Which words work with which music? W. W. W. W. W. M. ?


I may never pose this many questions again.  It starts out with many questions and then morphs into many statements, statements that could have been made by people of different ages, tastes and sensibilities.  I thought it would be illuminating to shift to a series of statements that might have functioned better as questions.  Almost everything in this post, initially, is a question or a statement of uncertainty.  Then they become reactions of people who are positively or negatively inclined towards the music, or neutral, even in times of crisis.  (And you know what is said about those who remain neutral in times of crisis?)

So, why would you read further?  Why would you NOT read further?

Listen to this.  It is very short, so you should probably listen to it several times.  There are also some visuals to keep you more engaged.  Engaged?  No, don’t get so serious that you commit to someone from listening to this.  I meant “engaged” as in busy, occupied or involved.


Up until you heard the singer, this was a composition.

Up until you heard the vocalist, this was a composition.

Up until you heard the soprano, this was a composition.

Up until you heard the mezzo soprano, this was a composition.

Up until you heard the alto, this was a composition.

Up until you heard the female singer, this was a composition.

Up until you heard the male singer, this was a composition.

Up until you heard the boy soprano, this was a composition.

Up until you heard the convict sing, this was a composition.

Up until you found out that this was called, “The Cage,” this was a composition.

Up until you found out that the piano playing you heard was written down (out), this was a composition.

Up until you found out that the piano playing you heard was written, you thought this was an improvisation.

If this composition was written down (out), it represents deliberation and care.

If it’s improvised, than that’s no big deal as you just write stuff that comes to mind without thinking about it and oooomph there it is.  (IMPROVISATION in many circles carries little respect.  IMPROVISATION is considered foreign to CLASSICAL MUSIC and is rarely taught and/or studied in CLASSICAL MUSIC.  IMPROVISATION used to be taught in CLASSICAL MUSIC and was considered an aspect of CLASSICAL MUSIC.)


After you heard the VOCALIST, was this still a COMPOSITION or was it now a SONG?

After you heard the VOCALIST, was this still a COMPOSITION or was it now an ART SONG?

After you heard the VOCALIST, was this still a MUSICAL WORK or was it now an OPUS?

After you heard the VOCALIST, was this still a MUSICAL WORK or was it now a MUSICAL OPUS?




Is this a WORK?


Is this a SONG?

Is this an ART SONG?

Is this an OPUS?


Or, if we want to be LEGAL and invoke LAW – FEDERAL LAW, i.e., the Copyright Law of the United States…



(The answer could be YES it was, but now it’s not.  In my opinion, it constitutes a work of authorship and an original work of authorship even though the Copyright Law of the United States uses the terms, work of authorship and original work of authorship but fails to define these terms.  (It is extremely likely that) the copyright on this composition has, in fact, expired and this original work of authorship is now in the public domain.)


If this is a COMPOSITION, then it is serious and worthy.  It took a higher level of musicality to create and perform this COMPOSITION.  For this to be a COMPOSITION, the music was (likely) “written down” in musical notation.  Those who can WRITE MUSIC using MUSICAL NOTATION are usually more respected in some circles.  Conversely, those who can write music using musical notation can be considered (pejoratively) in some circles as ACADEMIC COMPOSERS or TRAINED COMPOSERS.  They are not SONGWRITERS.  They are not writing (music) from the heart, but instead are writing (music) from the head.  The “from the head” writers are often not welcome in those circles where SONGWRITERS exist.  The SONGWRITERS are often not welcome in circles where the COMPOSERS, the “from the head” writers, exist.

If this is an IMPROVISATION, then it is pretty cool.  It’s dope.  (Maybe) it took a reasonable level of musicality to create and perform this IMPROVISATION.

If this is a SONG, then you need to keep your day job.  This sounds ugly, and do you call that singing?  (It’s great that Starbucks has upped your hours to 21 per week because now you’ll have health care.)

If this is a COMPOSITION, then the composer has no sense of melody, harmony, rhythm, form or taste.  It is unfortunate that the musicians had to learn, rehearse and perform this dreadful “COMPOSITION.”  (Just where did this barbarian “composer” learn his craft?  Somewhere like Yale?  Perhaps this is deep thinking…deep thinking by a disturbed mind.)

