Song Genesis

I’ve read about a lot of recording artists who claim to have written complete songs at the 11th hour, in absolute crunch time – indeed studio time. They’re not lying, of course, and such instances have actually produced timeless gems over the years.

Even though a simple, riff-driven song, The Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction” is said to be one of these last-minute sparks of creativity, having reportedly been written in 20 minutes. When director John Hughes decided to change the ending of his classic brat pack flick “Pretty In Pink”, the band OMD were given 24 hours to rewrite the song they had written to accompany the film’s original ending. This produced the exquisite and unforgettable “If You Leave”. When a poet friend of Franz Schubert’s once brought him a new poem to be set to music, Schubert is said to have given it just one read before declaring “I got it.”

Some people are just geniuses; some are very experienced and gifted writers of music who can tap into the Muse almost at will and mold inspiration into workable chunks on the spot… Sometimes the stars just align and all musicians involved (as in a jam or studio session) have their mojo working. Most importantly, they trust themselves enough to be sure that they’ll be OK with the material later on. These are facts and they have replayed successfully many times since the dawn of music-making.

Nevertheless, I still submit that for the rest of us mere mortal composers, such feats are far from feasible. Neither are they necessarily desirable. For the most part and almost always, any new musical idea needs to set aside for a few days before it can be properly evaluated. That’s just how the ear works; it needs the interlude in order for the subconscious to process fresh melodic information. To be sure, such new content can be perfectly fine and even ingenious but you can’t possibly make an objective assessment in the heat of the moment; you need the sobering distance of time.

I agree that there is nothing more magical and stirring than a split-second liaison with the Muse providing just the phrase we need, leaving us scrambling for notation paper or a voice recorder. But the subconscious just like the conscious mind can make musical mistakes. And our makeup also (if not primarily) consists of reason, i.e. the ability to assess and organize information logically.

A musical phrase (not to mention the motifs it is comprised of) is not just an end but also a means to an end. A composer needs to get his hands dirty and squeeze whatever he can out of every snippet, especially if the overall song doesn’t know where to go or he doesn’t yet know how to arrange the piece. Oftentimes, taking a motif and applying it elsewhere in the song or instrumentation – as in a complementary line, a recurring figure or ostinato part – improves the whole project 200%.

The result often makes you cringe at the prospect of having settled for less and rested on your laurels of apparent unadulterated inspiration. And throughout this whole process, the composer constantly needs to be putting ideas away and sleeping on them, constantly juggling inspiration, nuts and bolts application of rules and tools as well as ice cold reason and distance.

Fresh musical ideas don’t come off assembly lines ready to go. They need to brew and grow; they need to cross-pollinate …and then brew and grow again, etc. Supervising this process is essentially what music composition is about. It’s what professional creativity is all about.

A Bottomless Well of Melodies

“Magic Well” by escariel

It has been suggested that some day all the melodies available to us from the 12 tones of the Western scale will be used up. Indeed, how many melodic possibilities could there be in this seemingly short stretch of notes? The truth, of course, is that we are nowhere near exhausting the melodic riches contained in the musical scale.

Further, when octaves, modes, rhythm, harmonies, dynamics, tempo and style are considered, one realizes that mere notes on a scale are only the starting point of music, like a preliminary sketch of a completed painting. But even considering just scale steps, the melodic potential is mathematically limitless, like numerical combinations of the same set of digits.

A good way to illustrate the endless possibilities is by comparing melodies that contain similar phrases, yet sound completely different because of their respective musical contexts. So, for instance, the Tinker Bell leitmotif from John Williams’ score for the movie “Hook” begins with outlines of a 2nd inversion tonic minor chord (Bbm). In Modern Talking’s “Brother Louie”, we find almost the exact same (tonic) chord tone melody, only here it is Ebm. These compositions aren’t even remotely alike; both have different tempos and styles, with instrumentation and moods worlds apart, yet both contain almost identical melodic elements.

Countless other instances of similarities between ostensibly unrelated compositions have been observed, often with undue accusations of copyright infringement. For example, Queen have been accused of plagiarizing a section of Aaron Copland’s famous “Fanfare for the Common Man” for the chorus of their classic “We Will Rock You”.

