Monday, November 17, 2014

Video game music: why the big deal?

I just put this picture here and you’re already hearing some music in your head, aren’t you?

For some people video game music is a big deal. Not only do the thousands of people pay hundreds of dollars to hear a symphony orchestra play video game music live, but also there are many more (not just in Japan) who find enough pleasure in video game music to want to experience the music outside of gameplay, sometimes years after the original game releases. For example, there are online fan communities that recompose, rearrange, and share video game music. And not just amateurs are joining the fray; the professional field is growing, too—many composers, finding it hard to break into a movie music industry controlled by a few composers, are instead scoring video games.

I should mention here that not all video game music is created equal. Just like movie, popular, and art music, there is good music and bad music. Strangely, there is consensus that the best video game music comes from a period when it was simple, limited to 8- and 16-bit game systems, a claim I will attempt to address in a future blog post. The best video game music sometimes has continued to generate interest after the game itself has stopped generating revenue.

So, why is good video game music such a big deal, at least to groups of loyal fans? I’ve got some speculations below. The first three could apply to movie music, too; the last two apply more directly to games.

Video game music:

  1. Connects with emotions - Music can heighten the emotions that the video games are trying to convey, whether sad or happy, dramatic or infantile, serenity or even chaos and freneticness (much more effective in video games than movies).
  2. Associates itself with positive experiences - People enjoy playing video games, and so when they hear the music again, they associate positive feelings with the music.
  3. Builds community - While there are certainly exceptions, a video game experience is often a solo experience. Even with multiplayer games, gamers are often in a room by themselves interacting with the game in their individual way. But everyone playing experiences the music, so the music can serve as shorthand for communal game experience.
  4. Is repetitive - Because video games are often a long form of entertainment (games usually are at least several times longer than their movie counterparts), the music is often very repetitive. Certainly, modern Wagnerian-inspired movie music will have reoccurring themes, but when a gamer is playing a 30-100 hour video game, they will hear the themes many more times. Because of this, gamers have the music engrained in their memories, especially if the melodies are catchy.
  5. Signals interaction - Music is a often a crucial part of the interaction of video games, especially longer games with a story. Music can signal shifts in the story, mood, or interaction method (such as signaling combat or puzzles). Music can also help gamers be somewhat stimulated when they are doing a boring task, which happens occasionally in longer games. Because of this interactive element, people tend to pay attention to music in video games more than they might when watching a movie.
So, video game music is an important part of the experience, and especially good or effective music stays with gamers for long after they’ve put the game down. Just a final experience to reiterate my point: once I played a video game for which the music was broken. I knew that it was a well-reviewed and well-liked video game, but I had a hard time getting into it. I know the lack of music played a big role in my feelings for the game.

Why do you think video game music is a big deal?

Vocab: theme, melody

Monday, November 10, 2014

Album review: Fictionist—when to give it up? Not yet.

The story

Utah-based band Fictionist has a story to tell. In 2010, they achieved every band’s dream of signing a multi-album contract with a major record label (Atlantic records) after getting to the final round of a contest to be featured on cover of Rolling Stone. But reality slowly eclipsed the dream—after trying hard to please the record company despite an adversarial relationship with the producer, rewriting much of their material and compromising their own aesthetic decisions, their debut album was shelved. Three years of work, and nothing to show. Eventually, about a year ago, Atlantic dropped them. I think many other bands would have split ways at this point, but for Fictionist, this was freedom and a new start—the band regrouped and recorded the album they had always wanted to, eponymously titled and released last month.

So that’s the story, and it’s a good one. But a good story doesn’t make it far without good music. How is the album?

Lather, rinse, varied repeat

The more I listen to this album: 1) the more I like it, 2) the more it gets stuck in my head, 3) the more new, exciting details I notice. Besides having catchy vocal lines that fit their voices well, they know how to fill the empty spaces between vocal melodies.
There is never a dull moment. Nothing repeats in this album without having some rewarding changes. For example, compare the difference between verses one and two of “Not Over You”; the bass, piano, drums, keyboards and even the vocal delivery charges. While the choruses of this song are somewhat similar (to provide some foundation opposite the variant verses), even these aren’t exactly the same. For a song whose verse and chorus are built on similar chord changes, they certainly disguised it, or even used the consistency to their advantage to vary the heck out of everything else.

