewhat detached from the rest of the music.


As stated earlier, the refrains create tension by never landing on I-. It’s also worth noting that the vocal melody single-handedly changes the chord progression with a major 6 interval on F, creating a second inversion D minor chord.


The C and D sections use one of my favorite progressions: I-, V-, IV- (see also: “My Love” by Justin Timberlake and “Ayo Technology” by 50 Cent). As I talked about in my Kanye analysis, the V minor usually sounds peculiar in a pop context, but it sounds at home in “Ready, Able.”


I was unable to find good guitar tab or piano transcriptions for this song online, so this will get you started if you’re a Grizzly Bear fan and want to cover this for YouTube:


“Ready, Able” Chords – Simplified For Rhythm Guitar & Piano
(See our chord abbreviation guide for help with this section.)

Verse 1: C (single note only)
Refrain: F, Fmaj7, to E- (plus D-7 during last measure)
Verse 2: Cmaj7(no5)
C section: A-, E-, D- (pianists: start on A-/E)
D section: A-, E-7, D-7


“Ready, Able” Chords – Full Harmony

Verses: Cmaj9(13)
Refrain: F, D-/F, Fmaj7, D-/F, to E-7 (plus D-7 during last measure)
C Section: A-, E-add11, D-
D section: A-9, E-7, D-7(13) (add tension 11 to these chords when the string quartet comes in)


“Ready, Able” Chords – Functional Analysis

Verse 1: Imaj9(13)
Refrain: VI, IV-/3, VImaj7, IV-/3, to V-7 (plus IV-7 during last measure)
C Section: I-, V-add11, IV-
D section: I-9, V-7, IV-7(13) (add tension 11 to these chords when the string quartet comes in)


This concludes my analysis. If you’ve read this far, you’re probably an ultra music nerd like me and for that I salute you. I might be imagining or missing some of tensions, so if you hear anything different or disagree with my analysis, feel free to leave a comment.


»

*While some sources refer to choruses and refrains interchangeably (Wikipedia included), but there is a difference. I’m calling this section a refrain because it sounds like an extension of the verse music, whereas choruses typically either repeat the verse music with more production elements, or introduce an entirely new idea altogether. This section is fairly long for a refrain, but more importantly the movement is not harmonically strong enough to be a chorus.


**With the very notable exception of swing and shuffle grooves.


***In some cultures, dancing to odd meters is commonplace (Indian and Greek music, for example).


BONUS: In case you were wondering how much meth I had to smoke to write something this long, there’s method to the madness of those harp glisses:

  • During the instrumental portions of the verses, they come on beat 2 of the 5th and 7th measures of the phrase.
  • During the vocal portions of the verses, they come on beat 3 of the 3rd and 7th measures of the phrase.

“Atlas” by Battles: A Compositional Analysis

Posted by Keith Freund On May - 27 - 20099 COMMENTS

Following the success of my compositional analysis of “Single Ladies”, today I’m here to talk to you about a song which is equally unusual but lives in a completely different realm of music and pop culture. Battles is a mostly-instrumental, indie-math-something-or-other rock band comprised of several other influential but fairly obscure bands and Boston scene veterans.* “Atlas,” the first single from their debut and most recent LP, Mirrored, illustrates a number of interesting songwriting techniques that you can use to expand or understand your own writing.



Tempo: 134 BPM
Key Signature: D Lydian (same notes as A major)
Time Signature: 4/4
Special Songwriting Devices Used: Shuffle groove, Modal harmony


What’s most compelling about this song is that it is haunting, but not dark in a depressing way–rather it is hypnotic, like an alien army marching into a battlefield. While there is plenty of interesting stuff going on here production-wise,** this post seeks to explore what gives this song its otherworldly feel from a compositional perspective.


