Music Theory And Songwriting|
In order to have any kind of music 'act' you need to have music! You either cover other people’s songs (a few artists do this today, Destiny's Child recently did a cover of the 1980's disco song Emotions and in the past performers like Barbara Streisand and Frank Sinatra used this method of obtaining songs all the time), acquire a new song from professional songwriters (your record company will make boxes of tapes available to you -- back when Prince was producing other artists he’d give them hours and hours of finished songs on cassette, a band I did some work with, The Three O’Clock, picked Neon Telephone from his collection because it fit their style and the Bangles took Manic Monday which became one of their big hits) or you write them, sometimes in collaboration with other people.
Songs are either crafted or improvised. Several situations I’ve been involved with have seen the improvised approach where the guitarist or keyboard player vamps away on a series of chords or bass patterns and the lead singer does Freudian therapy (singing the first thing that comes to their mind). After doing this for a while the singer begins to see ideas and crafts the words into something concrete. ASCAP songwriter Lucrecia Russo worked this way with guitarist D. Orr. He had an intricate arrangement he’d been working on for a while and she began singing lyrics over his playing. Eventually she drew from our experiences working at the Taft Building in Hollywood, with it’s dark alley ways and dim-lit hallways. How we’d crash out on the floor after sessions in our studio, then make our way to the rest room on hands and knees in the dark, early morning hours. That song ended up getting both commercial and college radio play, making it into some top 50 lists and received airplay royalties from around the world.
On the other hand, it has been said that the late 60's rock era classic Incense and Peppermints was written totally out of a rhyme book (our Carolyn Howard-Johnson takes a look at the Merriam-Webster edition of this book in our books section).
Some singers work acapella (without music) singing a true melody and then instrumentalists build an arrangement around this. I worked this way with Clarissa J. Rawkis.
Finally there’s the crafted approach in which several artists sit down at a piano or with a guitar and they take rhythms, short phrases, ideas and fit them into chord patterns.
All songs in the Western motif are built along several reoccurring patterns of chords (several tones in a harmony), the most popular of which is called the 1 - 4 - 5 pattern. These patterns are then played to a specific beat or rhythm. Every act on record or radio does this from the B-52s, into Sublime, out to Staind, Destiny's Child and Craig David. Be they punk, metal, Reggae, SKA, country, folk, pop or classical, in the world of Western music (Oriental and Middle Eastern areas have a radically different approach which we won't discuss in this lesson, although we will touch a little on Tribal African and South American elements) they all have the same primary concepts!
To understand all of these concepts - and singers who don’t play instruments might want to learn a little more about the process of music theory which we are going to delve into here - read on and get the concise college level Music 101 in a single short lesson!
The Anatomy of Music
There are notes, keys, chords, intervals, voicing, time signatures, rhythms and accents (or claves).
Notes are fixed tones from A to G, done in half and whole steps. There are naturals (A, B, C, D, E, F, G) and sharps (A#, etc.) and flats (Ab, etc.) Naturals are the white keys on a piano. Flats and sharps are the black keys. There is never a black key (or half step) between the notes E and F or between B and C. As a general rule when you go up in tone you call the half steps sharps and when you go down in tone you call them flats. Each black key can be called two different note names. The first black key up from C is either C# (C sharp) or Db (D flat). Going up we can call them C C# D D# E F F# G G# A A# B C. Going down (right to left on the piano) we can call them C B Bb A Ab G Gb F E Eb D Db C.
Intervals are numeric constants that work with any group of notes or keys. Taking the above example we simply count in whole and half numbers applying the same rule from above - no half steps between E and F and B and C, except instead of calling these by notes or letters we use numbers: 1, 1 ½, 2, 2 ½, 3, 4, 4 ½, 5, 5 ½, 6, 6 ½, 7, 8. We always count this way and thus we can know the scales or steps in any given key
To know your steps in any given key you need merely remember two rules: No half steps between E and F or B and C. No half steps between 3 and 4 or between 7 and 8. Then you simply count from the root note of the key (G, A, Bb, etc.) using those rules.
Chords are made up of notes in fixed arrangements of intervals. The primary chords are Majors and Minors. Majors are bright and happy sounding. Minors are sad and dreary.
Major chords are formed using the intervals 1, 3 and 5. In C this would be C, E and G.
Minor chords are made by flatting the 3 (or making it a 2 ½ in our interval counts) and in C this would be C, Eb and G (we drop the E a half tone or moving it to the left one key on a piano).
On the piano you will see that the black keys are arranged in 2s and 3s. To make a C major chord you put one finger on the white key to the left of the first set of 2 black keys, one finger on a white key to the right of the second of the 2 black keys and one finger on a white key to the right of the first of 3 black keys. To make this a minor you shift the middle note down from the white key to the second black key in the set of 2s.
