Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Post on MMM: Card’s Songmaster: the Power of Songs and Negative Emotions in Mormon Music

My weekly post comes a little early this week, and you can find it on the Modern Mormon Men blog. The post is kind of a book review of Orson Scott Card's novel Songmaster, a book in which music plays an vital role. I also use the book's message about music as a jumping off point to talk about emotions in music, specifically negative emotions connected with music, and what that might mean for the music of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or the Mormons, of which Card is a member. You can leave comments about the post here below.

Enjoy, and have a happy Thanksgiving!

Monday, November 24, 2014

Science: musicians use their brain better

File this one under music advocacy. TED-Ed produced a snazzy video that presents a summary of neuroscientists’ studies on the brains of musicians. The results? Simply listening to music uses a significant portion of the brain, but playing music also involves fine motor skills, meaning this activity uses even more of the brain. Also, musicians have better “executive function” meaning they plan and strategize better, and pay greater attention to detail. Also, musicians store memories more efficiently. The video makes the claim that the brain training acquired playing musical instruments can be applied to other activities. While I hope this is true, this seems the least substantiated claim. Certainly, video games meant to train brains really only train your brains to do that video game. But playing an instrument may be better.

So why are we cutting music programs from schools? (Also, for the neuroscientists, what about singers?)

Enjoy (5 minutes):

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