Every member of this band is strong and they all contribute. For example, in “Lock and Key,” there is not just one good line of music—each part has its moment to shine. They also show their unselfishness by recently moving between two song writers and lead singers (previously, it was just one). The lyrics are for the most part memorable, thoughtful, and not as annoyingly obfuscated as many art pop bands’ lyrics. The words lend a depth and emotion to the already well-constructed music. Though occasionally, they could be a bit better at showing, not telling.

Formally, while sticking to the verse-chorus paradigm, when each verse or chorus will happen is not always predictable. One compositional technique that pops up in “Cut String Kite,” “City at War,” and “Lock and Key” is something like an ostinato extension: they take one little motive that didn’t seem important and repeat it over and over, in the process taking the music to a new place.

Sandwiched between an introductory church organ and an ethereal guitar + clock ticking outro, “Free Spirit” is the high point of the album, a delicious pounding dance track with a masterful building pre-chorus. It gives me goosebumps every time I listen to it. Though I’m still not sure, I think the drumming might be the secret ingredient. Other honorable mentions (besides the tracks mentioned above) include “Give it Up” and “City at War,” a song which echoes the fears of so many towns around the world while simultaneously confronting fears of one’s personal dark side.

But who are they like?

One thing that’s amazing to me is that every review I’ve read mentions different comparisons to other bands—in one place The Police and Phil Collins, in another Pink Floyd and Gotye, in a third Chvrches, Phoenix, and Cat Stevens, and in yet another Pet Shop Boys, MGMT, Passion Pit. I think these offhand comparisons do Fictionist a disservice. Instead of trying to put the band in a box with other groups (which I think is overdone in music criticism anyway; it’s an easy way to talk about the music without actually talking about the music), maybe we should recognize Fictionist as something new that pulls from everything around them to create something original and new.

While I can’t say it’s a perfect album (they haven’t quite worked out how to end songs, the wobbly synth sound in “Leave the Light On” and “Statue in the Stone” gets old fast, and some songs are a little forgettable), I’m glad Fictionist didn’t “give it up”—their “fire’s still burning,” and I’m glad “something told [them they] should hold on.”

Vocab: eponymous, outro, ostinato, pre-chorus

Monday, November 3, 2014

Album Review: Swift’s 1989—otherwise great, a formal and melodic hit-and-miss

Trying to be like the cool kids #TS1989

One week ago, Taylor Swift released her fifth studio album, 1989, and the album is projected to sell more than 1.3 million in the first week alone. The critic’s reviews have been overwhelmingly favorable: see one from Pretty Much Amazing (not a site known for gushing reviews) and two from the Guardian, here and here. I agree with critics that in this album Swift is again doing a great job of letting other people ride her emotions, though of course with the caveat that music is always fiction. The lyrics at very least are up to the standards of her previous albums.

But very few critics talk about the music of the album, besides the usual: it’s not country anymore (which most people already said about the last album, Red). They also take at face value Swift’s claim of 1980s electro-pop influence, which I think is not as present as advertised (more so in some songs, “Welcome to New York” and “Out of the Woods,” than in others). Ann Powers's review of the album does talk a little about the music, specifically talks about Swift’s stellar and unique vocal delivery and a little bit about production. She does not, however, talk about the most basic parts of songwriting: form and melody.

