Category Archives: songwriting

The Evolution of Song

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

The earliest rudiments of musical expression were most likely vocal. This basic premise connects diverse speculations about music’s origins. Whether music—broadly defined as structured, controlled, and purposeful sound—began with grunts of aggression, wails of pain, mating howls, or infant-directed communication, the vocal instrument was the source from which it sprang. Despite the lack of records stretching back hundreds of thousands of years, speculative musicologists have sketched cursory evolutions of vocal music. According to Alfred Einstein, the eon-spanning process had three stages: pathogenic (emotion-born), logogenic (language-born), and melogenic (melody-born). This hypothesis, presented in his 1954 essay “Word and Music,” is unique for its qualitative editorializing. In Einstein’s view, the combination of voice and music becomes increasingly problematic as the stages unfold.

The first stage, pathogenic music, represents the “starkest expression of pure emotion.” Einstein viewed the spontaneous, wordless tones of so-called “primitives” as the most pristine type of vocal music. Beyond romanticizing the “noble savage,” he argued that “the meaningful word weakens rather than strengthens such pure expression, since convention tends to attenuate it.” The union of word and music pollutes the original purity.

The degrading effect is less pronounced in stage two: logogenic music. In word-born song, melodic shape, movement, phrasing, and cadences are directed by the ebb and flow of a text, rather than a consistent beat or meter. It is a form of musical grammar—sometimes called speech-melody or stylized speaking—wherein accents and inflections are stressed through unobtrusive, arhythmic, word-serving melodic figures. Such is the mode of Greek epic poetry, Gregorian plainchant, and Jewish scriptural cantillation. Logogenic music has its own disadvantage—namely, the neutralizing of emotion. Because the music serves the text with formulaic motives (described by Einstein as a “minimum of music”), the same sounds are invariably used to transmit texts of varying thematic and emotional content. In this sense, it is the opposite of pathogenic vocalizing.

The third stage is song proper: a short poem or set of words fitted to a metrical tune. By and large, musical considerations, like rhythm and melody, outweigh textual concerns. Although songs often grow from or reflect upon emotional states, the rules of style and form tend to restrain raw feelings. The structure limits the amount of syllables available, and the measured phrases reduce word options. The result is filtered sentiment—a contrast to both unfettered pathogenic music and text-first logogenic music.

Without doubt, Einstein’s scheme has its weaknesses. Not only is the evolution of song non-linear (all three forms still exist today), but blending is also not uncommon. For instance, blues singing, which adheres to highly conventional forms, is known for its “pure emotion.” Within a strict melogenic framework, short phrases and repeated words convey rich layers of emotional content. Even so, Einstein’s three-stage outline raises awareness of the potential impediments of the various types of vocal music. Knowledge of these built-in barriers can help the performer or songwriter transcend them in their own musical quests.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

Recontextualizing Meaning

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Ray Bradbury’s 1953 dystopian novel Fahrenheit 451 tells of a near-future society where books are banned and “firemen” search out and burn literary contraband. Books are deemed a social menace, spreading ideas, broadening worldviews, feeding imaginations, and triggering emotions. For decades, this perennial classroom classic has been understood as a moral tome against censorship. However, in 2007, the book’s eighty-seven-year-old author claimed he meant it as a warning about the dangers of technology. He pointed out that denizens of the bleak futurescape surround themselves with giant-scene televisions, and prefer mindless screen time to interpersonal interaction. According to Bradbury, the novel was written at the dawn of the age of television, and predicted a downward spiral into technology dependence.

Presumably, Bradbury found a new message in his old book, or elevated a secondary theme into a central one. In the fifty-plus years that passed, McCarthyism had given way to the Patriot Act, smart phones, the twenty-four-hour news cycle, and other modern horrors. Just as his fans had always done, Bradbury probably read current events into the plot line. Sam Weller, Bradbury’s close friend and biographer, wrote as much in an article titled “Ray Bradbury’s 180 on Fahrenheit 451”: “I was well acquainted with his proclivity to contradict himself and his penchant for subtle revisionist history. More than one of Bradbury’s stories morphed over the years, taking on new life, becoming mythical versions of his own reality…. Bradbury’s letters at the time he wrote Fahrenheit 451, even an article he wrote for The Nation on May 2, 1953, clearly show that censorship was at the forefront of his mind when he wrote his classic novel.”

