I wrote this guitar instrumental after being inspired by the music of Harry Nilsson. I used my French-made Duponte Selmer-style guitar for the melody on this track to provide a more melancholy sound.
I wrote this song to try to capture the sound of early Chet Atkins instrumentals that I love so much. I’ve always loved this style of guitar playing and decided to write a song of my own to capture some of the elements of this style. I used my beloved Gretsch 6120 to record the main guitar part.
I wrote this song as a possible theme song for a reality TV show about a group of women friends who stir up a lot of drama from week-to-week, hence the title of the song. I combined elements 60s dance music along with more modern grooves to give it more pizzazz
One of the more challenging aspects of creating music for film projects is composing under tight deadlines. Several years ago, I attended a panel session about film and TV composing where one of the panelists was the composer for the TV show Survivor. He began his talk with the following bit of sage advice … “how many of you here are composers?”, at that point everyone raised their hands. Then he said “O.K., how many of you are writing at least 2 minutes of fully-produced, mixed, and mastered, original broadcast-quality music every single day?” At that point only one or two people still had their hands up, while the rest of us slowly brought our hands down. Then he said, “Those of you who still have your hands up are the real composers. To the rest of you, that’s the level you need to be at if you want to be a TV or film composer”.
His message was clear. If you want to get hired as a composer, you need to hone your skills so that you are able to create quality music consistently and quickly. You can only get there by doing it a lot!
I took this advice to heart, and set out on a path over the next few years to challenge myself to write as often as I could. While I still can’t claim to be writing 2 minutes of music every single day with demands of a full-time day job, I did hold myself accountable to write more often and get better at writing in various genres (see the following link for various self-imposed projects along that journey my songwriting projects).
Recently I put my skills to the test by accepting the role of composer for a creative team who had entered a 48-hour film contest hosted by the IFP (Independent Filmmakers Project) in the Phoenix area. For this contest each team was presented with a basic list of requirements for their film (acceptable genres, a line that must be said in the movie, and one prop that must appear – in our case that was a red balloon). Then after a quick beer at a local micro-brewery launch event, each team was sent out with only 48-hours to write their script, create their storyboard, shoot all of their scenes, do all of the video editing , add the Foley track (sound effects), write and record the musical score, and deliver the finished film back to the panel of judges by the deadline.
The film team that I’d signed up with decided to do an action film. This meant that the film would need music from start to finish to highlight the on-screen action and suspense. Since our film was 5 minutes in length, this certainly fit the criteria of doing my 2 minutes of original broadcast-quality music every single day. If you’ve never tried this kind of writing exercise before, all I can tell you is that this is much harder than it seems. If you’re really honest about doing your best-quality work and holding yourself to a high standard, you will be working long and hard each day to get your 2.5 minutes of killer music wrapped up.
This was a very valuable learning experience as well as a chance to make connections with local film makers. Here are some of the important things I learned along the way:
Communicate with the producer often and understand his/her vision for the project!
By communicating often with the producer you can come to an understanding about the kind of sound you will need to deliver, as well as a timeline for anything that can help you in the composing process. Through my initial contact, I was able to get a storyboard for the film before any of the shooting began. This provided me with a way to get a head start on creating musical ideas for the opening theme, suspense theme, and closing music before I had any film to work with. Then I could focus on refining those initial ideas after getting the first video edits back from the production team, rather than waiting to write any music until seeing the first video edits. This saved hours of time since I didn’t see the first film edits until less than 24 hours before the deadline. There’s no way I could have finished my music if I’d not started when I did.
As you watch the film, try to understand how the music can provide the missing part of the narrative
As a film composer, you get to mess with the audience’s head, enjoy it! Your musical ideas, and the sounds you select, can have a huge impact on the way the audience interprets the on-screen drama. It’s your job to convey to the audience how they should “feel” about each scene. Oftentimes the scene is missing something to bring it to life, either because the visual or dialog doesn’t convey everything that is happening. Or, perhaps the actors aren’t delivering their lines in a convincing way to match the situation unfolding on screen (keep in mind that the actors aren’t hearing any background music or sound effects when they are trying to sound convincing in their scenes). As a composer, it’s your job to be that missing ingredient that tells the audience “something bad is about to happen”, “this guy is missing someone and feeling sad, even though his face doesn’t show it”, “help is on the way”, or “the shit is about to hit the fan!”. This is the funnest part of the process, figuring out that missing element and providing it to the audience with your score. When you get it right, its very gratifying! It also helps you to appreciate how important the musical underscore is for any film. To give you an example of just how important that is, watch this film clip that shows how various kinds of music can drastically change the way a scene is interpreted :
Know where to find your sounds quickly, and select your sound pallet early!