Is this jazz?  It starts out sounding like Cecil Taylor.  But Cecil Taylor would start playing a melody above those great chords.  He wouldn’t just play chords for the entire song.  And what’s with the singer?

The song’s too short.

It is an abbreviated composition.

If this was composed for the Special Olympics by one of the Special Olympians, this shows a great deal of creativity.


Words to describe the person who SINGS this composition (or song, art song, work, musical work, etc.) can further define, elevate, d-elevate, or illustrate more about the music, musicians, creator/author/writer, style and genre of music and musicians.

The word SOPRANO is often used in conjunction with CLASSICAL MUSIC or ART MUSIC.  SOPRANO is rarely used with popular music, rock music, jazz, country, urban, R & B and many (or all) other styles of popular music.  SOPRANO can now mean of or affiliated with a New Jersey mob family.

It is even more likely that the term MEZZO-SOPRANO would be used exclusively with CLASSICAL and/or ART MUSIC.  Using the term MEZZO-SOPRANO would indicate that the user knows more about CLASSICAL and/or ART MUSIC and perhaps knows that the term MEZZO-SOPRANO can means a person with a different “sound” than a SOPRANO and a person with a different (and usually lower) “musical range.”  The term MEZZO-SOPRANO places this discussion in a different zone – if the term MEZZO-SOPRANO is used, the discussion now excludes the Grand Ole Opry and other types of popular music.

In the context above, using the terms MEZZO-SOPRANO, ALTO, MALE SINGER, BOY SOPRANO or CONVICT would indicate that one did not read the opening credits in the video, is not aware of the definitions of these words, or  is likely being pejorative by describing the vocalist/singer in this manner.


What of the musicians involved in this YouTube performance?

I’d like this song better if Tim McGraw sang it.

I’d like this song better if Adele sang it.

I’d like this song better if Alicia Keys sang it.

I’d like this song better if John Mayer sang it.

I’d like this song better if Norah Jones sang it.

I’d like this song better if Katy Perry sang it.

I’d like this song better if Eric Clapton sang it.

I’d like this song better if Steven Tyler sang it.

I’d like this song better if Cecilia Bartoli sang it.

I’d like this song better if Mitt Romney sang it.

Tim McGraw couldn’t begin to interpret this composition.

Adele’s magnificent voice would be wasted on something like this.

Alicia Keys would make the melody into something we’d want to hear.

If John Mayer played guitar while he sang this, it might be OK.

Norah Jones would bring subtlety, breathiness and style to this (if the piano didn’t drown her out).

Katy Perry would sound good if she could get Snoop Lion to rap part of it.

Eric Clapton could give it a blues swing and play acoustic guitar – like he did with “Layla” on UNPLUGGED.

If Steven Tyler screamed it, forgot the lyrics and danced, I’d be down with that.

Cecilia Bartoli just needs a more operatic aria to sing.

Mitt Romney wouldn’t sing this as this is music for the 47%.


More words.

The composition unfolded effortlessly  – concise with punctuated chords rising so as to cover the surface with a delicately-veiled, subdued, impressionistic sheen that harkens back to several early 20th-century tone poems by the likes of Debussy, Ravel or even Scriabin.  (That last sentence is an example of critic-speak at its worst.  We’ve managed to leave CRITICS out of it so far – let’s continue to be critic-less.)

I liked it pretty good ’til that woman started singing or talking or whatever she was doing.


How do we react to music based on the WORDS used to describe the style, genre, time period, composer, songwriter, musician, improviser, pianist, keyboardist, singer, soprano, mezzo-soprano, diva, chick singer, etc.

How do we react when we are told little?  Very little?  Nothing?  When we see a video BEFORE we hear the music?  AT THE SAME TIME as we hear the music?  AFTER we  hear the music?

