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.

Unfair Competition, Election Night 2012, Swimming at 57 F / 41 F

I’ve had a fantastic election night.  Things went my way all throughout MASSACHUSETTS, especially with the election of Elizabeth Warren as our new U. S. Senator, and our first female senator (in such a progressive state, it’s odd that it took this long!).  I wanted President Obama to be reelected as well as Sen. Brown in Ohio, Sen. Klobuchar in Minnesota, Sen McCaskill in Missouri and a few others.  Yes, election night was a lot of fun.

But the day had been perfect in terms of weather here – 41 F, sunny and no wind – so I expected a continuation this evening.  The sunny and no wind part got me to actually swim in the Atlantic Ocean – the water temp was 57 F.  It was very cold and I didn’t stay in long!  I’ve got this foolish idea that I will swim at least one day every month.  September and October were very easy.  November was chilly and challenging and December is coming!

I wanted to write about “unfair competition.”  It’s a subject that can pertain to music and it’s come up many times in my professional and musical activities.  So, a few words:

U N F A I R      C O M P E T I T I O N

“Unfair methods of competition in or affecting commerce, and unfair or deceptive acts or practices in or affecting commerce, are declared unlawful.”   The Federal Trade Commission Act (Title 15 United States Code, Section 45. 1.)

In both unfair competition and trademark it is important that the consumer should not be confused as to the origin of goods and services.

An example of unfair competition would occur if an unknown musician, or any non-Beatle, released an album of 13 supposedly original songs, whose titles, in order, were:

  1. “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”
  2. “With A Little Help From My Friends”
  3. “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds”
  4. “Getting Better”
  5. “Fixing A Hole”
  6. “She’s Leaving Home”
  7. “Being For The Benefit Of Mr. Kite”
  8. “Within You Without You”
  9. “When I’m Sixty-Four”
  10. “Lovely Rita”
  11. “Good Morning Good Morning”
  12. “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (Reprise)”
  13. “A Day In The Life”

In the example above, it is obvious that someone is trying to confuse the consumer by naming all of the songs the same as all 13 songs, and in the same order, as the 13 songs on the Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” album.   Obviously, a consumer in a store could glance at an album with these 13 song titles and conclude that this is a Beatles’ cover album, or possibly a re-issue of “Sgt. Pepper,” or even a Beatles-sanctioned or affiliated project.  Factor in the additional problems this could cause if this counterfeit album was sold on the Internet, where search engines could turn up this album in any Beatles’ search, and it becomes clear that this musician is unethically riding on the Beatles’ coattails and confusing consumers.  Thusly, this would be an example of unfair competition.

The title, “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” like most titles, is not protected under copyright.  Stringing together thirteen (13) titles, in the above example, might be protected under copyright as these thirteen titles written consecutively in order could be copyrightable expression.  (I could argue that these specific thirteen (13) titles in consecutive order would be copy protected – I’ll be happy to do that in another post.)

It is likely that most of these 13 song titles could be used by other authors as titles for their independently created copyrighted songs.  For example, the title, “Getting Better,” consists of two (2) unprotectable words:

 Getting, Better

Obviously these common words did not originate with the Beatles, and the title, “Getting Better,” in its entirety, or subsumed within a larger title, likely was used prior to this Beatles’ song.  “Getting Better” or “It’s Getting Better” are titles that anyone could use.

Did Big Happens Here Do Digable Planets?

I love the 1993 Digable Planets album, “Reachin’ (A New Refutation of Time And Space).”  Their big single from the album, “Rebirth Of Slick (Cool Like Dat),” might have been overplayed and overhyped but I still like it.

I love seeing how others view music that is not their native music.   By “native,” I mean this is music that is not their primary music – not the music that they first performed or were “into.”  Many in hip hop came to R & B and jazz after they were first immersed in hip hop, just as many in jazz may have started in rock, and so on.  One of the things that intrigues me is how someone from outside a musical tradition can latch onto a small phrase that might seem not extremely interesting or important to those who are the REAL practitioners of a style, i.e., musicians who are inside that tradition.  For example,  what a hip hop musician might think is important in a jazz composition can be much different from what a jazz musician might think is most important.

I know that many traditional jazz players, especially in the early and mid-1980’s, would not likely latch on to a short phrase, repeat it many times and make this small and almost “throw away” motif into something big.  This tiny melodic gesture, in the hands of an outsider (with respect to a musical tradition), could become the most important part of the melody, or sometimes the only melody that matters to someone from outside of that tradition.  This “how does a foreigner view our music” idea is one I will explore later.  I’ll include myself in this – how and why did I get into hip hop, or Senegalese, Malagasy, Brazilian or Cuban music.

All of this to get back to that famous Digable Planets song that samples some jazz.  Digable Planets were not the first group to sample jazz but this song did influence a lot of people and inform others that something new was happening.  And that this new thing was happening from the confluence of more than one musical style.

I got thinking of Digable Planets a few days ago (during Hurricane Sandy) when I saw a television commercial promoting the idea that New York state is a great place to have technology companies – that New York is “home to the fastest-growing tech sector in America.”   (Massachusetts needs a “tech is our kind of place” and “we are the [tech] champions, my friend” commercial to top New York, but I digress.)

As always, I was doing something other than watching television passively.  I must have been playing on my iPad waiting for the winds to blow harder (as they did).  I heard music that seemed quite familiar – my instant thought was that this music on the tube was a “write around” aka “writearound” aka “reference” of Digable Planets’ “Cool Like Dat.”

Fortunately, the tech commercial was on YouTube, so I lassoed it and placed it here:

Big Happens Here:  Technology

Now here is Digable Planets’ “Rebirth Of Slick (Cool Like Dat).”

Digable Planets – “Rebirth Of Slick (Cool Like Dat)”

What do you think?  Do you hear a relationship between Big Happens Here and Digable Planets?

Is Big Happens Here a ripoff of Digable Planets?

Is Big Happens Here somewhat similar to Digable Planets?

Is Big Happens here not related to Digable Planets?

I think there is a relationship.  I’d rather not divulge my thoughts but read of yours.  I’ll explain my thoughts later.  Soon.  Maybe tomorrow.  But I await your responses.  :  )