I heard a song the other day and it reminded me of a past event. The odd thing was that I had never heard it before, yet it made me reminisce. I guess that the words or the melody fit into my memories so that I could picture myself experiencing it in a different time.
It has happened when I write music as well. I was sitting playing my acoustic guitar when I came up with this short piece. There was something about it that evoked a sense of sadness or loss, to the point that I teared up as I played. I did finally finish it up—it was short, but I didn’t feel a need to make it longer.
Later, it reminded me of a poem I wrote for a friendship, that despite my many efforts, I have deemed lost. The fact that I couldn’t salvage the relationship makes me sad. We had fun together and I’m going to miss that. I would love for them to see it. I sometimes I imagine, like in a movie, that they stumble across it, and I know that they will know it is about them.
Did popular music run out of ideas after the first few decades? Last week I wrote about songs that sound the same. Today, we visit how we hear artists reaching back to sample from the musical buffet of the past. Sometimes it is because an artist is heavily influenced by a certain band, or like fashion, certain styles become trendy again.
Some may say the blues never went away, but some musicians made it more popular again from time to time. Eric Clapton, Stevie Ray Vaughn, and more recently Gary Clark Jr. have all done their job at showcasing the first real North American style of music.
Folk and Celtic music had a resurgence in the late 80s early 90s, especially in Canada, with bands like Spirit of the West, Great Big Sea, and The Rankin Family, along with the explosion of folk festivals in North America. Now bands such as The Avett Brothers and Mumford and Sons are carrying on the folk-rock tradition.
When Oasis came out, people drew parallels to The Beatles. I think one of the Gallaghers said that they were what The Beatles would sound like if they hadn’t broken up. I can say that I hear some of that influence.
Do you miss Led Zeppelin? Have a listen to Greta Van Fleet. If you are a purist, then you will definitely have disdain for what they are doing. What are they doing? I think they are doing a fine job of bringing back a unique sound that hasn’t been heard for a while. If music can be reincarnated—here is your proof.
Grunge. You mean Punk, right? C’mon. Weren’t Nirvana and Green Day just The Ramones? For the record, I like all three. Then bands like Linkin Park, Soundgarden, and Limp Biskit add Rap to their heavy grunge/metal sound, bringing in a new audience.
Disco always seems to pop up every so often. You can hear it in some of the beats being used in dance clubs and pop music.
What’s coming back next? If my love of science fiction gives me any clues, there will be one music station—sanctioned by “The One True People’s Conglomerate”—that is broadcast directly into our aural implant (genetically designed, of course—by robots or our alien overlords).
12 notes. How many combinations can you get? Quite a few. Most of the popular music we listen to is made up of 7, so that makes a few less combinations.
Just a quick theory lesson: Western music – not Country and Western – which originated in Europe, is based on the major scale, which we learn at a young age in music class – or from The Sound of Music. Do, Re, Mi, Fa, etc.
We label the notes from A to G. So if we play the notes in sequence A,B,C,D,E,F,G,A we get the major scale, right? Nope. That give us a minor scale. The major scale starts on C: C,D,E,F,G,A,B,C. Nothing is ever as simple as it could be. Don’t get me started on why instruments like the trumpet play the note C but it is written as a B flat in their music.
All you need to know is that if you want to write a happy sounding song, write it in a major key. Been done wrong? Heartbroken? Write a sad song in a minor key. Can you use both in the same song? Sure!
Anyway, with 7 notes, there are many combinations, but there are still instances where two songs can sound very similar. You probably have experienced that before, hearing a song and thinking that is a different one, or hearing a part and trying to figure out where you have heard it.
Sometimes it’s just a few notes – this is common because less notes=less combinations. Maybe it is a certain beat, or a chord progression. Is this done on purpose or is it accidental? I don’t think that musicians purposely try to copy another, this just invites the copyright lawsuit, and you don’t want that. It can be an homage to close influences – if you listen to a certain artist a lot, then it will influence your writing.
Get to the music, Leon.
OK. When I first heard “Nothing Breaks Like a Heart” by Miley Cyrus, all I could hear is “Joleen” by Dolly Parton. It’s very close. Very.
Wait! How many Miley Cyrus albums do you own?
None. Tell me what you think.
Are there two songs that you think sound the same?
Sometimes a song will just grab you for several different reasons. Lyrics hit close to home, a melody moves you, or the rhythm makes you want to dance. I listen to a wide variety of music, as I wrote about in a previous Music Monday: Music Monday: So Many Genres.
Here are a couple of recent favorites that may or may not make your list:
Did auto-tune ruin music? Some say that it did. It may be overused by some artists, but there is something about it in this song that makes it effective. If I’m driving when it comes on, I do turn it up.