The first thing to note is that the song was written in Lydian mode, a scale which is considered “mostly major” because it is the same scale shape as major except the fourth note is raised by a half step. (To turn D major into D lydian, you would change the G to G#). To  better help you understand what modes are, where they come from, and how they can be used check out Keith’s Crash Course on Modes For Self-Taught Musicians. Lydian is one of the least common modes in pop music today but can be the most beautiful. You hear it mostly in film music and 70s rock (see: the intro to Led Zeppelin’s “Dancin Days“).


battles_narrowweb__300x4220


D Lydian is officially established when the vocals come in. The A-section melody (“People won’t be people when they hear this sound…”) outlines a D Lydian scale going down in perfect fifths starting on solfege syllable sol (A). These repetitive intervallic jumps in Lydian mode make for a trance-inducing result. The bassline underneath remains firmly planted on D, which is exactly where it stays except for moving to E at 3:29 (5:30 in the album version) for a few seconds. This lack of chordal movement is part of what gives Atlas its drone-like quality. In the absence of a chord progression, Battles relies on evolving melodies, syncopated rhythms and the frequent introduction of new elements/sounds** to keep interest level high throughout this seven minute epic.


Shuffle


Shuffles are kind of like the matrix. No one can be told what a shuffle is… Well, I guess really what I’m trying to say here is that the text book definition of a shuffle is not necessarily how we hear it. Shuffle is a fancy name for a triplet feel where the second note of the triplet is not played or generally emphasized. Often, though, we hear the third beat of each triplet not as part of a triplet at all, but simply a pickup note going back to the initial beat rather than part of a triplet. A song which uses all beats of the triplet is said to be in 12/8 time. One could argue that Atlas is actually a 12/8 groove rather than a shuffle because the drums often use all three beats of the triplet, but the vocal melody and bassline strongly reinforce a shuffle feel. Soloists sometimes use triplet patterns over shuffles, so the presence of a few full triplets here is negligible.


The Difference Between a Shuffle and Swing


jazzdrummer
Shuffle feel is actually a type of swing based on a tap dance (the shuffle). There are two main differences:

  1. Shuffles typically emphasize beats 2 and 4 while a swing groove often does not (see: the entire Jazz idiom). Atlas features a clap (speak of the devil) on beats 2 and 4 during the verses, with the snare drum eventually coming in.
  2. Though it sometimes sounds like it, swing is not thought of as a triplet feel. What’s actually happening is every other 8th note (or other note value) swings (drags) a little bit late, hence the name. The end result may sound like a triplet, but unlike in a shuffle, a timing of a swung note is inexact–some performers are known to “swing harder” than others and certain subgenres of jazz call for different types of swing feels. And again as with shuffles, triplets are sometimes used for soloing over swing time.


I hope you’ve found this article useful. If you have any other observations about Atlas, feel free to leave a comment. If you find yourself writing in the same songs over and over again, try integrating modal harmony or a triplet feel into your next song. It could end up being the stand-out track on your album.


WARNING: BEFORE COMMENTING ON THIS POST, WRITE YOUR COMMENT ON A SEPARATE DOCUMENT AND THEN PASTE IT INTO THE COMMENT BOX. WE HAVE BEEN HAVING PROBLEMS WITH COMMENTS GETTING LOST ON THIS PARTICULAR POST. THANKS.


*My first experience with Battles was several summers ago, and Mirrored was just about to be released. A friend of mine convinced me to go on a road trip to New York City from Atlanta, one of our main objectives being to see brit-rockers The Noisettes. To our delight, we learned upon arrival that the show had been combined with a Battles show which was set to take place at elsewhere but had been cancelled. I was blown away by what I saw, and it looked a lot like what you see in the video above.


**To read about the Atlas vocal tone, check out Phil’s post on the Boss VT-1.



Buy “Atlas” on Amazon MP3


Battles - Mirrored - AtlasBattles “Atlas” on iTunes.

Mixing and Mastering Analysis of “Kids” by MGMT

Posted by Fix Your Mix On April - 3 - 20096 COMMENTS

otariAs mentioned earlier in the week, this tune would be a dream to mix.  It is not very compositionally dense consisting mostly monophonic synth lines.  The character of the song derives primarily from the compositional techniques—each instrumental track gets its own identifiable melodic line and discrete part of the sonic register such that nothing really muddles anything else.  This allows for easy distinction between instruments and a general air of spaciousness without the track sounding empty.

