Three years ago I was a cover band musician, playing in clubs and pubs for people who were mostly drunk. It wasn’t ideal, but it paid the rent and now – in retrospect, I think it’s one of the best things that happened to me.
Welcome to this week’s article, where I discuss how this ‘troubadour life’ helped me in my musical undertakings, by understanding the foundations of music.
I trained as a bass guitarist and because I played bass in quite a number of local bands, I got to take on a lot of genres ranging from pop to rnb to rock, jazz standards and even something resembling Romanian ethnic popular music. This really opened my musical horizons, being that one of the main differences between musical styles is in the rhythm department.
After a few years I could finally say that I understood how the bass worked and that in turn translated into understanding how music works and more specifically how all the different instruments fit together. And there is one aspect in particular, of the way bass players work, that I want to approach here.
And that is the fact that we very rarely play from a musical score with all the notes already written on staffs. Instead we use chord charts. They contain the chords of a song – hence the name, but those chords are also divided schematically into bars and sections. And if needed, the melody lines can also be added. This is enough for us to know what to play and it also gives more artistic freedom to musicians.
This way of doing things led me to probably the most important ‘revelation’ I had, if I may call it this. That is understanding what a song really is. What I mean by that is: what part of a composition is the song and what part is musical decoration? This may seem like a very simple and obvious thing, but if you’ll follow me until the end, you’ll see that this is certainly not the case.
One of the most basic techniques for any sculptor who works in stone or marble is to first create a clay or wax model of the work. That’s obviously because these materials are very easy to shape and reshape and they’re also much cheaper. The sculptor’s model has equivalents in other arts as well. In painting it is the sketch, in architecture it’s the plan, in film it’s the script.
But what is the equivalent in music, our topic of interest here? Some people might say it’s the musical score or the chord chart. But that wouldn’t be entirely accurate, because these are representations of a song after it’s created and would be more analogue to a picture of a painting than a sketch.
The model in music is represented by the chords and the main melodic lines which unite everything into a coherent whole – the song. And because this art is not tangible and static like sculpture or painting – the song does not reside somewhere specific, but it exists rather in the minds and hearts of all those who listen or perform it. This is where music and mathematics intersect – an abstract space which is part of our collective minds and which probably transcends them altogether.
I’m getting a bit too philosophical, I know, so let me give you an example of what I mean.
HANS ZIMMER’S TIME
One of the greatest soundtrack composers of all time is Hans Zimmer. His work has been revolutionary in film music and chances are the people reading this already know who he is. One of his best works is the music he did for Christopher Nolan’s Inception, and most notably the song called Time, which is right at the end of the whole album, as the dramatic epilogue.
Here is the original work. Epic :)
Now, if we take a look at some of the versions which have since appeared online – performed by various artists, we’ll see that even though the interpretations differ in a lot of ways, there are still similar elements to them. Here are a few examples:
So what is the common denominator here? Again, it’s the chord progressions: Am Em G D and Am Cmaj7(or Em/C) G D and the three main melodic lines or themes. The first theme is played by the string section: CBAE GF#EB BAGD F#EDA. The second theme is Jonny Marr’s guitar, a very repetitive, almost hypnotic three notes which go ABB and afterwards GAA for the D chord. And the third theme goes to the huge brass section – so huge that we now have the term Inception horns: CEG F#B BDF# EA.
This may seem a bit basic to a lot of people, but I illustrate it because despite its simplicity – or maybe because of it – it’s a very powerful thing once you truly grasp it.
This is what a song really is. It’s the elementary parts which can be played on any instrument and in any situation, but still retain the same identity. In a way it’s similar to human beings growing old and changing, but still being their same selves.
And we can even go one more step down the rabbit hole and talk about the power of the theme – the basic element of any song.
MUSICAL THEMES – THE BUILDING BLOCKS
While we’re still in the soundtrack department let’s take a look at another great masterpiece of film music – John Williams’ genius Duel of the Fates from the not-as-great Phantom’s Menace movie. For all those who’ve lived in a musical cave for the past 15 years, here it is:
On closer listening of this song, we can hear that it’s really made up of variations on three main themes – masterfully done variations I would add. The first theme is the dramatic choir which starts the song. It’s actually not a melodic line, but chords made up of the different voices: Em F#5 Em Cm. The second theme is played by the strings right after the choir: GAGF#E and goes throughout the song adding a lot suspense. And the third theme is ‘borrowed’ by all the woodwinds and the brass, and somehow Williams can make even a bassoon sound menacing with it: EF#GABAGF#E and EbEF#GABAGF#.
The same thing can be spotted in another great work of genius – Beethoven’s 5th Symphony. But I’ll let you, the reader, have the joy of discovering that magnificent opus on your own.
THE ESSENCE OF THINGS
So you see, a very large and complex musical piece such as Duel of the Fates may seem intimidating to anyone who wants to understand its mysteries. But now with this key, we can unlock its secrets. And more than that, we can integrate this knowledge in our own compositions.
This is where the talent and inspiration comes in: creating the theme of a work is the most difficult part of music and the most important. Here, there are no rules, no conventions, no patterns. It’s just you and the great unknown dueling it out and trying to listen to each other. Creating the theme is akin to meditation, because it’s truly a journey within yourself, a dialogue with your inner most profound being and indeed with the Universe.
The theme is really the essence of your musical work and the essence of the message that work wants to convey. And so it’s not something to be taken lightly. You must not leave it to chance or to ‘randomness’, but at the same time you must not let your personality take over and block art from speaking to you. It is a delicate balance indeed, but the complexity of such a task creates a fascination in the minds of musicians, fascination which makes an individual take on such a difficult life – the life of an artist.