The Recipe for Music

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The Recipe for Music

Basically, music is made up of Melody, Rhythm, Harmony, Dynamics, Tempo and Mood. We've covered the basics of melody above, as well as rhythm. Harmony is covered in Chapter 9, " Singing and Playing." Here's a bit on the rest:

Dynamics

The volume of music determines, in a large way, how it is perceived. Rising and falling volume and intensity within a song is called dynamics . Having good control of dynamics, individually and as a band, makes the music more interesting and gives you more control over the mood. You can actually practice this as a band , going from really loud to really soft in different parts of a song. A good exercise to get good at this is to play one part of the song very loud and one part very soft, and just roll two the parts back to back, going from very loud to very soft.

The classic grunge formula is to be really loud on the chorus and kind of quiet (but still powerful) on the verse. This is easy and works really well most of the time. It's a good place to start.

Songs that use this formula include Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit," "Heart Shaped Box," and "All Apologies"; The Pixies' "This Monkey's Gone to Heaven" and "Here Comes Your Man"; and Smashing Pumpkins' "Rat in a Cage."

The Pixies' "Where Is My Mind" actually does the opposite ; it's loud on the verses and quiet on the choruses.

One thing I like to do is have the guitar cut out completely or almost completely on the beginning of the verses and build again as the verse goes on (with the drums and bass staying the same volume throughout). I do this on the second and third verses of "The Web" and the second verse of "Supergoose." Also, "Good Morning Captain" by Slint.

A good example overall of the use of a lot of dynamics in a song is Wheezer's "The World Has Turned and Left Me Here."

I like to start out with things quieter at the beginning of a song, and rise and fall in waves, but steadily build overall as the song goes forward. I use this "add as you go" formula also on length of parts. Notice that the instrumental part in "Promise" is twice as long before the second "And she cried" chorus as it is the first time around.

There are a million variations to all songwriting ideas, and you will find your own. You can start with some of these to get a feel for it and make your own formulas.

Tempo

Very slight variations in tempo, as little as two BPM (beats per minute), can strongly affect the overall mood of a song. I used to play with a drummer (Michael Urbano, who now plays with Smashmouth) who had excellent clock once he started a song, he kept it exactly the same speed through the end. He would often find the optimum tempo using an electronic metronome, write the BPM rate on the set list next to the song title, and use the metronome to listen to a little to start each song live. He would reset it to the correct number quickly between songs, hold it up to his ear, get the beat, set the metronome down, count off four or eight clicks on the hi-hat, and the band would join in. This worked great.

Michael was great also at serving the song. He was capable of playing amazingly complex parts, far more accurately than most drummers, but usually chose not to. He would only play exactly as much as the song required to make the singer sound great. I loved this. Not just because I was the singerbut because the singing is basically the song. He serves the song. He's never boring, but never overplays. I wish more people would consider this when playing music. It makes for much better music.

Timbre and Mood

I find it amusing that fans of different styles argue with each other, or even fight over musical taste, because the underlying song structure is often virtually identical in different styles. Often the only difference is the timbre (pronounced "tamber"). Timbre is the musical sound (what is different when an accordion plays a melody and when a distorted electric guitar plays the same melody).

Well, the clothing and hairstyles are also different sometimes. I guess that's why people fight.

Download www.kittyfeet.com/stuff/Cash.mp3.

It's my band, Baby Opaque (in Virginia, in 1984) doing the "traditional" [4.] American folk song, "Long Black Veil," with Ian MacKaye singing backup.

[4.] The copyright is generally attributed to Danny Dill and Marijohn Wilkin. Previous versions list it as "traditional American." There are several wild and crazy stories to explain this. One I have heard was that someone originally was supposed to record "an unrecorded traditional American folk song in the wild" for a university musicology class. And rather than going to that effort, they wrote this song but claimed it was traditional. After the song began to generate income, they changed their tune and admitted authorship.

Get yourself a copy of the older version by Johnny Cash. (One could use a file-sharing program for this, though I'd never recommend you do anything illegal.

But you could get such a utility from Kazaalite.com.) There are several other country versions out there, including Nick Cave's 1986 version from Kicking Against the Pricks . They're absolutely the same song and melody. But the Baby Opaque version is straight-up Ramones-style punk rock. It is totally different from country versions in timbre, volume, tempo (speed), and attitude.

"Long Black Veil" (along with most country songs) is a great example of strong storytelling in a song. In fact, the story in this song absolutely follows the three-act format favored in most films . "Long Black Veil" has three verses, and even splits the acts absolutely at each verse. The first verse ("Ten years ago ") introduces the hero ("I"), and sets up the problem (someone was killed and the killer looked like me). The second verse ("Now the judge said, son, what is your alibi ?") gives a problem to be solved ("If you were somewhere else, then you won't have to die") and the hero fails at trying. ("I spoke not a word, though it meant my life, for I'd been in the arms of my best friend's wife.") This has the hero passing a test, achieving redemption . And even though the hero dies, his soul and conscience are now pure, enabling him in death to be with the still-living woman .