Fundamentally, interpretation involves recontextualizing meaning. Each exposure is, in a sense, a new event, suffused with accumulated experiences, thoughts, and feelings. As the Bradbury case illustrates, this can be as true for the creator as it is for the audience.

An example from the world of songwriting underscores the point. Bruce Springsteen released “Born to Run” in 1975 on a hit record of the same name. In a lengthy introduction during a London concert in 1988, he explained how the song’s meaning had changed for him:

“When I first wrote it, I figured I was writing about this guy and this girl that wanted to get in the car, drive, keep on driving and never come back….But as I got older, I realized I’d put all these people in all these cars and I was gonna have to figure someplace for them to go. I was gonna be able to figure someplace where I belonged, so as I sang this song through the years I realized that guy and that girl were out there looking for some connection, trying to find some sense of community, some sense of meaning beyond their own individual freedom and someplace maybe that they could call home. And I realized that home wasn’t out there over the next hill or around the corner but that it was buried deep down inside of me, and that if I had guts I might be able to get a little piece of it.”

Countless other examples could sit alongside these snapshots. In each instance, interpretations are not mutually exclusive: the expansion of themes does not negate prior meanings or variant meanings between people. A work of art that outlives its genesis invariably does so by acquiring new resonances with new places and times. Longevity depends on the adaptability of meaning from person to person, community to community, setting to setting, and now-self to later-self.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

All is Medley

Jonathan L. Friedmann

A “megamix” consists of multiple song snippets played in rapid succession. Verses, choruses, and smaller sections form a unified chain, often supported by a steady backing beat. Megamixes come in three basic types: “album remixes,” a single track sampling songs on an album; “flashbacks,” comprising slabs of popular songs from a year or two; and “artist remixes,” stringing together song fragments from a career. These can be bootleg tributes or studio releases, as with promo mixes advertising an upcoming album. To some degree, cutting and pasting is a natural outgrowth of the post-modern digital age, where music belongs to consumers, and consumers function as (re)producers. Nevertheless, its roots are probably as old as music itself.

Before remix there was medley: a musical piece made from other musical pieces. The term first appeared in the fourteenth century, and originally applied to hand-to-hand combat—still idiomatically called “mixing it up.” The later musical meaning would have suited that medieval context, as folk, popular, and liturgical songs freely borrowed and rearranged motives and melodies from one another. In medieval Germany, common threads connected Minnesong (courtly love songs), Gassenhauer (street songs), and Gregorian chant. By the end of the eighteenth century, medley referred to a sequence of opera melodies. This sense carried into the modern usage, where medley—and its companion term, potpourri—signifies a patchwork of short songs or song-segments performed as a continuous piece.

As self-aware assemblages, modern mélanges differ from their organic predecessors. However, their organizing mechanism is hardly new. Melodies, whether modal or diatonic, improvised or pre-composed, rely upon sounds developed through reuse, reshaping, and repetition. This can be compared to language: just as we internalize vocabulary and grammatical rules from hearing and using existing sentences, so do musicians internalize musical rules from hearing and reapplying existing musical patterns. In this way, every melody is a medley, varying only in degree.

Of course, obvious mixing can attract criticism (and even lawsuits). Constant Lambert famously frowned upon such “pastiches.” He complained, “a composer with no sense of style and no creative urge can take medieval words, set them in the style of Bellini, add twentieth-century harmony, develop both in the sequential and formal manner of the eighteenth century, and finally score the whole thing for jazz band.”

Condemnation and exaggeration notwithstanding, Lambert’s illustration captures the music-making process. Music is fundamentally a generative art: its very status as music depends on its resemblance to other music. Regardless if the piece is a deliberate medley, hackneyed hodgepodge, organic amalgam, novel twist, or post-modern remix, it invariably absorbs, consolidates, reassembles, and builds upon prior music. Perhaps creativity, in the pure sense that Lambert meant it, depends more on the masking of influences than on their absence.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

