Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Classifying Pop b/w "It's me, Philint."

For whatever reason, nobody seems to talk much about the formal structure of the pop songs being written today. The situation is a bit like that of sonata form in the 18th century- everybody was organizing their music according to similar general principles, but it took about a century for the academics to arrive with their calipers and specimen bottles to grandly announce that they had discovered the Platonic ideal of the sonata. From that point on, sonatas were butterflies pinned in a glass case. To write one was a conscious act- a participation in an established ritual: you either consciously obeyed or deviated from the traditional strictures ascribed to it by academics.

(Please note, Reader, that in a moment I'm going to embark on a long discussion of the harmony of 'pop music'- a term so vague that I could be refuted by you at almost every instance. In particular, my ideas don't mesh with 'pop' written by sophisticated composers like Burt Bacharach. I suppose, for the rest of this article, you might consider 'pop' harmony to be the harmony of the new common practice, the one passed around by teenagers in garages who have only had a few guitar lessons - the teenagers, that is, not the garages - and learned music from their record collections rather than stacks of sheet music. This is harmony derived from the weird - I squirm to say it: modal? - harmonies of folk music and the blues. There- you're forwarned. Now let me back up a little and get some steam going again.)

...that point on, sonatas were butterflies pinned in a glass case. To write one was a conscious act- a participation in an established ritual: you either consciously obeyed or deviated from the traditional strictures ascribed to it by academics.

Today, by contrast, there are a million million pop songs floating around in the ether, many of them written in a new harmonic tradition by people who never learned common-practice (i.e. 'classical') theory. They are all organized (like primordial sonatas), structurally, according to similar general principles. Academics (a happy few excepted) and certain 'classy' traditionally-trained musicians turn up their noses at these songs, though, because (among other cultural reasons) their harmonies don't make for satisfying analysis when observed through the lens of common-practice harmony. The harmony of these pop songs often seems to follow different rules altogether. It isn't, for instance, as grounded in the major/minor scales (or modes) and as a result pop chord progressions - while 'simple' according to their own rules - are not what would be considered harmonically 'simple' progressions in common practice theory.

This is because, I would say, we are living in the Age of the Guitar- called such not because of the ubiquity of the instrument in almost every popular genre (I would say the guitar is actually temporarily receding in importance as synthesizers and computer music enjoy a renaissance) but rather because:

(drum roll)

The popular music of the Baby Boom was written on guitars.

That generation's music (due largely to the sheer demographic heft) became, in a sense, the standard of pop music for the next fifty years. More importantly, the harmonies of that generation's music defined the harmonic palette of pop music for the next fifty years.

Guitars in standard tuning - as anyone who has learned to play a little guitar will know - are designed to facilitate hand positions that easily produce certain chord voicings. The beauty of the chromatic fretboard is that the hand can reproduce these chord voicings in almost any key with approximately equal difficulty.

(Please note, Reader, that I am not saying the guitar is an easy instrument. It is a very difficult and demanding instrument- as sophisticated, versatile, and polyphonic as the piano at its highest levels of cultivation. I'm just saying that guitar lends itself naturally to certain harmonic events that would require considerable dexterity and planning at the piano or any other instrument.)

So what do we get when we write songs on the guitar? Well, one thing we get is lots of major chords. It's not at all unusual to get progression like: I III IV V vi V IV V vi V IV V vi V IV (an ungainly way of analyzing the plaintive opening of David Bowie's 'Rock 'n' Roll Suicide'). Now, to ears trained to look for the gears and springs of common practice harmony, that III chord will probably be read as, rather, a V/vi of the vi that happens a few bars later. And, accordingly, if you alter the progression to I V7/vi IV V vi it doesn't really function any differently to the ear. 'Fixing' the progression like that misses the point though- pop harmony embraces what common practice theory would consider very surprising major chords- chords apparently unrelated to the key of the song. (The situation is especially frustrating to would-be traditional analysts because most of the harmony of these songs still consists of I IV V chords- a simplicity out of vogue in western music since the time of Praetorius). To justify these surprising chords, academics usually shuffle their feet and start talking about complicated modal inflections and altered notes and - in the most amusing cases - start comparing the pop band in question to Messiaen.

