Posts tagged ‘music’

Dmitri Tymoczko: A Geometry of Music

Monday, April 25th, 2011

I have always been a sucker for music theory and analysis. The combination of the fairly strict rules underpinning the way in which music works with the creative freedom expressed on top of them is really appealing to me. It is probably true of any art, but music is the one I know best and it feels especially true there. This new book promised “a revolutionary approach to music theory”, which set off my bullshit detector a bit, but everything else about it (blurbs, published by Oxford University Press) checked out, so I gave it a shot.

And it was great. There is a lot of exciting new stuff here, but Tymoczko doesn’t claim to have replaced the entire field of music theory, just to have discovered an additional way of looking at music that provides interesting insights, and he totally succeeds there. A quick overview, focusing on the stuff that was interesting to me:

n-part counterpoint can be visualized as the movement of a point through an n-dimensional space. Pretty obvious stuff in retrospect, especially if you have a math background, but it lets him do some neat analytical things, especially when he gets to 4+–note chords. Also, that n-dimensional space repeats in a very interesting way (the 2-dimensional case is a Möbius strip; the higher-dimensional ones are even weirder).

There’s a continuum all the way from local 2-part counterpoint to long-range modulation. Basically, Tymoczko is looking at music as much as he can through the concept of efficient voice-leading (transitioning from one set of pitches to another with each individual part moving as little as possible). In the small, this is about melodic counterpoint. In the middle, the same principles can be applied to harmonic motion (and he shows how a lot of chromatic music from Schubert on is best analyzed from this viewpoint). And in the large scale, you can treat scales (and therefore tonalities) as being akin to 7-note (or so) chords and do exactly the same sort of analysis. So for example, your standard modulation from C major to G major can be thought of as following a voice leading from C-D-E-F-G-A-B to C-D-E-F♯-G-A-B. Obviously there are qualitative differences as you move along this spectrum, but the fact that you can be using similar tools at each scale is really neat.

20th century tonality is a natural evolution of classical tonality, not a clean break. The standard history of music is that tonality slowly got stretched and stretched, as harmony got further and further out, until it reached a breaking point in the early 20th century, where it pretty much split into complete atonality on the one hand, and on the other a “tonality with non-functional harmony” that was qualitatively different from the tonality that came before in that the chords in it, although they were still consonant, had lost much of the semantic meaning that they had had through the 19th century. Tymoczko argues pretty strongly that rather than there being a real break between old and modern conceptions of tonality, the transition is actually relatively smooth, in that early 20th century composers were solving perfectly natural problems that had arisen in perfectly natural ways. These problems, as above, tend to be ones of voice-leading and the relationship between chords and scales. He also draws a compelling line from 19th century harmony through 20th century harmony through jazz harmony to 21st century harmony. Clearly everyone can hear jazzy chords in Debussy, for example, and you can think of it as being kind of a coincidence, but he shows that impressionist composers and jazz musicians were faced with similar musical problems, and solved them in similar ways.

There’s a ton more in here, and pretty much all of it was thought-provoking at the very least and genuinely conception-altering at the best. As far as background needed: although it doesn’t have much in the way of music-theoretical prerequisites (because it is approaching a lot of ideas from a different direction), it probably wouldn’t be that interesting to anyone who wasn’t already interested enough in music theory to have learned the more standard approach (if that makes sense). There’s a bit of math terminology but I don’t think it’s that scary. Highly recommended.

Cardiacs: “Odd Even”

Saturday, November 6th, 2010

Six months ago I made some general comments about the musical vocabulary of Tim Smith (of Cardiacs). Here are some notes on “Odd Even”, a song that illustrates a lot of his standard tricks. The song is on YouTube here and my transcription is here (PDF file).

The form could not be simpler: three repetitions of verse (a 7-bar phrase repeated twice) and chorus (8 or 12 bars; in the second and third choruses the last 4 bars are repeated). The third verse is instrumental.

The introduction (which foreshadows the end of the verse phrase) is a straight-out “Smith cadence” (♭III–v–I in the key of E), which already renders it unclear whether we’re in the key of G major (starting on the tonic and repeatedly raising the tension) or E major (starting on the flat mediant and repeatedly resolving the tension). This ambiguity will persist throughout the song.