Even though she's still, we presume, his best friend's wife. Redemption in country music is twisted. I love it. It always made me wonder why Tipper Gore only went after rock music with the PMRC. Probably because her husband, Al Gore, was a Tennessee senator at the time. And Tennessee is the world economic capitol of country music production.

To recap:

This song's story is actually like a little movie:

The first verse introduces the characters and explains the problem.

The second verse offers tension, and a choice to be made.

The last verse explains the redemption as a result of making the right choice.

(first verse):

Ten years ago, on a cold, dark night

Someone was killed beneath the town hall light

There were few at the scene

But they all agreed

That the slayer who ran

Looked a lot like me

(pre-chorus and chorus) :

She walks these hills in a Long Black Veil

She visits my grave when the night winds wail

Nobody knows, nobody sees, nobody knows but me

(second verse):

The judge said, "Son, what is your alibi?

If you were somewhere else,

Then you won't have to die."

Well, I said not a word

Though it meant my life

For I'd been in the arms

Of my best friend's wife

(pre-chorus and chorus) :

She walks these hills in a Long Black Veil

She visits my grave when the night winds wail

Nobody knows, nobody sees, nobody knows but me

(third verse):

Oh now, the scaffold was high

Eternity is near

She stood in the crowd

And shed not a tear

Oh, sometimes at night

When the cold winds blow

In a Long Black Veil

She stands over my bones

(pre-chorus and chorus):

She walks these hills in a Long Black Veil

She visits my grave when the night winds wail

Nobody knows, nobody sees, nobody knows but me

I've done it in even less:

The shortest song I've ever written:

www.kittyfeet.com/ivy.mp3

It tells a complete story in two lines:

Ivy's getting married and I don't care.

Ivy's getting married and I won't be there.

NOTE

I've done it in even less. Check out "Ode to a Cat" on the CD. The whole song is only three lines:

"You are a cat. And I am a man.

I'm so much bigger than you.

You'd better not bite me again."

The first line introduces the characters.

The second line explains their relationship and defines the problem.

The third tells a story, or at least implies a scenario of consequence. No cats were harmed in the making of this song, and I assure you that the crappy quality is a result of using a cheap microphone and a poor soundcard and nothing more. So take that as a cautionary example and avoid that scenario of consequence.

"Long Black Veil," by the way, also uses a songwriting device called a pre-chorus , a part that comes up every time before the chorus. It's the line "She walks these hills, in a long black veil ." This leads into the chorus proper, "Nobody knows, nobody sees, nobody knows but me." (Another song that uses one is "Friends of P" by the Rentals.)

My version of "Long Black Veil" begins with a pre-chorus rather than a verse. This can be a useful songwriting device. Some songs start with a chorus. It's all up to you. You'll get better and better at all this with practice. You will intuitively know where things should go the more you write songs and work with music and other musicians .

My version has a breakdown , actually a verse functioning as a middle sixteen. ("Now the scaffold is high, and eternity's near .") The chords are the same, but the music is brought down low. This breaks the monotony and makes it all that much more special when you bring the volume and power back up for the final pre-chorus and chorus.

Songs with breakdowns include, "Welcome to Paradise" by Green Day, Rancid's "Junkie Man" (the breakdown is a spoken word thing with Jim Carroll), and "'Til My Head Falls Off " by They Might Be Giants.

Like most of the techniques here, this trick works in any genre of music.

Here's a series of cartoons by Joe explaining how he works:


Cartoon by Joe Folladori.

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NOTE

I, V, IV (pronounced "one, five, four," a.k.a. "a one-five-four chord progression) is the basis of a lot of rock 'n' roll (in the general "all rock" sense, and more specifically in the 1950s Elvis/rockabilly/blues/country/folk and all its stepchildren sense).

The roman numerals term I, V, IV refers to the relation of the chords in the key you're working in. If the key is C, then C is the one chord, F is the four (there are four whole tones from C to F) and G is the five chord (there are five whole tones from C to G). So, in the key of C, a one-five-four song will generally have some close variation of going from C to G to F and back to C. There are a million variations, but this is the basis of a lot of rock music. When you say "three-chord rock," you usually mean a one-five-four progression.

Examples include "I Fought the Law" (recorded by a lot of people, including the Clash and Dead Kennedys) and "Blitzkrieg Bop" by the Ramones. In fact, most Ramones songs used this formula.

A great example is on the CD, the Mathletes' song, "Tamalalia," which is actually about a real person, Tamarie Cooper, who does a yearly very popular musical play/ dance /story revue thing in Houston called "Tamalalia." My sweetie, Tiffany, is in it most years. This song is I, V, IV in the key of C, so the chords are C, G, and F.

Nineteen-year-old genius Joe Folladori, who wrote the song and played everything on it (Joe is the Mathletes), may have exaggerated a little bit in the lyrics. I'm not sure.

You can transpose this progression to any key. In the key of G, the I-V-IV chords would be G-D-C.)

Joe's Web site is www.allstarpowerup.com.

Throw this book against the wall right now and go look at his site. I command thee .

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