This is, of course, ridiculous. Modern pop songs - probably starting somewhere around the birth of jazz charts - are conceived in a fundamentally different manner than 'classical' (i.e. written-down) pieces: not as contrapuntal harmony that arises from the interaction of melody and bassline, but rather as a framework of chords over which the bassline and melody are built. Which is to say that, from the classical perspective, popular musicians do it backwards. Pop music is an art which hasn't lost its roots in improvisation, of messing around on a guitar and singing over strummed chords, feeling towards a completed song through trial and error. Most of the pop songs that present the most difficulty to traditional analysts - the ones with lots of convoluted chords full of extra tones and complicated use of dissonant pedal tones - usually turn out to be constructed from traditional guitar chords that have been altered in their finger position, creating interesting suspensions and dissonances that don't naturally occur to the pianist. Stravinsky once commented on the importance of happy accidents in the composition process. Most of the interesting, harmonically complex pop songs written on guitars, it could be argued, consist of conglomerations of dozens of happy fingering accidents.

Which brings me back to the sonatas pinned row on row in the glass cases of academia- why hasn't this happened to pop songs? Pop songwriters content themselves with an incredibly simple vocabulary to outline their songs- few terms beyond 'verse', 'chorus', 'bridge', and maybe 'intro' and 'coda.' The verse/chorus form of song is very old (prehistoric?), of course, but our era has elevated it to a state of cultivation and variety that (I would say) overshadows even Schubert's Vienna. So where is the obsessive academic classification of the subtle variations in these songs?

Curiously, it seems like the labor of classification is focused entirely on not the songs and their musical content (note, for instance, how we have very few terms for different kinds of songs- 'ballad', 'anthem' and generic terms like 'fast rocker' or - most comical to classical musicians - 'instrumental') but rather on the musicians and songwriters. People who like pop music revel in the tiniest genre distinctions but seem indifferent to the formal differences between the songs themselves. Somehow, we are meant to gather, a David Bowie song is different from a Pixies song not because of different compositional decisions but because their is some quiddity to each singer/songwriter which stamps the music with a particular glow. Moreover, every genre is viewed as a sort of compositional recipe in which only certain formulas, tempi, rhythms, instruments, chord progressions, and lyrical content are accceptable. (Note that, curiously, some genres overlap comfortably- the Dead Kennedys can closely cover 'Viva Las Vegas' with only a few superficial changes to the lyrics and the song still fits under the rubric of 'punk.') In this sense, it's a bit like the straightjacket conventions of common practice Viennese 'classical' music multiplied a hundred times- could we honestly expect the musicians of every vague genre to formulate academic classifications to elucidate the subtle distinctions of their particular niche? Do we really want to see an Institute of Ska Studies publishing academic journals about periodic phrase structure in the works of Don Drummond?

I just said "Somehow, we are meant to gather, a David Bowie song is different from a Pixies song not because of different compositional decisions but because their is some quiddity to each singer/songwriter which stamps the music with a particular glow." This line of argument is in danger of getting into serious trouble- after all, I certainly can't argue that people don't classify lots of classical music by composer rather than more abstract formal criteria. I have, obviously, overreached, and will have to develop some of these thoughts in a later post.

And, of course, all this is just prelude for the latest DeVoto offering: a pair of 18th century 'pop' songs, in a sense. I'm going to do them in separate posts, even though DeVoto lumps them together as a matched set.

JOSEPH HAYDN, "XII Lieder für das Clavier, Part I (Hob. XXVIa/1-12; 1781)"

No. 4 "Eine sehr gewöhnliche Geschichte"

Which is to say: "a very common story." These songs are interesting on the page because the vocal line isn't given its own stave. Instead, the words are just crammed between the treble and bass staves- I guess you're meant to just sing along with whatever the topmost note of the right hand is doing. DeVoto says that this 'suggests a domestic rather than a formal use for these songs, in that they could serve equally well as pieces to be sung and as pieces to be played without singing.' Really? The first song is only 29 bars long, and the first eight bars are an introduction, leaving the home pianist to repeat 22 bars over and over. I'd think that would be a little dull without the variety of different words in each verse.