The start of the verse seems to resolve the question by claiming that we’re in G major, and could not refer more explicitly to the Lydian mode, with a C♯ over the G chord. Already this is a hint that we might be moving back to the sharp side soon. There’s an interesting clash between that C♯ of the melody and the C♮ of the C chord that arrives on the second bar. The harmony then moves through A and E back to G, apparently establishing that E is subordinate to G—but then immediately repeats the introductory Smith cadence twice, reestablishing the ambiguity.

The phrase rhythm of the first verse phrase is also quite interesting. From the melody alone it looks like a pretty straightforward [4+4]+4 beats, but the harmonic rhythm, as well as the way that the instruments enter during its first statement, implies 6+6.

The chorus starts by moving fairly strongly to the flat side of G, going all the way to E♭ before slowly relaxing back to G, and right through G all the way to Bm and E again. The feeling of resolution provided by G is lessened this time by it happening for only two beats on the second half of a bar, rather than lasting a whole measure as it did before. The melody here is really nice; a drone-like D is continually returned to on the bottom (it’s a common tone of all the scales passed through, including the E Mixolydian implied by the final destination of E) while the upper implied voice of the line descends from B♭to A to G, then returns up to B♮ and G♯ to both chromatically fill that third and also strongly establish the “surprising” E (not so surprising in reality since the G–Bm–E sequence has been repeating the whole song).

The chorus ends by following yet another path from G to E, this time by repeating the triple plagal cadence G–D–A–E and sitting on the final E for an additional bar. That relaxation of the harmonic tension certainly makes it seem like E was the final destination after all—but when the next verse starts up again, back in G, it feels like a return to the tonic rather than a jump away from it.

The instrumental verse suddenly triples the melodic speed, and it’s interesting to see such a relatively hyper solo in the middle of what is otherwise a fairly sedate song. I wouldn’t have thought of it when I first heard the song, but after listening to a lot of jazz in the last month, the solo has sort of a bebop feel to it, at least when you look at it on the page and imagine it being played by a saxophone rather than by a keyboard.

It looks complicated but it is largely doing the same things found elsewhere in this song or Smith’s work in general—emphasis on that Lydian C♯, liberal use of whole-tone scales, and near the end a gleeful insistence on B♭, a note dissonant against both G major and E major.

The song ends with a final chorus, repeating that G–D–A–E progression four times in a long exhalation and landing with relative finality on E. So maybe it was in E major all along? But I think the fight between the two potential tonics the whole time was a charade; the whole point is that both G and E are equally important, and to proclaim one of them superior to the other is to force one point of view on a song that is all about presenting two.

Bud Powell: “Cleopatra’s Dream”

Monday, October 11th, 2010

I’ve always liked the sound of jazz but have never been as interested in it as rock or classical. Recently my interest has flared up a bit, and I’ve been trying to make up for lost time by listening to more of it with active ears. The standard approved way to work on your analytical technique seems to be to make transcriptions of classical recorded solos, so I picked up the first random jazz CD that was at hand, Bud Powell’s The Scene Changes, and sat down to transcribe the first number, Cleopatra’s Dream. Unfortunately 1) it’s a very fast tune (quarter note = 240), 2) it’s in A flat minor (that’s seven flats), and 3) Bud Powell, like I suppose any good pianist, uses both hands. So maybe it was not the best song to transcribe first. Nonetheless I ended up with something that is at least moderately accurate, especially in the right hand, and it can be found here (PDF file).

I did learn a bit from this exercise about how Powell improvises, and it was good practice for my ears, so it was certainly a success on those fronts. If anyone has suggestions or corrections, especially actual jazz musicians who can tell me, for example, “this line you sketched out in the left hand is not what anyone would ever actually play, he must be doing this instead”, I’d love to hear them.

(By the way, I noted on Twitter that I hear this as being in Ab minor (7 flats), and not G# minor (5 sharps), which you’d think would be more “simple”, and I think I realized why. The leading tone is an important part of the scale, and the major dominant chord that contains it is an important chord; and it’s much easier to think about a V chord that’s an Eb major (Eb, G, Bb) than a D# major (D#, F##, A#). So I think I chose the right key after all.)

