20 helmikuuta 2013

"Heaven" and asymmetric phrases

"Heaven" is a tune that uses the idea of layering a melodic phrase and harmonic phrase on top of each other asymmetrically. First, let's take a look at an example of a typical symmetric song, "Mary Had a Little Lamb".

A Simple, symmetric song

You can think of "Mary Had a Little Lamb" in two-bar sections. This means that you feel the need to emphasize the first beat of each two-bar section. The "X" shows where the beginning of the two-bar section is. Sing the song and tap your foot on the floor on "X".

"X" Mary had a little lamb,
"X" little lamb, little lamb.
"X" Mary had a little lamb, its
"X" fleece was white as snow.
and so on, and so on...

See, it feels very natural to emphasize this nice little song like this. The song is simple and it has a structure that's easy to predict. Hence this song is easy to follow. And once you can follow the song easily and tap your foot along with it, it's probably easy to start dancing to it, too. The enjoyment of music is fulfilled!

This is how our brains work whenever we hear music. We constantly analyze and organize hierarchically the sound we hear. Extracting enough symmetric or constant rhythmic information and patterns from the sound, will eventually lead to the expectation of certain kind of rhythm. How you react to a song is determined by how a composer has decided to fulfill your expectation. By choosing certain notes over others.

Depending on your musical background you may find the structure and patterns of certain type of songs perhaps easier to understand than others. And this is, of course, very much related to your ability to appreciate and enjoy music.

The most obvious structures that most of us find easiest are usually the structures that are perfectly symmetrical. Two-bar sections and four-bar sections are easy for most of us. When it gets a bit tricky is when phrases or sections of different lengths are mixed.

Now, the section (from now on I'll use the term "phrase") can live in two distinct elements. The phrase of a melody can be analyzed separately from the phrase of the harmony. To those of you who are not familiar with music theory, this simply means:

  • When you sing alone "Mary Had a Little Lamb", that's the melody.
  • When the pianist who you hired to accompany you plays the chords of "Mary Had a Little Lamb" alone on a piano, that's the harmony.

So far we have assumed that both of you have thought the song in two-bar phrases. And it may not make sense to change this approach, if your goal is to perform this song next weekend at your birthday party. Just keep on practicing!

A bit more complex song

But, just for the heck of it... Let's say that your pianist had just taken a couple of jazz-lessons and wants to make your life miserable by experimenting with this song.

For example, she might start to think in three-bar phrases, instead of two. Or five-bar phrases. Depending on the song and the arrangement, this might or might not align well with your singing. But the interesting thing is that whatever path she will try, there will be moments when you both will still emphasize the song at the same time. When your "rhythmic cycles" cross.

This creates a distinct pulse or pattern. It may be more complex to listen to than if both, the melody and the harmony, would be completely symmetrical. But don't get scared. You can look at the new structure another way, too. The pulses of the melody and harmony are independent, BUT they still have one strong pulse together, which creates yet another independent pulse! Your creative possibilities just got much more interesting.

---Please note that this may not make any sense what-so-ever to you now. But if you found "Heaven" an interesting song, and you'd like to learn more about its structure, all this is very relevant. You'll see..---

So, let's take a look at the first two verses of "Mary Had a Little Lamb". As each verse is eight bars long, two of them makes sixteen bars total. If you are thinking in two-bar phrases, you'll emphasize eight times and you'll sing eight full phrases. Right?

Let's say that your pianist thinks in three-bar phrases instead of two. She will emphasize only six times and play five full phrases plus 1/3 of the sixth phrase. See that even though your phrases are asymmetric, your "paths" will cross as follows:

Your first "X" will align with her first "X".
Your fourth "X" will align with her third "X".
Your seventh "X" will align with her fifth "X".
And so on..

If you'd keep on playing the song long enough, it's very likely that eventually you'd start to expect this weird asymmetric behavior and it would gradually start sounding less and less weird.

I know, all this is rather theoretical discussion. And how much mileage you could get out of this particular technique will depend on many things. But this kind of thinking is exactly what composers and arrangers will often do. "What possibilities will open up if I make this structure asymmetric? What happens if I try this and this?"

If you just play the above mentioned experiments now on your piano without planing about it too much, it may not make sense. It may just sound weird or even completely wrong.. But I'm 100% sure that if you have some arranger's skills and you'd spend time arranging the tune, it would end up very different kind of "Mary Had a Little Lamb". Not a weird and wrong, but just different. A bit more complex musical structure that could raise many kinds of emotions and feelings.

Now you ask: What the hell re-arranging "Mary Had a Little Lamb" has to do with Thaiga's song called "Heaven"?

The answer is: Not a lot. But "Heaven" does use an asymmetric structure as its main composition motive.

Welcome to Heaven!

Below is a picture of "Heaven". You can see that the harmonic phrases are built the usual way. Four-bar phrases which make eight bar blocks. You can also see (hear) that the song is made of three sections that are 24 bars long.

What's interesting is that if you take a careful look at the melody, you'll see that it's really only a 23 bar long melody that simply repeats three times. In other words, the melody section is one bar shorter than the harmonic section. This is the important thing to notice! This an asymmetric structure.

You feel that the song flows symmetrically, because the harmonic phrase flows in multiples of two all the time. But what you're also hearing is an unchanging melody cycle that's going out of sync from the harmonic rhythm starting at bar nro. 24.

This opens up the melody in a whole different way! The whole perspective to the melody changes. The feeling of "X" (or the pulse) is a sort of spotlight that makes the melody "visible" from three different angles. You don't feel that anything really repeats, even though the motives will sound very similar throughout the piece.

The vocal melody simply picks out certain notes from the underlying asymmetric structure that the piano is playing.

After the melody has cycled three times, it aligns naturally with the harmonic rhythm. And that's a good point to end the song. You'll get a sort of the feeling "what the hell just happened?", but it all seems fine in the end.

The mathematics of music

Composing this song started the usual way. I played with notes and intervals and they started to sound interesting enough. Next I decided to play with this rather theoretical idea of asymmetric phrases.

Now, I don't like theoretical games just for the sake of "getting the numbers right", as I've never really understood maths anyways.. But as a tool for creativity these mathematical strategies can be sometimes very useful. The main goal has to stay clear, though. If it starts to sound like a mathematical formula, it's not good music. For me, at least it isn't.

"Heaven" came out nicely. Perhaps even a bit nicer than I had expected. When I started to commit to the idea of asymmetric phrases, I first thought that quite a few notes should be taken out of the strict mathematical formula to make the music happen. But that proved not to be the case.

I don't think you can really hear much traces of this mathematical game happening in the background, if you don't know what to look for. There is only one note that I changed from the original formula. Just because it just didn't fit well enough in the final version. But changing only one note is a good enough achievement. (See if you can find that one note... :) )

I guess the main point I'm making with all this is that if you plan your composition well enough, you can hide in there all kinds of stuff that's living sort of its own life without anyone paying attention to it. Surely it can be just an amusing music game that composers play and show to other composers. Without much artistic value.

But at its best this game can lead to great compositional discoveries that simply sound good. If the structure of the song is well made, it becomes that much more difficult to ruin it when playing and recording it. If the substance is there, it will carry the music. This kind of song can be approached on many different levels. Not just on the most obvious level that is "Oh my, that sounds nice!" Not that there's anything wrong with that either..

Happy holidays and take care you all!


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