Tag Archives: Fake Book

The Timbre Effect

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

All melodies are the same. This provocative overstatement should not be dismissed out of hand. Although there are diversifying options, such as meter, mode, note density, and rhythmic values, the fundamental shape of melody is remarkably consistent. When the sonic fat is trimmed away, what remains is a typical melodic line. This mainly owes to the powerful force of convention, which (un)consciously shapes musical patterns in more or less uniform ways. Culturally conditioned ears tolerate only a limited spectrum of choices; the more divergences, the less the general appeal. At the risk of being tautological, melodies are recognizable because they sound like melodies.

Gary Ewer, a songwriter and creator of Easy Music Theory, identifies what he calls “5 Characteristics of Any Great Melody.” His summation is not as boastful as it might appear, though these key ingredients are found in most Western melodies, great and not-so-great. The five characteristics are: restricted range (an octave-and-a-half); repeating elements (intervals, rhythms, motifs); stepwise motion (moving by scale steps with occasional leaps); movement in relationship with the bass line (parallel, similar, oblique or contrary); and a climactic point leading to a cadence. Other building blocks not on Ewer’s list include four-bar phrases and predictable chord progressions (both simple and complex).

These ingredients are present in all idioms of Western music, from Baroque to reggae to bubblegum pop. Of course, some melodies are more adventurous than others, and some manage to buck a few norms while staying within the requisite parameters. Yet, without blurring the countless tunes that have been offered to the atmosphere, the fact is that differences between melodies lie in nuances rather than in fundamental structures.

Given this basic homogeneity, why do certain melodies rise to the top? The answer rests partly in extra-musical factors, such as lyrical content, the look of the performer(s), promotional efforts, and inclusion on a soundtrack. But musical qualities also contribute to a song’s popularity (or unpopularity). These aspects are not necessarily located in the pitches, dynamics or durations, but in the less tangible realm of timbre: distinctive and recognizable sounds.

This is particularly true of recorded songs, which reach audiences via specific timbre mixtures of vocals, instruments, and production signatures. Attraction to a song is really attraction to this global sound—a reality accounting for the frequent failure of covers and remixes. A Katy Perry song in someone else’s mouth does not have the same effect, just as Tom Petty minus the Heartbreakers lacks a certain something.

A historical case in point is The Paul Simon Song Book (1965), a solo album Simon recorded after Wednesday Morning, 3 AM, Simon & Garfunkel’s first studio recording, received a discouragingly cool reception. The record includes several songs that would become hits for the duo, such as “I Am A Rock,” “Leaves That Are Green,” and “The Sound of Silence.” But the timbre is off. Without Garfunkel’s harmonies and other additive sounds, the impression is one of raw incompletion.

Popular melodies sometimes find their way into song anthologies and fake books: collections of lead sheets with melodies, chord markings, and lyrics. These are “standards,” or tunes of established popularity from a period and/or style. The minimalistic presentation suggests that melody, apart from audible textures, is the source of a song’s popularity. However, the very reduction to soundless notation exposes the crucial role of timbre in creating hits. Without that tapestry of sounds, a melody is just a melody like any other.

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

The Perils of Transcription

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

In 1963 the Society for Ethnomusicology sponsored an experiment testing the reliability of transporting musical sounds onto the written page. Four prominent scholars, Willard Rhodes, Mieczyslaw Kolinski, Robert Garfias, and George List, were asked to notate a recording of a Hukwe Bushman song performed with a musical bow. Given the difficulty of translating an African oral tradition into European notation, the results were predictably varied. For instance, the musical bow produces two simultaneous pitches: a fundamental and an overtone. Kolinski and Rhodes accounted for both pitches, while List and Garfias just transcribed the overtone. List included two forms of the vocal line, one attentive to the voice itself and the other correlating the vocal melody with that of the musical bow.

In the decades since the experiment, ethnomusicology has shifted focus away from transcriptions. While musicological analysis is still valued, comparative studies—which emphasize notes on the page—have been pushed aside in favor of inclusive, in-depth studies of music and culture. The transition owed partly to problems inherent to musical transcription. In addition to the inadequacy of applying Western tools to non-Western music, the act of writing often clashes with the essence of the song being notated. Oral transmission, an active process that values spontaneity, is confined to a written document, a fixed object that is set in ink. This is particularly problematic in a culture such as ours, which views published sheet music as “correct” and “definitive.” The printed page is habitually mistaken for the music itself.

This is not just an inter-cultural issue. Much of the music in our own society is created and transmitted independent of notation. Some of our most celebrated songwriters cannot read music, and it is a jazz imperative to journey away from the score. During the recent plagiarism case involving the hit song “Blurred Lines,” producer-songwriter Pharrell Williams was exposed as a non-music reader, despite his claims to the contrary. This is not to suggest that music readers have special advantages over non-readers. Anyone who makes this claim should note that Irving Berlin, Jimi Hendrix, and the Beatles are among the illiterati. What it does reveal is the clumsiness of committing experientially constructed songs to writing.

This is apparent when reviewing song transcriptions in fake books and similar anthologies. Very rarely does a song appear with identical notation in two or more books. The transcribers, usually working from audio recordings, do their best to capture the durations, phrasing, vocal inflections, and other peculiarities. However, in the process, they adjust syncopations, imprecisions, and rough executions to fit the song within rigid bar lines. Thus, Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire” is printed without the (unintended?) meter switches, and pop ballads appear without hard-to-render melismas. Because there are many ways of handling such peculiarities, the finished products tend to be diverse—a phenomenon comparable to the Bushman experiment.

Still, musical transcription does play important roles. There are cases in which transcriptions of folk songs, imperfect though they may be, are all that remains of a music-culture. Abraham Idelsohn’s monumental Thesaurus of Hebrew-Oriental Melodies (1914-32) is a prime example, both for its imperfections and for its preservation of melodies from extinct communities. More generally, sheet music aids musicians other than the original performers in playing the songs. It is, then, appropriate to treat transcriptions as useful approximations, just not as authoritative monuments.

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