Thursday, December 03, 2015

What Makes Music Good to Me?

Sometimes I get asked what my favorite music genre is. That question has, for years, stumped me. I don't think I have a favorite genre. I like some songs from many different genre. I tend not to like Country, but there are exceptions. I tend to like adult contemporary, but there are exceptions. You get the idea. I also tend not to like rap or hip-hop, and there are no exceptions. But that, in itself, is an exception.

So I decided, in my time of retirement, to give it some thought. What is my favorite type of music? So I came up with a sort of algorithm for determining the odds that I will like a certain piece of music or not. Below, I will outline that algorithm, along with samples of music that provide examples of each point.

1. Does it have a catchy melody? Most people like songs with nice melodies. That provides the hook in a lot of Pop and Country music. I, too, like a catchy melody. Not all songs have to be catchy, but odds are higher that I will like the song if it does.

Example: "Sweet Pea"by Tommy Roe. It also has a couple of my other criteria for a good song but the catchy tune is the highlight.

2. Does it have a compelling chord progression? This is probably a requirement for any song that I like, with few exceptions (America's Horse with No Name comes to mind as an exception, with only two chords in the entire song). Chord progression is essential for a catchy tune as well. Chords are a group of three or more notes (triad) that sound well together. Most songs go through a series of chord changes, including transition chords, that enhance the tune and give it depth. Sometimes, transition chords can be almost virtual. You hear them mostly in your head, but they still must be played with at least one note in the song. If it is left out, it can make a song sound dull and amateurish.

Example: "The End of the World" as sung by Susan Boyle. Listen at this fine example of chord progression. There are 7 chord changes within the line, "Don't they know it's the end of the world? It ended when I lost your love." Followed immediately by a transition seventh chord right before the next line, "I wake up...." The accompaniment is so wisp-like that if there is any background noise the transition could be missed. It's awesome! The original version by Skeeter Davis is also beautiful, but with its faster tempo and a recitation it is not as compelling.

3. Does it have syncopation? Many pieces of music incorporate a certain amount of syncopation of one variety or another, but I tend to prefer songs that highlight this dynamic aspect of music composition. It is a must for most Latin music and Jazz. Syncopation is caused by stressing a note in the rhythm that is not usually stressed. One of my favorite types of syncopation is the triplet, where three equal notes are put in the space where there are normally only two. So, for example, three quarter notes taking up two beats in a 4/4 measure.

Example: "Marshmallow World" by Emmy the Great. This version has more syncopation than any other I've heard. It has it in the intro. It has it within the song in phrases such as, "It's a time for play," and "It's a whipped cream day." And I love the sextuplet in the transition between verses. It's a double triplet! Enjoy this holiday favorite!

4. Does it have nice harmony? Obviously, not all songs are sung in harmony, but the ones that are get a bonus point. I love nice harmony, the blending of voices to produce a chord.

Example: "What's Your Name" from the Flipped Sound Track. This song has decent three-part harmony and it gets bonus points for also having a really nice chord progression.

5. Is it in 3/4 time? Or does it have some other compelling rhythm? Most songs are not composed in three-quarter time. But if it is, it has my attention at least. Waltzes have this time signature, but there are plenty of nice songs that are not waltzes that also have it. In addition, a 2/4 time signature can also be quite captivating.

Examples: "Dandelion Wine" by Blackmore's Night. It's got a catchy tune, some nice chord changes, and has a 3/4 time signature. Who could ask for more?

And here's a good song by Brooke White, "Keep Running," which is in a slow 2/4 time and thus rendered rather hypnotic.

6. Is it contrapuntal? Most modern music isn't. But there are some examples. Counterpoint reached its heyday during the Baroque era. The best and most popular example that's still played today is the Pachelbel Canon. Contrapuntal music has two or more different melodies that play off each other, sometimes in complex ways. That is in contrast to most music that has but one melody backed up by a harmony of broken chords.

Examples: I will give two examples of contrapuntal music. The first one is an adaptation of the Pachelbel Canon but with vocals so that it is easier to distinguish the three intertwined melodies. It's the "Christmas Canon" by Trans-Siberian Orchestra.

The second example is the theme from a classic TV series, Hogan's Heroes. The horns playing the baritone part come in later and form the second melody.

And, so, if a piece of music has at least two of these six properties, there's a good chance that I will like it, regardless of what genre someone thinks it belongs to.