I was going to use the video, but it was very blinky and strobey, so I didn’t want to inflict that on anyone with sensitivities.
This next song made me cry the first time I heard it. The second time too. Maybe the third. Perhaps the fourth. I can’t listen to it without tearing up.
I can’t follow up a song like that, so I’ll call it a day.
I write better than I play. I play better than I record. I record better than I perform. Which is why it takes me a long time to get my music into audio form.
It was the mid [insert decade here]s. I was two years out of high school, still trying to figure out what I wanted to do. A couple years of college (not the college AKA university), left me wondering where my path lay (I was going to say destiny, but that seemed a bit grandiose).
Enter music. I liked playing guitar, and I was decent at it, so I decided to enroll in Music Performance course. This was my first exposure to classical guitar. Learning about something you enjoy makes everything easy. Not just playing guitar, but the other history and theory. It was fun. The parties were fun too.
I was immediately drawn to the Renaissance composer, John Dowland, along with his contemporaries, so it was natural to write in that style, just like later, my acoustic work was influenced by Don Ross, Adrien Legg, and Leo Kottke.
I wrote a few pieces for classical guitar, and later on for acoustic. Some I wrote down, others became faded memories with time, and a few finally got transcribed electronically, with a few of those being lost to the scourge of computer crashes. It’s funny how some pieces came back to me, while others were left alone too long and were now not like a puzzle with missing pieces, but the handful of the pieces themselves.
Here it is. Way too many years in the making. Riviera Galliard:
“She told me her name was Riviera. I was smitten and intrigued. I wonder what became of her.”
I sat down the other day and was able to write a few potential transitions to get me from one part to the next.
There are so many different forms that a piece of classical music can take. Some take the forms of dances: Gavotet, Mazurka, Allemande, while others are named for their tempo: Allegro, Largo, Adagio. Pieces can be called for what they are used for, such as a Study, or a diversion – Divertimento.
Like poetry, compositions often have repeated parts. Part one repeated, then part 2 repeated would be AABB. A rondo has a main part repeated 3 times ABACA.
Here is a sneak peek at the score:
As you can see there are 5 distinct parts, with the blue outline being the ending. Some parts may be combined depending how I want the repeats to go.
As for a name, not to give away the style, but I think I will be calling it “Lullaby”.
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John Cage’s 4’33. A pianist comes out and sits at a piano and begins to…do nothing for four minutes and thirty-three seconds. Is this taking minimalism too far, or is it just someone beating everyone else to the punch. Probably the latter.
My first exposure to minimalism was Philp Glass’s Koyaanisqatsi. I didn’t hear it as a piece, but as part of the movie. Either way, it’s mesmerizing.
My all time favorite is Ann Southam. Here is just a taste:
Usually, when I hear one of her pieces, I have to stop what I doing and just listen.
Enter my composition. Fast Ride on a Slow Train, which was almost called Slow Ride on a Fast Train, although I’m not sure it makes a difference, makes use of two things: Repetition and dissonance. Dissonance is the sound of two (or more) notes that the ear perceives as not pleasant sounding. I know that this can be subjective but since much of western music is based on certain scales, we do have a common perception of what sounds “right”. I’m sure this could have turned out differently if we had divided the scales into 13, 14, 15 etc. notes instead of twelve. Anyway, I like how notes can clash, but after repeating them many times, the ear gets acclimatized to the sound. Well, mine does. So here we go-let’s take a ride. Thank you, Ann.
I hope you have been enjoying my composition series Opus 1 through 5. The next one will follow once I have all the parts connected into a cohesive piece of music. How long does that take? Beats me, so stay tuned.
In the meantime, I’ll share a project I have been working on called Places. It was written for the acoustic steel-string guitar. The composition process doesn’t differ from how I write for classical guitar. The only difference is the sound that you get from each guitar; sometimes a piece of music just fits better on one over the other.
I discovered the joy of playing acoustic guitar after beginning my classical training. My musical influences came from hearing folk, Celtic, country, and bluegrass at various music festivals. In the 80s, electric guitarists were taking guitar to a whole new level, and in the late 80s/early 90s, acoustic players were doing much the same thing.
Places (which I have shared in a previous post), is a fingerpicked acoustic piece. The beginning is actually the first part of a song I was writing called Pieces, which I absconded for this new piece because it just fit.
While I played it, it brought back memories of places I have seen, so it was natural to put together a visual montage to go along with it. I tried various video editing programs (free) but settled on the movie maker that my OS came with.
It’s a rough draft, but I think that it will work for the meantime. I hope you think so too.
Now that I have written a piece of music, what next? Music, like other forms of artistic expression, is meant to be shared. Not always—some of what I have created will only be seen and heard by myself. Not that I’m selfish, some things are just too personal.
