Brian May - The Prophet's Song

Strangeness as a Design Feature in Songs

When I was a student at McGill University back in the mid 80s, I heard a performance of a remarkable piece of music called Opus Clavicembalisticum, written by the composer Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji, born in London, England.

When it was written (1930), Opus Clavicembalisticum was the longest piece of piano music ever written: 4-and-a-half hours in length. The style of writing required a most aggressive style of playing, such that the piano, as I recall, had to be partially retuned during the intermission. The concert started at 7:30 pm and, intermission included, ended close to 1:00 a.m.

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I remember asking my composition professor if he thought it was “a good piece of music.” His reply: “How the heck should I know? What do we do… compare it to all the other 4-and-a-half hour piano pieces out there?”

His reply made sense to me at the time. One of the ways we judge music — in fact, one of the ways we learn about music, is not by following rules, but by listening to and comparing other songs in our chosen genre of interest. Making comparisons between songs is an important part of learning.

And since there are no other piano works of this one’s mammoth proportions, it stands to reason that we have no good way to judge it.

In the years since then, I’ve modified my agreement with my professor’s statement. I think it is possible to judge strange music – music for which we have no other ready comparison.

For example, much of the music in the progressive rock genre is singular and unique. We manage to judge that music well enough. We like some prog rock songs, and we dislike others. That act of liking some and not others means that our ability to judge and assess music works just fine, even if we can’t directly compare the song in question to anything else.

Queen’s “The Prophet’s Song” (Brian May)

The rock group Queen gives us a great example of a song where strangeness is a design feature. Brian May’s composition “The Prophet’s Song” from “A Night At the Opera” (1975) includes an extraordinary a cappella vocal section just past the bridge of the song.

Much of the rest of the song, though lengthy (over 8 minutes duration), is in a fairly standard pop song format, including song intro, verses, chorus, bridge, etc. But that vocal section… it’s hard to find any other song with a section like that.

And so we might say, in assessing the song, “What do we do? Compare it to all the other songs with an a cappella vocal section using voices in canon?

One of the most important aspects of what makes songs good is their use of, and contouring of, musical energy. In other words, how the musical energy ebbs and flows is what keeps people listening:

  • As instruments drop out, we know they’re going to come back, so we keep listening.
  • As melodies move up, we know they’re going to move down again.
  • As music gets soft, we know it’s going to get loud again.

These are all important parts of musical composition. Good composition, anyway.

So the strangeness of that vocal canon in “The Prophet’s Song” actually adds to the strength of the musical design of the song, because its sudden dropping of instruments is part of what keeps us wanting to listen.

And its uniqueness means we won’t get the pleasure we derive from that section from any other song. The section is strange, but it is also relevant: It’s a “preach” based on the subject matter of the lyric.

As you work on your own songs, you may worry that including odd moments, sections or other elements within your songs will cause listeners to feel confused, making them turn away. But that only happens if the odd section seems to have no purpose or reason for existing at all.

Strangeness, when used as a design feature in your songs, can keep your songs from sounding like everything else you’ve written, but also can help them stand up and apart from the songs everyone else is writing.

As long as there’s something relevant about your strange section, it should work.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

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