While Swift’s vocal delivery, lyrics, and production are still great, compared to her previous albums, I found many songs on 1989 musically lacking, especially melodically and formally. With a few welcome exceptions, the songs on 1989 have very small melodic ranges with too much rhythmic and melodic repetition. Also, the bridges (those melodic breaks near the end of the song that provides us a welcome musical departure, keeping the chorus fresh) are often either lazy versions of the chorus, or entirely absent. Here’s some specific examples:
  • While “Welcome to New York” uses more than just one note, both the chorus and the verse (especially) are pretty similar and focus on one note.
  • “Out of the Woods” has a two-note chorus (really mostly a one-note chorus), after a verse with a pretty narrow melodic range and lots of rhythmic repetition. The bridge is mostly a version of the chorus, which has already gotten old at that point. I keep waiting for the music to take off at least once, but it never happens.
  • “All You Had To Do Was Stay” has basically a three-note chorus, is very rhythmically repetitive, and uses the same bridge formula as “Out of the Woods”—continuing the chorus’s harmonic motion, dropping out a few instruments, and then adding a slightly altered chorus melody.
  • “Style” is pretty well constructed, with interesting production, but the song asks for a bridge that never materializes.
  • “Clean” is similar to “Style”—it stands out from the rest of the album (because of Imogen Heap’s trademark production), but the lack of a bridge for a musical break really hurts the song, especially as it’s the longest song on the album.
  • “How You Get the Girl” tries to vary the form up with two distinct parts in each the verse and the chorus. However, both verse sections use basically two notes, and the two chorus sections feature three notes and two notes, respectively. Once again, the bridge is just a modified chorus.
  • “Wildest Dreams” is the most like Taylor’s Fearless era, including some characteristic melodic turns. But once again, the bridge is just a modified chorus.
  • “This Love” has basically a two-note chorus, too, but at least the bridge has a new harmonic foundation.
  • The worst for forgettable, lazy songwriting is “I Wish You Would”, which uses a two-note melody with a basically three-note chorus AND the altered-chorus bridge formula. The tight production cannot rescue it’s lack of inventiveness.
I’m not saying that two- or three-note melodies are necessarily bad all the time. In fact, “I Know Places” starts with a three-note verse, but this choice works because 1) the verse has three distinct sections that evolve as the song progresses, and 2) the chorus opens the song up, with expansive, complex, and catchy melody. These narrow-ranging melodies can be used effectively. And chorus-based bridges can be musically effective, but using them  for almost every song on the album shows a lack of creativity. 

But lest you think I think the album is a total wash, here are some other highlights on the album:
  • “Blank Space” is one of the best, with provocative lyrics, an interesting and innovative production, and a bridge that does it’s job.
  • Though “Bad Blood” doesn’t have the best lyrics, Swift uses interesting melodies and plays around with song form, starting with a chorus and employing a pre-chorus. The bridge is a little more interesting than the other bridges on the album, though is still based on the chorus's harmony.
  • From a song-writing perspective, the best track (by far) is “Shake It Off”. There’s a somewhat harmonically ambiguous verse (varied throughout the song), followed by a pre-chorus build and a catchy chorus with a wide melodic range and that is easily varied and extended. I’m not sure about the rap section, but even if one thinks it doesn’t fit the rest of the song, at least it was unexpected and breaks up the chorus, serving as a bridge. And using the bass sax instead of electric bass was a masterful touch.
Unsurprisingly, the most complex songs melodically and formally ("Shake It Off" and "Blank Space") are the most popular on iTunes. In conclusion, here again are my three reasons why Taylor Swift is a good song writer from my Red review, and why 1989 did not quite live up to them:
  1. Melody: This time, the hooks are not always memorable.
  2. Control of repetition: As you can see above, Swift repeats too much in many of the songs. Frequent two-note and three-note melodies with overly repetitive rhythms and lazy bridges do not make a musically stellar album. 
  3. Instrumentation and texture: For the most part, 1989 does a good job at varying instrumentation and texture, but the album is inferior to her previous albums in this respect. One example is the overdone overdub high note/scream, used on the majority of the tracks.
You proved you’re a good songwriter with passionate voice, Taylor Swift, but after you get those great lyrics, please try a little harder on your melody and song construction, instead of simply relying on the music production to breathe life into the songs. I'm looking forward to hearing more good songs on the next album. Until then, I've got a few good tracks to tide me over.