There are two options: Live or recorded. Live music has taken on a whole new meaning in the last year, with streaming performances becoming the new live. I’m not a performer. I have performed, but it’s not my forte.
I suffer from the classic stage fright. If you’ve never experienced it, you are lucky. Imagine playing a piece and all you can think about is “don’t make a mistake” or forgetting the next part—the proverbial “drawing a blank”—and so on. It really sucks.
One thing about learning to play a piece of music is memory: Mental and muscle. There are pieces that I learned early on in my college and university years, I can still remember. And some, if I don’t think about it, will come back like water from a faucet. It’s pretty amazing. It’s also about consistency. Can you play it right the first time (you don’t want to learn mistakes) and can you repeat it correctly?
When I try to learn a new piece, it seems to be more difficult to do those things, and it feels like more work than enjoyment. Since I’m only doing it for myself, there’s not much accountability when I say, that’s enough. Often when I do learn a piece, if I don’t play it on a regular basis, I need to relearn many of the parts. I love to play. I used to be better. I don’t like when it feels like work.
It also takes me a while to record. I can play a piece perfectly (or perfectly enough) until I press the record button and bingo—mistake city. I’ve been trying to record two of my earliest compositions, so maybe now is the incentive to finally finish them. Since I made a separate page on my website for all my music (plus I put them on SoundCloud), I might as well put those on as well.
Before the availability of computer programs to record, there used to be home 4-track cassette* recorders. Small, compact, and easy to use. Basically, it had four recording heads that divided the tape into four parts. Perfect for voice / guitar / bass / drums. But what if you wanted to add more instruments? Easy! Record tracks 1, 2, and 3, then put those on track 4. Now you have 3 empty tracks. So now you can record on 1 and 2, put those on empty track 3, and voila, you have 2 more tracks.
OK. Not so easy…
I use a free program called Audacity to record. You can have as many tracks as you need, add effects, and edit countless other aspects. Now, that’s easy.
What’s next for this series. Well, I have to finish the composing piece that I started. There are still parts that need to be connected, and parts yet to be created. Don’t ask me the timeline. I have no idea. It still needs a name as well. Stay tuned.
*Remember cassettes? Then you also remember when they jammed, and you pulled out lengths of crinkled brown tape. You also remember having to use a pencil to rewind them.
When I started my musical education journey, I didn’t have the advantages of computer transcription programs. There was no easy access to popular sheet music. Other that a few guitar magazines, if I wanted to learn a song, I had to get a recording and learn it by ear. That’s not an altogether bad thing—it’s a skill that is indispensable. And that wasn’t that long ago. Unless you think 40 years is a long time (it’s not. Really.)
When I decided to do my post-secondary education in music, one of my first required purchases was a calligraphy pen. Thankfully, not the feather dipped in ink kind. I’m not that old. We studied older manuscripts, practiced our musical notations, and practiced some more. Take a look at a handwritten musical score and see how much artistic skill is required.
The ink was just the final step though. You don’t want to be writing down rough drafts in permanency. I do suspect that the early composers did. No, for the majority of the time, a pencil—and eraser—are your best friends. If I had to choose, it would be the eraser (sorry, pencil).
Playing and writing are alternating tasks. Play a bit, write a bit, play a bit, erase a bit, and so on. Besides writing down the note’s pitch, you also have to figure out the complicated rhythm you just came up with. Enter the foot tapping. One and-a two-e and…Nope. One and two and-a…One-e and-a, and so on.
Of course, most of the time you know the rhythm; it’s those parts that make your piece sound cool that always give you trouble.
As I mentioned in the previous post, I have to make sure I don’t play to much, otherwise I forget the first part. That means I’ll write things down in short sections as I come up with it, and then connect the dots so to speak. If I’m having difficulty deciding where the melody will go, I often jump ahead and try to join them up later. Which leads me to a piece of paper that looks like this:
Eventually, I’ll have a complete handwritten piece ready for the final task. No more ink and splotches, dreading making a mistake (but I don’t want to start over!). Now there are many different computer transcription programs for that. They range from free to not so free to really expensive. I’ve used Finale, Encore, Sibelius, MuseScore, to name a few. I don’t write enough to warrant forking out the big bucks, so I am currently using the free program MuseScore.
I liked Encore, it was very user friendly and easy to learn, but it was glitchy and the price kept going up. MuseScore has a polished end-result, but it’s has some issues, mainly not being as straight forward as I think it could be.
My book, Journeys: Eight Original Pieces for Classical Guitar was put together using Encore, but at some point, I would like to transcribe them into a different program. I don’t want to have to key in everything again, so I need to find a way to convert one program to the other.