Saturday, 21 January 2017

The importance of key in understanding and creating music

I was at a jam session the other night.  A couple of other musicians started playing an unfamiliar song.  I listened to it for a little while and then started joining in with the chords at the keyboard.

How did I do that, since I don't have perfect pitch?  Well, first of all I had to work out what key they were in, so I tried a few notes on the piano until I found the one that matched the keynote.  Then I just listened to the chords.  Irrespective of what key I'm in, I can recognize the tonic chord, dominant chord, subdominant chord, chord of the relative minor and all the other common ones.  I then used my theoretical knowledge to translate those chords into the relevant key.  So if we'd been in D major and I heard tonic-dominant-subdominant-dominant, I'd have played D major-A major-G major-A major.  I wouldn't normally have to think about that sort of thing consciously, unless we were in a remote key with lots of sharps or flats, or unless the piece used lots of chords remote from the actual key.

It's the same when I'm composing music.  In my head I imagine a tonic chord, or a dominant seventh, or whatever.  When I come to actually play the piece on the keyboard, or write it down, I'll choose an appropriate key and use the appropriate chord sequence.  Ditto the melody - it doesn't really matter what key I imagine the melody in, as long as I sing it in the same key as I'm playing in.

So you can see that, for me at least, the key is literally the "key" to understanding the whole song.  If I had no concept of key, I'd be completely lost.  I don't really think of chords as C major or G major when I'm composing.  The C major chord has no special significance of its own, except relative to a given key.  If I'm in C major, it's the tonic chord - the "home" chord that the song finishes on.  But if I'm in F major, it's the dominant chord - the one that naturally leads towards the tonic chord and requires resolution.  It has a very different character.

Let's use Ralph McTell's "Streets of London" as an example.  I won't write out all the chords - just the first and last ones of each pair of lines.  It's in C major.

C [Have you seen the old man, in the closed-down market/Picking up the papers in his worn-out shoes] G7
C [In his eyes you see no pride, hand held loosely by his side/Yesterday's papers, telling yesterday's news] C
F [So how can you tell me, you're lo - ne - ly/And say for you that the sun don't shine?] G7
C [Let me take you by the hand, and lead you through the streets of London/I'll show you something, to make you change your mind] C

The first pair of lines starts with C major, the tonic or "home" chord, as is common in many songs.  It ends with G major (ignore the seventh for now), the dominant chord, creating an "unresolved" feeling.  You couldn't finish the song there.

Then we go back to the tonic chord for the start of the next pair of lines, and we finish on the tonic chord at the end of the verse.  The song could, in theory, end there, although it'd be pretty short!  There's a feeling that we've arrived back home again.

The chorus starts on F major, the subdominant chord, which is quite common, creating a change of key-colour.  We go through a brief key-change in the middle of the line before arriving at the dominant chord again, G major.  We feel as though we're heading towards a conclusion.  The final section begins and ends on the tonic chord, and there's a resolution to the song.

Now let's transpose the song into F major.
F ------------------------- C7
F ------------------------- F
Bb ----------------------- C7
F ------------------------- F

The chord of C major (ignore the seventh again) is now playing the role that G major did in the earlier key - the dominant chord.  It's the one that requires resolution.  We don't feel we've completed the song until we've got back onto F major.

So my point is that it's not the actual letter-names of the chords that are important.  It's their roles relative to the key you're playing in.

When you're singing, unless you've got perfect pitch, you've got no absolute concept of pitch - it's all relative.  In any given key, you've hopefully got a feel for which note is the keynote, which is the fifth, which is the third and so on, but not for the actual letter-names of the notes.  That's why it's so easy to sing a song in several different keys (if your range allows it).  You don't have to think about transposing as you do with an instrument - it happens automatically.  That's why some people recommend tonic sol-fa as a way of teaching singing (doh-ray-me).  "Doh" is always the keynote of the scale, regardless of what key you're in.  "Soh" is always the fifth, "me" is always the third, and so on.

That's not true with most instruments, of course.  Nevertheless it's the way I think when I'm playing by ear, or when I'm composing in my head.  The realization of "doh-ray-me" at the keyboard might be "C-D-E" or "F-G-A" but really that's irrelevant.  It's the relative pitches of the notes that are important, not the absolute ones.

There is simply no way that I could interpret a chord sequence as just a sequence of letter names.  Let's look at "Streets of London" again.  It starts with the sequence C-G-Am-Em.  In my mind I imagine that as "tonic-dominant-submediant-mediant".  I don't think in words, of course - I think in sounds.  But I'm not trying to imagine what G major sounds like in isolation.  I'm imagining what it sounds like relative to C major.  If it were written in F major, as F-C-Dm-Am, I'd imagine the same thing.  I might not imagine it at the right pitch but I'd get all the intervals right.

It's interesting to note in passing that the chord symbols used in the Baroque era were relative to the key rather than absolute - they'd use "I" for the tonic, "V" for the dominant, "IV" for the subdominant and so on.  I think that's a much more intuitive way of notating chords, to be honest, although if you're playing an instrument you have to learn which symbol corresponds to which chord in each key.  But it comes with practice.