In creating your musical score you have to decide fairly early on what kind of “vibe” you will need to deliver for your scenes. Are you going for something that needs a big, lush, orchestral sound, a small intimate acoustic sound, or an industrial-techno synthetic sound? In my case, I was trying to create a feeling of suspense, uneasiness, and danger throughout the film. I had to know where to find these sounds to deliver this sort of vibe very quickly so that I could focus on creating the music. Before taking this project, I’d spent a lot of time going through my patches in various sound libraries I use, to categorize various presets according to kind of project I’d use it for. In one of my synth libraries, it allows me to put a list of keywords into each patch that I can search from later, such as “suspense pad”, “action hits”, “mysterious pad”, “twisted sound splashes”, “underwater documentary sounds”, “sad strings”, etc. This provided a convenient way for me to quickly go to my synth libraries and decide which sounds were going to be used in my pallet of sound to create my score for each scene. Getting that out of the way quickly saves hours of time of hunting and pecking my way through a huge amount of sound presets for every library I use. When you’re under a deadline you don’t have the luxury of time to be searching for the perfect sound. You have to know where to find those sounds quickly.
Here is the final version of the film that I scored for this contest. Although our team didn’t win the contest, I made a lot of filmmaker contacts in the local community and got a referral for another composing project as a result.
As I mentioned in one of my earlier posts about the creative process, care and feeding of your creative mind, song ideas normally don’t come to me as a bolt of lightning from the clouds. Instead, my creative process often needs a nudge. I’ve found that it works best for me to assign myself projects to provide that spark of inspiration to get me started down the creative path.
Sometimes these assignment ideas come from things designed to help me grow as a composer, such as learning how to write and arrange for certain types of instruments in the orchestra. Other times the ideas come from a more practical reason, such as recognizing the types of music getting placed into TV shows and making an attempt to create music to fit those genres.
Still other times, the ideas come from a completely spontaneous urge to do something for the fun of it, for no good reason at all, such as: “hey, wouldn’t it be hilariously fun to create a song that sounds like it came from a car commercial in 1960, …” These kinds of ideas usually come from my sense of humor. It’s liberating every now and then to turn off the pressure to make music that sounds modern or cool and go in the completely opposite direction just to make someone laugh. If music is about conveying emotion then why not explore the quirky, weird, horribly out-of-style, sentimental emotions once in a while.
This is how my Christmas instrumental started. It began as an experiment to create that bubbly-happy glamour music heard in old TV shows or car commercials from the 1960s, never thinking that this path would result in a Christmas tune. I was trying to capture the music that might be used in a scene with Audrey Hepburn, not Santa Claus.
Every time I found a good representation of this genre I took note of the elements that captured the style so well. In a similar way that you might approach a painting, I began to list all of the instruments that would make up the sound pallet for my new song experiment, by auditioning the sounds from my sample libraries that I use for composing (large orchestra string sounds, pizzicato-violins playing happy melodies, harps, etc) Then I set myself to work with my guitar to come up which a chord progression and melody that would represent this style. One thing I noticed in much of the music from this genre is some of the interesting ways the chord progressions would modulate into new keys as the song would evolve to give the listener the feeling of moving forward through a scene, not standing still. It took several weeks of arranging and editing the string parts and melody to make every thing work as I heard it in my head. After finishing the orchestration of the song and mixing all the final tracks, I decided to call the song “Give Me Park Avenue”, since it reminded me of the type of music that would have been played behind a glamorous female character like Zsa Zsa Gabor from the TV show Green Acres.
After releasing the song, I thought that this was the end of my little experiment, and I’d satisfied my goal of making some decent parody music for a 1960’s spoof. Then as I started listening to the song even more, I decided that it would make a great Christmas song if I only added a few more sounds to the orchestra.
So I decided to make a holiday version of the same song, by re-working original arrangement by adding new parts for orchestral chimes, glockenspiel, and sleigh bells. It took a little re-arranging of some of the string parts but in the end, I was even happier with the resulting Christmas version of my new parody tune than I was with the original version.
When I first created this song I had no idea of the market potential for this type of music, thinking that it may be a very long time before I found anyone interested in such music and would probably need to count this one as a learning experience and nothing more. However, in the weeks that followed I found several potential opportunities to pitch the song to including a holiday TV ad campaign for a European retail chain, and a US record company looking for holiday music for rotation into shopping malls for the holiday shopping season. (Fingers crossed hoping that my song is considered for either one)
Here are the lessons I learned in working through this project:
- Find those projects that get you motivated to create, even if you have to come up with the ideas yourself. The important thing is to have a vision to work on that excites you.
