Getting the audience on (or off) your team

January 16, 2015 § Leave a comment

Audience participation is an important part of any performance. Even in classical music, where the tradition of overt audience participation is pretty much over, the audience implicitly participates through their attention (and applause afterwards).

But, styles of music where the audience participates are very interesting to me. Especially interesting are moments where the audience claps along to the beat, and where there are interruptions of that participation for one reason or another.

My wife and I had the opportunity of going to a live show of “A Prairie Home Companion” down in Austin back in the spring of 2013 (and met Garrison Keillor in the elevator of our hotel, too!).

One of the staples each week is always the “Powdermilk Biscuit” break 30 minutes into the show. The music accompanying this break is a great uptempo bluegrass tune. You can hear the music for this starting at 30:20 at the link below. It’s a really well-known song by the crowd, and although you can barely hear it in the recording the audience immediately starts clapping really loudly squarely on the strong beats.

At 30:51, the guitar player, Pat Donohue, takes his second solo and begins by playing a figure that obscures the beat. When the piano player Richard Dworsky takes his second solo at 31:04, he picks up this beat-obscuring thought, but extends it, playing a sparse pattern of off-kilter sixteenth-divisions of the beat. Although you can’t really hear it in the recording, it completely throws the audience’s clapping. They can barely find the beat!

Something really similar happens at football games here at UMHB when the band plays the fight song. You can hear the fight song here:

At :13 second into the recording, the band plays a tricky triplet rhythm, dividing two beats into a triplet-sixteenth, triplet-dotted eighth, and a triplet eighth. Every time I listen to the crowd clapping along, I always laugh at this moment when the crowd completely whiffs clapping on the beats. It’s at least nice to know that the crowd is participating so thoroughly that an off-kilter surface rhythm like that can completely disrupt the sensation of underlying pulse.

On the other hand, sometimes the crowd is on your team, but not in the way you want. It seems completely fine for the crowd to clap on the beats for a fight song, but there are many styles with which you want the crowd to clap only on beats 2 and 4.


…many audiences don’t know this, especially if they haven’t really been trained or reared in these styles. This happens a lot during the “Powdermilk Biscuit” break in “A Prairie Home Companion,” and it did the day we were there.

Once in 2008, Garrison Keillor was asked how he handles the penchant of audiences to clap on 1 and 3. He said that it was interesting, “especially if the clapping falls behind the beat and we’re trying to stay with it, sort of like running in soft sand.” Earlier, when asked a similar question, he responded by saying, “clapping is a spontaneous thing, and we don’t encourage it — I would never ever ask an audience to clap along — but when the spirit moves people to do it, you feel charmed and buoyed by it — and correcting people’s spontaneous clapping would seem — I don’t know — churlish, or pusillanimous, on our part.”

While Keillor’s point is well taken—musicians should always be grateful for positive audience participation without trying to overtly correct them—some musicians might take less overt measures to change an audience’s behavior. Of course, one could imagine many reasons why they might do this – to keep things light (humorously or rhythmically), to play with the audience’s expectations (which seems to enhance audience enjoyment), or because it’s simply fun to play with the boundaries of what you can do with a song.

A different approach to lightening up the effect of audience clapping wouldn’t disrupt what the audience is doing but what the musicians are doing. In the following video, Harry Connick, Jr. is playing a blues-influenced Boogie Woogie style song to the kind of crowd who obviously doesn’t get where the emphasis should fall, clapping on beats 1 and 3.

Instead of playing surface rhythms to temporarily disrupt the audience’s clapping, Connick does something brilliant right at :40 into the video. Watch it and see if you can notice the shift:

If the video doesn’t work here, you can follow this link to video.

In essence, he adds an extra beat to a measure before going back to 4/4, so that the audience, while not changing their pattern, starts clapping on 2 and 4. And they don’t even seem to notice! Listen to how much more the music seems to groove after the change has been made.

I guess what I’m saying is that music is a wonderful thing to share in a community experience, and musicians are and should be grateful for audience participation. It’s also fun to play with how an audience participates, as the above three examples demonstrate. There are ways of playing with audience’s engagement so that they are temporarily thrown off your team and ways of playing with it so that they’re shifted to be on your team in the way you want. In any event, it’s great to see creative ways in which musicians actively participate with their participating audiences.


Muse’s metric madness…

January 16, 2015 § Leave a comment

…ok, so it’s really rhythmic madness, but I couldn’t resist the alliteration opportunity.

