Etude

I envy the music critic Alex Ross for his ability to talk about composition in a way that both musicians and the never-even-took-piano crowd can understand. And there’s an assumption in that: I can’t be sure those wholly unfamiliar with theory are able to follow along. But today, I want to write about the process of choosing the notes to throw on a page. And I want to throw words on this page that won’t alienate anyone.

A song has various components. One is

Melody

and if I asked you to hum your favorite showtune – sans words – the melody is what you’d be humming. In musicals, it’s important that the tune puts across the lyric in a way that makes dramatic sense. So, the composer looks at text in the way an actor might, choosing what syllables to emphasize:

Don’t call me at 3 a.m. from a friend’s apartment.
I’d like to choose how I hear the news.

To Andrew Lloyd Webber, the important syllables in this rather moving passage are “ment” of “apartment” and “I’d.” The voice leaps up to hit these fairly hard; then the same thing happens on “how I.” Does that make any sense to you? Of course it doesn’t. But that’s my theory: Andrew Lloyd Webber is an Englishman who doesn’t know how to speak English.

The other trouble with the leap is that it’s hard to sing. After sitting down below the staff, you have to ascend a major seventh – a rather uncommon interval – into a completely different part of the vocal range. Am I being too technical, here? This is merely evidence for my other theory: that Andrew Lloyd Webber hates singers.

Harmony

There’s more to a song than the vocal line. The piano or orchestra will definitely play something in addition to the melody. Two notes that are different make up a chord. I find the selection of chords particularly fascinating. They give emotional contours to a tune. And I’m not going to name names here, but I know of a major Broadway score in which the composer sang into a tape recorder, sans accompaniment. Others filled in the harmonies, and those others did a particularly wonderful job. The result is a famously beautiful score, but the people who didn’t get the credit are the deserving ones. Sorry, I’m not going to reveal the secret.

Garden variety scores tend to use the most obvious harmonies, and I’ve noticed this is often true of works by rock songwriters. Most pop music is written on guitars, and the fingers of rockers tend to fall on familiar frets. The aesthetic, over there in pop-land, isn’t to search for patterns you haven’t heard before. I don’t know why. In my writing, I’m constantly looking for the chord you’re not likely to expect. But one can go overboard with this sort of thing, and a “constantly surprising refrain” may be too weird for most ears. So, show-creators strike a happy medium: not too hot; not too cold, but something Goldilocks would enjoy.

Rhythm

“Hup-two-three-four!” the drill sergeant yells, and that’s about as uninteresting as a rhythm can get. But get too interesting, and your audience gets unsettled. We need Goldilocks again.

Whenever you emphasize an unexpected beat – that is, not the marching cadence, that’s called syncopation, which is the root of jazz, broadly defined.

In the theatre, we’re always concerned with the lyrics sounding natural. Musicals shift from dialogue to singing, and if syllables get mis-accented, well that’s going to get in the way of understanding. Nothing’s worse than that. And yet false stresses abound – the songwriting mistake I see most often. Just yesterday, I was working on a song that’s in one of these awful jukebox musicals, and the word “watusi” put “wa” and “si” on strong beats, leading to all sorts of problems.

In an early comedy song, I commented on these sorts of errors with this bridge:

The bridge is a little too brief
And the rhythm is beyond belief

Of course, the challenge was to set the last line with as many false accents as possible.

Accompaniment

When I first started writing musicals, I hadn’t progressed very far in my piano studies. I knew what chords I wanted, and my first few scores I wrote nothing but lead sheets. These show what the singer does – the melody and lyric, and name the chord – G7, F#dim, etc. Those tell you what the chord is, but not how to express it. And that’s leaving a lot up to chance, or your arranger or accompanist’s taste. A composer’s job isn’t truly finished until there’s a full piano score, telling the musician exactly what both hands are playing.

Sometimes, the inability to write an interesting accompaniment is related to insufficient piano skill. And there are plenty of times in which singers need the support of hearing the melody in the accompaniment; this is called doubling.

There’s a song I admire greatly in which the melody isn’t the least bit impressive, the rhythm is annoyingly machine-like, and the harmonic structure isn’t extraordinary. But the accompaniment is so fascinating, and the lyric so trenchant, that when the components come together it hits you with such power, you go “wow!”

Another hundred songwriters aren’t considering interesting ways to support the melody. I think back to my early teens, and recall my composition teacher encouraging me to come up with something more compelling than the block chords on quarter beats I used in my earliest songs. Many current tunesmiths hit the same dull chord on the hup-two-three-four. If they knew now what I knew then, scores of scores would be livelier.

 

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