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“Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!”
Ximénez, The Spanish Inquisition Sketch, Monty Python’s Flying Circus

I’m going to offer a completely unsolicited opinion about what I believe generally makes a truly great song, or any art for that matter. Granted, this is my blog and just about everything in here is unsolicited, save for snarky suggestions from friends and family, but nobody asked me about this particular topic so I can say without reservation that this is a completely unsolicited post. Ahem. I believe an exemplary song consists of a fine balance between two equally  important aspects: familiarity and surprise. There must be enough familiarity in structure, chord progression and melody to maintain interest; too strange and the majority of the audience will dislike it immediately; too familiar and people get bored with it and move on to The Next Big Thing. The differentiating factor in a great song is when there’s a little surprise included, either musically or lyrically; that spark which ignites the excitement. The finely tuned balance between the two is the Secret Sauce that makes the magic happen, contrasting  an OK song from a great song which will endure the test of time, spanning one generation to the next. Perhaps even To Infinity and…no, I won’t say it. Ahem. That is the theory that I have and which is mine, and what it is too.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for innovation and avant-garde experimentation in music. There have been notable successes in exploring the strange,  unnoticed and untraveled. Arnold Schoenberg’s dodecaphonic  compositional technique (otherwise known as “twelve-tone”), the forerunner of serialism and later on, atonal or post-tonal music, is a prime example of experimental musical exploration maturing into an art movement all its own. And although many dismiss Frank Zappa’s music as puerile mainly because of his lyrics (e.g. “Watch out where the huskies go and don’t you eat that yellow snow…”), he produced an enormous body of experimental work which is truly unique in complexity and overall musicality, as well as requiring a high level of virtuosity and coordination to actually play, whether your first name is Dweezil or not. That said, in mainstream music, experimentation does not usually lead to widespread commercial success because the majority of the public desires the familiar over the strange.

I’m not an expert on Eastern musical forms which follow different rules than the West, so I’ll confine myself to what I know in order to avoid being pelted with weird, overripe vegetables with names I can’t pronounce as I walk down the street because my Korean Kagok or Huangmei xi forms are faulty. I get enough of that with vegetables whose names I can pronounce, but that’s another story. Where was I? Ah, yes.  Here in the West, the familiar encompasses  accepted norms, or current fashions, if you will, in Western musical structure, typically 8-bar blocks, with or without contrasting sections, often designated as A, B, C and D. Common forms include the AAA one part song form (think Bridge Over Troubled Water; this is often the form used in folk music), AABA two-part form (two verses, a bridge and a last verse, as in Somewhere Over the Rainbow), ABAB form (usually verse, chorus, verse, chorus but can be just musically contrasting sections, as in Fly Me To The Moon), ABABCB form (two verse/chorus pairs, a bridge section and a final chorus; very common in rock/pop music), ABAC form (like the ABAB, but the final C section starts similarly as a B section and then changes significantly in music and lyrics; such as Moon River) and ABCD form (all sections different from each other, often used in movies and Broadway musical scores to tell a story). There are exceptions to these basic forms, of course, but a great deal of Western musical structure falls into these categories.

Chord progressions also follow accepted patterns and norms in Western music, often to ludicrous extremes. Take a moment to Google (or whatever your search engine of choice) “4 Chords” by the Australian musical comedy group Axis of Awesome and you’ll see what I mean. The video pointedly showcases the industry’s penchant for producing hit recordings using the same I-V-vi-IV chord progression (e.g. C-G-Am-F) over and over and over again through a medley of 40+ hit songs employing exactly this same sequence (admittedly, transposition helps drive home the point). The sad part is the song list changes from show to show. We’re used to having this progression before us and consciously or unconsciously choose songs with this embedded inside them, either as a central motif or in a significant section. Perhaps it’s not us and there’s some mystical organization of pan-corporate music execs who like the I-V-vi-IV progression and keep producing records with it in them but that smack of Illuminati-type conspiracy theories and I’m just not going down that road. Comedy aside, that’s not to say standard progressions are bad; for example, blues as we know it wouldn’t exist without the standard 12-bar progressions and voicings of the form. The progressions are popular because people get used to hearing the same thing and seem to prefer it precisely because it’s predictable.

Lyrics also follow patterns and accepted norms, usually in market-centric fashions. I’m not a big fan of endlessly repeated phrases or long strings of “ooh, ooh, aah, aah, yeah, yeah, hey, hey” to pad out the lyric sheet but they do work for particular genres, I suppose. Personally I think it’s a cop-out; if you’re writing a song, have something to say. Hip-hop has too much to say for my liking, but there’s no denying the popularity of the song form. Perhaps it’s because I just can’t enunciate that quickly and I have an underdeveloped rhythm gland. But I digress — even Vanilla Ice was popular for a time.

