Monday, April 21, 2014

Sondheim’s Assassins: Songs for Villains

The singing villain

We all know that in musicals, villains can sing a song. Just look at this Buzzfeed listicle of the 12 Greatest Disney Villain Songs (1). The villains' song (they usually only get one) function as a window to their characters, a behind-the-curtain look into their psyche, and maybe a glimpse into their plans (2). These songs are also often scary and ominous (and in a minor key).

Another example of a villain's song is the stage version of Singin' in the Rain"What's Wrong with Me?", sung by Lina Lamont, the conniving silent film star with an unfortunate accent (3). But the song doesn't really work in the context of the play's action, because this particular song, a look into her soft interior thoughts, makes the audience relate to Lena. And Lena's role is the villain of the melodrama, the person we're supposed to hate.

If everyone is evil, then no one is evil

But what happens when all the characters are villains? Last week I saw Stephen Sondheim's Assassins. Almost all of the characters in Assassins are people who killed or tried to kill various Presidents of the United States (4). Why did Sondheim (and his librettist, John Weidman) turn this bizarre/violent collection of stories into a musical, a genre usually reserved for love stories and comedies? I think Sondheim and Weidman are taking these characters, all villains, and trying to make the audience relate to them, to understand them. And making the characters sing helps us step into their skin (5). As we saw with Lena Lamont, a song is a great tool to portray a character's innermost thoughts.

One of my favorite songs in Assassins is "The Gun Song," which features a lively barbershop quartet sandwiched in between some minor-mode inner thoughts. What happens when we hear a barbershop quartet about gun violence? Well, we start to feel a dramatic tension between the happy music and the horrible things the characters are singing about. And I think we also start paying more attention to the arguments the singers are making. And this uncomfortable/sympathetic feeling is exactly what I think Assassins is all about.

(warning: some strong language)

Vocab: minor, mode

(1) Though not all of these are sung by the villains.
(2) Songs in musicals and operas often are about a characters inner feelings, and hardly ever about plot.
(3) If you're wondering why you've never heard this song, it is not in the original movie.
(4) It’s actually hard to talk about the music in Assassins, because this play has so many other interesting things worth talking about. But, one cool factoid about the music is that each assassin's song is inspired by the style of popular music at the time they were living.
(5) The same thing happens in Dr. Horrible's Sing-along Blog.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Music sounds better when you hear it again

Maybe Andy had it right. From Flikr, via the MOMA.

Hear it again

I have written about repetition of lyrics in music, but what about repetition of the music itself? Well, recently Elizabeth Hellmoth Margulis wrote about musical repetition in her book How Music Plays the Mind (2013). I haven't read the book yet, but I did read this article in Aeon Magazine in which she discusses some of her main points (you can also see a digest version on

To bring out a few of those points: it turns out that we like music more when we hear it multiple times. For example, Margulis took music by Luciano Berio, a famous 20th-century composer known for writing complex music that does not repeat, and added some repeats (you can hear some snippets in the NPR article). Then, she played these for other musicians, not telling them which was the original, and asked which version was more compelling. It turns out that the doctored versions beat out the original. Says Margulis, in explaining her results:

"The psychologist Carlos Pereira and his colleagues at the University of Helsinki demonstrated that our brains show more activity in their emotional regions when the music we are listening to is familiar, regardless of whether or not we actually like it."
Our brain is wired to want to hear music again, and like it more on the repeat. Even when we aren't listening to anything, our brain may play us back 30-second snippets of catchy music, called "earworms". And our behavior reflects this disposition—David Huron, a musicologist at Ohio State University, estimates that as much as 90 percent of the music we hear is something we've heard before.

This all makes sense to me. I know I will often like a song more just because I have listened to it before. Also, I've had the experience of rehearsing a 20th-century atonal piece of music over and over again, and getting those "melodies" stuck in my head, melodies that almost no one would leave a concert whistling after just attending one performance. But this is how composers hear their music when they are composing: over and over again. Perhaps some composers did not take into account how their music would sound hearing it the first time. And perhaps this is why the minimalist music movement in the generation after Berio rebelled and wrote music that repeated a lot.

Sound becomes music

Margulis also says that the more we hear sounds again, the more they sound like music to us. From her Aeon Magazine article:

"Ask an indulgent friend to pick a word – lollipop, for example – and keep saying it to you for a couple minutes. You will gradually experience a curious detachment between the sounds and their meaning. This is the semantic satiation effect, documented more than 100 years ago. As the word’s meaning becomes less and less accessible, aspects of the sound become oddly salient – idiosyncrasies of pronunciation, the repetition of the letter l, the abrupt end of the last syllable, for example. The simple act of repetition makes a new way of listening possible, a more direct confrontation with the sensory attributes of the word itself."
In other words, with repetition the word becomes a kind of abstract musical snippet.

Now, something that Margulis does not discuss is the over-repetition in music and how that can lead to dislike. Maybe she gets to that in her book.

What do you think about Margulis's article?

Vocab: melody, composer, musicologist, earworm, atonal

P.S. Thanks to Will Owen for bringing my attention to this article!

Monday, April 7, 2014

Copyright question: How do I copyright my music?

The "poor man's copyright"? From Flikr.

Copyright law is somewhat murky, and some of you may have wondered: if I write (or arrange) my own music how do I copyright it? Before I try to demystify this, I should start with a disclaimer: I'm not a lawyer.

Okay, with the disclaimer taken care of, let me tell a story: when I was in high school, I was (unnecessarily) worried about people stealing my creative work. I heard somewhere that to protect yourself, you should seal your music in an envelope, mail a copy of the music to yourself, and never open the letter. And I did this a few times. Well, it turns out that this method of copyright protection is folkloric, and really unnecessary. It wouldn’t make a difference in music copyright litigation (though patents might be different).