 

Panorama

panorama

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Most striking to me is how static and simple the panorama and sonics are for a Dave Fridmann mix.  I’m used to hearing synthesizers leap across the sonic field and evolve throughout the tune from his landmark albums with The Flaming Lips and Mercury Rev. There is none of that here as everything is quite stationary.

 

The song starts with a field recording of children playing, which is panned toward the right.  This creates a kind of imbalance waiting to be offset by the hook-synth 

moogpanned out middle left.  There appears to be a higher doubling way down in the mix and way out to the right.  It might be played an octave up, or it might be harmonic ringing in a counter-panned reverb.  This helps the synth sound more encompassing than it really is.

 

When the band enters there is the normal cast in the center channel with a kick drum, snare drum, handclaps-doubling-the-snare, lead vocal, and bass synthesizer as per the natural laws of instrument panning.   There is also an answer synthesizer slightly lower in the mix and panned out middle right (this is a polyphonic synthesizer because it hits at least a couple diads throughout the tune).  This plays off the ostinato synth, but is clearly subordinate to it.  Across the stereo stage there is at least one, but probably several synthesizer pads that give thickness to the mix and tie together what might be an otherwise hollow and disjointed assemblage of disparate synths and samples.

 

In the choruses, the vocal harmonies are panned out a little farther than you’d normally expect and the sides isolate the harmonies—the low harmony is pretty wide left and the high harmony is pretty wide right.  This might have been done to try and give the impression of distinct singers without placing too much emphasis on giving each singer his turn.

 

Curiously there is no crash cymbal until the bridge and no hi-hat or toms whatsoever until the final choruses.  Also quite striking is that the hi-hat and cymbals are panned very narrowly.  Under the normal mixing paradigm, drum kits are distorted and stretched across the entire spectrum with hi-hats appearing middle left (or right depending on perspective) and cymbals out wide.  In this tune, all the drum parts appear to be well within 30 degrees of center.

 

In the final chorus, the drums start to get a bit busier and experiment with fills and syncopation.  The toms too are very shallow (both in panning and volume), but the handclaps do pan out wide for two hits in the middle of the last chorus for accent.  The lead vocal gets the same treatment from time to time as a reverbed delay with feedback spreads certain words out wide.  This is probably done more to fill lyrical holes than provide accent because I don’t see much reason to accentuate momentous lyrics like  “…picking insects off plants.

 

Sonics

 

One of the main questions I came across while researching this article is how Fridmann was able to attain such a clear delineation between the bass and the kick drum.  It’d be pretty effortless to accomplish with this orchestration.  The bass is played by a synthesizer with some pretty serious upper frequency harmonics—at least a couple times in the tune it sounds like it is doubled by another synthesizer quieter and an octave up.  All this subconsciously contributes to presence.  You might accomplish the same thing at home by adding some fuzz or amp distortion.  It also helps that the bass is the only thing playing a regular 8th note pattern, alternating between the root and an octave up.  Those upbeat 8ths really emphasize the bass part to the ear.

 

The kick drum seems to morph throughout the tune, though not overtly so.  In the opening when the drum kit is fully exposed, there is a big beautiful drum sound with only the slightest hint of that upper frequency paper *tick*.  When the band kicks in, it sounds like the EQ shifts wildly to place heavy emphasis on the upper frequencies of the drum.  This allows the synth bass to take up most of the bandwidth in the low end of the spectrum while the kick is audible in that Metallica-ticky-kick way.

 

As I mentioned previously, I believe the synthesizers are reamped or played through some sort of amp modeling plug-in to give them some edge, fuzz, and distortion.  It makes them much more ballsy in comparison to the naked and juvenile sound from the EP version and are a testament to how much a talented engineer/producer and professional treatments can positively affect a song. 

 

Continuing with synths, one of the pads has a phaser on it to give it some distinction while holding out those long notes and give it presence without overtaking the mix.  I personally abhor the sound of phasers, but they do the trick by creating subtle sonic intrigue for your ear to latch on to.

