Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Quit Hating On vi-IV-I-V


     The vi-IV-I-V chord progression in modern music is like that kid in high school that everyone hates. He's class president. He's an athletic star.  He's extremely socially intelligent, and has a wide circle of friends to prove it. Don't you just love to hate him? I mean, how dare he be everywhere you turn! How dare he be so popular! Never mind that he's smart, blends well in almost any situation and is pleasant to be around.
     I'm not one to hate on something because it's popular. Years ago I was into that, but I've grown up since. Among my songwriter peers, it's trendy in a non-conformist way to hate on what is probably the most commonly used chord progression in pop music of the last 20 years: vi-IV-I-V (and the same thing in different orders, like I-V-vi-IV). If you're not that well-versed in theory, but own a guitar or keyboard, vi-IV-I-V in the key of C would be Am-F-C-G.
     Let me just establish first that chord progressions are basically templates. They're meant to be drawn from a standard, informally established library of common combinations. The same is true for a collection of standard melodic fragments. There's a reason why you can't copyright a chord progression, or an 8-7-5 (scale degrees) figure. These elements exist to be used and reused, and thanks to the tone tendencies that are so vital to the way we intuitively appreciate music, there are a limited number of moves that we perceive as consonant and naturally flowing. Melodies (not cliche fragments) are copyrightable because we have available to us an infinite number of possible combinations of notes, variation points, space placement and rhythms. But the number of chord progressions that really work according to our modern, Western system are limited.
     According to our system, the vi-IV-I-V progression is inherently strong. It has just the right amount of tension and release to most ears. It's dramatic because 2 of the 3 chord changes are either a 4th or a 5th apart by the chords' root notes (IV to I, I to V), while another is a 2nd apart (V to vi), yet it's digestible because vi to IV is a 3rd apart (or 6th, same thing). A less dramatic chord progression would be I-iii-V-vi or C-Em-G-A, because all the chord changes are a 3rd apart, save for the V-vi being a 2nd apart. Something like this would work well for a purposely placid sounding ballad, but for the perfect amount of drama vs. comfort in an emotional power ballad, vi-IV-I-V is chosen because it almost always works. There's also the nice cliffhanger created by V being at the end of the phrase, but going to vi instead of I (which is the relative minor, and outlines the key) that makes this progression so delightfully repeatable.
     Finally, you can hate on cliches all you want, but there is something to be said about something reaching such a level of universal recognition and appreciation. Without cliches, our music would not have the familiarity that we crave as part of our human nature. Ever hear something on the radio, and it has this "home" feeling that draws you in? That's because you've heard bits and pieces of it before, and the familiarity combined with something new is comforting and exciting all at the same time. Of course this will vary from person to person, but I think it's safe to say that most people prefer more familiarity with only some new information. We're programmed to be like this.
     So really, quit hating on vi-IV-I-V, and quit hating on cliches. It really doesn't make you any cooler than the kid who thinks he's unique because he avoids Old Navy and hates on the nice popular dude (see South Park goth kids).

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Ew, Why Do We Want Singers to Perform When They're Sick?

     This is something I can't understand. For any other career (in a workplace that gives the slightest shit), if you're sick, you're able to stay home and rest up without being frowned upon. Why is it different for singers?
     This rule should apply to singers especially. I can't think of anyone's performance being more affected by a strep throat than a singer's, yet they tour and play shows while sick as hell, endangering the long-term health of their voice, all because the fans refuse to believe their idols are human.
     Miley Cyrus, who tried (and failed) to continue a tour in spite of her strep throat, was christened a "trooper" by CelebTV:

     Miley ended up running off stage during the middle of her performance of "7 Things" at her Salt Lake City concert to her doctors in the back. She ended up having to cancel the tour anyway, and probably postponing the healing of her throat. She should have just postponed the tour.   
     Seriously, CelebTV, did you really have to call her a trooper? Why do we encourage this? It's dangerous to sing with a sore throat and it sounds awful, no matter how good the singer is.  Proof:

     Seriously, I would have preferred Demi to lip-synch in that condition, and on a TV show it's perfectly appropriate. Unfortunately, lip-synching is massively frowned up even in situations where it's the better choice. We just can't stand to think that our idols aren't invincible.
     Performing while legitimately sick is stupid, dangerous to vocal health and annoying. Remember, "If it hurts to swallow, don't sing!" Let's stop encouraging it, please?