1960s Polish music videos

Sunday, June 27th, 2010

A few weeks ago I was browsing the web looking for fake Beatles songs, one of my favorite musical genres, and unexpectedly happened upon the awesome video for “Nie zadzieraj nosa” by the Polish group Czerwone Gitary. A quick glance at the sidebar made it clear that I would spend the next few days poring through a treasure trove of old Polish music videos. Here are the highlights of my findings, with the understanding that I know nothing about the Polish language or culture. If you don’t have all day to watch them all, my personal favorites are in bold.

“Nie zadzieraj nosa” itself really is a superbly crafted and performed fake-Beatles song. It’s perhaps just a touch too regular to be a real Lennon-McCartney, but all the idioms are spot on. Just watching their evident joy (especially the guy on the right) at performing music this awesome makes me smile.

Czerwone Gitary apparently still exists and is one of the most popular Polish bands of all time, but unfortunately for me they seemed to grow out of their faux-Beatles phase pretty quickly and transition into more of a folk-rock style. Another 60s band that seems to have followed a similar trajectory, with even more of a folk influence, is Trubadurzy. “Znamy sie tylko z widzenia” is worth watching just for the bass balalaika and (slightly) fancy footwork, but the video I’m obsessed with is “Kasia”. The song itself is a great earworm, a simple six-line verse sung over and over (with different words), and I can’t get over the charm of the video – the cinematography somehow making it seem like they’re all six inches tall, the fact that it takes five seconds for them to decide where the beat is despite the fact that they’re lip-syncing, the apparently terrified bass player, the barely-adequate dance steps. I must have already watched it thirty times. Trubadurzy seems to have then gone through a brief more rocky phase (“Usmiechajcie sie dziewczeta”) before descending into gloopy folkiness.

Another contemporary band worth checking out is Skaldowie, featuring a charmingly nerdy heartthrob. “Medytacje wiejskiego listonosza “ is rather Monkees-like both in its song and its video, while the video for “Śpiewam bo muszę” reminds me of the Monkees again, but in some sort of weird dystopia. The singer pulls a prank on everyone by dressing up in a polar bear suit… then removes its head while solemnly declaiming the rest of the song. Righto.

Perhaps the most reliably entertaining videos of the bunch for me belong to Alibabki, a group of six women singers with rotating membership. “Kiedyk pasła bydło” seems like a rocked-up version of a traditional tune or something, including those awesome piercing open Eastern European vocal harmonies, but its most arresting feature is the occasional banshee shriek, which I assume is meant to be laughter because it is always followed by a broad and very unconvincing smile. My favorite is “Niech wie jak jest”, with a very nice bittersweet chord progression and a gently burbling accompaniment that somehow reminds me of early R.E.M.

Most of the groups here seem to have lasted forever, or at least decades, constantly changing their musical style to fit with the times (which makes them less interesting to me once they hit the 1970s). I wonder if this is at all correlated with Poland being a Communist state then, or if it’s just sampling bias. The best example is Czesław Niemen, “arguably the most acclaimed Polish singer of all time”, whose career you can follow from a Twist and Shout-style raveup (“Ciuciubabka”, featuring Alibabki again — with the bonus that you can pretending they’re singing “Chewbacca”) to It’s A Man’s World-style wailing (“Io Senza Lei”) to electric gospel (“Jednego serca “) to early electronica (“Mleczna Droga”).

These are the videos that grabbed me the most, but this is just the tip of the iceberg — there are literally hundreds more. Go spend a day checking them out; I’m moving on to Yugoslavia.

Cardiacs: musical vocabulary

Sunday, May 9th, 2010

It’s been a while since I first posted about Cardiacs but I’ve been fitfully taking some notes and doing some transcribing, and I should post some of it before I forget about it entirely. If I list a song here without a video link you can probably find it in the previous post.