 

Also, note how much quieter the answer synth is in comparison to the main ostinato.  You’d think that the answer synth, providing some melodic interest, would be something worth highlighting in the mix, but it is barely audible and most people don’t even remember it as part of the song except in the verses.  This is an example of a mixer/artist realizing their priorities—in a pop tune like this it is more important to emphasize the hook than to emphasize the other stuff.  Always remember, in order for something to be big, something else has to be small.  As such, the ostinato is big, the answer is small (as are the pads, toms, crashes, hi hat, and BGVs)

 

bx20The vocals are clearly doubled, tripled, quadrupled, compressed, drenched in AKG BX20 spring reverb, and delayed with feedback.  It also sounds like there might be a chorus and perhaps even a flanger at some points.  All were probably used to thicken the vocal tracks and cover-up some of the imperfections of youth like vocal cracks and noises.  One of the comments on the youtube video for the EP version asks “Is that even the same Andrew?” 

 

(For those of you following along at home, know that you can use these effects on your voice and they do help a lot, but you have to be prepared to sound totally different than you are used to.  People often ask for their vocals to be treated thusly, but they hate the results because they don’t sound like themselves anymore.  We should ask the boys from MGMT whether or not they think the vocals sound like them and which one they’d prefer to have captured on record…)

 

The background vocals are also turned very low in the mix.  If you don’t pay attention you may not even realize they are there and may only register as the vocal suddenly getting thicker. In most pop songs, background vocals are not intended to be heard blatantly but rather to blend in with the lead vocal for emphasis.

 

Mastering

 

dap-all-units1The vocals are very sibilant but I would fault the mastering.  There isn’t really much need for the vocals to be altered in order to make them more present or perceptible.  Given the instrumentation of the tune and the mix, the vocals should stand out well enough on their own.  I also see some superb de-essers in the Tarbox gear list, so there is no reason why they would be sibilant in the mix. 

 

Chances are the tune was shipped off to Greg Calbi, who does almost exclusively unattended sessions, and he decided that the tune overall needed more top end.  Whether he accomplished this with EQ, harmonic excitation, or some combination of both, he achieved his end with the artifact of sibilance. 

 

The tune is also heavily compressed on the two-mix.  Most of the dynamics stem from orchestration changes as opposed to real contrast.  Some spots in the chorus have audible compression artifacts such as the brickwall wash that occurs when the vocals hold out words (ie “A family of treeeeeeeees”).  These “flaws” are not necessarily a bad thing, just a reality of what mastering is these days.  The are further evidence hat very big, very popular tunes have audible compression artifacts as part of their sonic character.  To the average listener, they would not even be detectable, but hey we notice because it’s our job to notice.

 

Thanks to the composition of this tune, the instruments get to be very busy without the mix being muddled.  We get a very clear distinction between the instruments and also get to enjoy a bunch of little ear candy along the way.  The subtle changes that are low in the mix are easy to hear once you know they are there, but if you don’t they just wash over you and sound like a full yet spacious professional mix.

A Production Analysis of “Kids” by MGMT

Posted by Fix Your Mix On April - 2 - 2009COMMENT ON THIS POST

A producer’s role is so nebulous that at times it’s hard to tell from the outside exactly which ideas came from the producer and which from the band. Part of why we chose “Kids” for this week’s Sonic Deconstruction is because it provides us with a unique opportunity to know exactly which decisions were made by Dave Fridmann and which were not: before Oracular Spectacular, MGMT recorded (and presumably self-produced) the We (Don’t) Care EP with a friend in Athens, GA, from which the only song to make it to the full length was “Kids.”


Listen to the pre-Fridmann version:



By comparing this to the final version we can deduce which decisions were probably Dave’s.


Apart from the mix, the most obvious dramatic between the two is the lead vocal. Interestingly, the vocal is actually higher and more childlike timbrally on Oracular Spectacular. In addition to that version’s weaker performance, the vocals are much less distinct here than on the full length, which could be the product of coaching and coaxing in the studio or switching which of the two member’s vocal was featured.