So that's the way that I interpret and create music, at any rate. It works for me and I couldn't do it any other way.

Wednesday, 11 May 2016

How I write a song lyric

This post is to do with recent discussions on the Songwriter Forum about the construction of song lyrics.  I'm going to give an indication of the type of thought-processes that I typically go through when I'm writing a song.  As an illustration, I'm going to use this couplet from "Don't Mix Your Drinks" - a comedy song about the difference between two types of alcoholic drink.

Yes, perry comes from pears now, and cider comes from apples,
An obvious distinction with which every brewer grapples.

The "hook" line at the end of each chorus is "cider comes from apples, and perry comes from pears", but (employing a fairly common comedy technique) the wording is changed at the beginning of each chorus so that a different rhyming word comes last.  I'd already had "perry" and "cider" at the end, so now it was the turn of "apples".  Getting "apples" to the end was no problem, apart from a minor problem with the scansion - "pears" is only one syllable, so I added in the "now" as a filler.  Not ideal but good enough.  The second line was a lot harder though. 

The first problem was finding a rhyme for "apples", which has far fewer rhymes than the other words.  Off the top of my head I could only think of "dapples", which didn't really fit the context, and "grapples".  Something like "a problem with which [someone-or-other] grapples"?  That seemed promising - in conversation you'd be more likely to say "a problem which [someone-or-other] grapples with", but the other version is perfectly grammatical and the slightly pedantic tone may even enhance the humour.  So that was a start.

So who's this person grappling with the problem?  No idea.  It's really a problem with which lots of people grapple, but then you need the plural version of the verb "grapple", which doesn't rhyme.  What about "everybody", though?  That refers to lots of people, but takes a singular verb.  Now I've got "a problem with which everybody grapples".  Scans OK but is two beats short.  Stick in an adverb and adjective, then, and here's the first draft: 

A really tricky problem with which everybody grapples.

It's not really a problem, though - it's a difference that people don't observe.  I'd already used "difference" in a previous chorus so I needed a synonym.  "Distinction" fitted, but then the adjective needed to be shorter:

A really clear distinction with which everybody grapples.

OK but I thought I could do better - "really" is a bit of an over-used filler word and I'd rather do without it.  Is there a synonym for "clear" with three syllables that fits?  Indeed there is - "obvious":

An obvious distinction with which everybody grapples.

Nearly there now, but does everybody grapple with it?  It's only really the people in the brewing industry who name the product - that's who the song is trying to make fun of.  So the line now becomes:

An obvious distinction with which every brewer grapples.

And I went with that, but actually it's still not right.  You don't brew cider, you ferment it.  But "fermenter" doesn't scan, and anyway I don't think people who make cider are called "fermenters" - just "cider-makers".  But then I'd have had to repeat "cider" in the line, and rewrite the whole thing again because the scansion would be different.  I just had to hope that no one would notice.

In performance it's just a little throwaway gag that hopefully gets a titter from one or two people in the audience.  But it represents something like an hour's work, I'd guess.  I'm not saying that every line in the song was as hard to write as that one, but it gives an indication of the type of work that goes into writing what to most people would sound like a light, frothy lyric. 

You don't want it to sound like hard work - you want it to sound like the sort of thing that anyone might naturally say, which just happens to be set to music.  And that's the challenge of writing lyrics as far as I'm concerned.

Sunday, 27 March 2016

Counties of England*

*For the Purposes of Lieutenancy


Oh there's Cornwall, Devon, Dorset, Wiltshire, Hampshire, Isle of Wight,
West Sussex and East Sussex, Surrey, Berkshire if I'm right,
Greater London, City of London, Essex, Hertfordshire and Kent,
There used to be a Middlesex - I don't know where it went.
And Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire and Bedfordshire and all,
Northamptonshire and Cambridgeshire, and Rutland's rather small,
And there's Suffolk, Norfolk, Lincolnshire and Leicestershire and Notts,
These are the counties of England - there are lots and lots and lots.

[SPOKEN:] Well, only forty-eight actually.  And "Nottinghamshire" was too long to fit into the line.

[Pause]

These are in fact the ceremonial counties of England, defined under the Lieutenancies Act 1997 as the areas to which a Lord Lieutenant is appointed.  They are not be confused with the 83 metropolitan and non-metropolitan counties defined for the purposes of local government.

[Pause]

Nor are they to be confused with the 39 historic counties of England established by the Normans and promoted by the Association of British Counties, whose continued existence was acknowledged by the Government in 2013.

[Pause]

Actually I do know where Middlesex went.  It was abolished in 1965 when the Greater London Council was established, and was mostly absorbed into Greater London with the exception of two small areas now in Hertfordshire and Surrey.

[Pause]

And to clarify the next bit: there are only three historic Ridings of Yorkshire, but there are four current subdivisions for the purposes of lieutenancy, only one of which - the East - is referred to as a Riding, and whose boundaries do not correspond exactly to those of the historic East Riding.

