Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Gift of Song/writing

Mediacorp’s songwriting competition “The Gift of Song” is now in its voting stage. They’ve shortlisted 3 songs written for Singapore’s 50th year of independence.

Since they’re “competition” songs, I thought it’ll be interesting to give them a listen, and provide some thoughts on what works and doesn’t work for each song, from an amateur songwriting perspective.

Being Here
In the context of Singapore songs, Electrico’s “What Do You See” come to mind. Same genre, same mood. Same low baritone voice to appeal to the little Pearl Jams in you.

My opinion is that as contrived as it is, Electrico’s  2009 song is musically better, and better arranged.

The song’s in E major, and I would assume it was written using the guitar first. To further the violence that is stereotyping, I would think most keyboardists would write songs in C or G key signatures. But that is some cock logic, like saying that performing some song in F major as opposed to other key signatures would make it sound grander (Majulah Singapura, any one?).

On the good side, Ciao Turtle have songwriting guts. With Singaporean efficiency, they cut off 2 beats in the second bar of the verse, because they’re unnecessary to the song in John Lennon’s view. You’re not going to add in more lyrics or drag certain words just to fill up the rest of the bar, so why not take away a beat or 2? That motif appears again in the last line of the chorus.

| C#m - - - | A - |
| E - - - | - - - - |

That’s one of 2 parts of the song that stuck out for me, the other being the second last line of the chorus when Eddie Vedder, I mean Shabir, climaxes with a falsetto.

A clever touch would be the woah-oh-oh bit – I wouldn’t call it a bridge, but you know what I mean. They’re trying to make it singalong-friendly.

The song is straightforward and repetitive, and for me, served only one purpose – to painstakingly build up to that Scott Stapp, I mean Shabir, falsetto in the chorus, before it returns to equilibrium. I personally do not like chord arrangement of the last line of the chorus, but it’s mostly obscured by the vocals of Gavin Rossdale, I mean Shabir. To each his own.

| A - - - | - - - - | E - - - | - - - - |
| A - - - | - - - - | E - - - | - - - - |
| A - - - | - - - - | C#m - - - | - - - - |
| A - B - | - - - - |

It is straightforward because it mostly comprises a verse and a chorus. The songwriting is very directly and efficient, cutting off the pre-chorus. The song is strung together using 4 notable chords. It probably works for this genre of music. The climax in the chorus doesn’t start in the first line any way, so you don’t need a pre-chorus for the build-up.

This song sounds more like a song belonging to the final third of a rock album. It sounds understated, too wound-down and mostly anticlimatic. And to put this anglicised rock number next to a rather sino monster “Home”, people will have a hard time remembering it.

Fans of guitar-driven music will appreciate the simplicity and wholeness of the song. But for folks whose tastes have been cultivated by dance-pop and R&B, they may be divided on “Being Here”. For me, the style and genre of music here is meant to either convey a sense of longing or a sense of helpless loneliness and alienation, so it’s a little difficult going the Electrico way for a song about loving Singapore. So what do you see?

We are stars
When I first heard this song, I didn’t think it would make a good competition song. Sounded clumsy and schizophrenic. But it grew on me.

Of the 3 songs, I’d say this is the songwriter’s song (you’ve a song, and then you have a songwriter’s song; like how you have a musician and then you’ve got a musician’s musician). A songwriter’s song, for me, would be something that forces you to analyse it and respect it for what it is, and when you finally have an opinion, it may be diametrically opposite of another person’s, like the way the verse is written. Just look at the chords.

| C - - - | D - - - | F - - - | G - - - |
| C - - - | D - - - | F - - - | G - - - |

Yes, this chord sequence is perfectly fine. The Beatles used it in “You won’t see me”. But for a much slower pop song with R&B vocals, it felt strange, but strange enough for me to want to listen to it over again to try to understand what on earth is going on. It transcends certain boundaries, and maybe it’s doing it defiantly. Any way, songwriter’s song, baby.

And… It’s written in the key of C. DEH DEH DEHHHHHHHH.

The song causes me a lot dissonance, because I had expected a simple pop-light R&B mix (essentially pop sounds with soulful singing and the occasional runs). But visions of R Kelly and Silverchair (specifically and strangely “The Greatest View”) filled my mind. Rather than entertain, the song made me think and put away all preconceived notions of songwriting.

The overlapping vocals are unique, dreamy and not a Bukit Batok rat-scampering clusterfuck like 2013’s “One Singapore” (with extra cheese).

The arrangement could have done without the aimlessly winding strings, but that probably adds to the dreamy mood of the song. Speaking of dreamy, the F2 chord (or F major with a G) is a nice touch.

| C - - - | C - - - | Am - G - | F - G - |

I especially like the melody for the chorus, partly because I am a sucker for the major7ish-ness toward the end of the first line (i.e. “comets…”).

