A colleague of mine once told me about a performance of “new classical” music he had attended many years ago. On the concert was a piece called “Green Music.” Afterward, an audience member congratulated the composer, and said, “Wow, I really just kept picturing the colour green… How did you do that?!”
Later, in confidence, the composer said, “It had nothing to do with green at all. I just couldn’t come up with a title, so I called it “Green Music.”
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Well, that’s music for you. It has a way of manipulating us, and sometimes all it takes is a title.
I think you might call this a cautionary tale: songs are not always what they appear to be.
If you’re into analyzing songs to discover what makes them tick (and you should be), it’s important to remember that even songwriters can be unsure why something they’ve written actually works.
With traditional classical music, analyzing yields much. You can discover, for example, that the last four notes of Stravinsky’s “Firebird” ballet are the same as the first four notes of the piece. That kind of observation can be the start of an interesting analysis: Where else in the piece does this happen? Why did he do that? How significant is it? And that sort of thing (replicating musical ideas) is not something Stravinsky would have done “by accident.”
But in pop music, a lot of what happens occurs “by accident,” in the sense that comes about as the product of improvisation. And because of that, it makes analyzing tricky. As I say, even songwriters can be surprised by why something sounds good. Can you actually analyze an improvised song?
A number of years ago, I did an analysis of Imogen Heap’s excellent song, “Tidal.” In analyzing that song, I noted that the shape of the first melodic idea for the song imitated the shape of the entire first part of the song. To me, that’s an important structural feature of “Tidal.”
I mentioned that in the post because I knew that Imogen Heap has been classically trained, and there’s every good possibility that her experience and training led to that kind of compositional structural attribute.
But for many songwriters, you can’t count on the likelihood that they’ve been that particular about how they’ve put a song together. That is not at all a criticism. Most songwriters use their instincts as a powerful musical tool, and more power to them!
But it then begs the question: how relevant is songwriting analysis, if the songwriter has come up with their song by using their instincts?
I would still say: very relevant. When something sounds good, there’s always a reason. Sometimes that reason can elude even the writer of the song. All they may know is that it sounds great.
But if you want to learn from great songs, you need to know why they’re great in the first place. That means that you could discover characteristics about songs of which the composers themselves have been previously (and possibly still) unaware.
It’s important not to go overboard with analysis. Good song analysis always starts with a question: “Why?”, or perhaps “How?” If a song isn’t prompting you to ask questions, it could be that everything there is to know about it has been presented, up front and clear.
But if you truly want to learn from great songs, analysis is always worth it, even if you think that the good bits came about “by accident.”
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