The song “Madness” is a fun song for a lot of reasons. The chord progression doesn’t just repeat I-V-vi-IV like so many songs it seems do these days. The song has a singable and memorable melody. There are those fun Queen-esque harmonic moments like at 2:24 of the official video. There’s actually a real guitar solo (that’s pretty good, too). The song builds pretty consistently to a powerful end. I’ve posted the video below in case you’ve been living under a rock the last couple years and don’t know the song.

But, what I want to focus on in this post is a very clever use and layering of rhythmic divisions in the song. The listener is cued in from the very first notes of the song that there’s something interesting happening with the rhythm. The first thing one hears is ma-ma-ma-ma-ma-ma-ma-ma mad mad mad. The “ma”s are set into two groups of four and the mad’s comprise one group of three that last the same length as the two groups of four “ma”s. So, from the very beginning there’s a nice contrast set up of an 8 against 3.

At the same time as the singer is setting up this nice rhythmic contrast, there’s a bass part with a very slow attack playing the same rhythm as the “ma”s and almost the same rhythm as the “mad”s. It sounds like the attack on the “mad”s is so slow that there’s a bit of delay.

It isn’t until the chord changes that what sounds like the triplet in the bass is let go for a whole measure (two actually). If you count them up, you realize that there are actually five of them in the measure, what musicians call a quintuplet.

So, already in the song sixteenth notes, triplets, and quintuplets are heard, one at a time. It almost seems as if the different subdivisions are fighting for control of the song. At the very end of the first verse (around 1:49), the bass plays first sixteenths, then triplets, and then the first three notes of the quintuplet group in order. The lead singer, Matt Bellamy, talks about his inspiration for the song as resulting from a fight with his girlfriend. He essentially composed the thing with just a drum machine and synthesizer. The video also has a lot of imagery of conflict with police in riot gear. I think the conflict is represented nicely in the music with the rhythmic “fight” being waged.

Interestingly, as the second verse starts (around 1:52) the quintuplet music, though still there, literally fights with a more straight sixteenth-based rhythm at the same time (heard between 1:53-2:02). Later, between 2:09-2:15, the same quintuplet rhythm returns to fighting directly with the triplet rhythm (in the voice).

The guitar solo nicely illuminates the same conflict in its most flashy flourish. At 3:17, the solo uses sixteenth-note rhythms, but groups them together very clearly in groups of 3, creating a very nice hemiola effect for two measures, emphasizing the same 4-against-3 conflict.

Finally, at 4:11, at the climax of the song it seems to my ear that there is a simultaneous layering of the sixteenth rhythm, the triplet rhythm, and the quintuplet rhythm (although it’s a little hard to hear all the layers all the time under the singing). The song ends nicely by winding down rhythmically.

I think this song represents a great effort to build a popular song in which the musical materials are put together thoughtfully and in a way that portrays the meaning of the song.

Chiefly about flowers

September 7, 2013 § 2 Comments

It took me a long time to stomach Tom Waits’ music. I was first exposed to Tom Waits in college by my good friend Bryce. I remember that he warned me about Tom’s voice before he played a song for me, but he also said that his music was very well-written and ultimately satisfying. He played the song “Alice” for me (one of Tom’s most accessible songs). There were things I liked about it, but I just couldn’t get past the voice.

Fast forward 5 years. I don’t know if I was bored, looking for new sounds, or just more musically curious, but I suddenly found myself in a used CD shop, looking for music by Tom Waits. It was almost as if a seed, planted years ago, had finally had enough time to germinate in my brain. Whatever the reason, I remembered this mysterious musical experience I had and was curious about it, now that my ear had matured. So, I found his album “Alice” and listened to it on a road trip.

I strongly disliked it.

The first time.

But, then I listened to it again. And again. And again. Every time I listened to it, I disliked it less, until finally I listened to it and enjoyed it. Unlike most other pop music out there, Tom Waits’ music actually rewarded repeated listenings for me.

At the beginning of the semester for my Theory 1 and 2 sections, we listened to and talked about “Flower’s Grave,” from the album “Alice.” This was the only song that I had been drawn to upon the first hearing. Again, there was something compelling about this song that encouraged relistening. I’ve posted a link to the YouTube video of this song below:

So, what is it that’s so compelling about this song? Well, when I played it for my classes, I immediately asked them how many of them didn’t like the song. I always had about 1/3 of the class that really didn’t like the song on the first hearing (of course, I completely understand that). And, unprompted, most of the students would say things about how terrible Tom’s voice was (or unpleasant, or rough, or abrasive, etc.). Then, I asked how many did like the song, and invariably more students would raise their hand (usually about 1/2 the class). What’s interesting about this is that these students also talked about Tom’s voice, but they used words like “sincere,” “painful,” or “honest.”