Folkalization

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

The name Tin Pan Alley likely started as a linguistic reappropriation: a disparaging term that was flipped into a positive, self-describing label. The etymology is sometimes traced to journalist-songwriter Monroe Rosenfeld. In one version of the story, Rosenfeld visited the New York office of music publisher Harry Von Tilzer in preparation for an article on the music business. He noticed that Von Tilzer had pieces of paper wound over the strings of a piano to make a tinny sound—a nostalgic trick harkening back to his playful youth. This allegedly gave Rosenfeld the idea for an article titled “Tin Pan Alley,” published in his column for the New York Herald or the New York Clipper in 1899 or 1900 (to my knowledge, the actual article has not surfaced). Von Tilzer later claimed coinage of the term. Others cite it as a derogatory description of cheap upright pianos heard on West 28th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenue in Manhattan. The cacophony of clashing tunes reportedly resembled the banging of tin pans. The term was eventually applied to the U.S. music industry of the late 1800s to the 1930s or 50s (depending on the periodization).

The name’s organic emergence predicted the treatment the music itself would later receive. Although created for financial gain and distributed through commercial means, many of the songs entered the popular vernacular. In so doing, they became subject to a folk process, wherein cultural artifacts are changed, minutely or significantly, to form new artifacts. A combination of performance restraints and cultural dissemination stripped these songs of their particularistic trappings, and left the universal core. The result can be dubbed “commercial folk music.”

A number of Tin Pan Alley tunes survive in the collective consciousness. Some, like Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America,” “Always,” and “White Christmas,” are so universally known as to lose association with the composer. They consolidate and articulate popular sentiments, and reaffirm and express an aesthetic mainstream. By virtue of aural reception and oral transmission, they are functionally the public property of the American people.

Among the elements contributing to this perpetual resonance was the elimination of the verse. Tin Pan Alley standards, such as those listed above, began as self-contained story songs. The generalized emotions of the chorus were framed by specific details, usually of a personal nature. “White Christmas” (1940), which Berlin wrote while sitting poolside at a Phoenix hotel, opened with the verse: “The sun is shining, the grass is green/The orange and palm trees sway/There’s never been such a day/In Beverly Hills, LA/But it’s December the 24th/And I am longing to be up north.” “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” (1908), written by Albert Von Tilzer (Harry’s brother) and lyricist Jack Norworth, began with a baseball-obsessed woman: “Katie Casey was baseball mad/Had the fever and had it bad/Just to root for the home town crew/Ev’ry sou/Katie blew” (“sou” is a small amount of money). These verses gave narrative context to the familiar choruses we sing today.

Several factors led to the erasure of the verse. In some instances, the melody, meter, or pace of the verse clashed with feelings conveyed in the chorus (e.g., minor to major, 4/4 to 3/4, slow to brisk). These shifts, while musically intriguing, made the songs difficult for singing and dancing. There were also technological constraints. 10-inch 78-rpm records could only hold about three minutes per side, thus necessitating the trimming of “extraneous” verses in favor of catchy choruses. The radio format likewise restricted song durations to three and a half minutes in order to give time to news, announcements, and advertising. Furthermore, the rise of Broadway and film musicals, where songs punctuated larger story lines, made the contextualizing verses obsolete. For example, Berlin cut the verse from “White Christmas” for the film Holiday Inn (1942).

Concurrent with these top-down commercial considerations was the bottom-up folk process. The choruses were easier to remember and more inclusive than the set-up verses. Rather than being tied to a particular setting or idiosyncratic emotion, they could be assimilated as one’s own expression, whether patriotic, nostalgic, romantic, or something else. With this folkalization, artist- and context-specific tunes were transformed into the durable pseudo-folksongs we still sing today.

Tin Pan Alley is not a stand-alone illustration. Popular music of all kinds—industry distributed music of wide appeal—challenges conventional separations of creators/producers and consumers/audiences. Consumers become potential producers, capable of recreating the songs in their own voices and reading their own experiences into them. Subtle or drastic changes inevitably creep in, bringing a fluid orality to the ostensibly fixed media of sheet music and recorded sound.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

Soul and Commerce

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

An issue of Esquire magazine published in 1945 (vol. 23) includes a razor-sharp quote from tenor saxophonist Greely Walton. Asked about the impact of money on artistry, Walton replied: “If he’s a musician at heart, good music gives by far the most personal satisfaction…But anyone who completely forgets what he’s doing, or does what he’s doing cheaply by selling out to sheer commercialism—such a musician is a nitwit and worthy of neither respect nor money.”

