Music Theory And The Quest For A Perfect Chord

I’ve been enjoying Rick Beato videos on youtube. His breadth of knowledge and his ability to communicate issues in music are very enjoyable and entertaining. To leave my blog and likely be better entertained, he can be found at: CLICK HERE but the reason I bring him up stems from my looking at my own process in songwriting sometimes. Listening to him sends me into a deeper line of theory thinking pretty quickly, and yet some of my favorite songs of mine I never even gave theory a thought at all.

Of course, there are several different approaches I’ve enjoyed or been infected with along the line of writing my songs. At various moments when I’ve been at a crossroads in a song under construction, searching for the thing that needs to come next and I guess there have been a few different approaches, such as:

The hunt and peck method – I remember when recording my song “Come” I got all the way to laying down the piano track in the studio with a producer and still knowing I needed a bridge and a getaway chord without knowing for sure what it would be. I kept playing the part leading into that moment and then just bouncing unto a chord at random. If you listen from :56 – 1:04 CLICK HERE you can hear what I had, and what I eventually found that led into the “next” area of the song. I was not thinking theory at all, nor was I interested in chaos, I was just letting my fingers do the walking until my ear said “ahhh, thank you”. My producer called it the “panty dropper chord”, though I’ve not encountered that reaction yet.

The theory based classical feel method – Sometimes when searching for the bridge or key change my fingers just fall back unto their classical training. And then I mainly try to make sure that though it may be classical in bent it is not actually shamelessly swiping anything of old without credit. A good example of this would be how I found my bridge in “Beautiful Liar” CLICK HERE

It was just there method – This is when as I’m playing something new and it just doesn’t stop until I’m done and there is no searching on my part to fix something. There are more than a few examples of songs of mine where the writing of them was improvisational, immediate, and (though I may have tried to polish it or change it with something later) it wound up not changing at all. Sure, once I took it into the studio setting and collaborated with others great ornamentation added on it perhaps would happen, but the song structure was anchored from the moment it left my guitar or my piano. A good example of this would be “Tomorrow” CLICK HERE wherein that song ambled out with many of the lyrics coming to my lips upon my first playing of it.

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Doing Cover Songs – They Teach Me

For a long time I resisted doing cover songs mainly for two main objections in my mind.

1) I felt it was disrespectful to any previous recording which made me love the song in the first place.
2) I felt like I was snatching some gold fairy dust from another’s work and trying to hijack that for selfish purposes.

So, I went a long time without really trying to enjoy doing covers. If I loved a song of another I always felt it would be more polite and better for me to simply share what they had done with others, especially to the younger generation who otherwise might not ever know the song existed. And by doing this I could feel good about how I didn’t muck it up trying to do it myself, and I might actually help a likely starving artist of yesteryear who probably got raped by his record label and might need the ½ penny of streaming revenue.

But lately I’ve had a change of heart about my doing covers and so I’ve been working on a few. One of the things I’ve grown to love about my doing this is the deconstruction I do in reverse engineering the sounds I love about some old song. For example, I was recently agonizing over “Wildfire” by Michael Martin Murphy and Larry Cansler and I really had to spend some time listening critically to the song with fresh ears. I had not really paid attention to how the drums are in your face immediately after the haunting piano introduction. I mean they just boom are right there and prominent, and I never really heard that before. The piano introduction gives a subtle haunt, but once the guitar starts the song is at full throttle right from the get go and though I’ve heard the song countless times, my attempting a cover of it now has revealed something new to me about it.

There is a place in my webpage where one can listen to some covers for free, and it is my hope that if a song there catches your ear you will find the original and honor its songwriter/performer by purchasing it.  Or there is a soundcloud playlist of some of my covers there at CLICK HERE.

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Inspirations as a Songwriter

I was with a friend today for lunch who is a gifted and productive writer, and at one point he said how sometimes for him the hardest part is coming up with a topic. And I got to thinking about my songwriting and how inspiration appears to me and motivates me. Looking back over my 170+ finished songs and the one currently under construction I spent a bit of time in retrospection about it.

What is it exactly that moves me to find a song? What things seem unable to? Etc.

There is no shortage of inspiration in life from all directions, and it is almost hard for me not to find it around me and yet often my receptors are jammed and creative flow may stop for a while. Other times it can’t turn off and I can hardly keep up and/or the output becomes too thin of substance for the rush in getting it down and out before a next idea hits me and infects me.

Some examples are:

Suffering; frequently that can indeed be it with me and so certain ballads are a release of small parts of agony into music or lyrics – like “Drift of Snowor “Tomorrow

Joy: Sometimes moments of joy have given themselves to personal inspiration – like “Unwind”.

Humor: This is an infrequent visitor to my musical inspirations, but sometimes I witness something of the ridiculous in others or myself and can’t help but put it into a song – like “Mad as Hell

Natural Beauty: “I Wish” covers this one both in the beauty of nature and/or the simplicity of time with horses.

