Visualizing song structures

How do you write out a pop, rock or dance song? There’s no single standard method. Some musicians use standard western notation. Some do everything by ear. Many of us use methods that fall somewhere in between. One such compromise system in widespread use is the lead sheet:

Other systems for song documentation include chord charts and the Nashville numbering system. But plenty of musicians are unfamiliar with these systems, and may not have any method for writing down songs at all. This leads to a lot of confusion during rehearsals and recording sessions. Any given section of a rock or pop song is likely to be simple, a few chords in a particular pattern, but the difficulty comes in figuring out and remembering the bigger structure: whether the guitar solo comes after the second verse or the chorus, how many bars long the bridge is, what beat the ending falls on.

Continue reading

Don’t Stop Til You Get Enough

This song represents a lot of firsts for Michael Jackson. It was the first single from Off The Wall, and the first recording MJ made that he had complete creative control over. Many of his hits were written by Quincy Jones or Rod Temperton or the guys from Toto, but Michael wrote this one himself. It was also his first solo song to get a music video.

I’ve loved this song for years while barely being able to make out any of the words. I finally had to look them up on Google. MJ isn’t exactly Cole Porter, but his lyrics have nice body logic, they sound good and are super pleasurable to sing. MJ had the same songwriting strategy as the Beatles: he started with a melody over a rhythmic groove, developed using nonsense syllables. Only later, once the whole song was in place and recorded as a demo, did he find words that fit the metrical scheme.

Verse one:

Lovely is the feeling now
Fever, temperatures rising now
Power (ah power) is the force, the vow
That makes it happen
It asks no questions why
So get closer
To my body now
Just love me
‘Til you don’t know how

The melodic nut meat of this tune is on the words “lovely,” “fever,” “power,” “happen” and so on. The first syllable of these words is sung on D#, the major third in the key of B. The second syllable is on the A below, the flat seventh in B. The interval between these two notes is a tritone. It’s a sound with a richly conflicted emotional resonance. If you’re willing to follow me through a little music theory, it’ll help you understand what makes this song so awesome.

Western music theory is based on the buildup and release of tension. One of the best ways to create tension is with dissonance. The tritone is considered by European tradition to be a very dissonant interval. Every major key has a tritone in it, between the fourth and seventh notes of the scale (fa and ti, for Sound Of Music fans.) If you’re a typical western listener and you hear a tritone, your ear wants it to resolve to a less dissonant interval. You want the fa to resolve down to mi, and the ti to resolve up to do.

African-American music treats the tritone very differently. The blues uses tons of unresolved tritones. In blues, chords with tritones can functionally feel stable and resolved, “dissonant” though they may be. (The music has lots of other intriguing harmonic grittiness, like microtones, and the simultaneous use of minor and major thirds.) The blues passed the unresolved tritone on to its many musical descendants: jazz, rock, funk and so on.

MJ is squarely within his musical tradition to be basing his melody on an unresolved tritone. Still, it’s startling to hear it featured so prominently and starkly in a pop song, on the very first two notes of the vocal melody no less. It gives a jolt of intensity to what might otherwise be a harmless piece of disco fluff.

Music is fundamentally all about math. Most of the musical intervals in the western tuning system are based on simple ratios, the kinds of numbers you can count on your fingers. The interval between A and the next A up is an octave, meaning that the ratio between the two notes’ frequencies is one to two. The interval between A and E is a fifth, a ratio of two to three. The interval between A and C# is a major third, a ratio of four to five. The tritone is different. The interval between A and D# is one to the square root of two. Your ear might not know which specific irrational number it’s hearing, but it knows that something weird and complex is at work, something you can’t count on your fingers.

“Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” asserts further non-European quality in its extremely minimalist chord progression. It has just two chords, A major and B7. The A major has B as its bass note, which really makes it more of a B9sus4 chord. The music term for this kind of unvarying chord pattern is a modal groove. In this case the mode is B mixolydian.

Western music is mostly linear. The chord progression tells a story of dissonance leading to consonance, or vice versa. Modal tunes are more Eastern, trance-like and drone-oriented. They’re about creating a cyclical ambiance, a mood rather than a narrative. “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” shares its modal quality with my other favorite Michael Jackson original, “Wanna Be Startin’ Something,” which he wrote around the same time.

MJ’s chorus adds to the trance-inducing vibe by repeating the same line over and over:

Keep on with the force, don’t stop
Don’t stop ’til you get enough

It’s more of a mantra than a semantic idea. It helps keep the mind clear for the business at hand, the business of getting your groove on from the waist down.

The harmony and lyrics might be static, but there’s a lot of music packed into this track. Ben Wright’s string arrangement chases up and down the chromatic scale, adding another dash of unsettling dissonance. There are multiple layers of bells, handclaps and other percussion, and the bass and guitar mostly function as percussion too. Jerry Hey’s tight horn chart makes the brass into yet another percussion element, rather than a melodic one. Check out the stab at 1:37, the end of the first chorus. Hot!

As with all of MJ’s hits, “Don’t Stop Til You Get Enough” has been sampled many times. Some highlights, more or less in chronological order:

Purists might find it jarring, but I’m also enjoying this remix with Jay-Z.

The synth solo in this tune is an excellent example of blues tonality.

Le Freak, c’est chic

Meet guitarist and producer Nile Rodgers, one of my favorite musicians in the world. He founded Chic along with the late bassist Bernard Edwards, and he’s on Twitter.

Nile Rodgers has led an action-packed life. As a teenager, he played with the Sesame Street band, and then with the Apollo Theater house band, where he backed such luminaries as Aretha Franklin and P-Funk. He was an active Black Panther. His Allmusic bio lists various NYC bands he played in before forming Chic, including a new wave rock outfit called Allah & The Knife Wielding Punks. He later went on to write most of the disco songs and eighties pop hits that I like, and helped lay the cornerstone of hip-hop. He deserves a blog post and then some.

Continue reading

Breakdance

I can’t breakdance. I want to learn. It looks like fun. When I worked for the Parks Department I was involved in their afterschool programs. One of them met in the Alfred E Smith Recreation Center in the housing project of the same name. In the basketball gym, Roc-a-fella (the b-girl, not the record label) and her crew taught classes. Some of the people were beginners, and some were advanced Jedi masters. One guy could spin on his head while nonchalantly taking off his jacket. I watched some of those classes and felt as happy as I’ve ever felt watching other people do anything.

Here I’m going to collect some breakdance media and see if any thoughts emerge. Your suggestions welcome.

Beat Street

Continue reading