Walton’s was among the first printed references to “selling out” in the ugly sense of sacrificing integrity for financial gain. He was careful not to idealize the opposite extreme: the musician need not starve for her art. If authenticity and appeal are in alignment, then good music—in the moral sense—can bring riches. Talking Heads frontman David Byrne, who sang “Never for money/Always for love,” is a perfect example. Aesthetic-ethical problems arise when talented musicians surrender to the dark side of branding, marketing, and empty consumerism.

Critics bemoan the depletion of meaningful music in the “post-album” age of YouTube, digital downloads, and television competitions. The manufactured, market-driven sounds of pop music are incessant reminders of the dysfunctional relationship between corporate capitalism and the arts. This does not mean the talent pool is any drier than in periods past. However, the pressure to “sell out” is far greater than it was in Walton’s day, and continues to trend in the wrong direction. As a result, creativity is curtailed in favor of monotonous conformity.

One of the loudest critics of this apparent cultural degradation is Berklee College of Music professor William C. Banfield. He sees profit-obsession as a kiss of death: “death of quality, skills, value of human expression, individuality, creative innovation, and a lack of spirit-soul.” Instead of an expression of one’s innermost being, music becomes a superficial vehicle for pursuing material rewards.

Banfield draws a contrast between songs with enduring socio-cultural value (which can be financially successful) and the largely formulaic and vapid offerings of contemporary pop. He calls the first category “long-term cultural relevancy,” or expressive art that deeply affects and influences the lives of people. This would include folk-derived traditions, like spirituals and the blues, as well as “banner songs,” like the protest anthems of the 1960s. The second category is “market relevancy,” or the manufacturing of sounds and personalities for wide audiences. This is “music industry” in its most negative connotations.

Banfield is an unabashed scholar-activist, but his idealism is not unrealistic. As a working musician, he knows the importance of resonating with the marketplace. Balancing short-term and long-term relevance is a worthy goal. Yet, he argues, “the wrong people are at the table, and they drive the industry and make the bad decisions. It’s all a game of dollars and greed, which again is a disastrous formula for art.” The key, it seems, is to sell without selling out.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

Kris Kristofferson: Country Highwayman (Book Review)

Kris Kristofferson: Country Highwayman, by Mary G. Hurd, Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2015. 157 pp.

Reviewed by Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Kris Kristofferson: Country Highwayman is fundamentally a book about song lyrics. This “minus the music” approach can be problematic, as a song’s sonic features—particularly timbre in the case of recording artists—tend to have equal or greater impact than the words themselves. Anthologies like Hal Leonard’s The Lyric Book reveal a general truth about songwriting: when words intended for singing are stripped of their music, their appeal is greatly diminished. Without the distraction of catchy melodies or infectious beats, stanzas can become flimsy, rhymes can become forced, and sentiments can become insincere.

Kris Kristofferson would seem likely to suffer from this approach. With such a recognizable voice—described variously as “raspy,” “jagged” and “froggy”—and a knack for exuding authenticity through it, his words risk being tarnished in the absence of sound. However, as Mary G. Hurd explains, Kristofferson is more poet than entertainer, more troubadour than singer-songwriter. Unlike many who pen lyrics for melody, his verses have legitimate literary interest; and nearly five hundred artists have recorded his songs, making his own voice less central than it otherwise might be. This is remarkable considering Hurd’s point that “each song reflects how [Kristofferson] felt at the time it was written, all his songs tell the story of him, psychologically and emotionally, and record his changes brought on by experience and the passage of time” (p. xvi).

The book begins with a biographical sketch. Because Hurd’s primary focus is lyrics, she offers only select glimpses into the complicated factors that shape Kristofferson’s songwriting. Of note is his upbringing in Texas’ Rio Grande Valley, where the ugliness of anti-Mexican sentiment taught him to sympathize with the downtrodden—a theme most strongly heard in his much-criticized album Third World Warrior (1990), which protests the U.S. government’s encroachment into Central America. After earning a B.A. in literature from Pomona College, Kristofferson deferred his military service to accept a Rhodes scholarship to study at Oxford’s Merton College. He became immersed in the writings of William Blake, adopting Blake’s injunction that the artist has a moral obligation to develop his talent. Kristofferson later resigned his commission as a 2nd lieutenant in the U.S. Army, a decision that alienated him from his military family and from his first wife.

