Tag 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 “Words 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 syllables available, and measured phrases and poetic devices 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.

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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 the 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 extent, 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.

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 substantially 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 subjectivity 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.

Songcraft

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

The roots of popular music can be traced to eighteenth-century Britain. Publishing houses sought to entice customers with sheet music of the era’s catchiest tunes. In those pre-recording days, the reproduction of favorite songs was a do-it-yourself affair. The music industry has since exploded into a multi-billion dollar international business. “Popular music” is itself an economic term applied to commercially distributed songs with wide appeal. The term extends to multiple genres, making unifying characteristics difficult to identify. The most that can be said is that popular songs exhibit some degree of formulaic writing.

Sure, there are trailblazers and experimentalists who occasionally appear in the homogenous landscape of pop, but taking risks is usually bad for business. By definition, popular music has to be popularly successful, and doing so requires following patterns and upholding conventions. Oftentimes what separates one band or vocalist from the next is timbre—the distinctive quality of “the sound”—rather than the music itself.

The conservative nature of pop irks many critics and social theorists. Bill Martin denounces “today’s hits” for their “gushy sentimentality, purely formulaic songwriting, [and] thinly veiled and uninteresting plagiarism of hooks that worked before.” Theodor Adorno noted that a popular song must be familiar enough for people to accept it, catchy enough to sustain interest, and just different enough to be distinguished from other similar songs. This frustrated Adorno both as a devotee of the musical avant-garde and as a critic of capitalism. Not only was popular music incapable of producing anything new, but its conformity also pacified listeners into accepting the capitalist status quo.

Of course, popular music is not always as cookie-cutter as the harshest critics contend; but it is certainly consistent enough, musically and lyrically, to deserve that reputation. The question is whether this is a bad thing. From a user’s perspective, it obviously isn’t: “give the people what they want” is a worthy approach, both financially and socially. On a deeper level, complaints about unoriginality may be missing the point. Throughout history human cultures have celebrated aesthetic stability. There are centuries of repetition in every Peruvian rug and Alaskan totem pole. Emphasis on innovation is the exception, not the rule.

The guild system of medieval Europe is a good example. The workshops of stone makers, goldsmiths, and fresco painters were filled with masters, apprentices, and journeymen who diligently followed guild statutes. They worked as an anonymous collective, and their products were valued for adhering to set formulas. With the rise of Renaissance Humanism, individuals began seeking their own recognition. They became known as “artists,” while those who stayed in the guild were called “artisans.” This marked a separation between craft, where accurate copying is the highest aesthetic ideal, and art, where uniqueness is key.

Part of the issue when it comes to popular music is that the word “artist” is overused. Giving everyone the title of “recording artist” sets the bar too high, and understandably rubs some critics the wrong way. Perhaps it is better to think of pop musicians as craftspeople, and their music as songcraft.

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

Traditionalization

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Tradition refers to the transmission of customs or beliefs from one generation to the next, or the fact of something being passed on in that manner. There are family traditions, cultural traditions, national traditions, religious traditions, and so on. Precisely why some things are treated in this way and other things are not is a topic too broad and varied to be reduced to a simple formula. But, underlying almost everything regarded as traditional is the term’s Latin root, traditio, meaning “surrender.” In no small part, the act of surrendering to and accepting what has been passed down is what makes something traditional.

Even when tradition is used as a noun, the term has an active connotation. An object, practice, or conviction does not burst into existence with the authoritative label. Rather, it gradually assumes that status through a process involving usage plus time. A recipe, for instance, becomes traditional through continued preparation and consumption. Likewise, the Western classical tradition is an assortment of Greco-Roman ideas, institutions, designs, rituals, and artifacts that have been received and integrated into later cultures. By definition, those things that have a lifespan extending beyond their originating time and place are, in some sense, traditional. Everything else is not.

This has relevance for music. Songbooks are filled with selections printed under the heading of traditional. Most of these are orally transmitted songs of anonymous authorship. However, it is not unusual to find songs with known composers listed as traditional. Strictly speaking, such ascriptions are errors: the songs did not emerge organically through an oral tradition, as the attribution suggests, but from the creative minds of individuals. The editors of such books can be faulted for a lack of careful research. Yet, if we understand traditional as an active adjective rather than a static noun, then it is an accurate depscription.

More often than not, so-called traditional melodies are so familiar as to have lost ties to any person or moment. This phenomenon, call it “traditionalization,” has at least four interrelated features: (1) The composer’s identity is forgotten and/or becomes irrelevant; (2) The music becomes the “property” of the masses; (3) The melody achieves a sense of timelessness; (4) The song is felt to be universal, no matter how closely linked to a specific situation, population, or storyline.

From this perspective, a song can be simultaneously traditional and written by a known person. Moreover, any melody—or, really, anything—can become traditional by way of its passage from generation to generation, and the power that such passage yields.

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