This is like algebra, so some of you will have to dwell on the subject of whole and half notes for a bit to grasp the concept of substituting letters and numbers, whole and half steps, plus those notes or steps without a half. Once you commit this to memory and count with your fingers you can figure out any chord or any musical progression -- even without an instrument!
There are more compound chords, the most popular of which is the 7th, which is always a flatted 7 (or a 6 ½). This is sometimes called the Dominant 7th. We generally just call them 7th. C7, B7, G7. In the key of C the dominant or plain vanilla 7th would be Bb (B flat) because this is 6 ½ (or a flatted 7th note, which is the B). This may sound strange to you, but this is a blues chord. It’s supposed to sound a little depressed. Recent Grammy winner Alicia Keys probably sings over a lot of dominant 7th chords in her songs, because they do the blues. So we count in intervals: 1, 3, 5, 6 ½ for the dominant 7th in a major chord (let’s take a hard example and trying counting: Eb7 -- Eb, E, F, Gb, G, Ab, A, Bb, B, C, Db, D, Eb -- our 1 is Eb, our 3 is G our 5 is Bb and our 6 ½ is Db -- remember we count 1, 1 ½, 2, 2 ½, 3, 4, 4 ½, 5, 5 ½, 6, 6 ½, 7, 8). If you remember the rules on NOTES and INTERVALS, plus the rules for CHORDS you’ll never have a problem finding most chords by simply counting on your fingers or using a piece of paper!
The Major 7th is a chord that gets a little use now and then. This one uses the actually 7th note (in our above Eb example that would be D or D natural, up a half step from Db or D flat). This is a strange sounding chord uses a lot by the Beatles. It is not used nearly as much in composition as the Dominant (or flatted 7th - our 6 ½ in interval counting) and is used sparingly to convey a feeling at one point in a lyric. This chord is written on guitar or chord tabs as C Major 7 or CMj7.
Remember, Dominant (or flatted) 7th are written C7, B7, E7. The Major (or natural 7th) are written as either C Mj 7, B Mj 7 or C Major 7 and B Major 7.
A really weird chord that is very rarely used is the minor major 7th and the most recent example of this would be in December from Collective Soul (“Turn your head now baby just spit me out!”). The Beatles also used this chord in Dear Prudence. You simply lower the 3rd to make the Major 7th a minor! So you have C Eb, G, B as the Minor Major 7th. This is generally written as Cm Mj7 or Cmin mj7.
(It’s possible that Staind may even be coming close to playing these types of chord in their song Been A While as this is part of the moving progression by which a chord is mutated from major to minor to major seventh. When you mutate chords like this you eventually cross chords. The C major 7th chord is one half step away from being an E minor chord - all you have to do is drop the C down a half step to B - and the E minor chord is a mutation of the G chord. Largely what determines what name you call a chord is based on the bass note (or root) and how much of the 3rd and 5th are present.).
The Suspended 4th is another very popular chord. Used widely by the Beatles (“Hey Jude” and “Let It Be”) and Harry Nielsen (“One Is The Loneliest Number” and “Echoes of My Mind”). This generally is formed by moving the 3rd up a half step (remember there is no 3 ½ in counting intervals, we go 3, 4). So a Suspended or Suspended 4th in C would be C, F, G. The E is optional or formed before or after in the formation of the chords (e.g. C, F, G, C, E, G on a guitar which can play 5 or 6 strings at one time).
The 9th and 11th are used a lot in jazz. The rule here is to form a dominant 7th (major or minor) and then add either the 9th or 11th. These are examples of voicing or inversions. An 11th chord is basically the same chord as a Suspended 4th, with a flatted 7th. It would be formed in C as a major chord as: C, E, G, Bb, F. So if a song basically states a chord is a G7sus4 that can also be called an 11th chord, depending on where the note is in the formation. They are basically the same groupings of notes.
This leads us into voicing or triad structure. We know we have the root, the 3rd and the 5th. Sometimes we add a 7th or major 7th. Occasionally we add a 6th or a Suspended 4th. Voice has to do with were in the order you place all of these and this is harmony. In our primary triad we have:
Most popular music is primarily written in a structure of 4 beats or 4/4 time signature, which is counted as one, two, three, four, one, two, three, four, etc.
Occasionally bands and songwriters get fancy and use a different timing. Dave Brubek, a jazz composer and arranger, did a song in the 1950s called Take 5 (which comes from the 'coffee break' phrase used by musicians - take 5 minutes while I work on this part them come back and we’ll start playing again) which was written in 5/4 time and counted as 1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and 5. When students in music school learn about these things they often compose (or are told to compose) a song in a different signature which is probably how Andrew Lloyd Webber came about doing “Try Not To Get Worried” from Jesus Christ Superstar, which is also written in 5/4 and then switches to 4/4 for the segue. Changing beat structure can really be a problem for musicians! One young composer I was working with, Clarissa J. Rawkis, added a measure of 2/4 to one of her songs. It goes 4/4 most of the time then hits that 2/4 passage. The Beatles did this a lot, too!
