Measure for Measure: Broken Promises
Writing a column is not unlike writing a song. First you look within and find the abyss by looking back. So you cry O Lord, give me an angle! Please I’ll be good!
Then you remember a weird tip: just listen to the artists in the next issue and jot down everything that comes to mind. Anything. Very quickly, your inner critic falls asleep and, as if by magic, your subject appears.
Keith Richards clarifies the parallel:
“I never deliberately sit down to write songs. I sit down with a guitar or at the piano and play my favorite Buddy Holly or Otis Redding songs, and hopefully something suddenly happens. and you are on your own track.
A week ago it was working. I sat down to listen to the songwriters featured in this issue and wondered, “What do they have in common besides talent, beautiful vocals, and polished musicianship?” The answer, I believe, is life. Without it, you are nowhere. With that, you have magic.
But what is life? And how do you get it? This is where it hit me: one of the most important life skills in songwriting is also the least often discussed. I’m talking about the tension between promises and delivery.
Each song combines rhythm, harmony, melody and lyrics. But there is a subtext in each of these elements: aanticipation. When you play a chord, you’re making a promise, implying that you’re going somewhere next. However, promises are made to be broken. It’s no sin to do so, as unexpected twists add life to your song.
The moral? Don’t break your promises to the Lord, but do it regularly by writing songs. A few examples should help you.
In the 1940s, the swing was king. Then came Chuck Berry. “There’s a backbeat, you can’t lose it,” he sang, and the river of pop swung in a new direction. After giving a boost to rock ‘n’ roll, the setback—whose accents “2” and “4” in a four-beat measure bounced across the Atlantic during the British invasion, then diversified into folk-rock, pop-rock, hard rock, country and metal. Today a beat is strictly in all pop music, from disco to hip-hop to EDM.
Kane Brown, a featured artist on this issue, adds life to “Leave You Alone” with a subtle backbeat. The song, which sounds like a country waltz, really has two beats subdivided into three per measure, with an accent on beat “two”: “I know that I don’t say you are | beau-ti-ful e-that’s enoughchants like “One-ti-ta, TWO-ti-ta,” a subtle break that plays nicely with genre norms.
Syncope is another way to liven up the rhythm. Just ignore a expected beat and unexpectedly accentuate the offset. Consider the bass-riff intro to Bonnie Raitt’s “Thing Called Love”: | (A) & two three (four)-& | One. Two (Three four). Syncopation, playing with your expectations, is a salty seasoning here.
The tension built in the next song is more subtle.
Blondie’s “Rapture” begins with a funky backbeat. Above this predictable scheme, we find a melody of surprising contrasts: First, on “| Toe___ to toe | » we hear a square, rhythm “1, 2, 3-& 4”. On “dancing | very close”, the rhythm changes to “3, 4 | 1, 2, 3.” The offbeat beat repeats, building anticipation for the return of the original square beat. The promise is kept on “Wall___ to wall”.
Use of “shifted rhythms” pickup beatswho create forward motionterm coined by jazz teacher Hal Galper. Just think of forward motion as another sign of life. But in “Rapture,” the promised return of the first beat is just as important.
“Rapture” also makes melodic promises, which reach an ecstatic realization in bar 17 on “Rap – ture”. The promise? A fatal small-scale descent from Sol to Do. You don’t need theory to understand. Just listen and feel the chills.
“Rapture” uses predictable scale steps as a long-range backbone for the melody. The theory calls this a “step progression.” Songs based on step progressions, such as “Blackbird,” tend to be popular, but you won’t find much about this technique on YouTube. In today’s crochet-dominated world, that’s a shame.
Consider the enduring classic, “Teach Your Children.” Here the progression of the steps climbs to the top from “Sol” to “Do” (“Sol-La-Ti-Do”). The first step from “G” to “A” consumes three measures: “| You__ | who are on the road|__”.
“To have to have a codedclimbs to the top, “Do”, but it’s a bit early to complete the trip, so Graham Nash repeats the ascent, then plaintively backs up with “Do-Ti” on “that you can live by.” The semitone descending to the tone of the 7 scale denotes desire.
The chorus (“Teach…”) begins confidently on the tonic “Do,” striking a reassuring note of accomplishment. Promise kept!
Gospel contains a cornucopia of startling changes. Listen to “Stolen Fruit” by Tank and the Bangas and start an album of your favorite progressions. One such award can be found in “Twelve-Thirty” by The Mamas & the Papas.
“Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re going to get,” Forrest Gump said. The songs are similar. As songwriters, we harness the tension between the promises of chocolate and the unpredictable toppings to bring our songs to life.
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