I’m going to warn you all well in advance, this series of blogs is going to be nothing other than purely musical wank. I’m basically going to demonstrate that discrimination against pop music as a result of its (usually) inherent simplicity as a generalisation simply isn’t justified. I’ll be doing a separate blog series on electronic music, but that’s a whole other kettle of hipsters which I’m learning about.
This blog isn’t an attack against those who aren’t well-versed in musical theory and conventions. It’s more of an attempt to educate people against hating on a style of music for what’s going on in it when quite simply don’t know what’s going on. Like I said, it’s gonna be a big blog’o’wank! It’s also gonna be quite a good deal of music theory, but I’ll ‘splain all of it!
First topic: Rhythm! Pop music is often criticized for being too rhythmically simple and as straight-ahead rhythmically to play as punk music. We’re not touching on stuff like Will.i.am. and Rihanna in this section, because they live that stereotype quite comfortably. Instead, we’ll look at John Mayer and Justin Timberlake in this blog.
A quick side-note for everybody: I am not defending Pop music as a whole. Some pop music is just BAD! Some simply lacks originality, quality production or imagination. It over uses auto-tune to a point where you can no longer tell the difference between one singer or another. I will be seeking to demonstrate that there is pop music that falls outside of these stereotypes and that hating on pop music as a whole isn’t appropriate. Hate the gold-diggers in the industry if you want, but some people out there are making pop music that is wonderfully musical, original and innovative.
This blog is written for those who aren’t educated in any music theory, so there will be explanations of what concepts I’m talking about throughout the blog. Important words will be written in bold.
First track we’ll check out: Waiting on the World to Change-John Mayer.
When you have three dudes like John Mayer, Steve Jordan and Pino Palladino playing together, you can expect nothing but some pretty intense stuff to be going on. Grab some good quality headphones or plug into some good speakers and really have a good listen to what’s on in this track.
I’m going to talk about these three as musicians another time but for now-what’s going on that makes this track rhythmically cool?
The most obvious thing is that there is a late backbeat in every second bar. In traditional rock’n’roll/pop music, the backbeat sits solidly on beats 2&4 (usually marked by a snare hit). Although this is not in itself an example of musical wizardry, I can’t think of another modern pop tune that has a displaced backbeat in the same way, let alone one that has achieved such success. A downbeat is usually the strong beat and is traditionally marked by a bass-drum/bass guitar hit in rock/pop music. These generally occur around the 1&3 beat of each bar.
The next thing is the groove and the way that the subdivisions are broken up. A subdivision is that a bar is broken up rhythmically. For example, if you tap your foot along to a piece in 4/4 on the beat, each tap is called a quarter note (or a crotchet). This is because there are four notes subdivided into the bar. Half of that is an eight (or a quaver) and half that again is a sixteenth (semi-quaver). The two most simple approaches to subdivisions in terms of constructing a groove are called straight or swung 8ths. Straight 8ths are completely even, they are exactly half a beat, whereas if it’s swung, the beat is split into three equal(ish) parts and only the first and third note are played, giving a shuffle feel. Here’s a shuffle played by the glorious Steve Gadd:
As you can hear, it’s got a triplet feel, you can hear it’s not evenly placed into two exact subdivisions. You’ll hear this stuff going on all the time in Jazz and Blues, but more modernly, it’s very prominent in the Dubstep scene.
And why am I talking about this?
If you listen close to the 16ths (remember a quarter note is a beat, so a fourth of a beat) being played, they’re leaning more towards being swung, although not that heavily-they’re kind of in the middle (although leaning more towards being swung).
Again, even though this isn’t that musically wild and wonderful if you’re familiar with jazz, it is something that a computer will never really be able to simulate. It’s also a very small subdivision to time perfectly, especially when it’s not precise. If there were a numerical value given to what these subdivisions are, they would be called 24th notes. At 60 beats per minute, that would be six notes per second. 100bpm, closer to where this song sits, is ten notes per second. So you would be subdividing each second to one decimal place; and this piece isn’t computer-precise swung.
The point? When cats like John Mayer are writing and performing Pop music, it isn’t overly-simple anymore. They may not be immediately noticed but every little bit counts in the difference between a song that will be listened to in twenty years time and one that won’t be heard again after it leaves the charts.
The piece feels organic and instrument driven because it is. It’s subject to certain human imperfections. It’s not something a 13 year old could put together on their computer, that’s for sure.
Next piece: Suit & Tie-Justin Timberlake
I really wanted to go through some of his older stuff but I wanted to use something more modern than the last track as an example.
So this piece starts out EXTREMELY slow. When it switches from the intro to the verse (and when it again repeats this at the B section where Jay-Z tears it up) it’s not a tempo change (tempo being the speed of the music)-the tempo never changes. Instead, it’s use of something called half-time. Remember how earlier I was talking about the backbeat being on two and four? In half-time, the backbeat appears on the three instead. Half-time’s meaning is very literal, each subdivision’s (i.e. 8ths) value is treated as half, so the backbeat will appear on the 3, instead of the 2.
This piece switches between half-time and regular time three times (intro-verse, chorus2-rap, chorus-outro), most pop songs will not switch between the two even once! This is an incredibly difficult thing to do in a piece and actually make it work. Although it does stand out very strongly in this piece, the shift between a brisk lounge-jazz feel to a drop-build that never ends (electronic music) is so powerful and leaves the second half of the piece begging to rhythmically resolve (or “drop” if you prefer). It constantly teases at this idea frequently when the drums drop out, leaving an ambiguous feel(i.e. 2:00 not so much, but prevalently at 3:53, where it could comfortably transition back into regular time). Again, this is HARD to do and much harder to do well. The piece is not lacking in rhythmic complexities.
It is also possible that the B section/intro are actually in quarter-time and the A section is instead a quick half-time, although I doubt that was the intention so I assume it isn’t.
So there you go! Two hugely popular pieces of Pop music-one seven years old and the other not even seven months old-breaking traditional “conventions” (I use that word VERY lightly with Pop) of overly simplistic use of rhythm.
Next blog, I’ll talk about orchestration/instrumentation, that being what the instruments are doing. I’ll be using The Script, Maroon 5 and Daft Punk.
Peace and love, and good happenings and stuff!