This is what separates the men from the boys. Think about all the successful 90s rock bands, love them or hate them: Nirvana, Green Day, Blink 182, Nine Inch Nails, Smashing Pumpkins, Pearl Jam. All have instantly recognizable singers. And it’s not just because you heard them over and over–after hearing “Walking On the Sun,” I knew from then on when I heard a new Smashmouth single. A distinctive vocalist is paramount to a band’s success, whether it be the tone of the voice itself, the style/accent, or commonly chosen notes and rhythmic motifs. (More on this in a later article.)


One thing that helps the vocal’s strength is a background doubling on the verse vocal. The background vocal sounds tightly Vocaligned to me while the chorus does not, retaining verse-chorus dynamics and gives the chorus its singalong quality. Vocaligning is one of the many highly useful advanced editing services we offer at Fix Your Mix- we perfectly align background vocals with the lead vocal, allowing you to layer vocals many times over without making the arrangement messy or giving it a gang-vocal feel. The result is a kind of thickness that you can’t get with a chorus or doubler.


mgmtWhen producing a song, the very first things I think about are tempo and key signature, both of which are also generally dictated by the vocal. Exactly what makes a tempo “right” is often intangible, but I will say that one usually cannot change a song’s tempo very much before the vocals begin to drag or sound rushed (unless you change the vocal part to fit the new tempo).


Apparently MGMT were on the money tempo-wise, because Fridmann did not change the BPM of “Kids” from the EP version. He did, however, change the key. Pay attention vocalists: the key was moved down from Bb major to A major. For a male tenor, the high F which is sung repeatedly in the demo melody could very well be the “break” in their voices (these are hard-to-hit notes within a vocal range that comprise the transition from the chest to the head voice). Changing the key to A, thereby making that high note an E, strengthened the vocal drastically and improved the vibe of the song. The vibe of a key signature is even more nebulous than tempo, but out of pure conjecture I will say that Bb major is not a particularly common key for pop music, while A major is more familiar to the ear, which may play a role in creating the song’s “comforting” feeling, one of the things that most characterizes the song for me.


Ultimately, these decisions, centering around the vocal, made a world of difference in making the listener take MGMT seriously, elevating them to hipster cult status.

A Compositional Analysis of “Kids” by MGMT

Posted by Keith Freund On March - 31 - 20097 COMMENTS


(Be warned, this video is frightening, but 12 million YouTube plays can’t be wrong…Despite not being an official video or featuring the actual band members.)


There are a few key elements to the composition of “Kids” which give it a pop maturity.  The instrumentation of the tune plus the likely limitations of the performers themselves have informed the compositional parameters of the song.


One of the predominant elements of the song is that each instrument is monophonic—virtually no instrumental track plays two notes at the same time (with exceptions being the synth pad, which is barely audible, and the occasional two-note stab on the “answer” synth). Why? It may be a result of limitations: some vintage synthesizers like the MiniMoog actually limit the number of notes you can play simultaneously. Or it could be a product of musicians who don’t have the classical training to handle multiple notes at once, forcing them to use the hunt-and-peck method for their notes. Incidentally, these methods of melody creation often result in individual lines that stand on their own merit—that’s why there were so many memorable synthesizer hooks in ’80s songs such as those by The Cure and New Order.


Also, the fact that no instrument is playing multiple notes at once means that each voice is relegated to its own register. This means that there is plenty of room for each voice to stand out on its own without too much noodling. Imagine the song if there was an accompanying hand playing the harmonies on the melody synth and then maybe a rhythm guitar playing power chords over that. Already the composition becomes more dense and muddled with all the note doublings. The isolation of voices makes each note more distinct and creates an air of openness and space.


Though virtually all of this song’s elements are monophonic (i.e. no chords or dyads), I’ll start with the implied chord progression and work backwards from there.