Not being a fan of lyrics in general (and I don’t pay much attention to them), and even less so since it’s a song about a country like Singapore (where you’ll get really cheesy and contrived lyrics in most cases), I however feel the opening lyrics of the chorus are by a mile the most compelling set of words written across the 3 songs. They are written a way for a very smooth delivery.  The first bars of the chorus (while stuck on the C major chord) probably provide a good case study for songwriting. Plus, after listening to each of the 3 songs, I only remember the lyrics to the first line of the chorus of this song.

Another edge this song has over the other songs is the use of a simple prechorus and bridge. Not overused like the smoke machine in the video. These parts don’t take anything away from the song and respectively provide an efficient transition from verse to chorus (although it could have a bigger buildup) and chorus to chorus. Perhaps the last note of the prechorus could have been higher than the second last note, but that’s just a personal preference.

It is not as polished as “These are the days” or as tight as “Being here”. The song could do with a better verse that would help the build-up to the chorus. Maybe redoing the verse in A minor and playing with F2s (or F major 2s, sus2s, etc), Gmaj6s and C major7s and 2s will help – make them dreamy. Given the chorus has 2 full bars of the same C chord, it would provide the only instance of clarity from the dreaminess and smoke that nicely define the other parts of the song, and thus make it a good climatic component. While I respect the use of the D major chord, I would personally omit it and favour the major2s, 6s and 7s and build the entire song around the chorus’ first line.

These are the days
Oh hey look, a woman is finally involved in this. You have 3 finalists comprising men and 2 male performers. Okay, we’ll tackle Gender another day.

2 things stuck out in this song. No. I’m not talking about that.

(1) Transposition (from B major to G# major). And (2) the roles of chords D#7 and A#7.

On the first listen, I thought “what a cheapskate way of writing a song” – you get a bunch of chords and recycle them into another key. After a couple of listens (is that even grammatically correct), there are differences in the verse and chorus other than the key signatures they’re in.

| B - C#m - | G#m - F# - |
| B - C#m - | F# - - - |
| B - C#m - | D#7 - G#m - |
| C#m7 - E/F# F# | B - - - |

| G# - A#m - | Cm - C# - |
| Fm - - - | A#7 - - - |
| G# - A#m - | Cm - C7 - |
| Fm - A#7 - | C# - D# - |

The thing about having a verse and chorus in 2 different key signatures is that you need good transitions between them. The transition from the verse to chorus is weaker than the transition from the chorus back to the verse. Maybe there are more viable transitions from G# major to B major. Taking the shorter route, going “up” (G# to B) always feels and sound better than stepping down (B to G#). Still, it depends on how you craft the transition.

The song could definitely do with a prechorus, containing a couple of lines, stringing chords that probably figure their way to the 5th chord of the G# key, i.e. D#. It’s not too difficult, you could stuff 2 chords in the last line of the prechorus, like the 5th chord of the B major key (F#) and you get | F# - D# - |, where F# is the false 5th chord fooling listeners into thinking we’ll return to B when F# was just serving as the 7th chord in the G# major key.

Before I get to the nice D#7 and A#7, the ending of the chorus sounds like it’s modelled after Dick Lee’s Home. DEH DEH DEEEEHHHHH… You know, that “come down” after the climatic part of the chorus, then you’ll want to slowly sing “for this is where I know it’s home” a capella. It works for Lee Chee Sin’s song.

Like the other 2 songs, there’s a streak of unconventionality in songwriting. Most pop or pop-ish R&B numbers typically don’t get from a second chord back to the first chord, but the song chorus’ second line did just that – using the A#7 as the last chord before returning to G#.

To get to the 6th chord minor of the verse (G#m), the song uses D#7. In most pop songs that would use a range of chords that include B, C#m, D#m, E, F# and G#m, you would think D#7 or chords with G in them would be unnecessary, since most chords are separate by 2 keys. The separation of D#7 and G#m is 1 key (via G). Anyway, the songwriter knows his stuff – when to play the card of looser and tighter separation/transitions.

With reference to the last line of the chorus, most pop songwriters will want to drag out F minor for one whole bar, or maybe add a D# major in the last beat as a transition to C# major. Other songwriters may choose to make it | Fm - Fm7 - | since F minor7 contains the D# note. But keeping to the spirit of the verse, he uses A#7. I personally prefer F minor6, but since the second line already uses the 6-2 pattern (i.e. Fm to A#7). Still, good touch.

If there’s another I can change in the song, it would be the intro strings. It goes F# B A# B. I would choose the higher B A# B than the lower one. An intro with a climatic riff would be better than one that feels a little down – the kind of down you feel when you think of the rising cost of living in Singapore.

Guess “these are the days” might win the voting competition, and it’s also helped by a very talented Farisha and children. But if it does get performed live or recorded again, I’d strongly recommend including a prechorus. WOAHOHOHHHHHH *clenches and shakes fists* is NOT a prechorus.

All the best to all the songwriters.

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