How do we react when we are told what to expect from the music?  From the musical performance?  About the music? About how the music was composed?  Whether the music was composed or improvised?   Whether the composer is young, middle aged or old?  “Trained” or “untrained?” From the European Union?  United States?  Latin America?  (Latin America is Flavor Of The Month in classical/art music in the past few years.)  Asia?  The Subcontinent?

CHARLES IVES composed “The Cage.”



Three Songs (5/4) & Some Thoughts (7/4) About Dave Brubeck (9/8)


Dave Brubeckone of my musical heroes, was respected by every musician I have ever known.  He was the first American whose jazz excited me.  My first exposure to his music was through one of his big hit songs (yes, a jazz musician who was creative, brilliant, and commercially successful without having “sold out”).  That hit was “Take Five,” written by his sax player, Paul Desmond.  I was too young to play or analyze it  –  I only knew that it made me happy (I think I was five years old when it was released).

I was extremely fortunate to have met Dave Brubeck once.  He seemed to be as great a person as his music.  But before I met him, I met his drummer, Joe Morello who came to Framingham North High School (now known as Framingham High School) and gave a masterclass.  I remember that Morello was brilliant, looked like Roy Orbison (especially with his thick horn-rimmed glasses) and played complex meters and really well.  I liked but didn’t love what I was hearing but had enormous respect for him.  It’s easy to fall for what a passionate and virtuosic person is putting out, regardless of your age, culture, and in my case, as a young kid at a very heady jazz drum master class, maturity.  I knew that someday I’d explore jazz, just not that day or month.  (It took Miles Davis for me to “get it”  –  jazz  –  completely.  And then came the ultimate for me  –  Weather Report)

Brubeck, one of my heroes, studied with French composer and Mills College professor,  Darius Milhaud, another hero of mine.  Milhaud, as well as a few other “serious” composers/art music composers of the first quarter of the 20th century, was profoundly impacted by American jazz and incorporated elements of jazz into his composing.  My favorite Milhaud composition is his hugely influential 1923 work, La creation du monde, here conducted by Leonard Bernstein.  Click that link and for 17 minutes enter a fascinating world.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *

One of the important features of a lot of Dave Brubeck’s music is his use of rhythm and especially uncommon time signatures.  Brubeck met with resistance from Columbia Records when he insisted on having songs with unusual meter/time signatures on his brilliant million-selling album, Time Out.  Fortunately for music, the public and Columbia Records, they gave in.

I have selected three (3) Dave Brubeck songs, each in a different and unusual meter.  5 beats per measure, 7 beats per measure and 9 beats per measure are far less common than the most common meter in Western music – 4 beats per measure.  In keeping with the idea of three –  3 different time signatures/meters  –  I have also compiled three (3) sets of three (3) songs each.  In each of these three 3-song sets, I have chosen a Brubeck composition and followed it with two (2) other compositions that share the same number of beats.  In each example, the songs I have selected are not of the same style.

I grouped these songs together in this manner so as to hear Dave Brubeck’s music and his take on an unusual meter followed by other artists’ versions of the same meter.  This is the manner in which I usually approach music  –  find music from disparate, seemingly unrelated  styles and periods and locate what they have in common.  It might be my inner anthropologist at work.  It’s also how my Dad lived – connecting dots that did not reach out to be connected.


5   5   5   5   5

Dave Brubeck  –  Take Five (1959)   This is not the original studio recording but a live faster version recorded in 1961.  This is how most of the world learned to feel and count five (5) beats per measure.  5 = 3 + 2.  To me, it still seems the best way to subdivide 5 beats.  Paul Desmond, not Dave Brubeck, wrote Take Five.  As with the other time signatures below, Brubeck is not the first to have used them.  But the music he wrote that has these particular time signatures is superb and deserves to be widely known.

Lalo Schifrin  –  Mission Impossible Theme (1966)   Lalo Schifrin’s theme music to the television series, Mission Impossible, in addition to being the best theme song in the history of television theme songs, is the second best known example of 5/4.  Like Paul Desmond’s Take Five, Schifrin has also used   5 = 3 + 2.  Lalo Schifrin.

