Northern Thorns

Dance Rock | Seattle

Tag: composition

Syllables, cont.

I should add to the thoughts from last entry, I love the sound of the syllables in the Lingala language. Tons of vowels, super round sounding and sung warmly. And the Congolese/Belgian pronunciation of French is also really beautiful, strong and smooth and not as slippery as French spoken in France itself. They occasionally sing in other languages, English and Spanish, though not often.

My own lyrical ideas almost always originate in syllabic sounds. The words and sometimes even the entire subject matter follow from that. I hear a melody, decide if it’s better suited to guitar or voice, and if it’s a vocal melody the next thing I hear is the sounds of the words. Filler or nonsense words, initially.

The other thing I wanted to mention today is that a single fiery Orchestre Viva La Musica song that I discovered (it’s in the blog post from the 14th) has got me on a new music kick again, and for that I’m grateful. Time to write and record some new stuff, very soon.

Sound of Syllables

I’ve never been a fan of poetry on a page. But since I started writing lyrics for this project (I hadn’t written lyrics in a very long time prior to this, long enough that my previous work is basically just teenage breakup angst), I’ve really observed that setting words to music adds something. Something that’s hard to put your finger on. It’s a piece of the puzzle, the whole story of a work, in a similar way that a music video will add yet more depth to a song. How much more profound is David Bowie’s Blackstar as a result of the accompanying video? The words written on a page just don’t hit as hard, at least they never have for me. In fact, many lyrics in print form I would mistake for completely trite. The song makes the poetry.

The words have to flow smoothly. This can mean they rhyme, and I’m a great fan of double couplet rhyming and deep rhyme schemes. But more important to me is that good vocal lines are always somewhat conversational. The notes in a vocal melody can convey inflection. A meandering line that has a lot of movement might evoke incredulity or anger, depending on the movement and the note order. If you were to speak the lyrics to someone else in conversation, and the sentence lilted up or downwards at the end of a phrase, the vocal melody should reflect that. Paul Simon is the guru of conversational singing, though I constantly look to the entire hip hop genre for great examples as well, whether rapped or sung.

And, the sounds of the syllables need to sit comfrotably on the tongue and in the song. I have often changed words that I like only because I can’t deliver them naturally in the song. Bjork is a master of syllables, probably the best I’ve ever heard. She has such a command of them that she can create striking new timbres with just pronunciations. I’m always amazed when I listen to her.

Paying heed to all these things will make the vocals in a song sound natural, classic, flowing. And the ideas conveyed in the words will come across more clearly and sink in deeper, without the listener being aware of it in a lot of cases. Great songwriting is a marriage of words and music. And lately I can’t get excited about instrumental music. That may be another thing Pollens did to me. I’m addicted to the human voice as instrument. It’s so old, so primal, so ecstatic, so unconscious.

All this is the main reason lyrics are so difficult for me. It’s like a Rubic’s Cube; they have to be approached from so many angles at once.

Ghostwriting In Music

I read an excellent article in the Atlantic recently, on ghostwriting. About how the vast majority of big radio hits in the US are written not by the big names that perform them, i.e. Beyonce, Justin Bieber, Taylor Swift, etc. but in fact by professional songwriters that generally happen to be middle aged Scandinavian men. I had heard of Max Martin, and was never assuming that Britney Spears was writing her own music, but I didn’t realize the extent of this pop songwriting pipeline.

While learning of this bit of industry sausage making might outrage some people and make others shrug, my reaction is mostly one of admiration for these songwriters. They’re the true artists here, and the singers and dancers who bring their creations to the stage are really mostly performers in my estimation. Obviously this is nothing new, I am a big fan of Motown and oldies and and lots of the music that The Wrecking Crew played on, and the vast majority of that stuff was ghost written. “Write a word, get a third,” as the saying goes.

This article made me think about my priorities and what I value about art and music, and how these things have changed as I’ve gotten older. I no longer value technical prowess. To me, all that does is provide headroom. That probably speaks to the genres of music I like. If you’re a bebop fan, valuing chops is only natural.

But I love pop music, all genres of it. I love hooks. I love dance beats. I love sing-alongs. I love music that speaks instantly and irresistibly to a large audience. I love pop songwriting. And consequently, I value Max Martin and the Swedish song cabal a lot more than I value Beyonce and the other artists that perform songs they didn’t create. It’s not disappointment exactly, but my admiration has shifted.

Though I am a bit disappointed that Tay Tay doesn’t write her hits. Maybe all she had in her was country music.

Workflow and Ideas

It’s been a little while since I’ve written any music, but I have a ton of new ideas sitting in voice memos on my iPhone. Voice memos are crucial to my general workflow: listen to music -> hear things based on said music -> whistle or sing them into my phone -> weeks or months later do an intensive when I can set aside a big chunk of time -> make demos in Logic and sequence the voice memo ideas into songs. Some songs have been entirely linear senquences of my voice memo ideas (Bonfire, specifically, was constructed from like seven different unrelated ideas from over the course of 18 months). They percolate in my head once I have them down so I know I won’t forget them, and they combine with each other and become verses and choruses and calls.

I have my favorites likes everyone else within the genres I prefer, but I always treasure the first listen to something because a lot of new ideas seem to come out of that. Something about not being familiar with a song, not knowing where it’s going to go next because you’ve never heard it before, causes my brain to create the other places where I might have taken a phrase or song structure, the other notes I might have played over the chords. And that in turn leads to my own ideas, melodies that are only vaguely related to what I was listening to. Not that I haven’t been guilty of unconsciously lifting lines from old soukous records, I catch myself doing that from time to time. Sometimes I change it to fix it, and sometimes I just leave it. But the blank slate of the first listen often leads to my own new ideas, in ways that hearing old favorites probably never will.

– Adam

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