Vocab: melody, harmony, lyrics, bridge, hook, instrumentation, texture

Monday, October 27, 2014

Rerun: Scary Art Music

Note: Maybe I haven't been blogging long enough to warrant a post rerun, but this post first appeared on October 28, 2012.

Phantom of the Opera – neither scary nor artsy

At this time of year, people are thinking about scary music, so I've put together my top five list of scary art music:

5. Ligeti's Lux Aeterna - I don't think this music was meant to be scary, but gained that connotation after it was used in conjunction with the black monolith in Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey.

4. Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring - I've been thinking about this work a lot, as this weekend UNC–Chapel Hill hosted an international musicology conference dedicated to the Rite and the Carolina Performing Arts series is programming Rite-related concerts all season long

3. Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique, movement 5: "Dream of a Witches Sabbath" - Berlioz evokes a trip to hell in which his ex-beloved dances an "infernal orgy" at his own funeral. You can't beat the lengthy parody of the Dies Irae, a chant from the liturgical Requiem for the dead.

2. Crumb's Black Angels - An electric string quartet with dark overtones of just about everything evil, reportedly finished on Friday the 13th.

1. Penderecki's Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima - a pretty amazing work for string orchestra written with graphic notation and producing amazing, never-heard-before sounds.

Honorable mentions: Mussorgsky's Night on Bald Mountain (also check out the disco version), and Saint-Saƫns's Danse Macabre.

This brings up an important question: what does it mean for music to be scary? Is it ugly? Microtonal? Dissonant? Does it feature screeching violins (the fiddle has long been characterized as the Devils music)? Does it mean sudden contrasts that might startle you? Instruments mimicking scary things like clouds of insects or bats? Well, it's complicated. All five are scary in their own way.

I will be the first to say I'm being overly reductive of these five "scary" works. All of these works have sections that could easily be described as beautiful, probably the opposite of scary. What is very interesting, though, is that all five either are given a programmatic element, or had one thrust upon them. Perhaps we need that extra touch of reality to let the music set our imagination loose. Or maybe the composer was able to create a link between their music and our emotions associated with the scary thing.

Another trait all these pieces share is that they are pretty much each composer's most popular work. Coincidence? Maybe not. Ever try and watch a horror movie without the music? Not very scary. It turns out that we're used to having composers manipulate our emotions with music, and we like it. And when composers can manipulate you with as strong emotion as fear, people will remember and want to hear it again. If it's a really good piece, as these are, the fear will come again.

What do you think makes music scary? Do you have your own nominations for scary art music?

Vocab: programmatic, liturgical

[Note: musicologists often prefer the term "art" music instead of "classical" music, mostly because to them, Classical music is a specific period of art music (c.1750-1825)]

Monday, October 20, 2014

Mouth Music for the People: Capercaillie, Scots-Gaelic Culture as a National Symbol, and the Global Celtic Stage, Part 2

This is part two of a two-part series. Read the first part here.

Last week, I discussed the history of Scottish nationalism and the rise of Scots-Gaelic culture as an alternative national symbol in the 20th century. Into this scene in the mid-1980s stepped Capercaillie, a traditional band born of the folk revival and composed at its inception mostly of musicians from the Gaelic-speaking west coast and islands, including organizer Donald Shaw and frontwoman Karen Matheson. They drew their name from their own land, after a type of pheasant that lives only in Scotland. Similar to Altan in Ireland, their native Gaelic-speaking birthplace was their inspiration. Though drawing from specifically local sources, Capercaillie’s sound was a musical hybrid, using contemporary Irish models as much as Scottish ones for their instrumentation and musical arrangement. Their inclusion of bouzouki, an instrument of Greek origin introduced into Irish music in the 1970s, is indicative of their connection to the folk revival as opposed to older traditions. Noticeably lacking were the tartans and Highland bagpipes. 