Uakti  –  Ovo Da Serpente (The Serpent’s Egg) (1987) I’ve adored the music and sound of Uakti since I first heard them in the early 1980’s on a Milton Nascimento recording.  This Brazilian ensemble has also recorded with Paul Simon and Philip Glass.  With respect to Simon and Glass, in my opinion, Uakti was the “big deal” in these recordings.  Back in the mid-1990’s I flew from Nashville to Boston just to hear Uakti perform live (at Boston University) in a short American tour.  As I recall, Boston and New York were the only U. S. East coast cities on that tour.  (I would love to write more about Uakti in other blog posts.)


7   7   7   7   7   7   7 

Dave Brubeck  –  Unsquare Dance (1961)  Just as Dave had made 5/4 simple, normal and fun, in “Unsquare Dance he makes 7/4 your new favorite meter.  7 = 2 + 2 + 3.  This is the Brubeck studio recording choreographed.

Pat Metheny  –  Finding & Believing  (1992) Pat Metheny wrote and performed most of the instruments on this song in 7/4 and throughout his great and massive 1992 album, Secret Story.

Sting  –  Straight To My Heart  (1987)  One of my favorite aspects of Sting as a composer is his use of – what I respectfully call  –  “music theory tricks.”  If one transcribes and analyzes Sting’s music, it is obvious that Sting has (maybe often) considered structural aspects of music before and during his composing.  (To discuss Sting’s music theory tricks more would mean writing more about music theory and structure, something I do not want to do here.)


9   9   9   9   9   9   9   9   9

Dave Brubeck  –  Blue Rondo A La Turk (1959)  I selected the brilliant night photograph of the Eiffel Tower for the cover of this blog post for several reasons.

1.  The Eiffel Tower is one of the world’s most unique and magnificent  structures immediately recognizable to people from all over our planet.  The same can be said for Dave Brubeck’s music.

2.  The Eiffel Tower is a symbol of not only Paris and France but the entire European Union, and it was in Europe that Brubeck heard many complex and irregular time signatures.  Blue Rondo A La Turk revealed Brubeck’s influence by and capture of Turkish rhythms.  (Beethoven and Mozart had also been enthralled with Turkish music.)

3.  The Eiffel Tower is pointing upward.  Is there a heaven above?  Above has always fascinated many of us and pointing and living upward is inspirational to me.  Dave Brubeck represents upward.

Blue Rondo A La Turk is a masterpiece.  9 = 2 + 2 + 2 + 3.  I started to learn to play Blue Rondo A La Turk in my usual way  – put on the record and play along with it.  I kept putting the needle back to the opening and early sections as it is not easy to learn this work, especially as an untrained high school musician.  But when I knew I’d come to a stop and not be able to ever play this entire thing was when I got to 1.36 – 1.39 of the song  – the FANTASTIC & BIG CHORDS in contrary motion.  Damn it  –  that was going to require a lot of practice.  I did the easy thing  –  quit trying to play it, love what Brubeck was doing and move on!

And then comes this abruptly different, laid back bluesy section at 1.53 – 1.57.  For all of four seconds, the song changes character until the agitated opening 9  = 2 + 2 + 2 + 3  thing returns abruptly.  (There is a musical concept of “multiple time” that would describe this as well.)  If you have it in you, write a Blue Rondo A La Turk and place it is as your album’s opening track.

Milton Nascimento & Wayne Shorter  –  Ponta De Areia (1974)  Ponta De Areia is the opening song on the extremely important album, Native Dancer, an album that featured the first-time collaborative writing and performing of music legends from the United States (Wayne Shorter) and Brazil (Milton Nascimento).  Nascimento’s 9 beats per measure (9/4 rather than 9/8) are really long, temporally speaking.  Brubeck’s 9 fly by, whereas Nascimento’s 9 almost contain story lines as the rhythm section is left to create subplots within.  Listen especially to how much takes place in the drums, bass & keyboard from 0.41 – 1.28, a relatively long span of time with lots of smart activity but one which features only eight (8) measures of 9/4.

