By Dave Foxx
Last month we began a series of columns that will no doubt be a serious challenge for some. I hope by condensing the entire topic of music in production to a simple list of 10 things you need to know, you will feel compelled to really do some research, to stretch the boundaries of your understanding. There is simply no way I can convey all the music information you will find invaluable in all your production in the space allotted here. So, all I can do is point you in the right direction.
I’m sure, a lot of you are already going cross-eyed and are ready to just turn the page, but before you do, let me tell you one thing: A lot of people have asked me, “What is the main difference between being stuck in East Elbow, North Dakota doing this work on a meager salary plus all the t-shirts you can eat, versus getting the big bucks in LA, Chicago or New York?” This is it. Some will say they know about “so-and-so” in Houston who hasn’t had a lick of musical training, and I’ll answer with, “Either they are a natural born musician – extremely rare, or… they took piano lessons when they were a kid or played in their High School marching band.” Let me stress this. It’s not hard. It’s really not all that complicated, but it IS very, very important.
Think about how our audience uses our product. Almost ALL of the time, the audience is doing something else while listening: driving, cooking, doing homework, cleaning… you get the idea. The typical listener is not hanging on every word we utter, so how in the world can we break through that inattention? I can say with certainty that it won’t be intellectually. (Okay… maybe on a News/Talk station.) It won’t happen in their heads folks… it’ll only happen in their hearts. Your work must always connect on an emotional level, and the easiest way to open that connection is through music.
If the music isn’t right, the message is muddled and you have totally missed the chance to really sell the listener your Unique Selling Proposition. EPIC FAIL!
So…once again, here is the entire list:
- Music is made up of parts, which can be disassembled and reassembled.
- Tempo is ALWAYS flexible.
- Rhythm is NEVER flexible.
- Key is relative.
- Musical phrasing is similar to spoken phrasing.
- Placing voiceover over singing is very much like having two people talk at once.
- Ending the music is like putting a period at the end of a sentence.
- Sung vocals need to HELP the message if at all possible.
- Effects need to support the musical phrasing.
- Tracking your voiceover to the music can double its effectiveness.
Music is like a never ending LEGO™ set. A composer is like a master LEGO™ craftsman, snapping all the parts together to make something that is fun, sad, beautiful or angry. But, like any LEGO™ construct, you can come along and pop the little colorful bricks apart and re-design the whole thing, adding, subtracting or just re-arranging things to suit your own whimsy. If you’re good, you can make something almost entirely new that barely resembles the original. If you’re really good, you can create something truly amazing that speaks to the heart.
An abbreviated list of music components would include:
Notes – individual tones marked by pitch and duration; the basic components of the melody and harmony.
Tempo – the speed of the music, usually measured in beats per minute (BPM), it can also be measured in relative terms; allegro, andante, presto, etc.
Rhythm – the emphasis certain notes in a measure get, giving the tune a style such as Mambo, Rock, Dance, etc.
Measure – a division of time containing the number of beats that complete the rhythmic cycle. A Waltz (always in 3/4 time) will always contain three full beats. Most Rock songs (usually in 4/4 time) will contain four full beats. Dance songs (often in 8/8 time) will usually contain eight beats.
Bar – a sequence of measures that comprise a verse or chorus, almost always 8, 16 or 32 measures long.
Phrase – a small collection of notes that make up a portion of the melody, often spanning a few measures. Quite similar to a spoken phrase in a complete sentence.
Rest – a period of time in a song in which no notes play, usually instrumental in helping create the rhythm.
Time signature – two numbers that tell you how many beats per measure and what size note counts as a beat. For example, a song in 4/4-time has four beats to the measure and one-quarter note per beat.
Scale – Group of pitches used in a given song. The scale name is the primary pitch for that scale. For example, a song using the C scale, would use the pitches, CDEFGAB with no flats or sharps, in other words, no black notes on a piano.
Key – A song that uses the C scale is said to be “in the key of C.”
You will no doubt notice that there are a lot of the words “usually,” “often” and “mostly.” That’s because music, like any art form, is an expression that depends almost as much on breaking the rules as the rules themselves. Fortunately, as a producer and sometime student of music, you can usually depend on most popular musicians to abide by the standard protocols. I could write 50 columns of this size, just trying to explain all the variations you’re likely to run into over time, but because we are in a popular music culture, most composers stick with what their audience knows and appreciates.
So, those are most of your little LEGO™ bricks. The two you need to pay the most attention to right away: Tempo and Rhythm. Tempo is always flexible. Rhythm is NOT.
If you have ever spun records in a nightclub, you know that you use variable speed turntables, variable speed CD players or variable speed software to make sure the music always flows. If one song is running at 130 Beats Per Minute, and the next one is 124BPM, you have to speed up the second one to match beats per minute. (Actually, it’s better to slowly reduce the speed of the first song over time, and then bring the second song up to that tempo so you don’t get too radical a difference in pitch on either, but I digress.) The point is you want to make them match, so you can lay the beats of one over the other and basically blend the two songs and never lose a beat. So, the Tempo is flexible.
When you’re blending two songs though, you must make sure that the downbeat of the first matches exactly the downbeat of the second. (The downbeat is the first beat of a measure.) If you count the beats of a measure out, the first beat of the measure in song one must happen at exactly the same time as the first beat of a measure in song two. Otherwise, every person on the dance floor stumbles and looks like a dork. You are a bad deejay with no flow. Rhythm is never flexible. The true Zen Master of mixing actually matches not just the rhythm but also the phrases and the bars!
The same rules, with minor variations, apply to radio production. You can speed up or slow down a song to match tempos with another song, although I strongly recommend you not change it more than 3% down or 5% up. This allows you to beatmix the two songs. If the Keys of the two songs are such that it sounds like two cats fighting to get out of a tied gunny-sack, skip the blending part and just beatmatch them. Instead of blending the two songs, cut from one to the other on the beat.
Earlier I mentioned the fact that some rules are made to be broken and a true artist will break some of the rules. But you need to understand that a true artist knows what kind of an effect breaking a rule will have. Cutting from the two beat in one song to the three beat in another will cause a train-wreck… every time. If that is your intent, by all means, feel free. But if you want your audience to NOT stumble and look like dorks, you want the rhythm to flow smoothly. If you want your message to sail right into the listener’s heart, keep it on the smooth tip.
For my sound this month, I want you to dance. Yeah, you read correctly… I want you to dance to a promo I did last summer. Feel the beat as you play it. This is the fastest, easiest way for you to understand these two tenets of music. The tempo IS flexible, but the rhythm is NOT. Give a listen and you’ll see what I mean.
Next month, items 4, 5 and 6 on my list. (Actually, item 6 is kind of self-explanatory, so I won’t spend much time on that.) In the meantime, keep dancing.