Category Archives: Pop Music

The Creative Process of Composing for Media: A Study of Collaborative Creativity

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MY TOP 5 SONGS OF 2016:

For the last few years, I have created a list of my top 5 records of that year.  I do this for my own amusement, primarily, as it is nice to get to December and have an excuse to spend a while looking back over the year’s musical offerings and rediscovering things that may have slipped my mind.  However, it seems to be a nice way to get people talking about music and sharing their favourites so I thought I’d do it again this year. I normally wait until later in the month to do this but I am currently incredibly busy and, naturally, looking for any procrastination opportunity I can find.

(If you’re interested in the lists from previous  years you can check them out here: 2014 and 2015)

This year has been full of great music and the following is my list, in no particular order. Please do feel free to join in by posting yours in the comments section below!

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My Top 5 Songs of 2015:

Last year, having spent a bit of time thinking about the way that people like to make lists of ‘top 5 records’ (read the original post here) I decided to compile a list of my top 5 songs of 2014.  At this time of year I get more of an opportunity to actually sit back and enjoy listening to music and it is nice to look back over the songs that were released in the previous 12 months. So, the following is a list of the 5 tracks that I have enjoyed most in 2015.  I’m not trying to convince anyone or to campaign for these songs in any way – they’re just my personal favourites from this year.

What were your favourites?  Please feel free to comment below with your own top 5 list or even just the odd link to music that you have enjoyed from this year.
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Let There be Rock

Let there be rock

Really, let there be rock. I argue in this piece that too often we do not. Educational institutions frequently permit an unfulfilling simulacrum, but we fail all too often to grasp the core of rock music and allow it to happen, or to insist that it happens, in schools. I write a little about me in this post, because it is a first articugolation of an irritation that has been brewing inside me over 16 years of teaching in primary, secondary, tertiary and higher education.

I am a drummer, and I teach music at a school of contemporary (popular) music. This year I’m also studying there for a master’s degree in music performance. This combination of being the teacher and the taught has helped me see more clearly who I am as a musician. While I love playing drums, there are particular conditions that make the experience for me the fullest consummation of human experience. These are generally met when the following align:

  • I am playing drums in an ensemble
  • I can play what the music requires
  • The band is comprised of competent players
  • We’re all listening and feeling intently
  • Our commitment to and immersion in the moment are complete
  • I can move as large as I need
  • The volume in the space is loud, and I am enveloped in sound
  • We are playing rock music

In short, all is well with me when I rock.

My drum teacher and undergraduate mentor, Peter Fairclough, used to pose a question to his students. He would ask, “Who gives you permission?”[i] Pete’s idea was that a confident, successful musician enables (permits) her- or himself. I took from his advice that I should have enough ability in my wrists and fingers to do whatever I wanted on the instrument. But asking Pete’s question now, of myself and on behalf of students who I know love to rock, the answer, or part of it, lies below.

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Penguins, Snowpeople and a Man on the Moon: The ‘John-Lewis-isation’ of Pop Songs

Introduction:

The other day I was playing a game with my three year old daughter in which we were making up funny songs, based on themes that we each took turns to suggest.  So, I had to come up with songs about sheep, or busses, or cakes, for example.  One song that she sang sounded particularly happy and upbeat – a fun kid’s song.  Just out of curiosity, I then asked her to sing me a ‘sad song’, and what she did was (a) hilarious, and (b) really interesting.  She basically just sung the same melody but slower, in a breathy, fragile voice, and did so while pretending to look ‘sad’ (in the same way that a mime-artist might do).  This was wonderful as it linked directly to something that has been floating around in my head for the last few Christmases.  Namely, the phenomenon of the ‘Christmas advert’ – typified by those for John Lewis(a UK department store), for example – which seem to have become (inter)national events, in recent years.

Christmas Adverts:

Most people reading this, certainly those from the UK will be familiar with the phenomenon that I am referring to.  Essentially, these are adverts (commercials) that last for approximately 2 minutes in which a supposedly heartwarming, Christmas (or winter, at least) narrative is played out, often with an emotional message or display of seasonal good will.  Importantly, however, the songs used in each of the adverts are cover versions of famous pop songs.  If you are not sure what I am referring to then the following example is the most recent John Lewis advert (‘The Man on The Moon’) featuring a cover version of ‘Half the World Away’, by Oasis.