Sting  –  I Hung My Head  (1996) – Sting’s I Hung My Head epitomizes what I mean by “music theory tricks” above.  in this song, Sting divides 9 in a unique manner:  5 beats followed by 2 and 2.  9 = 5 + 2 + 2.  You can hear this pattern in the bass.  The drummer is left to also articulate a 9-beat pattern but his is even more peculiar and agitational, in terms of the context.  This drum pattern is in the forefront.  Not that drummers are often hard to notice but in this case, the drum accents predominate and propel the band.  Whereas the bass plays 9 = 5 + 2 + 2, the drum rearranges this palindromically (not a palindrome per se, but palindromically)  :  9 = 2 + 5 + 2.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *

This post went in a direction different from writing a eulogy.  (I had not intended to write a eulogy – I only intended to write a few sentences more than my Foursquare entry last night shortly after I heard the sad news about Dave Brubeck.)  To me this post is a conversation (at this point, only a monologue) about great music.  When you’ve “received” a great work, it leads to more thoughts and appreciation of the work and that should lead to…  “Have you heard this?”  Or… “What do you think about this?”

I am deeply grateful for Dave Brubeck  – who he was, what he gave us, where he led us, and how he inspired us.


How NOT To Write A Hit Song (Pt. 3/3), Ernő Rubik, Bob Dylan, Iannis Xenakis, Whitfield & Strong



How NOT To Write A Hit Song  –  Part 3  –  The end of this discussion.

The song I’ve been discussing over the previous two posts:

The Temptations – Papa Was A Rollin’ Stone


1.  Make it 7 minutes long.

This song last 7 minutes, a very long time for a hit single in 1972.  (There were a few earlier long hit songs  –  Bob Dylan – Like A Rolling Stone, The Doors – Light My Fire, The Beatles – Hey Jude, etc.)

2.  Use 5 different singers.

This song is by The Temptations and all five sing lead vocals at different times.

3.  Make sure that no singing is heard for the first 2 minutes of the song.

The song builds a fantastic groove  – the first two minutes introduce bass guitar, drums (especially hi hat), orchestral strings and the shimmering use of tremolo, wah-wah guitar, trumpet, harps and handclaps.  I did shave off a few seconds – the first vocal is heard at 1.55, almost 2.00, when “it was the 3rd of September,” the opening words are sung.

4.  Make sure the bass  guitar only plays 3 different pitches (for all 7 minutes).

The three pitches in the bass are:  A-flat, B-flat and D-flat.  In numbers these pitches can be labelled, b7, 1, b3

5.  Make sure that the entire bass guitar melody is 6 notes long.

The bass guitar melody is:

“b7-1, b3-b3-b7-1”

6.  Make sure that this 6-note bass guitar melody is played once and then repeated 51 times.

That 6-note melody is repeated 51 times.  It is never varied in any manner.  To use a cliche, it “anchors” the song.

7.  Make sure that there are no chords (and, therefore, no chord changes) in the entire song.

It is very unusual for a hit song, or any pop song, to have only chord.  [How’s this for a zen-ish statement – if there is only one chord, there are no chords.  “Talk amongst yourselves.”]  Eliminating chord changes makes other aspects of the music more noticeable and important. 

8.  Make sure that the principal solo instrument in the song is an instrument that is not a preferred one – it should be an instrument that the audience for this song does not especially like.

The first instrument to have melodic prominence, and the first solo, is the trumpet.  In pop and soul and R & B (“Papa Was A Rolling Stone” can be categorized as those three styles), trumpet is not the most common and most expected melody/solo instrument. 

9.  Make sure that this song has appeal to U. S. and international audiences.

International audiences in 1972-73 liked and loved this song.  American soul/pop/R & B styles are “big” overseas.

10.  Make sure that the subject matter of the lyrics is about a person who has no redeeming qualities.

The song is about a man who has abandoned his own wife and  children, failed at most things he has done, and probably fathered three more children with another woman (who might have been his wife).  He was always too busy “chasing women and drinking.”

11.  Make sure that this is not a love song.

As stated above, this is not a love song.  It’s a sad song in which children are asking their Mom about the Father they never knew.

