Friday, October 19, 2007

How Roy Orbison changed my life

The ability to compose music is, I'm convinced, something you're born with. The tricky part is learning what to do with the compositions. That takes knowledge and practice.

I remember composing songs as a child without even trying. For example, I once had a nightmare about some creature trying to push me down the steps, and it sang, in a tune I distinctly remember, "So you have to fall downstairs." Later, I made up tunes on a Casio synthesizer I still have.

But my songs were lacking in a quality I didn't then understand. Each one was just an isolated sequence of notes, without being organized into anything larger. Aside from the dream, only one of my songs had lyrics, but it consisted of nothing more than one verse and a chorus. I somehow didn't realize that it needed something more to be complete.

The day that all changed was around the time Roy Orbison's posthumous hit "You Got It" was released. I'm still not quite sure what it was about this seemingly ordinary pop song that changed my entire musical outlook.

I first heard the song on VH1. I wanted to hear it again but didn't get a chance for several months. When it finally aired on the radio while I was listening one night in my bedroom, I was extremely excited, and I listened to the song closely.

For the first time in my life, I became conscious of song structure. The song had three distinct sections, which I later learned were called verse, pre-chorus, and chorus. It went through these sections twice, then it had a side part I later learned was called a bridge, then it returned to the pre-chorus. This arrangement wasn't unique or original, but having never paid attention to structure before, I found it clever.

I began to dissect other songs. I discovered that most rock and pop songs fall into one of just a few common structures. "You Got It" has one of the more complex ones, originating perhaps in the 1960s.

I went back to the Casio and created an instrumental piece with three sections, plus a bridge. It was my first composition that felt in any way complete. Over the next year, I composed numerous other songs, most of which I can still play.

I was twelve back then. I would have expected my interest in dissecting songs to fade after a while. But to this day whenever I hear a new song, determining its structure is part of the listening experience. Songs with unconventional structures always intrigue me.

Early rock 'n' roll generally stuck to very simple structures--either verse-chorus with no bridge, or verse-bridge with no chorus. The songs tended to be around two minutes long, and when a song was longer, it was usually because of more verses or a slower tempo, not because of greater complexity. The increase in structural complexity in rock music was gradual, probably peaking around the late 1960s when popular rock bands like the Beatles and the Moody Blues experimented and broke out of the radio format that demanded songs of no longer than three minutes. This was the era of long songs, sometimes a result of arbitrary repetition (as in "Hey Jude"), other times due to unusually intricate structures (as in "Stairway to Heaven").

Still, rock and pop have continued to confine themselves to familiar formulas, with only particular genres such as heavy metal and progressive rock seeking to emulate the complexity of classical music and jazz. On rare occasion, a pop song will attempt a more ambitious structure, as in Madonna's surprisingly multi-layered hit "Like a Prayer."

Structure has a significant effect on the feel of a song, even if most listeners aren't conscious of it. The wrong structure can hurt a song even if the music is good. A case in point is Rush's "Roll the Bones" (the video of which can be seen here). It is the perfect example of a good musical idea ruined by structural overkill.

The chorus is great. But the song takes nearly a minute and a half to reach it, and the verse and pre-chorus that precede it sound like they come from a totally different song. It's as if the songwriter felt he needed to fill something into that time slot, so he grafted on the leftovers from an earlier composition.

But that's only the first problem. The song came out in 1991, when it was common for a pop song to include a "rap" verse, and Rush bowed to this trend. In the video, the rapping is done by a silly-looking animated skeleton, which appears after three minutes of live action. The rapping ends and the song cuts to a solo, where we think it's going to return to the chorus. But no--it goes back to the rapping skeleton for another minute! Finally, it returns to the chorus, and the song ends, clocking in at five-and-a-half minutes, pretty much ensuring its exclusion from mainstream pop radio.

The skeleton's monologue includes lines like "Gonna kick some gluteus max," along with a series of similarly cheesy puns and rhymes. This section seems especially incongruous next to the song's earlier lyrics, which were serious and contemplative. The song lacks cohesion: it's like a bunch of spare parts thrown together. Maybe they were rushing to meet a deadline, no pun intended.

What Rush probably should have done is made the chorus the entire song, and abandoned the verse and pre-chorus sections, not to mention the rapping. One-part songs aren't common in progressive rock, but even Rush has done them, as in their 1977 song "Closer to the Heart." There's nothing wrong with a song having many sections, but they should complement each other rather than sounding like appendages. It's hard to explain why some songs do this correctly, while others don't. But you know it when you hear it.

I can only speculate why an understanding of structure helped me learn to compose properly. Deciding which structure to use for a particular song is not an exact science. I suspect that many musicians just pick one that "feels right," without giving the matter much thought. But for me the music itself always came easily, and all I needed to learn was how to organize it into something coherent. And for that I have Roy Orbison to thank.

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