- Don’t be afraid to explore your sense of humor for song ideas, even if they may seem uncool or nerdy
- Your childhood can be a great source of inspiration since there is so much emotion locked into your memories of the past
- Don’t be afraid to re-work an existing song into something new, such as a holiday version
- As they say in the Hokey Pokey “put your whole self in, and shake it all about …” Always, do your best job with any song that you take to completion. Never do minimal effort – your time and creativity should never be wasted!
Until next time, happy music making!
This is my second article in a series covering some basic concepts of music theory, concentrating on topics relating to musical harmony. In this article I’ll be covering the concept of Intervals. It’s important to learn about intervals since they are the most basic building block of harmony.
The term “interval” is used to describe the pitch distance between two musical notes, whether those notes are played together or consecutively. When someone says “interval” think of it as another word for “musical distance”. In this article I’ll be explaining the names of these distances and also providing many examples of how these musical “distances” are used in music.
Musical distances are often described in terms of a unit called “steps”. First, I will define what is meant by a “step” as it pertains to music. Then I’ll describe intervals using the “step” as our unit of measurement.
What are “steps”?
On fretted instrument, such as guitar or bass, a “half step” would be the distance of 1 fret.
A “whole step” is the distance of two half-steps. On a piano this would be the distance of three adjacent keys (two 1/2 steps), such as C to D, or Ab to Bb. On guitar/bass this would be the distance of 2 frets.
Now that we have these basic units of whole step and half step defined, we can use them to describe musical “distances between notes”.
Octave and Unison
In western music (i.e. music that had it’s origins in Western Europe) an octave is divided up into 12 half steps. If you start at any key on the piano, and go up to the next adjacent key (a 1/2 step), and continue in this way 12 more times you will end up on the same note in the next register. We call this distance of 12 half-steps an “octave”. The staring note and ending note are the same note (for example “C”) but they are said to be one octave apart.
How are octaves used for in music?
Octaves are used extensively in music to add richness to the sound of a melody or single note. For example, if you pluck the strings of a 12-string guitar, the lower strings are tuned in octaves so that one note makes the sound of two stings together (tuned an octave apart). This is what gives a 12-string guitar such a big sound when you strum it or play a melody line on it. Wes Montgomery was a famous Jazz guitarist who popularized a style of playing solo guitar lines in octaves (see the octave fingerings above), using his thumb to strike both notes together (an octave apart). This helped to add a richness to his melody lines as he played them on guitar.
How are unisons used in music?
The word “unison” is used to describe the interval of two instruments playing exactly the same pitch (not an octave apart, but the exact same note within the same octave). Unisons are often used in music to add fullness and volume to a sound, similar to the way octaves are used. If you’ve ever heard a group of bagpipers and noticed how loud and full it sounds when there are several pipers playing together, what you’re hearing is the whole band playing everything in unison. The low drone and the melody line is often played the same by all the members which creates a huge sound in unison. When recording vocals a common production technique called “doubling” involves recording a singer performing the same exact vocal part multiple times. When those multiple tracks mixed together (often the multiple tracks are panned left/right to give a wide stereo affect) the resulting sound is a much richer version of the same vocal part. This is a great example of the usefulness of a “unison” sound.
The interval of “minor second” is defined as two notes which are a 1/2 step away from each other (e.g. C and Db). This creates a tense sound.
Here is the sound of the minor 2nd interval:
The minor 2nd interval’s tense sound is often used in soundtracks for horror and thriller movies, usually played in the upper register with violins as shown in this example below:
But this interval can also have a beautiful sound as well, when used in the right context. You will find the minor 2nd interval within chord voicings that use close harmony (all of the notes of a chord in closest proximity to each other, within the same octave) such as this voicing of A minor add9 chord.
You will also find the Major 2nd used in chords with close voicings, such as this A add9 chord. The major 2nd adds a kind of “wholesome” vibe. You hear this kind of use of the major 2nd in film sound tracks as well.
The “minor third” is defined as two notes that are 1 & 1/2 steps away from each other (e.g. C and Eb). The minor 3rd makes up one of the key building blocks of triads and chords. We will be talking more about the minor 3rd as we get into a discussion on chords. Notice that the minor 3rd, has a rather “sad’ sound to it.
The “major third” is defined as two notes that are 2 full-steps away from each other. (e.g. C and E). The major 3rd is also one of the sounds that is used extensively as it makes up one of the key building blocks of triads and chords. Notice, in comparison to the minor 3rd, the major 3rd has a happy sound to it.