[Pause]

But hey, it's only a bloody song.

[SUNG:]
Now Yorkshire is a county that's so big it needs dividing
Into South and West and North and East - that's what they call a Riding,
Northumberland and Cumbria, County Durham, Tyne and Wear,
Greater Manchester and Merseyside and proper Lancashire.
And Cheshire, Shropshire, Staffordshire and Derbyshire, I claim,
And Worcestershire and Warwickshire, West Midlands (dreadful name!),
And Herefordshire and Gloucestershire and Bristol in the West,
Which leaves us only with Somerset - the one we love the best!



Don't Mix Your Drinks


In every supermarket there's a most delicious drink,
In every corner shop and any pub of which you think.
It's cheap and it's refreshing, so it's such a dreadful shame
That they sell it as pear cider, which is not its proper name.

For cider comes from apples and perry comes from pears.
I don't know when they changed it, but it caught me unawares.
I want to start a protest, but it seems nobody cares
That cider comes from apples and perry comes from pears.
Yes apples give you cider, and pears will give you perry.
You can look the meanings up in any dictionary.
Just Google it, you'll find that Wikipedia declares
That cider comes from apples and perry comes from pears.

When I went just along the road I found to my delight
That one brave manufacturer had named the product right,
In big three-litre pouches, it was really quite a shock.
I went and got one every day, and drank them out of stock.

Oh, pears will give you perry, and apples give you cider.
The diff-er-ence between the two could not be any wider.
I asked some local farmers and I sent them questionnaires,
They said "Cider comes from apples and perry comes from pears".
Yes perry comes from pears now, and cider comes from apples,
An obvious distinction with which every brewer grapples.
The people who rebranded it may all be millionaires,
But cider comes from apples and perry comes from pears.

So if you're feeling angry you should write to your MP,
He'll think that you're a fruitcake, but he won't dare disagree.
Remember as you sip your pint of perry at the bar,
It wasn't Cider Como singing "Catch a Falling Star".

Oh, perry isn't cider, and cider isn't perry,
Bitter isn't lager, and brandy isn't sherry,
Whisky isn't vodka, and my own dear mother swears
That cider comes from apples and perry comes from pears.
Cider comes from apples and perry comes from pears,
Cider comes from apples and perry comes from pears.
Go and change the label if anybody dares,
For cider comes from apples...
...and perry comes from pears!

Ask Me Another


Had a referendum
All about a mayor -
Never thought about it,
Didn't really care.
Got no information,
Nothing through the door I could see.
Oh, it's hard to decide, why would anyone want to ask me?

Now we'll have another,
Worryingly soon.
In or out of Europe,
Twenty-third of June.
Parties are divided,
Politicians just can't agree.
Oh, it's hard to decide, why would anyone want to ask me?

All these years when they never heard my point of view.
All these years I've been waiting,
And then there's not one referendum but two.

Good to be consulted,
Good to have a choice.
Glad we're democratic,
Glad I've got a voice.
Listen to the people,
That's the way the country should be.
But it's hard to decide, why would anyone want to ask me?

Am I for or against, is it Leave or Remain?
Should we change to a mayor,
Should we stick with the leader, or should I abstain?

Need to think it over,
Need to ponder long.
This could last for ever,
Mustn't get it wrong.
Make the right decision -
That's the thing I know I must do.
And if you can't decide, make your mind up, they're going to ask you.
Yes, if you can't decide, make your mind up before they ask you!

Christmas Cacophony


I don't care a lot for Christmas,
Never meant too much to me,
Stuff the turkey, sod the presents,
Stick them up your Christmas tree.
Worst of all I can't abide
Hearing every Christmastide
One unpleasant thing -
The Christmas song that no one can sing.

Every year in mid-December
When you think you're having fun,
There's that song you all remember
Never got to Number One.
When it starts it's bright and catchy,
Everyone can sing along,
Then it gets a little patchy,
People start to get it wrong.
Now you've got the melody,
All at once it changes key.
You'll just have to wing
The Christmas song that no one can sing.
(Oh yeah!  Oh no!  Oh yeah!)

You can spend all day rehearsing,
You can play the track all night,
Still you know you'll end up cursing
For you'll never get it right.
You can play with friends and neighbours,
You can practise on your own,
At the end of all your labours
You're still off one semitone.
Though you know the words by heart,
If you haven't learned the part
Chaos you will bring
To the Christmas song that no one can sing.

You will get a detrimental feeling when you hear
Voices trying to be jolly wailing in your ear.
If you find it kind of scary,
Blame it on Mariah Carey -
She can sing in different keys,
But otherwise keep quiet please!

I would give a million dollars
Not to hear that same refrain,
Everybody simply hollers,
Don't they know they're causing pain?
If you care for music more,
Here's advice you won't ignore:
End the suffering
From the Christmas song that no one can sing.  (Oh yeah!)
The Christmas song that no one can sing.  (Oh no!)
The Christmas song that no one can ... sing.