Although a lot of the music of Tim Smith (leader and main songwriter of Cardiacs) might seem pretty random, he has a pretty consistent vocabulary that makes it easier to get a handle on his songs after you’ve heard a few of them. Going through his oeuvre, here are the things that stand out to me:

Melodic movement by whole tones. One common consequence is the use of chord sequences involving I, ♭VII, and ♭VI (think “All Along the Watchtower” for one classic example). Even more common is the next item:

Use of the Lydian scale. That’s a scale on the white notes if you start on F. Its distinguishing characteristic is that it starts with three whole-tone steps (F-G-A-B) rather than two whole-tone steps followed by a semitone (F-G-A-B♭). Smith really loves that sharp fourth and it shows up all over the place in his music.

v – I and ♭III – v – I cadences. These are sort of related to whole-tone melodic movement as well. If you play a normal V – I cadence (say, B major to E major) but use a flatted seventh instead of a leading tone (D♮ instead of D♯ in this case), so that you’re moving by a whole step instead of a semitone to get to the tonic note, you get a v – I cadence instead (B minor to E major), which has a much more ambiguous quality. In Cardiacs songs, this frequently comes in the context of the progression ♭III – v – I (e.g., G – Bm – E), which has quite an unstable feel. Often the ♭III has been heavily tonicized, which can make the sudden shift feel like the rug is being pulled out from under you; when repeated, it can also create the impression of shifting back and forth between two tonics, never fully coming to rest on one or the other. “Odd Even”, for example, is fundamentally based on a G – Bm – E progression, and it’s hard to decide whether to take G or E as the key of the song. The coda of “Dirty Boy” is another classic example that just repeats this progression over and over.

Quick-changing chords, often every other beat and accompanied by their dominants. The harmonies can often move at a dizzying pace, but because Smith usually precedes or follows a chord with one a fifth away, you get a little more stability and each chord at least has a bit of context to it. “Anything I Can’t Eat” is a classic example (sorry about the bad recording).

Hemiolas and other rhythmic ambiguity. A hemiola is when you take a six-beat-long phrase and go back and forth between treating it as two groups of three and three groups of two, creating a sort of rhythmic pun that throws the listener off. Smith uses explicit hemiolas (“Gibber and Twitch” and “Too Many Irons in the Fire” both switch from 3/4 to 6/8 mid-chorus) but is also happy to use any other technique he can to disturb the perceived meter of the song.

Tempo shifts, particularly a slow last chorus. It’s astonishing how effective this is, given its relative crudity — just shift down a gear entering the final chorus and have everybody sing along, and the majesty of the song doubles. There are probably ten Cardiacs songs that do this, though it never seems to get old; the classic example to me is “Big Ship”.

I am probably the first person to ever compare Tim Smith to the classical composer Olivier Messiaen, but one thing they do have in common is a very personal musical vocabulary (in Messaien’s case, it’s things like birdsong and harmonies built on top of palindromic modes). In both cases, initial experiences can be rather befuddling, but once you start hearing the common building blocks from piece to piece, the broader context helps in making sense of each one.

Next up, a case study of one Cardiacs song.

Richard Taruskin: The Oxford History of Western Music, volume 1

Sunday, March 28th, 2010

One of my 2010 projects is to read this 4000 page, 5 volume history of Western classical music. It got outstanding reviews when it was published in 2005, and last year it was released as a reasonably-priced set of paperbacks, and when I finally got to browse them in the bookstore I was impressed enough to make the investment in time and money.

I’ve just finished volume 1, which takes us up to 1600, so I’m pretty much on track to finish this year (I figure my pace will go up once I get to the music I’m much more familiar with, about halfway through volume 2). It was very interesting, especially since I didn’t know a lot about the early evolution of classical music already.

Despite the fact that the work as a whole is thousands of pages long, Taruskin clearly intends this to be read front to back as a narrative; it’s not a reference, or even really a textbook. This has many advantages and a few disadvantages. One nice thing (to me) is that it is clearly written with some subjectivity; although of course he is writing a history, the author isn’t afraid to inject his own opinions on occasion, which makes it a much more interesting read than it could be. The biggest disadvantage to me is that it’s not as easy to use as a reference as a textbook would be. If he introduces some new term, it’s not going to be in boldface or set off in a sidebar; if you run into it again later and forget its meaning, you’ll have to flip around looking for its definition (and it’s not always in the index). This was a real issue for me in this volume because I’m unfamiliar with most pre-1700 musical jargon. On the other hand, I’m reading it for pleasure, not so I can pass an exam, so it wasn’t a huge deal.