Sunday, April 3, 2011

It Depends On Your Aesthetic

      A couple years ago in Conservatory, I showed a song I had written, "Paper Dolls", to two different professors. In both situations, the song had to be critiqued.
     The first professor I showed it to said the song didn't have enough space, and told me where I should add an instrumental bar. I wound up using his suggestion.
     The second professor's response was that the song had too much space, and he suggested how I could cut bars and extend vocal lines to fill some of it up.
      Now, both of these professors I love and respect, but there was no way I could have taken both of their feedback. Their suggestions cancel each other out. So what was I supposed to do? Who is right? is what I kept asking myself.
     Personally, I love space in music, or "breathing room" as I like to call it. I like to savor every melodic line like a piece of fine chocolate, and I need time for it to melt in my mouth. Some people, however, prefer to just chew right through their truffles. It was only a few months ago when it dawned on me. I couldn't call one of my professors right and the other wrong because they both have different aesthetics.
     Aesthetic is a snooty-sounding but very important concept. World English Dictionary defines aesthetic as "a principle of taste or style adopted by a particular person, group, or culture" and gives "the Bauhaus aesthetic of functional modernity" as an example. The idea is that what is beautiful to one person may not be beautiful to another, and if two people love the same piece of art, they share at least one similar aesthetic, or taste.
     So, getting back to my professors - the first who heard my song critiqued it according to the "less is more" aesthetic, which is less about being busy and more about clarity, conciseness and "breathing room" (hence us both wanting more space in the song), while my other professor was very into the "more is more" aesthetic; he loved Demi Lovato's music for being "over the top on purpose" as he put it. His aesthetic is why he was craving more activity and less space in my song. Less is More versus More is More. Early Avril Lavigne versus Radio Disney. Classical versus Baroque. It would lead you to a dead end to try to prove one superior, because it's all about preference. 
     Becoming aware of my personal aesthetics and the aesthetics of my preferred genres was the most directional thing to happen to me as a songwriter. Making decisions became easy once I knew what I wanted and why I wanted it. My gut knew I wanted more space in the song, but becoming aware of the elements of my taste allowed me to consciously confirm what I knew inside.
     At Conservatory, there was always this looming idea that certain pieces of music were inherently better than others regardless of personal taste. I think that's partly true, but I felt like people were pushing the idea way too much. The more I work on music, the more I realize that there really is very little that universally applies to all styles and songs, and personal taste is more important than critics want us to think. I'll favor a song where lyrics are sung with the accents on the words as we speak them over a song that is "better" in three other ways but fails to do just that one thing. That's because natural sounding lyric pronunciation is of high importance according to my song elements value system. And I love a melody that moves mostly stepwise with only a few leaps, because that sounds natural to me, like how someone would speak. But someone with a more theatrical aesthetic may be bored with the melodies I like; he may crave more leaps because he enjoys the exaggeration of the character. Neither of us in this situation would be correct. Neither of us would have a higher knowledge of universal truth or some other philosophical crap.
     You can only judge a piece according to your aesthetic, and if you want to get objective, only to the aesthetic the piece is going for. If the writer got his or her intended message across to the people who buy into the same aesthetic, the piece was successful.
     I still support the idea of being trained in the arts because it is important to be able to think about what you're doing consciously and critically, but you should use that knowledge to create something that is beautiful to you (or to whomever you're creating the art for) according to the desired aesthetic. Luckily, both my professors understood this and never tried to force feedback. I only wish I had realized that sooner, rather than try to figure out who was "right." But some people are critical where they are not entitled. If anyone tries to tell you that Pat Metheny is scientifically better than Alanis Morissette, or that Nirvana's In Utero is inherently better than Avril Lavigne's first album, or that less space is better than more space, keep in mind it really is just their opinion.