A similar situation occurs when comparing the beginning of the verse in The Beatles’ “All My Loving” and a particular transition in “Kathy’s Waltz” by the Dave Brubeck Quartet. However, instead of suggesting actual appropriation of intellectual property, these examples only demonstrate further that matching melodic phrases can be virtually unrelated in terms of mood, style or harmony.

All of this isn’t meant to suggest that there haven’t been instances of deliberate theft of melodies. However, cryptomnesia is also to blame for many of history’s melody-lifting. If we stick just to the Beatles, we have at least two such instances. First, We have Paul McCartney’s timeless “Yesterday“, which musicologists have traced to Ray Charles’ “Georgia on My Mind” and Nat King Cole’s and Frankie Laine’s “Answer Me, My Love”. However, the link is legally tenuous. The connection seems to be more visceral than anything else; McCartney, at worst, imitating in sincere flattery.

A more unfortunate example of subconscious plagiarism involved McCartney’s bandmate, George Harrison. The resemblance of Harrison’s solo hit “My Sweet Lord” to “He’s So Fine” by The Chiffons was so uncanny that litigation promptly followed its release. But cryptomnesia or dishonesty should not obscure the compositional reality of the sheer mathematical inexhaustibility of the melodic well.

In closing, an interesting observation occurs when looking at the juxtaposition of melodic phrases such as John Williams’ pixie theme and “Brother Louie” above. The real musical similarities are to other works in their authors’ repertoire. A comparison of Williams’ piece with a certain motif also performed on the celesta from his “Home Alone Overture” makes this clear. Just as comparing “Brother Louie” to other songs by Modern Talking, which for the most part seem to sleep-walk through the same chord progressions.

Such similarities are pretty obvious but the point is that they’re the only real musical limitations, whereas recurring melodic elements are not. Even a versatile composer is always ‘limited’ by his inadvertent idiosyncrasies; i.e. signature style. This hardly constitutes a problem. True confinements result from hackneyed conventions such as predictable chords.

Charlie Chaplin – Composer

Although Charles Spencer Chaplin (1889-1977) is remembered as one of the greatest and most iconic comedians of the silver screen, it is not common knowledge that he was an accomplished composer, scoring the films he starred in. This is hardly surprising, though, since the fact that he was a true auteur – writing, directing and editing his movies – is also largely overlooked.

He was a peerless film scorer – maybe the most melodic film composer ever; or at least of the first half of the 20th century. A self-taught musician who never learned to read or write notation, Chaplin had a prodigious grasp of mood, character and situation – introducing another dimension to films he made in the silent movie era almost a hundred years ago. He seemed to effortlessly evoke pathos, irony, romance, abandon, delight, mischievousness or trouble.

Chaplin’s colorful melodies ascend and descend, hop along, jump and dive in a lively and ornate style uniquely Chaplinesque. His leitmotifs could tell the entire emotional side of his stories without the images. He could write waltzes and tangos, marches and ballads with sublime, haunting and indelible melodies often harkening back to his vaudevillian roots.

One example is the song “Smile”, which was taken from his score for “Modern Times” and supplied with lyrics. It has become a standard sung by countless performers, such as Michael Jackson, yet its authorship would come as a surprise to most. Other famous melodies include the theme from “Limelight” or “This Is My Song”, famously sung by Petula Clark (also featuring in Chaplin’s “The Countess from Hong Kong”).

And far from being predictable and just complementing or illustrating the moving images, Chaplin would create irony by countering the action with a different mood. A great example is the iconic scene in “The Gold Rush”, where Chaplin’s famous Tramp character, after being stranded in the Klondike, is forced to eat his shoe out of starvation. Instead of underscoring the humor and absurdity of the situation with a quirky, off-beat tune, Chaplin supplies us with a charming little waltz; pointing instead to what the Tramp is fantasizing about instead of reality.

At the end of the day, Charlie Chaplin was a great composer of music, whether accompanying a film or not. He’s my favorite composer, hands down. It has been suggested that greatness is best measured by the number of great melodies a composer wrote and how ubiquitous they have become. And Chaplin is one of the most melodic… Still, he is simply not as well remembered as a king of melody like Tchaikovsky. It’s undoubtedly because this immense talent of Chaplin’s was overshadowed by his many other talents…

Some other music to check out:

Suite from “The Kid”

A waltz from “The Kid”

“Bitter Tango” from “Monsieur Verdoux”

Music from “Pay Day”

A tune from “City Lights”