He makes a big point about this actually being a history of written music, which is very different from being a history of music; we really don’t know a lot about pre-literate performance, or even a ton about the performance of the works we have scores of. And of course a lot of written music has been lost, or even intentionally destroyed (grr). So it was neat to read about the ways in which we have to piece together knowledge about what music was really like during this period.

The material itself I found really interesting. I wish I got a slightly better sense of the evolution of certain musical vocabulary from a more theoretical point of view. For example, somewhere during the hundreds of years covered by this book, harmony gradually changed from being mostly just a succession of consonances into having semantic meaning on a more “sentence-sized” level. Taruskin points to some individual examples of this, but I found myself wishing for a higher-level overview of how the shift occurred. Of course, the individual composers who made this shift happen probably didn’t think about it that way at all, so any attempt to impose some sort of teleological post-facto history on it is going to be pretty artificial anyway.

In any case, so far the series has been very entertaining and informative, and I’m not regretting my time spent with it at all. On to Monteverdi!

Cardiacs – a video primer

Sunday, January 31st, 2010

Cardiacs are my new favorite band of all time. They’ve been around since the early 1980s at least but astonishingly I never heard of them until last year, when I discovered the video for their early song “Tarred and Feathered” (not for the faint of heart or ear), which made me gape deliriously with a “you can make music like that?” reaction, one I’ve only had a few times in the past (Conlon Nancarrow and Phil Kline come to mind).

They’ve been described as “pronk”, or “prog-punk”, and I guess I can see that; there’s the musical interestingness of a lot of prog, combined with a punk sort of energy. Some of my favorite bands (the Pixies, the Minutemen, etc.) have that sort of mix, in varying ratios, and it rarely fails to please me. With Cardiacs the music is even more out there than usual, though.

It is amazing how relatively obscure they are — I spend a lot of time looking for music like this, and I somehow was able to miss them for decades — but fortunately they’re really well represented on YouTube, partially because the fanbase they do have is so rabid. Here are ten links to explore, in roughly chronological order, if the above description sounds appealing.

  • Gibber and Twitch (rehearsal (with misspelled title)) is a great example of their early hyper can’t-stay-in-one-place-for-more-than-ten-seconds style, though it’s actually a 2003 rehearsal video (there are keyboard parts you can’t see played because they use backing tapes in performance these days).
  • Tarred and Feathered (video) is an amazing piece of work, with enough musical ideas for four songs, and the gonzo ‘performance’ (the keyboardist and percussionist, at least, aren’t making any attempt to play their real parts) makes for one of the more arresting videos I’ve ever seen.
  • Big Ship (live) is off-the-wall and catchy at the same time, with a giant maestoso singalong chorus at the end that gives me chills. A good litmus test – if this is too crazy for you, you probably don’t stand a chance with most of their repertoire, but if you can imagine acquiring this taste, the rest will probably follow.
  • Everything Is Easy (live) is pretty straightforward but boy does it rock.
  • Is This the Life? (video) is their one hit, so I have to include it here, but honestly it’s one of my least favorite songs of theirs – it sounds like a Cure song to me.
  • Baby Heart Dirt (live) shows off their early funhouse style with an awesome riff and some great synchronized instrumental insanity in the second half.
  • Odd Even (music) is unusual in many respects for a Cardiacs song, but it shows that Tim Smith can write pretty (but still quirky) ballads when he wants to. And that keyboard solo!
  • Fiery Gun Hand (music) rocks with a righteous fervor, and as with Baby Heart Dirt, the second half of it is stuffed with more random awesome musical ideas than you can count.
  • Dirty Boy (music) is for many fans the ultimate Cardiacs song, nine majestic minutes of slowly-moving chords, spiraling ever higher and higher.
  • Wind and Rains Is Cold (fan video) is from their last full-length (so far), Guns. Not the one song from that album I would have chosen, but it’s the one I can find on YouTube, and it’s nice to have something like this after all the rockers above to show off their range a little.