In the key of A major:

F# minor, D major, A major, E major 1st inversion

Shorthand: F#-, D, A, E/G#

*Functional Analysis (Traditional): vi, IV, I, V6

*Functional Analysis (Jazz / Pop): VI-, IV, I, V/3 (Though less widespread, I will be using Jazz symbols to analyze music because I feel it more accurately reflects and expresses the way in which we hear modern music.)

The composition starts off with a synth ostinato pattern (do, re, mi, sol, la, ti, la, sol, mi, re) clearly outlining the key of A major. One of the most striking things about the composition is the surprise when the bass comes in on F# instead of the I chord. Because of the A in the melody (from the ostinato), this bar becomes VI-, which is a root functioning chord and the strongest, most common substitute for a I chord as per both traditional and jazz theory.

kids-progression

The bassline then continues from F# to D to A to G# with a harmonic rhythm of one chord per bar. Since one needs only a root and a third to imply a chord, we can safely say that the ostinato pattern on top of the synth bass outlines a VI-, IV, I, V/3 progression, especially since these thirds land on strong beats (beats 1 and 3).


During the fourth phrase of the chorus, two things change: (1) the ostinato changes [do, re, mi, re, do, re, do, la, do] which provides the 5th on the IV chord and an octave on the I chord and (2) this is followed by a quick melodic “answer” melody over the E/G#. I hear riffs like this in hit songs all the time–I like to call them “mini-hooks” because they are memorable, tie the song together, but are too quick to have the singalong factor of a real hook.


Because the song starts on F# minor, one could argue that the key of this song is actually the relative minor key of F# minor, but I contend that our ears hear “Kids” as A major for two reasons:

  1. The ostinato pattern is very clearly an A major riff when heard isolated. The song begins with this pattern.
  2. The lead vocal consists almost entirely of do, mi, and sol: the notes of the A major triad. It doesn’t get much stronger than that, folks.

The result is a kind of melancholy atmosphere created by starting a major key song on the VI minor chord. In general, I find that songs which start on anything other than the root chord automatically sound more well-written. (Not to say that a great song cannot start on a I chord–such a suggestion would be ludicrous.)


Another arguing point could be that the fourth chord is actually VIIº chord: G# diminished. After all, there is no E during this part of the phrase. This is one of those cases where you just have to use your ears: trying putting an E in the bass of this section, then try a D (which would be the diminished 5th of a G# diminished chord). The latter quite obviously does not work, except during the bridge, except during the bridge there is an E in the melody, erasing all doubt that it is, in fact, an E/G# chord:


The bridge starts on the IV chord a moves up the scale triadically using a whole note bassline and an arpeggiated synth to outline the harmony. The bass skips the III- on its way to IV and finally makes a tritone leap from D to G#, using this dissonance to grab the listener’s attention and signaling the end of this section. The result is as follows: D, E, F#-, G#º, A, B-, D, E/G#. The bass then hangs on an A octave for 16 bars (runs a bit long for my taste), cuts to playground noises for 4 and returns for one last triumphant chorus.


With a composition this harmonically straight forward, it could have ended up sounding more like an etude than a pop song. One thing that helps keep the interest is the leap from C# to E over the F# in bar 1. This is non-traditional because the leap is then followed by another step up to F# (also known as a leaping tone). In classical theory, leaps to non-chord tones should be resolved by step and in the opposite direction (for example, the E could have gone down to a D). Another mildly hip compositional device is that the major third in bar 3 is an anticipation.


While there is no doubt in my mind that MGMT had little or no concept of music theory when they wrote “Kids,” it can still be useful to understand part of why the song is so catchy. And although dividing up the notes of a chord progression among instruments and starting on a VI- chord is not an exact recipe for a hit song, consider this one of the many songwriting devices available to you.


Check out Weezer’s cover of this song via one of my favorite blogs


MGMT - Oracular Spectacular - KidsBuy “Kids” on iTunes.


MGMT - Oracular SpectacularBuy the album on iTunes.


*Note: For those of you non-music theory geeks following along at home, these Roman numerals represent the degree of a scale upon which a chord is based. For example, the IV chord in this song is a D chord, because D is the fourth note in the key of A. This is important because it allows you to analyze music in different keys relative to one another.

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