His commitment to the artist’s life and working class ideals also required a rejection of the highbrow world his education had prepared him for. He worked as a janitor at the Columbia Recording Studio in Nashville, which kept him in contact with industry professionals, and later jeopardized his success by emulating the self-destructive lifestyles of Johnny Cash and Hank Williams, Sr.

Hurd’s overview is a bit scattered and at times hard to follow. Nevertheless, it succeeds in contextualizing the career of an unlikely country music icon: an educated liberal whose imperfect voice, organic songwriting, sophisticated lyricism, and introverted nature emerged during Nashville’s slick and commercially oriented countrypolitan period. His anti-establishment bent—both musically and philosophically—propelled him to the ranks of future Highwaymen band-mates Jennings, Nelson, and Cash, and proved there was room for the “white man’s blues” in an age of glitzy country-pop.

Hurd, a retired professor of English, accomplishes the difficult task of using songs to summarize Kristofferson’s turbulent forty-year-plus career. As noted, she does this primarily through an analysis of lyrics, which she divides into six chapters: 1965-1970; 1971-1975; 1977-1984; 1985-1995 (Highwaymen); 1985-1991 (solo); and 1995-2014 (printed with an unfortunate typo as “2104”). Characteristically adept is her examination of Kristofferson’s award-winning song, “Sunday Morning Coming Down” (1970). She peers beneath the surface depiction of a miserable hangover: “Aching with loneliness and alienation, the speaker renders a powerful evocation of alcoholism and the loss of traditional values (family, home, and faith)—not unlike Kristofferson’s own situation—and the burden of freedom that follows that loss” (p. 35).

It is unlikely that this book will appeal to readers who are not already Kristofferson fans. Prior interest in his life and work (including his film roles) seems a prerequisite for appreciating the depth of analysis. An optimal reading would involve some degree of hearing the songs in one’s head. On the other hand, the book might inspire casual readers to listen more intently—or perhaps for the first time—to Kristofferson’s songs. (This reviewer found himself doing just that.) What this book does best is illustrate the intimate link between songwriter and song, and the complex layers such a link can entail.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

Musical Meanings

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Theories about meaning in music are divided into two main camps: absolutist and referentialist. Absolutists holds that meaning is autonomously generated by the music. Responses stirred are secondary and independent from the music itself, which can only express musicality. Referentialists, on the other hand, contend that music is a shorthand for concepts, actions, images, and mood states. Music legitimately refers to things outside of itself. Whether the truth lies at either pole or resides somewhere in between, this debate usually grants a pass to song. By virtue of incorporating the comparatively straightforward symbolism of language, even the most obscure song is thought to have clearer signification than music without words.

Words significantly relieve music of the burden of generating meaning. They instantaneously imbue sound with an essence, which can change as quickly as the words are switched out for others. Still, it would be a mistake to think that lyrics are the ultimate decider of a song’s meaning. For every song that gives a more or less uniform impression, there are at least as many that leave room for interpretation. This is not only true for lyrics featuring ambiguity or metaphor; even lucid songs can be multivalent.

This is partly because songs typically originate from a personal place. The songwriter writes about experiences and sentiments tied to specific people, settings, moments, and so on. Listeners tend to personalize these themes and make them their own, with all the subjectiveness that implies. Another complicating factor is association. The meaning of a song can be formed and re-formed depending on when, where, and with whom it is heard. This is exemplified in the “our song” phenomenon, when strong connections create a sense of ownership, and the “recycled song” phenomenon, when a tune begins on the radio, makes its way into a movie, becomes a wedding song, gets used in a commercial, etc. New meanings accumulate with each new usage.

There are also listeners who pay little attention to song lyrics, either because of thematic non-resonance, linguistic incomprehensibility, or an attraction to something else in the performance. This nullifies any clarity the words may have provided.

In the end, vagueness is a unifying aspect of music with and without words. Lyrics can mitigate uncertainty, but the fuzziness of musical meaning remains.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.