In case you don’t pay attention to such things, there’s a miniature scandal swirling around the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ performance at the Super Bowl halftime show.
Close examination of the footage reveals that the bass and guitar weren’t plugged in.
Flea, the Peppers’ bassist, came forward and admitted that they used a pre-recorded track, and offered various excuses and explanations. I’m surprised to find myself writing about this, since if there’s anything I care about less than the Super Bowl, it’s the Red Hot Chili Peppers. But I was struck by Flea’s prevaricating; the whole thing points up the strangeness of live music in the age of technology.
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.
Jazz is easier to play than rock in a certain sense, because its song forms are more standardized. There are a few very widely used templates: the head-solos-head format, the thirty-two bar AABA standard, blues, rhythm changes and so on. Because of this formal standardization, you can put a bunch of jazz musicians who have never even met each other on a stage together with zero rehearsal, and they’ll be able to bang some tunes out. Rock and pop are a lot more idiosyncratic, so even though they tend to be technically simpler than jazz, getting the different parts sorted out can take a lot more work.
The world of computer recording and sequencing can be a big help with visualizing a song’s structure. Once a tune is in a digital audio editor, it’s automatically “notated” in terms of chunks of audio against a grid of bars and beats. It suddenly becomes easy to visualize song structures, even if you have no idea how music notation works. You can use markers, color-coding and named memory locations to create an interactive road map of the track. Here’s a recent composition I did for grad school using Ableton Live:
Learning to visualize a song on the computer screen doesn’t just make your life easier when you’re writing or recording. By looking at song structures, you can learn a lot about how music is put together, about the symmetries and asymmetries, the repetition and variation and recursion. You can learn these things through very attentive listening too, but getting your eyes involved really helps to drive the ideas home.
The first time I heard Manu Dibango’s “Soul Makossa” was courtesy of Motorcycle Guy, a prominent Brooklyn eccentric who drives around on a tricked-out motorcycle bedecked with lights and equipped with a powerful sound system. I encounter him every so often and he’s always bumping some good funk, soul or R&B. One night, he was playing what I thought was an extreme remix of “Wanna Be Startin’ Something” by Michael Jackson, with the end chant slowed down and pitch-shifted radically. As it turns out, I got the chronology reversed. Here’s Manu Dibango’s song:
The bassline is neglected by most non-musicians. But if you want to write or produce music, you quickly find out how important it is. The bassline is the foundation of the whole musical structure, both rhythmically and harmonically. The best basslines interlock with the drums and other rhythm instruments to propel the groove, without you necessarily even noticing them. I like the complex walking lines in jazz and melodic lines in highbrow rock, but the ones that really hit me where I live are basic riffs that loop and loop until they lift you into an ecstatic trance.
Here are my favorite basslines of the last fifty years, across genres.
The internet has spoken! These are the tracks of mine that you like the best, in order of listens. It comes as no surprise to me that three of them involve Michael Jackson, and two involve the Beatles.
The defining musical experience of my lifetime is hearing familiar samples in unfamiliar contexts. For me, the experience is usually a thrill. For a lot of people, the experience makes them angry. Using recognizable samples necessarily means having an emotional conversation with everyone who already has an attachment to the original recording. Music is about connecting with other people. Sampling, like its predecessors quoting and referencing, is a powerful connection method.
This week I’ve been all about Kanye West’s “Lost In The World,” the most gripping track on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Kanye is one of the few commercial producers with a high enough profile to be able to license whatever samples he wants, so he carries the banner of memetastic collage-based music in the mainstream, and god bless him for it. Click through for the song on YouTube.
There’s nothing going on in contemporary music that interests me more than the vibe of this track. The blend of electronic and tribal drums and Auto-tuned singing draws on the same sonic palette as “Love Lockdown,” which continues to be my favorite song of the 21st century, but “Lost In The World” is much bigger and denser.
I’ve always been more of a Beatles guy than a Stones guy, but respect where respect is due, “Gimme Shelter” is a classic.
It’s on my mind because Dangerous Minds posted the isolated tracks, and they’re a lot of fun. It’s fascinating to hear the separated vocals, guitars, bass and drums. The Youtube videos containing the tracks were swiftly taken down by the Stones’ lawyers, of course, but as of this writing you can still download the stems in multitrack Ogg format. You can open and edit the Oggs in Audacity, and export pieces in other formats.
Whenever a guy like me hears “isolated tracks” I know it’s remix time. So here are some samples from “Gimme Shelter” along with various other sounds, enjoy.
We conventionally place a high value on originality in music. But it’s been my experience that the desire for originality gets in the way of making music that’s actually good. The closer you are to your influences, the more definite and truthful your work is. The key to quality music is to blend together an interesting set of influences that you understand inside and out.
Music evolves in much the same way life does. DNA gets copied when cells divide and replicate. Music gets copied from mind to mind when people hear it and want to reproduce it. All musical learning begins with imitation of other musicians. I’d go so far as to say that all learning boils down to imitation. Primates and other smarter animals learn by imitation too.