In both cases, students really keyed-in on Tom’s voice. Interestingly enough, students from both camps talked about how lovely the music was. There is really something of an aesthetic mismatch in this song between how lovely and gentle the accompaniment is and how raw and rough the singing is. But, there is also something inherently compelling about this mismatch.

Consider the lyrics. However, you interpret the meaning of the song, there is an unmistakeable feeling about it. It is really a mournful, sad, wistful sort of song, but there is constantly a hopeful underpinning behind it, heard most clearly in the “chorus” (if there is one):

If we are to die tonight

Is there moonlight up ahead?

And if we are to die tonight

Another rose will bloom.

In the first two lines, although the singer asks whether moonlight is ahead, it seems like he’s pretty sure the answer is “no” – at least not for him. At the least, there’s much room for doubt or question. In the second two lines, though, he states that another rose will bloom (“for a faded rose” as the next line indicates).

The hope that good things will one day arise out of the present loss is subtle in this song, but pervasive. It seems less felt than intellectually acknowledged. In other words, it seems that the singer feels as if the pain and loss currently being experienced will never end, but knows that this actually isn’t the case. This is a really bittersweet song.

What is striking to me is that this bittersweet meaning of the text is actually mirrored in the presentation of the song itself, as if the meaning is communicated not only through the words but how the song is built. The song is bittersweet, in that Tom’s voice is mournful, beat down, rough, and abrasive, but behind this sad voice lies a sweet and lovely accompaniment. The timbres are so beautiful, with the rich, deep cello notes, the lyrical clarinet, and lovely piano accompaniment.

I also really like how the chord progression is blurred through the use of these instruments. Not only is Tom’s singing liberal with timing, but the instruments rarely move together, as if all of the voices are truly independent. Although the chord may change, the clarinet or the cello often hold notes from the previous chord into the next chord. The effect is a colorful and blurred harmonic tapestry, with interesting combinations of sounds.

Additionally, there’s a sense in which the harmonic materials are normal (primarily I, IV, and V chords), but the way in which they are used is not. For example, in the lines, “for a faded rose, will I be the one that you save?” the chords change at odd times and in odd ways. The verse starts on the IV chord, and pivots right back to I on “rose.” But, then on “one” the harmony changes to a IV chord and last all the way through to the next line, “I love when it showers” (although it moves to the borrowed iv chord on “showers”). This really gives a sense in the song that the harmonic materials are being used in unique, personal ways.

With this essentially through-composed, intensely personal song, Tom gives us a real gem of musicality that rewards continued listening.

Delayed half cadences

January 13, 2013 § Leave a comment

Over Christmas, I was reminded of a wonderful and oft-neglected Christmas song, “In the Bleak Midwinter.”  The first phrase ends on a half cadence, but the V chord is delayed until halfway through the fourth measure.  You can hear it here (the phrase in question is from 0:00-0:13):

In standard Roman numeral notation, this is how the melody would be analyzed:


Typically, when the supertonic is reached on the downbeat of measure 4, the harmony also arrives on the V chord.  Here, however, the ii7 chord delays arrival of the half cadence to really nice effect.  In other words, the typical V chord that signals the half cadence is replaced by a ii7-V7 half cadence complex.

I thought it might be fun to experiment with how this might change the sound of other well-known melodies.  For example, consider a modification to “Home on the Range.”  The original version harmonizes “play” with a V chord throughout.  In this version, the V chord is replaced by the ii7-V7 complex, which delays arrival of the half cadence.  (I’m still trying to negotiate getting midi files up so you can hear the differences.  However, you should be able to play the two versions to hear the difference for yourself)RangeFor another example, consider “I’ve been working on the railroad (or “The Eyes of Texas are Upon You,” depending on your school loyalties).  In this case, “way” is traditionally harmonized by simply using a V chord.  Again, I’ve replaced the simple half-cadence with the ii7-V7 complex.


For one more example for the purposes of illustration, consider “Red River Valley.”  Again, “smile” is usually harmonized by a simple V chord.  In this case, I’ve again replaced it with the ii7-V7 complex.


In all of these cases, I think it’s important to emphasize that the larger harmonic function of these phrases remains exactly the same.  There is always an establishment of tonic followed by a point of harmonic arrival on a half-cadence.  In each of these cases, the ii7-V7 complex only serves to add additional color to a regular half-cadence.  However, these types of chord substitutions can really make the simple matter of harmonizing melodies much more interesting.