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Found Sounds: Music from the mundane

 

‘Hearing’ Music:

Whenever I am on a train, I find myself hypnotised by the sound of the wheels on the track and the rhythmic ‘rattle’ that this produces in the carriage. Similarly, when at a queuing to pay at the supermarket, I love to stand and listen to the sound of the ‘beeps’ produced when items are scanned at the different checkouts, the differences in pitch (probably due to the relative distances) and the sometimes ‘rhythmic’ effect of the beeps occurring at random intervals. When I’m in a traffic jam in a car, I can amuse myself for long periods of time by simply listening to the ‘music’ created by the interaction of the indicator’s clicking sound and the swoosh of the windscreen wipers, slowly moving in and out of phase with each other. When using a photocopier it is not uncommon to see me nodding my head, in time with the mechanistic ‘groove’ of the machine, as if I was listening to music on headphones.

When I tell people about this, or when people observe me absent-mindedly humming as I invent bass lines that compliment the metronomic ‘tick-tock’ of the car indicator, or tapping additional layers of rhythmic patterns over the incessant ‘clickity-clack’ of the train, some people think I’m mad, some think I’m just a muso-geek and others seem to understand and even recognise this behaviour in themselves. Regardless of what other people may think, I find that I derive genuine and meaningful musical experiences from sounds that other people may regard as noise, or indeed, that they may subconsciously ‘block out’. This does not surprise me, I am fully aware of the subjectivity of musical experience, but it does intrigue me. Consequently, in recent years, I have started to use this idea in my teaching and, most recently, in the context of a 1st year undergraduate course I teach in Popular Music Composition at Edinburgh Napier University.

‘Collecting’ Sounds:

In week 2 of my composition course (after the initial introductory lecture) I ask my students to attend class with some sort of hand-held recording device. After a preparatory discussion about sampling and related issues, we head out into the campus (and beyond) in search of sounds that we feel are ‘interesting’ and that are/could be considered ‘musical’. The term ‘musical’ is deliberately used as a problematic and ambiguous word as the intention is for the students to decide what this word means, and why. I want my students to start to listen to sounds in their environment analytically, to think about the ways in which sound is perceived, and to consider the ways in which ‘music’ can be found (or drawn from) unexpected sources.

Use of samples is clearly not a new – for many composers of popular music (particularly for younger students), this is one of the first steps in writing/producing a piece of music. For example, a drum sample is loaded into a digital audio workstation (DAW) and other layers are added on top until the track is complete. The exercise that I described above is different, however, as it is not about using pre-existing samples – it is about creating audio files that can be used, manipulated, and sculpted to create musical source material. Again, this is not a new idea and it is one that has been a key aspect of many types of electronic music for decades. That said, without exception, my students consider this approach to be entirely novel and, in some cases, the idea of starting a compositional process without even touching an instrument or DAW is even met with scepticism.

Implications for ‘Popular Music Composers’:

Popular music is an ‘aural art’ (Warner 2003: 8) that comes into being through the recording and manipulation of audio – popular musicians use production technology (software and hardware) as means to work directly with sound and to create sonic artefacts (Moir and Medbøe, in press). In this sense then, recorded sounds are the building blocks of many types of popular music. Regardless of whether we consider recordings of traditional instruments or samples of ‘found sounds’, for example, when a track is created we engage with it aurally. In my opinion, this means it is of paramount importance for popular music composers to think carefully and creatively about timbre and sound creation, just as much as (if not more) harmony and melody etc.

First year popular music students often tell me that their default approach is to use a DAW (Logic or Ableton Live, primarily) and to begin with instrument presets or samples and compose a track using these pre-existing components. Additional layers of audio, such as vocals or live instruments, may be added but the starting point is often one that is essentially curtailed by the parameters of software presets, workflows, or technical ability. This, in turn, can lead to students reverting to habitual processes or to genre stereotypes. I do not mean to suggest that my ‘found sounds’ exercise will necessarily yield music that defies genre classification or idiomatic norms – nor should it. What this exercise does is to encourage students to break habits, listen at a deeper level, and consider their music in a way that goes beyond the melodic/harmonic/rhythmic content that is the typical priority and preoccupation of young students in this area. By considering their music from this sonic perspective, it is hoped (and is usually the case) that the students will uncover new and interesting perspectives on composition and production that they may not have arrived at by conventional or habitual practices.

References:

Moir, Z. and Medbøe, H. (In press). Reframing popular music composition as performance-centered practice, Journal of Music, Technology and Education (Special Issue, Edited by Gareth Dylan Smith and Bryan Powell)

Warner, T. (2003) Pop Music, Technology and Creativity: Trevor Horn and the
digital revolution, Ashgate, United Kingdom.

