January 14, 2011

Music is Awesome: A Summary

I really appreciate your patience these past two weeks as we tried to figure out what makes music awesome. This was extraordinarily helpful for me to think through before starting this next album this year.

Now, I want to be clear that I don't believe these 7 flavors are THE 7 flavors. This was pretty stream-of-consciousness, just thinking through some different reasons why music is awesome, including:

Salt as Syncopation
Potato Chip Crunch as Beats
Sweet as Sweetness
Umami as Ethereal
MSG as the Hook
Gourmet Dining as Meaning
Sweet and Sour as Contrast

I will probably refine this list as I go through the recording process this year. But I love having this temporary cheat sheet for me to look at as we go. So, I can listen to a song, see that it sucks, and go, what ingredient might I add?

January 12, 2011

Music Flavor Profile: Sweet and Sour as Contrast

Sweet and Sour as Contrast: An essential ingredient for a full-flavored song.

The best example of this concept is the big trend in metal right now. Adding a more nasaly effeminate voice singing punk choruses in alternate to the main screamo voice. It's bizarre.

Then why are so many bands following this trend? Contrast. It's the most effective design principle, brought to music. A 1-note song instantly doubles in interest. A black and white checkerboard. A sans-serif headline with serif newsprint text. Contrast separates. Distinguishes. Adds another flavor.

In the slightly more mainstream world, we're seeing this as well, with odd voices taking center stage. Why? Simply because it's different. It creates interest. Dylan had it. Elvis had it. Whereas, every girl you see playing in a coffee house sounds the same. And they'll never stand out. But, The Tallest Man on Earth topped a lot of 2010 Best Music Lists with his latest album, which features the song, "King of Spain", embedded above. Why? Because the music isn't just good. But, it's a little weird, too.

In order to stand out, you have to be a little different.

January 11, 2011

Music Flavor Profile: Gourmet Dining as Meaning

Gourmet Dining as Meaning: An essential ingredient for a full-flavored song.

There's a difference between eating because you haven't in 5 hours, and eating intentionally. The difference between good food and merely filling your gut.

I know a lot people listen to music and don't pay any attention to the lyrics. I remember someone arguing with me that if Dave Matthews voice was replaced with a keyboard, nothing would change.

As a writer, I contest this. I believe in the power of words. I am grateful for the emotions stirred by certain songs, such as "Strong Weakness" by Village Thrift, embedded above.

Now, this isn't to say that instrumental songs are void of meaning. Or that we should simply put background music behind the world's greatest poetry. But, we should search for that synergy. The merging of lyric and song. Into something bigger.

Because if you're not going to say anything, just shut up.

January 10, 2011

Music Flavor Profile: MSG as the Hook

MSG as the Hook: An essential ingredient for a full-flavored song.

There's a reason you like Chinese take-out so much. After all, you've made meat and vegetable stir fy on your own plenty of times, but never crave that nearly as much. Why? MSG. It's an addictive chemical additive. And it makes you want to use your chopsticks again the next day.

Great songs all do that same thing - addict you. It's the hook that gets stuck in your head. It helps you learn the song, and feel like you know the song. And therefore, you want to hear it again.

There's probably no better master of the hook than the Fab 4. And it's not just a melodic lyric. You can hook with a guitar riff. You can hook with alliteration. And they did all of it - in just about every song, including "Paperback Writer" embedded above.

Lesson for the day: Don't forget the hook. If it's not getting stuck in your head, it won't get stuck in theirs.

January 7, 2011

Music Flavor Profile: An Umami Wall of Sound

Umami as Ethereral: An essential ingredient for a full-flavored song.

The flavor "Umami" is a recent creation in the world of food. It seems like 4 tastes weren't enough. Because there was this "other" that didn't fit anywhere. How do you define "brothy", "savory", "meaty"? Ok. Umami.

It's a new sound in the music world, too. Arguably popularized by Sigur Ros and the attached song, "Svefn-g-englar". A wall of sound. Liquid tones. Keynesian music that avoids sharp turns.

Today's tip. Get rid of the gaps. Fill up your song. Now, this doesn't mean you have to be complex. Just give it some umami.

I don't know if we're done yet. We'll see on Monday :)

January 6, 2011

Music Flavor Profile: Sweet through Sweetness

Sweet as Sweetness: An essential ingredient for a full-flavored song.

Boyz II Men is saccharine. The ultimate example of a one-note flavor. And it's a great one. It's arguably the most important. Beauty. It's important enough to carry a lot of bands. And it's also the big reason why some people say they "like all music besides metal." Because it's the one genre that, for the most part, completely lacks it.

Today's song, "Blessed to Be a Witness" by Ben Harper was recommended by reader Dianna, and is a perfect example of "sweet". Ben Harper's voice can carry an album regardless of the quality of the songs. And in my opinion, that's his greatest flaw. He makes bad songs sound "good enough". Because boy, they sure are pretty. But, this is one of his examples of a multi-flavored song, and why it's one of my favorites as well.

So today's tip, make sure your song sounds nice.

Also, let me be clear. I don't have my final theory figured out yet for any of this yet. So feel free to correct, redirect or revise if you think I'm going somewhere wrong. This is a community after all. We're learning together.

January 5, 2011

Music Flavor Profile: Potato Chip Crunch

Potato Chip Crunch as Beats: An essential ingredient for a full-flavored song. I guess I should have mentioned at the beginning of the week my original theory that "we are simply too satisfied by OK music. And that's why we never get to the good stuff." Hip hop is a great example of this. Not that hip hop itself is "easy", but that the beats themselves are. In fact, we've talked about this before. The idea that putting "clap tracks" in a song is cheating...and how I should start doing it. This is the problem with hip hop. It's too easy to be decent. But let's not throw away the beats with the bathwater. Because a solid beat is powerful. It's a potato chip crunch. It's texture. It's fun. And the really great songs all have it. Today's song is "Power" from Kanye West, a song that instantly hooks you with the potato chip crunch alone. And that's where you get to good. But, there's a reason Kanye sells more albums than any other artist in that genre. And it's because he understands this idea of a full music flavor profile. The evolution of Warren G, Kanye has successfully added artistic melody and more to the potato chip crunch. But today's lesson is that you shouldn't forget the crunch.

January 4, 2011

Music Flavor Profile: Salt as Syncopation

Salt as Syncopation: An essential ingredient for a full-flavored song. Thanks for your comments yesterday. We will definitely get to several of those bands/songs this week based on their respective flavors. Today, an analysis of U2, along with the video above of "Where the Streets Have No Name". U2 is a fascinating group to analyze with this idea of a "music profile", because they are probably one of the closest fits to a full-flavored band that exists today. In fact, I almost avoided choosing them to highlight a specific flavor because of that. But I want to address the fact that you know the name of this band's guitarist. And how many guitarists can you actually name who don't sing, too? That automatically puts him in the Top 5 most popular guitarists in the world. And for good reason. "The Edge" is the master of melodic syncopation. Layers of delay that build up and over each other in perfect time. He uses melody to create rhythm. It's action. It makes the music come alive. Salt is syncopation. And the really great songs all have it. Come back tomorrow to see what else great music needs.

January 3, 2011

Music is Awesome

Music is awesome. And I'm still convinced that music is what i'm supposed to be doing with my life. Whether that's simply a delusion of grandeur or not, we'll see. But at this point, I'm convinced. The problem is, I don't know exactly what that's supposed to look like.

That's why out of all the side projects I worked on last year, 4 were musically related, including making a new Relevant Reverence CD, singing about presidential failures with Why Every President Sucked, creating brief bouts of newsical satire with News in Song, and writing music for Grace Church.

So, what's up for 2011? Probably all of these again. But I really want to focus this year on making a new album with my Relevant Reverence partner, Matt. Because I've been having a mini musical ephiphany lately, as I seek to understand why music is so awesome.

The idea that music is so universal. The fact that you ask someone "what kind of music do you like?" not simply, "do you like music?", because that's a given.

So, I want to spend this week looking at what makes particular songs 'great'. I hinted at this at the end of last year with my comparison to great songs as full-profile foods. The best dishes are always artistically layered. Deep. And yet taste incredibly simple.

I'm convinced that great music is the same way. Not to be confused with merely 'good' music, which can easily be a one-note entree. But I'm looking to determine the components behind great music, so I can start making it myself.

So, that's what I need from you today. The names of either great artists, or great songs. They can be from any genre. It doesn't matter. But you need to think they're great and start thinking about why you think so. We'll spend the rest of the week investigating the flavors.