The text, in four stanzas by Christian Felix Weisse, outlines a little story in which Philint knocks on Babette's door late at night and asks to be let in. She rebuffs him, saying that it's dark and she's all alone so it couldn't possibly be Philint (I'm not sure of the logic there). But then, just as he's turning to go, she lets him in on the condition that he leave quickly. In the last stanza we learn that Philint didn't leave till the next morning and that the neighbors got a big kick out of that. Now, maybe I have an incorrect conception of 18th century German values, but doesn't that seem a little risqué? Did...did Philint get some?

In terms of harmonic analysis, it's a nicely written little song- very singable, but with some harmonic complexity to keep it from seeming too trite. The overall key is G Major.

In the introducton we get two bars of I, then a ii7, then a V6/V (i.e. the 3rd of the ii7 moves from C to C-sharp), and then a big quasi-tonicization of V- V I vii6/V, and a resounding V, pounded over and over again. Then the song proper starts (unless, as DeVoto suggests, you're just playing it without singing).

Well, basically we get a passage harmonically identical to the intoduction, only now the tune is doubled by the voice (presumably) and the pounding V chord is given a more satisfying tonicization by way of (in D Major, the dominant) vii6/V, I6/4 (I should start doing like Kyle Gann and writing out 'one six-four') V I. Then, in a deft move, we're suddenly in A Minor (the supertonic of G, our home key), and get the spooky progression of "fully diminished seven sharp-seven" (okay, it's kind of a pain to write that out), one, fully diminished seven sharp-six, one, one-six, and then - we're almost done, since it's a short song - we're back in G Major. Nothing interesting to report from there on out- vii/V, V4/2, I, V 4/2, I, I6 etc. to a conclusion of IV V I.

But, what do we hear- what makes this song special? It's a jolly little thing with an alberti bass for the introductory phrase, and then - when Philint's knocking on the door - Haydn pounds the hell out of V and its tonicization with repeated sixteenth notes in big open-position chords. It's a funny moment, much too big for the comparable moment in the text. It sounds like Philint's going at it with a jackhammer. The A Minor phrase is a minor variant of the opening tune, and the concluding G major phrases round off the verse by repeatedly using a little falling figure of two sixteenth notes, a touch that dissipates some of the energy and leads to a good-humored conclusion.

How do these songs stand in relation to modern pop songs? This is hard to describe. A modern audience, if played ths song by an unknown opening act at a club, would probably be baffled. Due to its simple, repetitious verse structure, periodic phrasing, and carefully-rhymed lyrics, they would probably consider it children's music. Also, the use of modulations (even mild tonicizations like these) would make them uncomfortable. One thing never found in current pop music is prepared modulation, and it accordingly makes pop audiences uncomfortable- they can sniff that something unhip and fancy is going on.

Next post: another little Haydn song.


Blogger Evan Kearney said...

I have made similar observations on modern Popular Music. After analyzing songs that aurally exhibited some degree of harmonic activity beyond I-IV-V7-I, I found that the progressions were almost never functional. The only exception that I continuously into is the music of the band "Genesis" almost all composed by the keyboards player of the band, Tony Banks.

Perhaps that is why I like Genesis so much? They haven't abandoned the time-tested yet easily extendable (though substitute dominants, split-member chords, etc.) richness of the Classical tradition.

I compose both classical pieces (almost all solo piano works) and my take on Popular Music. When I decide to release some of this popular music I have written, I will be taking a risk, as it is usually written, voiced, etc. as a 1870-1890 era classical Lieder with a synthesizer or guitar playing the voice. However, it is very rich and actually more modern and "quirky" sounding the most so-called experimental rock, so I would bet some folks would like it.

Time to bring back late Common-Practice forms and harmonic structures (and, even more importantly, good voice leading) to popular music.

Evan Kearney - composer

5:08 PM  
Blogger Ariel Elisha AE said...

I like your diary! I'm a complex pop writer, with a background in classical comp and jazz. I constantly search for music by new artists that I can use as my living soundtrack as i did onceuponatimeinpop, but its so rare today... actually i can't say as I've found one single yet, out this year which features wondrous harmonic changes. I would love to follow you on twitter... I'm leon rosen, my mixtape album is
Thanks for the blog, though i wish it weren't neccesary

2:30 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home