Irony: Again this can be cheating towards suffering with personal ironies or disappointments of romance, but it can also be the irony of people wanting one thing and doing everything to prevent it, like “Bobcat Blues” or “Little Squaw

Mourning: Like “Ebb and Flow

There are others and I don’t wish to belabor the point, but I appreciated afresh my friend’s comment.

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Success As An Artist

A question was put to me regarding my definition of success as an artist. It is a difficult thing to vocalize and thus a frequent question asked of creatives; with a universe of platitudes given in reply. So, since it is asked to the point of commonplace, and creatively dodged by many I decided to pen my answer.

Let’s begin with stating the one obvious preamble counter-definition of artistic success: It is NOT simply and uncontrollably relegated to the response to the artwork by others. Many works of mine have created immense personal satisfaction in me, though denied any accolade at all by another living soul, and vice versa in how some works of mine I regretted but were quite well-received. Sure, feedback is important, but it cannot be king, or even a member of the Royal Court.

OK, enough dodge, then what is success to me regarding an artwork of mine? I think it is best exemplified when I return to something I’ve done after the joy and work of creating it has lost its viral hold on me, and I still hear it, read it, see it, or feel it with a sense of joy at how it indeed captured that desire to satisfy portraying the inspiration that initially drove me to leave behind things of the world and enter into the world of creation. Often times I think creatives can be their own best and worst critics once the euphoria of creating has faded and they can take a work of their own back into themselves almost as a virgin with it again.

When first a melody or song strikes me, my mind can immediately fill in the missing holes in the orchestration not yet made, or the harmonies and sub-harmonies not yet found upon the fingers and keys, but they all are there in the mind’s eye. Then as the process of trying to find those words, or those notes, or that camera angle and image occurs the act of baking the item into reality takes on a secondary artform – namely the dance between pure inspiration and the facts of life when recording on a budget, or stealing time to craft a sentence properly before the cell phone rings, etc. In the music studio, the crafting of the arrangement takes on a life of its own and over time I can fall in love with the process a bit and forget to remain in love with what I started shooting for. And like any contest between passions, there may indeed be a loser and a winner.

But months or years later when next I encounter the artwork after having “let the baby be born” as a former friend used to say, if I engage with the artwork like a fresh observer no longer stricken with joy of how it was made, and I feel utterly satisfied that I struck a bullseye with it in speaking about the inspirational moment — THAT is a true success to me as an artist.

Meanwhile I can have all kinds of pride in things I’ve created, sometimes as fun, or beautiful in an unintended way where I spun off a bit, but it is ok with me, etc. However, an absolute bullseye in writing, or songwriting, or creating a visual is a rare and delightful treat to me, and those rarities embody success.

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Vocalist Versus Singer Songwriter

There are more than a few well known songwriters who rarely if ever sing their own songs if they can help it. I remember hearing Neil Diamond being interviewed one time and stating he did not want to be a singer, but that he had to sing his songs because no one else would. As a songwriter I am often asked why I don’t work more on my voice to aid my songs in having a better audience. Years ago I received some vocal coaching in the studio and it helped that particular song have a better performance. So, I recognize that I certainly could benefit from working on it. But in the end my whole composer inner voice shouts out to me saying “I’m not a vocalist.” Now I can sing, but I’m not a vocalist and I am ok with that; more than ok, I actually prefer it.

When I was in high school I knew a young lady who had a voice like a songbird when she was younger. It was this natural thing of beauty which slowly died as she spent more and more time in choir. No offense to many fine professional choir directors, but in the case of this young lady my ears could slowly hear the music in her dying, until it was entirely gone. What came out by the end of senior year was beautifully enunciated and well projected notes carrying nearly perfect pitch and tons of proper breath all spent in conjuring up a nullity. To me it was a sad waste.

When I hear Randy Newman singing some of his wonderful songs I thank God he did not attempt to change his voice to suit his audience… it is quirky and alive. I don’t live in fear that I would lose myself if I tried to improve my voice, and I suppose it is better now than it was years ago, but still I am very wary about prioritizing myself into songwriting or composing rather than into becoming a vocalist. Heaven forbid.

Meanwhile I don’t know if I will live long enough to have a genuine vocalist ever properly take a song of mine and record it themselves. Perhaps one day.

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A Lonely Disconnect Between An Inspiration And Art

As a songwriter, and as a romantic, it is not uncommon that I find an inspiration in something I see or hear or someone who bounces into me. And I never write something to aim solely at communicating to anyone in particular for I hope to paint a melody or song in such a way that it can be taken into an individual on their individual basis.  I’m sure there are dozens of my favorite songs when growing up that my interpretation of them would make those songwriters wretch.  But the disparity between how I heard them and invested my feelings and story into them and how a story actually brought them to life through them should not be a source of anything but happiness for us both.