When chords are referred to as “Major” or “Minor”, the name comes from the interval of the 3rd within the chord (relative to the root note of the chord). Minor chords contain a minor 3rd interval, and major chords contain a major 3rd interval. I’ll be covering chords in more detail in a a upcoming articles. The minor and major 3rd intervals are one of the most common ways to harmonize melody lines in music. Here is one example of the use of major and minor thirds being used as harmony in this recognizable guitar riff from Van Morrison’s “Brown Eyed Girl”.
The perfect 4th is defined as two notes that are 2 and 1/2 steps away from each other (e.g. C and F).
Jazz piano players often rely on chord voicings based on use of 4ths to create sophisticated open-sounding chords.
The perfect 4th interval is commonly used for certain types of guitar fills found in classic soul and R&B of the 1960s. Paul McCartney used this same kind of sound (relying on a basic melody harmonized in perfect 4ths) for the opening guitar riff for his song “Band on The Run”.
The augmented fourth (also called a diminished 5th) is defined as two notes that are 3 whole steps apart from each other. This interval is also called a tri-tone and is found within dominant 7th chords. In early music this interval was also referred to as the devil’s interval and was strictly avoided by early composers because it was thought to have such a horrible sound. However, in Jazz music especially, this interval forms the basis for some very interesting harmony and chord substitution techniques. It can also evoke a kind of odd “quirky” quality when used in the right way.
You can hear a great example of this “quirky” quality of the augmented 4th interval used extensively in the theme from The Simpsons (written by Danny Elfman).
In part II of my article I’ll be covering fifths, sixths, and sevenths. I’ll also include some useful summaries tables. Happy music making!
One of my goals for this site has been to educate people about music itself, to help spread the knowledge that I’ve picked up over the years of learning from various music teachers, other musicians, books I’ve read, and my own experience as a musician and composer. Early on, all I ever wanted to be was a good guitar player, but one of my first guitar teachers drilled into my head that every musician should understand music itself, not just how to play their instrument. His argument was that a solid understanding of music theory would empower you to play in almost any style you like, in any key you like, and make sense of what other musicians were doing. I took his advice to heart and tried to learn as much as I could about music over the years. Every time I learned a new song or new guitar lick that I liked, I tried to analyze it on musical terms to find out why it worked. More often than not, there was usually something that pointed back to a topic I’d learned in my music studies that explained why something worked. I’ve always wanted to pass along those bits of information that helped my understanding so that I may inspire other musicians in the same way as I have been. I just wasn’t sure how to do this brain dump until now.
First a disclaimer:
The information I’m providing here is not a substitute for a complete course in music theory. There are plenty of books and resources online to obtain more complete coverage of music theory. Instead, I will focus my articles on those topics that I use most often songwriting and soloing while leaving out the topics that are more focused on the aspects of music notation and sight reading, which you would cover in any music theory course. As a general emphasis, I’ll focus more on the topics pertaining to an understanding of harmony rather than rhythm and notation.
Music theory can be an intimidating subject to a lot people because the material itself can be a little dry and technical in nature. I will try to make my explanations more interesting so that it doesn’t read like a text book, but more like a straightforward explanation of how things work (that’s my goal anyway). I’ll also try to explain these concepts by giving lots of musical examples that most people will be familiar with.
When I took music theory courses in college, one of my criticisms was that the musical examples used in the class were often taken from classical works that I wasn’t familiar with. I always wondered why someone didn’t present the material in a more straightforward way using examples found in music that was written in the past century that most people would have heard in popular music, TV, radio, Broadway shows, etc.
What is Music Theory and Why Study It?
Think of music theory as an explanation of the structure of western music in the same way that science and physics explains the structure and laws of the natural world. By “western music”, I don’t mean music played by guys in cowboy hats and rind-stone suits with names like Hank, Merle, and Buck. In this context western music refers to music that has its roots in Europe (based on the use of an equally-tempered 12-tone system, or 12 pitches per octave) as compared to music originating in Asia, the Middle East, and India that use completely different tonal system (use of micro tones, etc) that are not normally used in western music.