Taking traditional to a new place, in a new way

Capercaillie’s early albums, Cascades and Crosswinds, consisted entirely of traditional dance music and locally specific Scots-Gaelic language songs. To get an idea of where Capercaillie started musically, here’s a “Puirt a Beul” (Scot-Gaelic for mouth music) from Crosswinds, a traditionally unaccompanied vocal genre to which Capercaillie has added instrumentation, included limited synthesizers (mostly as drones). 

A stylistic turning point for Capercaillie came when the group was asked to write music for The Blood is Strong in 1988, a television series about the worldwide legacy of the Scottish Gaels. For this production, Capercaillie added electric bass, drumset, and heavy use of synthesizers to their usual repertoire of Scots-Gaelic songs and dance. They were probably following the example of the Irish family group Clannad and Clannad’s wayward sister Enya, who had just produced her own very popular television soundtrack The Celts. Clannad at the time had mostly abandoned traditional melodies and production, and was on their way to helping create the New Age music scene and culture.

Why did both Capercaillie and Clannad adopt popular styles and the English language? Most likely, it was the lack of sufficient support base for them at home. Gaelic speakers were few, but produced a disproportionate number of musicians (1). As a result, artists and their labels sought to reach out first across the Scottish and Irish diaspora, especially in North America, and then onward. This complex negotiation of style resulted in local artists catering to international tastes. According to Martin Stokes and Philip Bohlman, white America has played the most significant role in the shaping of musical output of these small music-rich fringes of the Gaelic-speaking world (2). Instead of a pub, the community is now a virtual one, into which the listener projects themselves onto the Celtic musical imagery. This new musical product, developed on the world stage, is then marketed locally and globally as a symbol of the nation, perhaps as much an invented tradition as kilts. Meanwhile, the non-diaspora-specific “New Age” culture, describing an imaginary ancient past connected with an alternative spirituality, fed on the Celtic folk movement and claimed anyone who wished to participate.

Capercaillie, however, did not go in Clannad and Enya’s New Age direction, at least musically. Instead of abandoning Scot-Gaelic songs and traditional dance music entirely, they connected to the middle-class Celtic world by updating their sound with modern production and instruments. Additionally, in 1991 for their fourth studio album Delirium, they added a third type of song to their repertoire—original songs in English written in rock-popular style. Perhaps their use of English was inspired by the success of the Scots-Gaelic rock band Runrig, which achieved international success only when they switched to mostly English for the album The Cutter and Clan in 1987. Scotland’s taste in music was actually not that different than the UK’s, and the Scottish spoke mostly English. This strategy seems to have worked— four of Delirium‘s thirteen tracks have English lyrics, and the album was their first major financial success. Capercaillie’s choice of audience is made clearer by the content of the original songs on Delirium—they were all overtly political, timed just before the 1992 elections when Scottish autonomy was making a renewed effort. For Capercaillie, the United Kingdom shaped their aesthetic more than the global Celtic sound.


“Waiting for the Wheel to Turn” from Delirium ties the oppressions of the political moment in the 1990s with oppressions in Scottish history. It makes reference to the Highland clearances of eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, suggesting that once again the rich men from the south are taking away Scottish (and specifically Scots-Gaelic) land and culture. Scottish rural town culture has special emphasis, referred to as the “soul” of the land, and the lyrics suggest that the rich landlords are “taking it all away”, “pulling the roots from a dying age.” The song is a call to action, as the lyrics suggest that the Gaelic people “feel the breeze of the storm to come,” and that these dispossessed people living on the rocks of the coast may finally get the better of their oppressors, when the “wheel” comes around.

We would be hard-pressed to find any musical connection to Scots-Gaelic tradition in “Waiting.” That is, at least until a brief whistle and fiddle duet at the end (about the 4-minute mark). This was new. The inclusion of traditional-dance inspired instrumentals is the most interesting and novel element of these English-language songs, and the importance and complexity of these interludes grew as Capercaillie continued to produce recordings through the 1990s. These high-energy solos replace what would normally be a pop-style electric guitar or saxophone solo. They serve as a powerful reminder of locality and roots that differentiate Capercaillie from Clannad, who preferred pop-style solos. Capercaillie’s folk-style instrumentals, in turn, may have influenced the Irish popular group the Corrs, as this type of instrumental became a major characteristic of the Corrs’ style.