A few other aspects of this song that I love:

The arrangement featuring extremely original orchestral string writing including very fast melodic outbursts in unison strings.  This orchestral arrangement screams PAUL RISER (Motown’s best-known arranger) to me.  I’m 99.3421% certain that Paul Riser is the arranger of PWARS.

The very deep vocal, “And Mama,” at 3.37.  For the rest of my life, I would imitate this and frequently say, in as deep a voice as this, “Hey Mama,” to my Mother, who would always smile and laugh at this.

The great little “natural 6” inflection on the syllable, “drink,” between 5.20-5.22.  This short passage still is one of my favorite examples of the Dorian mode.

To repeat, one final time, from previous posts  –

Do you think the eleven (11) constructs/stipulations are good advice for a songwriter?  For a composer?  (What’s the difference between a songwriter and a composer?  This is a question to be explored in future posts.)

Could you write a a great piece of music following these eleven (11) points?

If you wrote a song that followed these exact eleven (11) stipulations, would you be infringing copyright?  That’s an enormous question and one that could lead to debate, certainty, uncertainty, anxiety, anger or confusion.  Of that, I am certain.  If you’d like, please start off that discussion below.  I promise I can add to whatever discussion begins.  🙂

I expect that an attorney in the future will ask me this specific question at a deposition.  (Rather than answer this question now, I’ll leave it in this post just to annoy an attorney or two.  I have also inserted a few statements in previous posts to see if attorneys or their paralegals are paying attention. This includes a factual omission I’m almost certain they’ll never catch  –  smile smile!)

How NOT To Write Great Music – Part 1

I have been involved in many styles of music as a composer, performer, theorist, musicologist, ethnomusicologist, conductor, guitarist and pianist and lover of music.  I’ve plunged into almost every kind of music from almost every period and continent.  I am not claiming to have expertise or even knowledge in and about so many kinds of music.  I am claiming to be very curious about, attracted to and in love with music from all over this planet.

One of the best things about a being a music theorist, or musicologist, or best word yet – ethnomusicologist – is that we strive to understand how music – the music we experience – came to be.  Ideally, the more one knows about how the music was conceived, created, performed, recorded, disseminated and valued, the more likely it is that we can better enjoy the music, better understand the people who created the music, better understand our own music, culture and identity and, ideally, live better.

How do we create music?  What are the best and worst ways to create music?  Is it possible to answer these questions?  I try to answer them in my own life and will begin a discussion with this post.  So, here goes.  I hope that the end result is laudable.  I know the answer/end point and will concoct this path to get to the end.  The way I’ll approach these particular posts is to examine what NOT to do.  By examining what NOT to do, we might better deduce what TO DO.  (This series of posts, like some of my others, will be ongoing but intermittent.)

The overall title is  —   How NOT To Write Great Music.  But for these first posts, we will change “…Write Great Music,” to the more specific, “…Write A Hit Song.”  The title, therefore, is “How NOT To Write A Hit Song.”  I will outline a series of music compositional steps that might seem foolish, and guaranteed to result in not good music, but were followed in the creation of this music.  And despite the foolish musical suggestions/directions/prescriptions/steps, the result was Great Music, or a Hit Song.

How NOT To Write A Hit Song

1.  make it 7 minutes long

2.  use 5 different singers

3.  make sure that no singing is heard for the first 2 minutes of the song

4.  make sure the bass guitar only plays 3 different pitches (for all 7 minutes)

5.  make sure that the entire bass guitar melody is 6 notes long

6.  make sure that this 6-note bass guitar melody is played once and then repeated 51 times

A few questions for anyone reading this –

Do you think the above six (6) constructs are good advice for a songwriter?  For a composer?  (What’s the difference between a songwriter and a composer?)

Could you write a great piece of music following these six (6) stipulations?
Do you know of anyone who has set out to write a song, or musical composition, in such a foolish manner?


From the above prescription, can you name the famous popular song that fits the 6 points above?  The next post will present more information and more clues.  I will post the answer soon, if you don’t post it first.

I hope to hear from you.