This is it (part one)

Through 150 posts, I’ve shied away from specific discussion of music-writing techniques.  Compared to lyrics, script and story, music is harder to talk about – naturally; it’s an amorphous thing.  And we don’t all speak the same language here.  Non-musicians’ eyes glaze over at our technical terms, while what I’m about to write will seem laughably simplistic to experienced composers.  But, with all that in mind, it’s time I put forth some ideas, endeavoring to keep this entertaining as always.

Music’s like a liquid: it can take almost any shape.  I therefore find it easier to write lyrics before music.  You can bend a tune to fit a text with less trouble than it takes to force words to work in conjunction with a melody’s stresses, rises and falls.  Of course, going both ways (tune-first, text-first) and, for me at least, the blissful simultaneous creation – all orders will be necessary at different times.  You can’t be rigid in your desire to go first or second – hell, you can’t be rigid about anything: it’s all going to have to change, eventually.  Richard Rodgers had 17 years of unparalleled success writing melody-first with Larry Hart; then he accommodated Oscar Hammerstein, who preferred to write words first, for 17 years of the greatest shows ever.

Just as things are made of molecules, melodies have smaller components.  You hear interchangeable terms such as hook or motive; the examples I’m about to give are three notes that appear in their songs again and again.  In Jule Styne’s Just In Time, it’s three notes that are just two different notes, as the first and third are the same.  Sing it, or listen to Dean: you hear the characteristic phrase on the title, right at the beginning.  A note, then the note just below it, then the original note – about as simple as three notes could get.  So why is this a great song?  Because Styne knew how to develop a whole song out of the restatement of the sequence.  Prepare for eyes glazing over, unschooled ones, we’re going to mention some harmonies.  The first “just in time” begins on the third of the scale.  That middle note takes us, very briefly, from major to minor and back again.  There’s tension in doing that: much of the joy of music is in the concept of tension and release.  (Much of the joy of sex is too, but this is a family blog.)  The second time the lyric gets to its title, Styne puts the same three notes on a different chord, (a minor seventh built on the seventh note in the major scale) one that surprises the ear, since it’s not closely related to the previous harmony.  Once he’s done something that interesting, he could afford to be a little predictable.  The next chords take us down the circle of fifths: simply put, of all the harmonies you can choose, there are chords that are the most common, that appear to flow most naturally from one to another.  What’s fun here is that, for a long time, the tune hasn’t gone anywhere, although the chords have.  It’s the same two notes alternating until the “ning” of “running.”  This would sound pretty dull on a solo instrument, but the set of chords make two notes sound fresh, as well as inevitable. Styne loved building songs this way, with very short hooks involving notes next to each other on the scale.  Now listen to Styne’s I’ve Heard That Song Before and you can understand why it seems like you have heard that song before the first time you’ve heard it.

Boy, it feels like I’m the magician spilling the beans on how the trick is done.  So, in theory (or with theory), everyone reading this can now write a song the way Jule Styne did.  But I think the more surprising thing I’m revealing here is that sometimes a song can be an academic exercise.  Suppose you did the opposite of what Styne did, and tried to build a song on a difficult interval.  Remember, his were often right next to each other on the scale (Never Never Land, People, Bye Bye Baby); what if you went the opposite way.  Cole Porter set himself the challenge of using the most unusual of intervals (of an octave or less) as a two-note motif, and harmonizing it so it’s both singable and listenable.  It’s a descending major seventh – if you must know – and appears all over his 1940s hit, I Love You.  The song strikes me as something of an inside joke: the lyric of the verse sets up the idea that the character singing is no good at coming up with words to express love.  So, Cole utilizes clichés along with a tune that uses an interval almost no song uses.  Do you see why I suspect an intellectual exercise may have led to this song’s creation?  And let’s unite Porter and Styne with this: both created melodies out of the chromatic scale (that is, the notes that are right next to each other on a piano).  Anything Goes has, as its main love song, All Through the Night, which descends this scale.  And the Styne piece that comes up in every audition, All I Need Is the Girl, meanders up the chromatic scale from the start of the refrain to the end of the title.  When I first started noticing these things, as a boy of 12 or so, it blew my mind.  (This is why I keep this a family blog.)

Two of my other compositional heroes, Jerry Bock and Leonard Bernstein, each challenged themselves to deal with the extreme tension brought about by the flatted fifth.  In medieval times, a composer using the tritone would be burned at the stake, because it was thought to be a sign that the tunesmith was possessed by the devil.  In Bock’s first Broadway score, there’s a ballad called Ethel Baby.  It starts on that oh-so-tense flat fifth, and the un-flattens it, up to the perfect fifth, releasing the tension.  It’s a rather simple number, really, but starts in a very unusual place.  The next season on Broadway brought Bernstein’s West Side Story, and those devilish diminished intervals are all over the score.  The first two notes of Cool (a melisma on the word, “boy”), the Jets’ whistled signal, which gets used again in dance music.  And the song that develops what’s traditionally thought of as an ugly sound into something gorgeous, Maria.  You can hear the tension and release right in the second and third syllables of the girl’s name.  It goes from strange to sublime in an instant.

Now here’s the thing contemporary performers seem to have forgotten about Maria.  When the song was written, in the “Anglo” milieu of the Jets, nobody had a name like Maria.  To them, it’s exotic – a very ethnic sounding name.  Which is why the boy repeats it so often.  He’s testing out the sound on his lips.  He feels such love for the sister of the rival gang’s leader, he finds the rapturous music in her name.  Today, you meet Marias every day of the week.  But back then, Tony and the Jets certainly didn’t.  So, the song lingers, for a moment, on the strangeness of the flat fifth, before lifting it up (just as Ethel Baby does) in joyous consonance.  I can’t believe this was an intellectual exercise for Bernstein, who was long past such academy foolishness: it’s strange and then sublime for a purpose.

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