The Scottish autonomy movement had a major setback in the 1992 elections, but the political fire was still charged, and Capercaillie continued to produce English-language political music in their next albums, the bluntly-titled Get Out and Secret People, alongside the dance medleys and Scots-Gaelic songs. Examples include and “Four Stone Walls” and “Outlaws” which treat the common situation of poor Gaelic speakers who are deprived of their traditional jobs and forced out of their ancestral houses when they can no longer pay the rent, and “Black Fields” which deals specifically with environmental and economic destruction resulting from the exploitation of Scottish oil, a major cause of the political rift between England and Scotland. The common underlying theme is anti-modernization, a theme that plays both to the middle-class New Age Celticism and the lower-class Scots-Gaelic political movement.

Capercaillie’s album To the Moon brought the influence of New Age spirituality to their Scottish nationalist music. “Claire in Heaven” from To the Moon exemplifies all of the features of Capercaillie’s topics in this period: a mix of neo-pagan and Christian religion, anti-modern economics, and environmentalism. “Claire” is told from the point of view of a girl who has died and gone to heaven after living for only a few days; from her perch, she surveys the world, lamenting its dismal state but hoping for improvement when she is reincarnated. The lyrics criticize the modern lifestyle, epitomized by economic competition: “you tear, you part, you claw.” There is also a stab at the oil industry and Europe’s nuclear waste dumps in Scotland: “I gaze from poison sea to poison land.” The idea of reincarnation is harder to place, and is probably drawn in from the Eastern religious current in New Age spiritualism. Ultimately, this is not a pessimistic song; Claire still smiles because she sees that things can be brighter in the future, another call to political action. As you can hear, the popular and traditional musical elements are increasingly seamlessly intertwined.


“Claire” also demonstrates Capercaillie’s musical hybridity, despite their Scottish nationalistic image—the songwriter is bouzouki player Manus Lunny, who joined the band at time of the production of Delirium and who is actually Irish. Lunny brought to the band (and this song) the rhythm-heavy percussive style of string playing from the Irish folk revival. The Irish bagpipes are also prominent in “Claire.” 

To conclude: paving the road for the resurgence of Gaelic culture

The 1990s, during Scotland’s political turmoil, was the height of Capercaillie’s creativity and popularity. Their most recent albums Roses and Tears in 2008 and At the Heart of it All in 2012 seem to be step back to the days before Delirium with an emphasis on acoustic instruments and traditional tunes. Even the few original songs are in a more traditional style than the 1990s songs, though still very political.

Still, Capercaillie’s music and image, though devoid of kilts and Highland pipes, articulates Scottish nationalism in a new way. Their overall style is one of global Celtic culture, which has been reflected back to Scotland and embraced as authentic. Their juxtaposition of different genres of music—English rock songs, traditional Scots-Gaelic songs, and traditional dance tunes—enables them to communicate their nationalistic views while tying them to the oppressed Scot-Gaelic, their symbol for Scotland as a whole. With the English-language songs, they make political, modern connections; with the Scots-Gaelic language songs, they make connections with a past culture; and with the dance songs they connect the past with the transnational present. They’ve taken their esoteric “mouth music” and made it accessible to the rest of the UK and the world. Perhaps the recent official revival of Scots-Gaelic language as a cultural symbol with bilingual road signs and language education initiatives would have never happened without the popularity of musical groups such as Capercaillie, who managed to lift a dying language and music out of obscurity and into the national and international consciousness. Maybe the wheel is turning.

Vocab: bouzouki, track, drone

(1) Simon Frith, “Popular music policy and the articulation of regional identities: The case of Scotland and Ireland,” Soundscapes: Journal on Media Culture 2 (July 1999).
(2) Martin Stokes and Philip Bohlman, ed., Celtic Modern: Music at the Global Fringe (Lanham, Maryland: Scarecrow Press, 2003).