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Remembering B.B. King

News of legendary entertainer B.B. King’s death came as a jolt. The monumentality of his contribution to popular music created the impression that somehow he would always be around, striding onto someone else’s record to make you wonder why they were there, superstars or not. His ability to spark collaborations with unlikely partners – U2, The Crusaders, the GRP Big Band, Cyndi Lauper – meant that in the ’80s and ’90s there weren’t many genres you could approach without coming across him. This could seem surprising until you considered that all this music – stadium rock, smooth funk or state-of-the-art big band – all traced roots to the wellspring of Delta blues that formed B.B. King.

He tends to be labelled as a widely influential blues guitarist, but his singing was at least as striking as what came from his fretboard, and was what brought him to attention first. I saw King perform twice during his lifetime of incessant touring, and had never seen such blatant showmanship before: the band stoking the blues for a good 20 minutes before the great man walked on stage to top it all, and relentless encores infused with the same chutzpah as his advice for the queen of England (sic) when she corners him in the street during ‘You’d Better Not Look Down’. What I remember most from the live shows is that his voice and guitar seemed interchangeable. The voice rang out like an electric guitar, and Lucille (the guitar) sang back in the solos, a percussive approach and portamento wails perfectly recreating the vocal delivery. King himself acknowledged this link, stating that, ideally, ‘you wouldn’t know when Lucille stopped and my voice began’1. This gave his guitar playing the emphatic restraint so often lacking in overenthusiastic blues players since.

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Dance to the Drummer’s Beat (Part 2)

“Take the funky drummer give him back to james”

In my last post, I was looking at the convoluted relationships between DJ performance in the context of a ‘live’ Hip Hop party and the live musician’s role in the creation of the first Hip Hop records. It’s now time to follow the chronology of the story and deal with the development of digital sampling of the kind any producerw would recognise today. But just before that…..if you’ve read any of my other blogs you’ll know I have a penchant for Igor Stravinsky into the mix- well here he comes again: in a paper from 2005, (The story of ORCH5, or, the classical ghost in the hip-hop machine), Robert Fink has identified ORCH5, a pre-set on the Fairlight sampler. It is a cheesy full orchestral ‘hit’ which Fink convincingly argues was sampled from a recording of Stravinsky’s Firebird Ballet. To hear Stravinsky’s ‘hit’  in action in early Hip Hop you need go no further than Africa Bambaataa’s 1982 classic Planet Rock. Here it is on the invaluable whosampled.com website:

http://www.whosampled.com/sample/135683/Afrika-Bambaataa-Soulsnic-Force-Planet-Rock-David-Vorhaus-ORCH5/

Continue reading Dance to the Drummer’s Beat (Part 2)

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Dance to the drummer’s beat (PART 1)

This post is a quick look at the tangled the mix of live playing, sampling and DJ’ing in old School hip Hop. One of the great advantages of the blog format is the chance to lay in audio a youtube links, so the reader can actually hear what is being talked about.  I do, however ask you, dear reader, to be aware that this limits us to MP3 audio, and if you want to REALLY here some of this stuff, find it in a decent audio form.

My five year old daughter has some interesting books, courtesy of a cool mother in law. Along with a story built around Coltrane’s Giant Steps (I’ll lend it to you Zack), we have an illustrated children’s account of DJ KOOL HERC! When the Beat was Born gives a child friendly account of the origins of Hip Hop in the Bronx. Spurred on I went looking for more on the subject and a visit to  Edinburgh University library shows a good ten feet of academic literature on hip hop, much of it describing a world I know nothing – which is weird because I lived in new York for 11 years from 1990, and had some experience making music on the peripheries of Hip Hop.

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Music as a (Second) Language

There is a great video from bassist Victor Wooten where he talks about music as a language (you can watch the video here).  There is certainly nothing new about likening music to a language. Poets, writers and authors have been doing so for some time now…

Music is the universal language of mankind.”
~Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Music is the language of the spirit. It opens the secret of life bringing peace, abolishing strife.”
~Kahlil Gibran

Music expresses that which cannot be put into words and cannot remain silent.”
~Victor Hugo

Music is well said to be the speech of angels.”
~Thomas Carlyle

The idea of music as a language has taken on an increased focus in my life ever since I came to work with Little Kids Rock through my job at Amp Up NYC about a year ago.   At Little Kids Rock (LKR), their pedagogy is based upon the idea of treating music as asecond language.  The basis of LKR’s pedagogy was developed by founder Dave Wish, a former first-grade, ESL (English as a Second Language) teacher.

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