Yet the rub as a songwriter can be how when anyone actually associated with the genesis of a song thought actually encounters the finished product however many years or decades later, when they don’t get it or simply can’t take it in at all, there is this awful sense of loss that can infest a song if I’m not careful.

For me anyway, songwriting should remain a one way street with audience participation being about how they receive it, if at all – and NOT about any sense of my satisfaction if they do or don’t ride the same road I thought they would inside of me.  I suppose one nice thing about the infinitesimal and glacially slow progress my recordings have made in generating plays and listens over the past dozen years is that it has allowed me time to record and enjoy making the music without having to embrace this lonely disconnect as much as road performing songwriters do.  My ability to avoid having a song performance interrupted by a cell phone going off, or hearing crickets to the best melody in a song while then watching a wild acceptance of some part of another song I know was weak and didn’t measure up to my mind’s ear – both of these pains I’ve been somewhat spared by anemic success thus far.

I accept how this may actually have been a giant blessing from God as regards my continued songwriting.

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The Spinal Chord – Twin Interpretation

 

Remember now those times gone by
And the way your eyes did shine
And all those visions I rewind
How they play now on my mind

Go on home – Say goodbye

There is no anger I recall
But I’m sad after all
I lift my finger from the play
Close my eyes that is all
And you will slowly pull away
We both wish you could stay

It never dies – Say goodbye

Playing back old memories can be like looking at slides – almost like those you see in celebration of life moments. Until you take your finger off of the play button no goodbye can really happen. But allowing someone to back away after you stop calling them forth can be a haunting somber thing.

This song can be heard either way. Perhaps as a lover who, while not saying goodbye themselves, will none the less endure one by failing to call out and tempt any more; thus allowing the departure of one dear. Perhaps as a mourner allowing the memory of a recently departed friend to fade enough to move on. Either way there is a sad giving that is the theme and guts of the song. “I lift my finger from the play” is the spinal chord, get it.  🙂

Currently available via bandcamp site at CLICK HERE, it will eventually appear via the other slower usual channels.

 

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An inspiring vintage piano helps my flow

The film “Dancing with the Wind” gave air to the fact that the Wind Ketcher is a beautiful sailboat. However, if you have taken an interest in the music of the film, then you need to know that the acoustic piano that generated the sounds inside DWTW is a vintage Victorian era Steinway grand made in 1875. Lovingly restored in the late 1980s and meticulously maintained, #31542 and my joy in playing her is largely how the music of DWTW came to be.

I’ve come to appreciate the kinship that often exists between sailboat enthusiasts, romantic music, and those who enjoy flying old kites (older airplanes of tube and fabric), and I think it is fitting that the piano in the film is every bit as classic and lovely as the sailboat.

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Between Songs – Remembering Youth

There are really only 2 scenarios under which one would write an autobiography: 1) There is an outcry of interest for it which implies the person is already famous or notorious with a hungry audience of moochers interested in his secret past, or 2) There will never be such an outcry nor ready-made audience for it, but the poor bastard cannot help himself as the stories and anecdotal snippets of life that seem worthwhile and entertaining when told pile up.

One nice thing for me about being firmly unable to generate any type 1 scenario is how I’m utterly free from trying not to let down any fans who think they know me by revealing something that interrupts their being a fan. If I recall something ridiculous or laughably self-deprecating but interesting about my youth which also happens to reveal times when I was stupid or naive or just plain immature, but growing, it is a comfort to know it won’t stymie any sizable audience already garnered about my songwriting or other writings.
With that said, I am actually enjoying spending a little time in collecting my short narrative essays and clustering them into some semblance of theme and order. It is self-indulgent of course, but then again no writer can be anything but.

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A Peek At A Song Under Construction

It is worth starting with how for me each song has its own story, both in inspiration and also in how the process of crafting it may have worked through me. Some songs come in a flash almost complete with melody and lyrics already dancing together in harmony; some arrive with snippets and starts and stops, full of interruptions and backfires; some remain melodies without a lyric for years until a lyric one day leaps unto it in my mind for some reason beyond my really knowing exactly why. Less frequently a small lyrical line attacks my attention with perhaps a hint of cadence, and then I try to fill in the missing pieces of melody and lyric over time.

When melodies come first, I can generally weave lyrics unto them once I’m inspired in that direction. And mating lyrics to an already existing melody can almost feel easier to me than trying to do the reverse. If the lyrics are first it is for me the harder method. But several of my past songs were crafted in that way. But I generally dislike bending a melody to fit a lyric for there is so much structure in a good chord properly anticipated and accentuated musically. Somehow to me it seems as though bending a phrase or altering a word with a synonymous turn of lyric upsets the art of a song less than monkeying around with a melody.

Part of the reason I mention all of this now is how I’m currently embroiled in struggling with a song concept that began with a lyrical idea which I fleshed out in way too much of a hurry such that I now face the daunting task of finding the melody inside it. Ahhh, such is the joy of the work inside it all.

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