So what do you need to do, under current copyright law? Well, not much. You don't even need to put a copyright symbol and year on your work, and you don't need to register. Unless of course, you want to sue people, in which case you do need to register. And you aren't going to sue people unless they are making substantial money from your creative work.

If you do decide to register, it's not too difficult (I hear, as I haven't done it myself). You can register a single author for $35 online on the US Copyright Office website. The copyright office doesn't do much verification; if there's a problem, it will be sorted out with litigation. In other words, act now and ask questions later. For more, see "Taking the Mystery Out of Copyright" from the Library of Congress. Why is the Library of Congress doing education about copyright?  Well, it's more than just than that a librarian's job seems to entail explaining copyright to the public—the Copyright Office is actually a part of the Library of Congress.

One final thought: some things you just can't copyright—you can’t copyright ideas, for example. But you can copyright the way that idea is expressed. What about the murky space in between? Well, again, that's what litigation is for.

Have any of you tried to register something with the US Copyright Office?

Monday, March 31, 2014

Irony in Music: BNL's "Shopping"

Last year before April Fool's, I wrote about Rickrolling, or infusing an otherwise innocuous piece of music  with new, comical meaning. This week, I want to write about irony in music, or using music to make lyrics mean exactly opposite their surface meaning.

I've recently been listening to the Barenaked Ladies (BNL) 2003 album Everything to Everyone, and one song on that album is a perfect example of musical irony: "Shopping". Here's the song: 

And here are the lyrics:

Well you know that it's going to be all right,
I think it's going to be alright,
Everything will always be all right, when we go shopping.

Well you know it's going to be all right, when we go shopping.

It's always la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la…shopping spree begin,
la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la…everybody wins.

So shut up, and never stop,
Let's shop, until we drop.


It's always la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la…shopping never end,
La, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la…shopping with our friends, shopping once again.

It's always la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la,'s always la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la…

It's never enough, until you've got all the stuff.
When the going gets rough, just shop with someone tough.

Chorus (2x)

It's always la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la...when we go shopping, when we go shopping, when we go shopping.
It's always la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la…

Fluffy looking and sounding...

At first glance, the lyrical content of "Shopping" is pretty flimsy. Mostly it's just "all right", "shopping", and "lalala". And the instances when it's not, the rhymes are all short, masculine (meaning one-syllable), and inane. And don't always rhyme very well.

The music at first seems to mimic the lyrics—it's peppy and electronics-heavy and something one might hear at a store in the mall. The problem comes when one thinks about actually having these lyrics playing in a mall. The music in the mall is designed to get people to buy things—but actually stating that in the music would pretty much negate any chance at compulsion. It's just too much.

Also, BNL as a band is usually pretty verbose in their lyrics, and even in the funnier songs usually display some lyrical depth. The fact that the band chose to have such simple, silly lyrics must be purposeful. The only conclusion is that they must be making fun of shopping—meaning their true message is that everything is not all right "when we go shopping."

...but really pretty complicated

A closer look at the musical form of "Shopping" reveals that it's much more complicated than it initially seems, too. No musical material is ever presented the same way twice. For example, the first chorus has an extra line, the second chorus plays once, and the third chorus plays twice. And there's little complex touches, like the vibraphone and the ethereal "hahaha" laughing, that show extra thoughtfulness to a song that wouldn't seem to deserve that detail.

The string quartet right before "It's never enough…" is the final cherry on top of this irony sundae: the strings attempt to add some gravity to music that on the surface seems completely fluffy and light. And not coincidentally, the string quartet entrance highlights the one line that leaks the real intent of the words: "It's never enough, until you've got all the stuff". If everything is always all right when we are shopping, why is the shopper unsatisfied? Suddenly, other lines seem problematic, too, like "everybody wins"—we know this is not true when we consider conditions for garment workers in Bangladesh, for example. Shopping in a modern store, as much as they try to hide it, can actually mean dooming some people in other parts of the world.

The take-away I'm hoping to convey here is that analyzing a song's lyrics without also looking at the music is really not getting the whole picture—not by half, at least.

Do you have any examples to share of musical irony? I'd love to hear them.

Vocab: lyrics, vibraphone, string quartet, chorus, masculine rhyme

Monday, March 24, 2014

Sting in AmeriGrove, or I'm an expert!

Several years ago, I was asked to be a contributor to the second edition of the Grove Dictionary of American Music (or AmeriGrove for short). AmeriGrove is a scholarly dictionary of music and musicians, but focuses on American music specifically. The topic about which I was asked to write was Sting. "Wait," you say, "Isn't Sting a British musician? What's he doing in a dictionary about American music?" I asked the same question, actually, and the editors felt that Sting has had an important enough impact on American music to be included. I was happy to oblige.

Of course, with the huge scope of the project (more than 9000 entries), publication moved slowly, but the final print version was released earlier this year. A downside to the slow pace: I wrote the article in 2011, and it is already out of date.

Get out the magnifying glass—that's my name. In print.
What did I get for my 250-word article? $25 and 50% off the $1200 sticker price for the full 8-volume AmeriGrove set. Needless to say, I didn't take advantage of the discount, but my real reward was that I get to say 1) I'm published and 2) I'm an expert.

My article hasn't quite made it to the online version of Grove, Oxford Music Online (they're adding them a few at a time), but soon those of you who have access to that database will be able to read the article at your leisure. My guess is this is the last time that Oxford does a print version of a large reference work—the next one will be entirely online.

Vocab: Well....musician? I guess there doesn't always have to be new vocab