In the same way that you can appreciate the natural world without having a deep understanding of the laws of physics and biology, your brain is already familiar with the musical structure explained by music theory from exposure to the huge amount of music that you encounter everyday that you’re not even conscious of (music from the web, music used in TV ads, underscore music in film, music that is part of your video games or phone apps) . Your brain responds to this structure in an emotional way, even though you may not be conscious of the underlying structure of the music itself. This is an example of the universal language of music. It’s a language of feeling and emotion. Music theory only tries to explain these commonly-used structures and set of guidelines (or rules) for what has been used by composers in the past to create various sounds you hear every day in music. Some people tend to understand these structures instinctively, and may not even be aware of it when they write songs. I look to musicians such as Paul McCartney and John Lennon as examples of people who seem to have this innate understanding. Their songs make a lot of sense musically, even though they may not have ever studied music theory or harmony in their development as song writers. However, when you read about Paul McCartney’s upbringing you find that his father played piano at home and was a huge fan of Broadway show music. Paul’s brain was probably infused with a lot of good examples of common chord progressions, song structures, and melodies that he heard so often as a kid, leaving an indelible impact on his musical instincts as a song writer. In fact you can hear some of this show-music influence in some of his songs such like “When I’m 64” and “Your Mother Should Know”.
The music you listen to affects your musical instincts
Your ear will often tell you when things work (or not) even if your brain is not aware of the structure, only because your brain is already used to hearing these patterns in other music that you have been exposed to. The lesson here is to listen to great music as often as you can and absorb it! Even if you don’t understand it all, your brain is taking it all in and developing your internal reference points about “what works” in song writing. But don’t stop there, expose your kids to as much great music as often as you can while they are growing up. Expose them to everything: Jazz, Blues, Classic Rock, show tunes, orchestral music, Country, Bluegrass … everything from Abba to Zappa. You never know if you may have a young Paul Simon or Carol King in your midst, absorbing all of that music like a sponge.
One of the most powerful concepts of music theory is gaining an understanding of harmony
Harmony in this sense refers to the way various notes sound together, not limited only to vocal harmony but any sound source, whether those notes are played on a chordal instrument (such as a piano or guitar) or played by more than one instrument (such as a group of violins, horns, or a guitar and bass playing together). When more than one note is sounding at a time, you have harmony. As I will explain, various notes sounded together will create different harmony depending upon how far apart they are in pitch. Some combination of pitches create pleasant, stable sounds to your ear, and some are tense and unstable, depending on this distance between the notes. Composers use these pleasant (consonance) and tense (dissonance) sounds to create tension and release in their music. This is part of the way emotion is conveyed through music, using this interplay of tension and release. If all music consisted only of pleasant, consonant harmonies and no dissonance, then it would be like watching a movie where there is no conflict, sadness, or struggle, and only happiness from beginning to end. (Although you may want this effect if you’re writing music to be used for relaxation therapy). The opposite is also true. A song with dissonance from beginning to end creates a feeling of uneasiness. It’s no accident that alarm systems take advantage of dissonant harmony when they design the combination of pitches for an alarm sound. They want to create a feeling of uneasiness alertness.
Although having a solid understanding of harmony won’t make you a more creative composer, it does provide you with a set of tools to draw from for helping you along the way to refining your inspired ideas into something that is more complete. It also helps you to explore options as you find yourself working through ideas in the songwriting process. It is also an invaluable asset in the arranging and production process as you work through musical parts that need to sound good together, supporting the harmonic structure of the song itself. As an example, check out this version of Elenor Rigby as it likely sounded when Paul McCartney first wrote the basic structure of the tune (although his original version was on piano, and John wrote the lyrics), where you will hear the basic form of the song but nothing more. By contrast, later in the video you hear the full version of the song with the string quartet accompaniment that George Martin brought to it. You’re hearing George Martin’s skill in applying his understanding of harmony and orchestration to fully realize the potential of the underlying harmony in the song.
The string accompaniment is part of the magic that made this song so amazing. This is why we want to learn about harmony!
In this series of upcoming articles, I hope to answer some of the following questions (I’ll add more to this list as I cover more topics):
- Why study music theory at all? (covered in this article)
- What are intervals and how are they used in music?
- What are key signatures?
- What is a major scale?
- What is a minor scale?
- Where do chords come from and how do you know which notes are contained in a given chord?
- What are chord progressions and how are they used in composing?
- What are chord inversions?
- What are chord voicings?
- How can you apply “Jazzier” sounding chords in your song writing?
- What are chord substitutions and how do you use them?
- How do you come up with more interesting bass lines, or create “walking” bass lines for a given chord progression?
- What is an arpeggios and how are they used in music?
- What are modes and how do you apply them in your songwriting?
Here are some rural southern theme music examples that I’ve created for reality-TV-show opportunities based on this setting. I used elements of Country, Blues, as well as more modern grooves that are common with the music used in these kinds of shows.