Pardon me while I climb on my soap box. What it comes down to is the formulaic nature of the entertainment industry: take a good idea and run with it until the public is really sick and tired of it, then move on to something else. I have a good friend who took an almost immediate dislike to Scooby Doo, Where Are You? because he felt it was far too predictable and contrived (I’m talking about the original 1970’s cartoon series, long before the Japanese anime recasting and the bizarre live-action movies — hey, me and my friends are old). Teens drive around, weird things happen, pratfalls, ridiculous amounts of food consumed, Velma loses her glasses, hoax discovered, bad guys unmasked. After a couple of episodes, my friend got bored with it; before the episode even began, you pretty much knew how it was going to turn out in the end. I continued watching because I had a thing for Daphne — I dig redheads. My friend’s cynicism aside, the popularity of the show continues on since its debut in 1969, and you still don’t have to be Carnac the Magnificent to figure out how the episodes are going to end.

Like the predictability of Scooby Doo, there’s a tendency to produce music that quickly begins to sound like everything else; lyrics, chord progressions, musical phrases and production techniques become all too predictable and the cop-outs become the norm. But there’s no denying success and the bills have to get paid somehow, whether something new or riding on somebody else’s coattails. Okay, okay, before you grab the squishy tomatoes, I’ll admit not everything is junk out there and I’m not quite at the point of shaking my cane and yelling at the neighborhood kids to get off my lawn. There are many factors necessary to create a good song and the airwaves, jukeboxes and MP3 players out there are filled with a lot of good songs. Again, in my humble opinion, it’s the element of surprise that makes a great song. I’ll climb down off my soap box for now.

The surprise factor is the break from these formulaic forms and lyrical methodologies. It doesn’t have to happen in the entire song – that would put in the realm of the strange and as I stated before, likely turn the public off. It’s the unexpected, clever lyric, the creative chord substitution, the catchy hook that makes a song stand out from the rest of the pack. Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys is masterful at creative chord substitutions which deviate from the expected. Bob Dylan is undisputedly a virtuoso lyricist with the envious ability to weave compelling stories into his songs like no other; jarring lyrics pulling emotions right out of you. It certainly isn’t the harmonica playing that make his songs, it’s the well-crafted lyrical stories he tells. Classics like Tangled Up in Blue come to mind or later work with the Traveling Wilburys such as Tweeter and the Monkey Man. Jason Mraz is also an excellent lyricist with a keen sense of the surprise element necessary to produce great songs. Anything on “We Sing, We Dance, We Steal Things,” falls into this, honestly, airplay or not. Great stuff. There are many other examples out there and I’m sure you have your own ideas. Take the time to really listen  to what’s going on inside your favorite songs: lyrics, musicality, the hook and the embellishments. The truly great ones defy convincing imitation because they either took the time to craft the song or they were gifted with the ability to just more or less effortlessly produce classic hits. A highly enviable talent, the latter and one which is rare indeed.

As might be guessed, surprise is often ephemeral; what astonishes, delights or jolts the public one moment is trite and boring the next because the public is fickle. You know what I mean — go through your old music collection and I can almost guarantee you’ll come across at least one item where you’ll ask yourself, “What was I thinking? That was a favorite? And all my friends listened to it too?” If you don’t honestly come across something like that, you’ve been far cooler than me all your life, but I was the one who ruined the grading curve in science class and ended up with a better GPA. Nyaah, nyaah. I’ll learn cool as I go, thank you. What is far more likely is that you’ll find a bewildering variety of embarrassing tunes in your musty attic archives, your kids will end up listening to stuff you hate now and they’ll be embarrassed to admit listening to it later on in life, too. But back when you were young, the stuff that ended up in your attic was the greatest sound ever uttered in the history of the universe. Go figure.

 Surprise is easier said than done without sounding contrived and striving for it in musical composition is often a life-long obsession. It’s certainly something I try for every time I compose. For me, it’s rarely spontaneous and like all creative endeavors, I doubt if it’s something that can really be learned as an on-demand skill (“9:00 AM Monday: add killer hook and surprise turnaround to current song /9:15 AM Monday: go to studio and cut demo” …nice thought, but realistically not that simple…) . I do know that it get’s somewhat easier to do it well once you’ve been able to accomplish it more than a couple of times (the phrase “one-hit wonder” comes to mind if you can’t), in that as your musical chops become more sophisticated, the surprises you do come up with sound less trite and contrived. As another friend has remarked to me time and again, “If it was easy, everyone would be doing it.”

Listen carefully  to your choices of who does the musical surprise well. Branch out a little beyond your comfort zone and listen to material you wouldn’t normally choose. Try to deconstruct why it works in each song (some defy explanation other than cultural psychology) and try it out yourself in your own compositions. It’s OK to imitate, just make it your own. If it works out for you in your compositions, drop me an e-mail or better yet, surprise me on Grammy night.