Accents are the stress points in a given song and are an integral part of the rhythm and beat structure. The holes or gaps, groups of notes played in succession and which note is played heavier than the others helps to define the nature of the song. South Americans call this a clave, named for a drum or wooden block struck by another wooden block. The order of hits and the spacing between hits defines in South American music what is a Samba or Rumba or Cha-Cha. To get an idea of a pure clave think of the Rolling Stones song “Sympathy For The Devil” as those opening drum hits (played by Mick Jagger their lead singer and co-author of the song) are a pure, South American clave.
To understand accents and claves and beat structure we need to expand our counting from one, two, three, four (which are the white beats or quarter notes) into finer counts: One E and uh, Two E and uh, Three E and Uh, Four E and Uh. These break the four beats into sixteen parts. SKA, for example, may have the accent on the upbeat of 1 and 3 at the “and” portion in some arrangements. We’d count this more simply as one AND two and three AND four and with the upper case AND being the accent. This is where the guitarist would strike a quick chord and then not play again until the next accent point. Just two strikes in each measure on the AND that comes after 1 and 3.
African music is based on 12 beats and is often played in a round format ("row, row, row your boat"). This is the origin of what we call the 12 bar blues. African music is all different drum claves (recurring beat patterns) in which each drummer is taking a series of strikes within a 12 count. Some may strike only on the AND of 2 and wait 12 beats before hitting the drum again. It’s a chorus of drummers each playing different claves at different points in time. Sometimes they’ll exchange beats, with drummer 2 playing the part of drummer 1 and drummer 3 now playing the part of drummer 2 until it comes around and the original drummers play their original parts. A round. Like in 'ROW ROW ROW YOUR BOAT' where the different singers grab different elements of the song and slap them over someone else’s part. Accents in African music can and do on any part of the 16 count in each measure.
Stephan Jenkins said it perfectly in the Third Eye Blind song Semi-Charmed Life: "And the four right chords can make me cry."
All songs are based on recurring patterns, the most common of which is 1 4 5 (key signature root, then you count to the chord made up of the 4th, then the chord made up of the 5th - C, F, G - all majors (“I Knew I Loved You Before I Met You” which goes 1 5 4 the second time through - 1 4 5 then 1 5 4). Or 1 minor, dominant 7 major, 4 major (“Wicked Dreams”). This would be Bm, A, E (or if you did it in the key of A minor it would be Am, G, D). 1 minor, 3 major, dominant 7 major (“Turn Out The Lights” - Em, G, D).
Bb (bass is rotates from Bb to A natural), D minor (bass rotates from A to G), Bb, then F (bass rotates from C to A).. She then mutates the Bb moving the root down the scale (Bb, Dm, Gm, Dm, Db, F -- note that the Db is only one note away from G minor and simply adds a closed feel to passage, what’s call “resolve”). Dmin is a mutation of both Bb and F. This is playing around with triad harmonies to achieve a progressively changing sound. It’s actually built around a child’s fingering exercise for the left hand piano part.
This last example shows how voicing, specifically a changing voice, make the simple chords work effectively enough to win her Grammy nominations and a high ranking on the top pop charts and it all comes from a simple finger exercise and mutating several related chords (Bb and Dm are released, F and Dm are related, Gm and Bb are related, Db and Gm are related).
We end with the concept of keys. A key signature determine which root comes first in a song and it is entirely dependent upon the voicing of the lead instrument (music for trumpet is written in Bb for example) or the range of the singer (most singers often work in F, Bb or Eb, however you must ultimately change the key so that both the lowest note and the highest note in the song falls easily within the range of your singer's voice) or the playing style on some instruments (guitars, for example, are in the key of Em, but some finger patterns work well on the guitar so they may write songs in A or D to fit this unique voicing that may not sound as good in another key).
Taking I'm Like A Bird, which is written in Bb (B Flat), and transposing it (changing the key) to C (up a whole step), which is easier to play and understand for most beginners, the chords would be: C (with the bass rotating from C to B natural), E minor (bass rotates from B to A) and then G (bass rotates from D to B). The chorus progress is: C, Em, Am, Em, Eb, G. Just go up to the counting chart at the top of this article and see how the letters and number correspond!
All you have to do is use those counting intervals to figure out the progression and then assign a new root note and count once again. It's all remembering the letters from A through G, plus the half steps and notes that have no half steps (EF and BC). Counting from 1, up and remembering that there is no half step between 3, 4 and 7, 8.
Once you understand your intervals, keys and notes you’ll be able to pluck out any song by finding the root and counting. You’ll also soon see that all songs come from related patterns of intervals, no matter what key in which they are written!
-- Also contributing to this was Mary Dingman
Earl R. Dingman has worked for both BMI and ASCAP music publishers. He is a member of the National Association of Music Publishers and has engineered or produced songs that made the ASCAP Current Performance Survey.
Our Music Special continues with these other articles: