Thursday, September 1, 2011

Form in Music

This is such a huge topic, much too big for even a series of blog posts, that all I will do is just give a tiny introduction. We are all probably familiar with some of the basic ideas of musical form. The most familiar we find in popular song. Here is a song in the very simple form of a verse ending with a refrain. The verse here consists of two two-bar phrases that return with new words each time. The refrain is another pair of two-bar phrases with different music and with two voices in harmony. After a two-bar chordal introduction and two bars where the sitar introduces the melody, the song simply alternates between verse and refrain.

A slightly more complex form is a verse-chorus arrangement where one section of music returns with new words each time--the verse--while a contrasting section returns with the same words. This section, called the chorus because it usually has backing vocals (but not in the case of the example below), usually has the same words each time and typically contains the title of the song. This is from the movie Help:

Another contrasting section, called a 'bridge' or 'middle-eight' can appear as well. Here is where strong harmonic contrast can appear. In the next song, the bridge starts with the words "Life is very short...". The verse is the beginning music and ends with the repeated refrain "We can work it out".

In instrumental music you don't have the option of repeating music with different words so other devices become important. Common to both vocal and instrumental music are the basic ideas of repetition and contrast. Some music is repeated and in between different music is used for contrast. The contrast can be melodic, harmonic and rhythmic. Notice the shift into triplets for a waltz feel in the bridge of "We Can Work It Out". In larger instrumental forms harmony becomes more and more a structural device that can be used both for contrast and unity over larger stretches of time. Starting in one key, then modulating to a different key or keys is how you can construct a piece several minutes long. That's something for another post!


Anonymous said...

I love the Beatles, too. Some of it has to do with childhood. Each new Beatles release was so eagerly anticipated back in grade school. Penny Lane has incredible recalling power for me. If I hear it and close my eyes, that's it, I am back in school. It's uncanny! (Only certain smells have that power.) I also love the Beatles because they're hands-down the most talented rock band ever.

That said, I hope it's OK if I offer some criticism along the way. The Beatles never mastered American music. They seem to have absorbed some Tin Pan Alley influence and Elvis but little blues and jazz. Their influences seemed mostly British folk music, Anglican hymnody, and of course classical music. I think George Martin helped with arrangements and stuff.

On "We can work it out," the bridge is plainly tonal and classical and it works fine. The harmonium sounds just lovely with a sharpened dominant that Bach and Mozart would have been completely comfortable with. But the verse, in my view, betrays their ignorance of jazz. I am not saying that jazz would offer them a richer perspective. I am saying that jazz would allow them to do it right while they're doing it wrong. There's an objective aspect to all this. The big revolution in bebop was the mastery of rhythm: people often think (wrongly) that it was a harmonic revolution. It was not (all these extended bebop harmonies were well known to European musicians), but Charlie Parker, more than anyone else, created a rhythmic revolution, which in turn allowed the likes of John Coltrane and Miles Davis to go modal all the way. The reason it worked is because they had first figured out the basic rhythmic rules that can support modal music (something that, in a different register, classical Indian music also figured out). So back to the Beatles. If they go for a modal feel based on a mixolydian hook, where roughly the flatted seventh will sub for the dominant, they must understand the rhythmic constraints that go with that. But they don't. And that makes the verse ponderous (to my ear). I'll give just one example.

The line "have to keep on talking..." delays the resolution to create a dissonance. This is cool stuff, but this can only work (in a syncopated context) as a call-answer motif and the answer must be provided by the drums or the bass. But the call is never answered. That harmonic delay is like pulling a rubber band. Not only must there be a release (besides returning to the tonic) but it must be an interesting figure -- and because it's all modal it must be provided by the rhythm section. But the Beatles have no such thing. Later in the song, Ringo seems to see the need for a fill but it's too little too late. A walking bass line could come to the rescue but that's not in the Beatles' toolkit.

On the whole, I think the Beatles were wise to leave aside American music, which they could have never mastered anyway. Instead, they played to their strength and produced some of the best music ever to come from the British Isles.

Bryan Townsend said...

What a great comment! So detailed, in fact, that I am going to do some research for a detailed response. But just a couple of words: the Beatles were hugely influenced by American music--they got the discs right off the boat in Liverpool. But I think you are absolutely right about the rhythmic revolution of jazz. What do you mean by the "basic rhythmic rules that can support modal music"? Modal melodies and harmonies go well back in the European context and were handled in a number of different ways, rhythmically, from the freedom of Gregorian chant and the polyphonic organum of Leonin and Perotin to the restrained perfection of the masses of Palestrina. So I don't quite see the "rhythmic constraints" you are referring to. But let me look over that example you give and perhaps I'll understand!

Anonymous said...

Definitely, like most British bands, the Beatles drew a lot of their inspiration from the US, but unlike say Cream, the Stones, Jeff Beck, etc., they didn't try to produce "American" music.

My point about modal jazz is that, just like bebop harmonies earlier, the transition was made possible not by the discovery of new harmonies (modal music is ancient) but of new rhythms. In particular, via drums. The drum set is the only jazz instrument in which you can read the whole history of jazz. It's not until bebop that drums become a 4-voice instrument with coordinated independence between ride, high hat, bass, and snare. The bass drum stops being a time marker but rather an offbeat punctuation device (Kenny Clarke's "bombs"). Jo Jones uses his stick and cymbal techniques to produce overlapping polyrhythmic ideas. At the same time Charlie Parker would phrase melodies completely out of tempo (which once caused Jones to scream at his bassist who was trying to keep up with Charlier Parker: "Do NOT follow Bird no matter where he goes: follow me and you'll be OK." What you had there was a kind of attempt to return to polyrhythmic music, which had been pretty much wiped out from jazz in the swing era. Now fast-forward to hard bop and then modal jazz. One reason, maybe THE reason, Kind of Blue and early Coltrane are so magical is the perfection of the rhythm section (especially with Coltrane). While harmonically jazz evolved nonlinearly and kind of explored any old idea it found along the way while absorbing it like a sponge (and most of them were not original to jazz), the rhythm section on the other hand followed a linear progression where true progress is undeniable. I can't say that Coltrane is "better" than Armstrong. But I can say with assurance that his drummers and bassists were infinitely better than their predecessors. Just as Bach perfected the baroque vocabulary to bring it to its culmination, so the drum/bass pairing in jazz found its absolute perfection starting in the 50-60s. And the point I was trying to make is that this revolution is what drove bebop and modal jazz. Without it, the new harmonies would have been just poor versions of classical music material. So that all of Miles Davis's (who had learned his trade under Bird's guidance) modal forays are built on top of the rhythmic foundation. In fact, you can say that the modal melodies accompany the rhythm part rather than the other way around (another parallel with Bach, where sometimes you feel that the vocal part is actually accompanying the strings).

Now I realize that to tie all of this to the Beatles was perhaps a bit silly on my part. Maybe I should have said instead that Paul and Ringo could have provided better support to give justice to their neat tension-building leaning tones. Stevie Wonder did a better cover of that song for Obama not long ago and it was very enjoyable.

Bryan Townsend said...

Anonymous, I think your comment is more interesting than my post! What I was modestly trying to do was start a projected series of posts on form with a brief discussion of how popular songs are constructed. But you have extended the discussion in fascinating ways! No-one can hope to know everything about music--that pursuit takes far longer than one lifetime. My strengths are probably obvious from the posts. My weakest areas are opera, of which I know little, and jazz, of which I know less. So your comment on the development of jazz is a wonderful contribution. I will do some listening suggested by your comment. Please, if you feel inspired, leave some more comments!

Bryan Townsend said...

I've been going over "We Can Work It Out" and I see what you mean about the relation between the bass/drums and the voice/harmony. It is one-dimensional. Actually, that fits a bit with the tone of the song. The singer (Paul) expects his partner to "work it out" not him! The bridge, contributed by Lennon, adds the missing dimension.