Chess/music synaesthesia

Tuesday, December 15th, 2009

What is even weirder than me having a sense of synaesthesia linking musical key signatures and chess openings is the fact that I never consciously realized that this was kind of a weird thing until today. Actually, calling it synaesthesia may be overstating it; it’s not like music springs into my head as I play an opening, but I definitely do feel a consistent correlation.

Here’s a list off the top of my head of chess opening/musical key associations, trying to think about it as little as possible so as to let my subconscious through:

Giuoco Piano: C major
– Evans Gambit: Bb major
Ruy Lopez: C major
– Open: E major
Sicilian Defense: G major
– Najdorf : D major
– Taimanov: E minor
French Defense: A minor
Pirc Defense: B minor
Modern Defense: B major
Queen’s Gambit Declined: Eb major
King’s Indian Defense: Bb minor
Grünfeld Defense: D minor
Benoni: B major (I know it is odd for this to be on the sharp side, but a pawn on c5 clearly implies a B natural in the tonic triad!)

Since I am doing this all subconsciously, it is hard for me to actually defend these associations, but I can identify some general correspondences. In general e4 openings tend towards the sharp side of the keys while d4 openings tend towards the flat side. I think there also seems to be some correlation between minor keys and Black only advancing his pawns one square. Both of these do seem to make some sort of sense: e4 openings are “sharper” and “brighter” while d4 openings are more “quiet” and “restrained”, while only advancing your pawns to the sixth rank is a little “sad”. But I would certainly not fight anyone who claimed that these associations basically make no sense at all.

The Beatles’ most underrated songs

Sunday, November 29th, 2009

I know, the Beatles are so famous that there’s no such thing as an underrated song of theirs. But I actually wasn’t familiar with a lot of their early oeuvre until recently, and even on their well-known albums there are a few sleepers that don’t get the props they deserve. Here’s my list of underrated Beatles songs, one per album:

Please Please Me: “There’s a Place“. From the harmonica riff that sits unapologetically on a major seventh to the irregular phrase lengths to John’s characteristic ornaments in the lower harmony part to the lack of resolution at the end of the verse, this is a much more interesting song than you’d expect this early in the Beatles’ career.

With the Beatles: “Little Child“. Utterly conventional (though the middle eight is a middle six) and utterly charming. You can’t imagine those “I’m so sad and lonely” harmonies sung without a grins on their faces.

A Hard Day’s Night: “You Can’t Do That“. Shows what you can do with the twelve-bar blues. I love the sweatiness of this song, for lack of a better word. That quarter-note cowbell making the song ratchet along one powerful beat at a time instead of flowing smoothly; John’s hoarse reach for his high notes (e.g., “that boy again”); Ringo slightly rushing his reentrance after the stop-time in the refrain; the opening up of new harmonic territory with the V/vi -> vi (“gree-een”) in the bridge — it’s all great.

Beatles for Sale: “I’ll Follow the Sun“. This has been dismissed as being too glib, but it’s too perfect for that. The first line of the verse is a beautiful example of the musical device known as a sequence (listen to how the first eight notes form four ascending pairs). Paul sure could write a melody.

Help!: “The Night Before“. Another song I somehow missed for years. Again, nothing groundbreaking, just perfectly executed.  The vi -> iv chord sequence (“Now today I find”) is particularly nice. “Makes me want to cry” is a typical great Paul high sung note. And such a tasty restrained guitar solo.

Rubber Soul: “Think For Yourself“. One of my favorite songwriting techniques: weird verses, perfect choruses (think “Senses Working Overtime” or “Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic”).  The chords (it takes a while to even identify the key) and phrase rhythm in the verses are really interesting, and I liked the chorus enough to base a song (“Think It Through”) on it. And I haven’t even mentioned the fuzz bass (both the tone and Paul’s awesome part) — they must have known it was great because it’s mixed so high.

Revolver: “Love You To“. Now we’re getting to the point where every song is so well known that it’s even harder to pick underrated songs. But here’s an Indian-themed song from George that doesn’t outstay its welcome, and also really attempts to be authentic in some way rather than just using cool timbres (I’m looking at you, “Norwegian Wood”).

Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band: “Good Morning Good Morning“. What a superbly weird song. The verses can’t stay in the same meter for more than one measure at a time, but not in a “Look at me, I’m so weird” way; they’re just following the lyrics naturally without inserting extra beats to make everything come out to 4/4. Then the chorus just bounces between I and IV but swings into triplets. And the arrangement! You can barely hear the guitar over the horns, and Paul (I presume) rips off a great solo (pretty much stolen from “Taxman”, but we’ll ignore that). When my wife heard it for the first time, she said “This totally sounds like a Loud Family song”, and she’s right.

Magical Mystery Tour: “Baby You’re a Rich Man“. Another example of what you can do with just a couple of chords. They sit on G for so long that you’re convinced it’s the tonic, then finally relax both harmonically (into C, proving G to be the dominant) and melodically (the musical sigh of “What do you want to be”) in a great moment that has always influenced me. The chorus monomaniacally sits on one note before opening up into practically the only two syllables of harmony in the whole song (“too”), and the two chords dominating the tune are finally leavened with a little chromaticism (“you keep all your money”). And what made them think they could get away with that wheedling clavioline nose-fluting its way through the whole song? Criminally underrated, and the song that originally inspired me to make this list.

The Beatles: “I’m So Tired“. I was going to choose “Sexy Sadie” but I think it’s too well known, so I picked the other song with the I-VII-VI-V chord sequence. It’s awesomely lugubrious, and even the passionate chorus sounds like its boots are stuck in the mud. And at 2:03, it knows when to quit.

Abbey Road: “You Never Give Me Your Money“. Well, every song on this album is well known, but I think this one could stand even more recognition. Kicking off the side 2 medley, it’s basically a medley itself, and I can assure you that it’s hard to write a medley that doesn’t sound like just a bunch of unrelated pieces stitched to each other. Bouncing from style to style, it somehow hangs together. More than anything else on Abbey Road, this song makes mourn for the subsequent Beatles albums that never happened.

Let It Be: “Dig A Pony“. Endearingly random (the phrase rhythm in the verses is especially fun), with a killer swung unison riff that makes the song. It deserved a better context than this.

Your turn! What was I crazy for including, and what was I crazy for leaving out?

Ian MacDonald: Revolution in the Head

Sunday, November 22nd, 2009

Revolution in the Head is one of the most highly regarded critical books about the Beatles, and the Beatles have been in my mind a lot recently, having just written a game about them. My main interest regarding the Beatles is in their music itself, and in that respect the finest books that I have found are Walter Everett’s two volumes of The Beatles As Musicians, which do an amazing job of chronicling the Beatles’ musical journey from a technical perspective. Revolution in the Head occupies a middle ground between musical analysis and biography, chronologically treating each song in turn but looking at them more for their context in the Beatles’ history (and the cultural history of the 60s) than as straight musical analysis.

And it’s very interesting; despite a few caveats, I learned a lot, and MacDonald has many perceptive things to say. For one thing, partially because my knowledge of the Beatles’ history has largely been through relatively sanitized tellings such as The Beatles Anthology, it was not clear to me just how huge a role drugs played in the Beatles’ creative output. From speed to marijuana to LSD to heroin, the story of the Beatles’ music is largely (and somewhat depressingly) the story of the drugs they were taking. MacDonald also has a lot of thought-provoking things to say about the individual person-to-person relationships within the Beatles and the effect they had on their music.

Minuses: Well, MacDonald is a man of strong opinions, so you have to take care to mentally prepend “In my opinion” to many sentences, since he didn’t bother; if you don’t, you’re going to spend a lot of time rolling your eyes that could be put to better use. When this takes the form of dismissing certain Beatles songs that he doesn’t like, this isn’t so hard to do; when he dismisses all music written after 1970, it’s a little harder to take. But as long as you don’t take him overly seriously, his opinions are quite interesting.

There are probably more interesting biographies of the Beatles, since this book accomplishes its biographical functions mostly in passing; and for straight-up musical analysis, the Everett books have a lot more to say. But there’s a lot of good stuff here, and even if you don’t agree with all of it, it will at least make you reconsider a lot of your opinions, and whether you end up keeping them or changing them, thinking about them again can’t be a bad thing.