Is There a New Minimalism Underway in Popular Music?

Is there a new minimalism underway in popular music? It seems two of the most recent number one songs, “Blurred Lines” and “Royals,” consist of little more than a catchy percussion driven beat with bass and harmony vocals. It is a very effective combination, if the lyrics are strong, because minimal accompaniment focuses the listener’s attention on the words making them more important to the success of the song.

There are a number of artists who have built careers using minimal accompaniment including Bob Dylan, in his early folk period, and Neal Young. Can you name other artists who use minimalism?

Photo courtesy of billboard.com.

Blurred Lines by Robin Thicke, How to Write a Hit Song

According to Billboard Magazine, Blurred Lines “has sold 5.8 million downloads in its 26 weeks of release, according to Nielsen SoundScan. It continues its radio dominance with a 10th week atop R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay.” What makes this song popular with everyone from 80-year-old grandmothers to 18-year-old hipsters is how these controversial words are set musically. There are plenty of songs that explore controversial themes, but this particular song has obviously captured a large audience. There must be something about the music that makes it popular.

The instrumentation is very sparse consisting of only bass and percussion, see Example No. 1. The percussion section is just a cowbell, clap, and high hat. There is also a mark tree (chime tree) at the beginning which adds a little color.

The bass part establishes a repetitive rhythmic pattern on scale degrees one and five in the key of G major. There is a descending turnaround in measure 8 that walks down the G major scale from note D to G. This firmly establishes the song in the key of G major, see Example No. 1. The entire chord progression is simply four measures on a G major chord and four measures on a D major chord with a turnaround in measure 8.

Example No. 1

Blurred Lines Example 1aBlurred Lines Example 1b

The most interesting aspect of the accompaniment is its driving rhythmic pattern which is highly syncopated and full of rhythmic interest. For instance, the cowbell starts on the upbeat of count one with an interesting sixteenth-note pattern that ends on the upbeat of count four. This rhythmic motive starts and ends on an upbeat giving the song an irresistible rhythm. The clap occurs on counts two and four creating a straight up, rock and roll back beat which never fails to give any song a bouncing, upbeat rhythmic intensity. The high hat is used sparingly on the upbeat of count four in every other measure.  This creates a nice rhythmic lift in measures 2, 4, 6, and 8.

Basically, the instrumental accompany is as simple as it gets, only two chords, no guitar, no keyboard, just bass. The accompaniment provides a bare bones harmonic structure and a driving rhythmic pattern that propels the song forward allowing the vocals to stand out.

This song relies almost exclusively on its vocal setting. One of the ear marks of a good setting is how closely the rhythm follows the natural rhythm of the words when spoken. For instance, “You’re a good girl, I know you want it,” sounds identical to the way one would naturally say it. Say it a few times then sing the song as comparison. Sounds the same right?

Also, the melodic contour and harmony accentuates important words and phrases throughout. For instance, harmony is only used on “You’re a good girl,” and “I hate these blurred lines.” In the chorus, these words are harmonized in thirds on both the five and one chords respectively. In both cases, the lower voice starts a half step below the third (Bb) and the seventh (F natural) in the G major scale. Then it slides up to the B natural and F#. The initial lowered third and lower seventh create extra harmonic tension making these words really stand out in the song. Most people who hear this song for the first time will remember those particular lines. Who can forget “you’re a good girl, I know you want it.” That is the core of this song.

What’s the lesson for aspiring musicians and song writers in this song? Less is more. The sparse instrumental accompaniment provides a driving rhythmic pattern which allows the words to stand out from the accompaniment. There are no fancy guitar solos or instrumental breaks to distract the listener, and harmony is used sparingly only on the most important words. So if you want a hit song, create a catchy hook and keep it simple baby. See you on the charts!

How to Write a Melody: Augmentation and Diminution

Augmentation and diminution are two widely used compositional techniques that can be applied to almost any melody. In this blog post, I will show you how to use these techniques to generate a plethora of new material for your next composition.

There are two types of augmentation, rhythmic and intervallic. Rhythmic augmentation means that all of the note values in a given melody are increased by an equal amount. In most cases, rhythmic values are doubled, but they can be increased by almost any amount. Example No. 1 is an original melody used in my first blog post to demonstrate retrograde, inversion, and retrograde inversion. Example No. 2 shows this melody with its note values doubled.

Example No. 1

original melody

Example No. 2

aug

Intervallic augmentation means that all of the intervals increase, see Example No. 3. This changes where notes fall in relationship to the underlying harmony, so the accompaniment usually needs to be adjusted to compensate.

Example No. 3

intervallic aug

Diminution is the opposite of augmentation. All of the note values and/or intervals are shortened by an equal amount, see Example No 4.

Example No. 4

Rhythmic dim

Example No. 5 is an augmented version of the original melody with sixteenth-note accompaniment. The accompaniment pattern is also a good example of diminution in action. Counts one and two in measure 1 are the original melody in diminution, see Example No. 1. Notice it’s the same melodic contour in sixteenth notes. Essentially, Example No. 5 is derived from a single motive which is subjected to both augmentation and diminution. See what you can do with just a few ideas and an arsenal of composition techniques in your tool chest?

Example No. 5

aug and dim example

How to Write a Melody, A Video Example

 

I recently discussed the value of inversion and retrograde, two compositional techniques, in an earlier post.

Here is an original composition for classical guitar, “Rainy Nights for Jennifer”  that demonstrates these techniques. The first example of inversion occurs at 1:48. There are a number of other examples throughout the composition, especially after the tempo change at 2:05.

This was a live performance at the Atlanta Institute of Music.

Let me know what you hear.

How To Write A Melody

One of the most challenging aspects of music composition is thematic development. As a composition instructor, I have found most of my students can come up with convincing melodic, gestural, or textural ideas, but they struggle when writing an entire piece. Most students get “stuck” at a particular point, get frustrated, and eventually give up. The problem is they don’t know how to develop their initial ideas, and their progress grinds to a halt. Fear not! For the professor is here to give you the tools you need to become a great composer.

Here is a partial list of some time-honored compositional tools. These tools can be applied to almost any style of music. Comment if you can think of anything I have left out, and I will add it to the list.

Capture2

In this blog post, I will focus on inversion, retrograde, and retrograde inversion, by far the most widely known and beloved compositional tools. Inversion means all of the intervals in a particular melody are upside down. Example No. 1 shows an original melody followed by its inversion. Notice that the ascending triad in measure 1 becomes a descending triad when inverted, a mirror image of the original melody.

Example No. 1

melodic development blog pic 1

There are two types of inversion, exact and tonally adjusted. In an exact inversion, all of the intervals are exactly the same as the intervals in the original, only upside down. In a tonally adjusted inversion, the most common type, intervals are modified to stay within the key. The above example is a tonally adjusted inversion, an exact inversion would require note D in measure 1 to be a D#.

Retrograde is the original melody play backward. Example No. 2 is the original melody from Example No. 1 played backward.

 Example No. 2

melodic development blog pic 2

Retrograde inversion is the inversion played backward. Example No. 3 is the inversion of the original melody played backward.

Example No. 3

melodic development blog pic 3

I encourage you to play these examples on your instrument. Notice how each one has its own character, yet sounds related to the original melody. This is because the intervallic and rhythmic content is virtually identical in each example, so the next time you find yourself “stuck,” apply these compositional tools to your melody, and see if it generates new material. If you like your original idea, you will probably like the inversion, retrograde, and retrograde inversion as well. It is similar to looking at a beautiful painting in a mirror. If it looks great on the wall, it will look great in a mirror too. Enjoy!