To Write, Or Not To Write Original Songs

scaleI came across an article at Wired.com today that touches on something I’ve thought about a LOT!

Since I am a musician and play in a Rock&Roll band, since I play a guitar specifically, THE iconic instrument of Rock&Roll, the instrument most commonly used to write Rock&Roll songs, I am often asked whether or not I write original songs.

And, for years, I’ve had a pat answer that includes these points:

  • No, I do not write original songs.
  • Yes, I’ve tried, but the world is better off without the songs I’ve written.
  • There are only so many notes and combinations of notes, only so many chords and combinations of chords, only so many words and combinations of words, it’s all been done.

Back to that Wired.com article, the author starts off referencing a couple of recent high-profile cases, and one legendary case, of alleged songwriting plagiarism, and he posits essentially what I stated in my third bullet above, that, mathematically speaking, with only 12 notes in the Western chromatic scale (he actually uses the figure of seven notes, omitting the sharps and flats), there are only so many combinations you can make of these notes, therefore only so many songs that can be written, and so plagiarism is unavoidable, regardless of intention.

It doesn’t take long, reading the Wired piece, to conclude, thanks in part to the author’s clear and oft-stated admission, that he doesn’t know much about music theory.

Additionally, about halfway through reading, I was reminded of an axiom of my own invention, which states that over-analyzing art kills it. (I also argue that it induces pain in puppies and kittens, but some disagree with me on that point.)

And yet, I believe he makes a valid point.

It’s not an exaggeration to say that I’ve heard thousands and thousands of songs over my 50 years, and I’ve learned to play some thousands of these thousands on the guitar. As a result, I’ve learned a lot about how songs are constructed, and one thing that jumps out at even a novice guitar player is that many, many, many songs share the same or similar chord progressions.

My attempts at writing an original song, then, go something like this:

Ok, let’s start by strumming this G chord, la-la-la, nice…

This feels good! La-la-la…

Now, let’s move to a C chord…yeah…I like that! La-la-la…

Hmmmmm, where to next? La-la-la…

Let’s go to D…um…wait a minute!…

Shit! That’s a Beatles song!

In music-theory-speak, this chord progression is referred to as I-IV-V. The song is in the key of G, because it starts there (I), then it goes to C, which is the fourth (IV) note in a G Major scale, and then it goes to D, which is the fifth (V) note in the scale.

HUNDREDS of songs have been written using the I-IV-V progression, and thousands more have used the same exact chords, just in a different order. (Check out this great article at Gibson.com, titled I-IV-V: The Little Chord Progression That Could, where they break down just 10 well-known songs using I-IV-V.)

Now, put these chords in a different order and add a minor chord — I-V-vi-IV — and the list of popular songs using the progression is staggering. (See many of these songs put together in a briliant medley in the video below.)

This is why I don’t write original songs, and why anyone who does earns my deep, deep respect. Because, they’ve heard the same thousands of songs that I have, and yet they conclude they’re capable of writing something that no else ever has.

That is awesome.

Rumors That Fish & Bicycles Was Dead Were Only A Little Exaggerated

basscycle2Forgive me readers, for I have…

It’s been 10 days since my last post.

And while there really weren’t any rumors of my death, at least none that I know of, for part of my absence it very nearly felt like I was dying.

It started out so innocent: a brief report that I was taking a mini vacation, then I was off to Los Angeles for a 5-day visit with old friends. And yet, on the day I was to return to Fish & Bicycles, I suddenly became very ill, I missed the entire week at my job, and I’m only just now feeling able to write something.

I’ll spare the gory details of whatever flavor of flu it was that got me, but suffice to say it kicked.my.ass.

On the bright side, the trip to L.A. was everything I’d hoped for. Reconnecting with my longest-standing, dearest friends felt like wrapping myself in a cozy old wool sweater I’ve had since high school.

I’ll be back tomorrow with something more typical for me, inspired by my grocery run to Trader Joe’s today.

Hint: It has something to do with food. (/wink)

Headline of the Day: Strange Definition of ‘Fun’

Kicking off this new Recurring Series with a headline from our local daily newspaper, here in Bellingham, Washington:

‘I thought you would think it was fun,’ Bellingham driver told cop after trying to run him over

Bellingham Herald

The Poet Makes Grief Beautiful: Revisited

gillian-welchI just read a terrific column at Salon.com by someone known more for setting words to music than journalism, the wonderful singer-songwriter Gillian Welch.

The crux of the piece is best explained by Gillian in her opening paragraph:

I want to talk about the tradition of tragedy in Southern folk music. This tradition connects with why people make art – to deal with the gnarliest, most painful events that occur. Things beyond your control, almost beyond human understanding. This is why we sing about them: the sinking of the Titanic, hurricanes, rapes, assassination, murder, suicide, drugs …

I highly recommend reading the rest, but the reason I’m sharing it here is because it reminded me of one of my earliest posts here at Fish & Bicycles, published five years ago in only my second month, something titled The Poet Makes Grief Beautiful.

In that post, I covered some of the same territory visited by Ms. Welch, and so I thought I’d share this excerpt:

[Poet James] Stephens writes:

For, as he meditated misery
And cared it into song — Strict Care, Strict Joy!
Caring for grief he cared his grief away:
And those sad songs, tho’ woe be all the theme,
Do not make us grieve who read them now —
Because the poet makes grief beautiful.

This is why art is so important. It is nothing less than our humanity in action. We work through our experiences, experiences of grief and hardship and joy, shaping them into words, melodies, images, movements, theatrics, structures, etc., and the care we take to make something meaningful of these experiences is an incredibly powerful, positive, hopeful thing. And we receive these gifts from artists and find that these works speak to similar experiences we’ve had, making us feel sympathetic solidarity, enabling us to feel less alone with the pain and love and even terror we have been through.

I can honestly say, without exaggeration, that discovering great music, literature, and visual art saved my life, and I can’t imagine surviving a life void of this Strict Care.

Fish & Bicycles Goes On Virtual Hiatus

hiatushi·a·tus
noun — A gap or interruption in space, time, or continuity; a break


You know, I’ve been working at a university for 12 years, and so, when I hear the term hiatus, I think of privileged faculty or higher up administrators who are eligible to enjoy the occasional long break from employment, six months to a year, knowing that their job will be waiting for them when they return.

Me, on the other hand, while I have excellent healthcare benefits and a retirement plan, as well as paid sick leave and vacation, the demands of my job and the low level of my position on campus do not allow me the opportunity for hiatus. Anything longer than a 2-week vacation is very difficult to get approval for.

Therefore, I hereby announce that Fish & Bicycles is going on a virtual hiatus, for how long I do not know.

This has been a very difficult decision to make. I’ve loved blogging. I’ve been doing it since June 2004, first at my now-defunct first blog, and here at Fish & Bicycles since October 2009.

But, a number of things have added up to a gradual decline in enthusiasm and enjoyment. My life offline has become too busy, cluttered with a wide range of things both voluntary and involuntary.

Meanwhile:

  • I have a 15-year old son who will not be living at home all that much longer;
  • I have a lovely wife whom I ALWAYS wish I had more time with;
  • And, at 48 years of age, I’m finding my physical, mental, and spiritual health to be demanding more attention from me.

Additionally, I find myself, more times than not, feeling obligated to post something here at Fish & Bicycles, just to keep it alive, rather than as the product of an inspiration to create for creativity’s sake. I know that maintaining a regular practice of anything requires persistence in the face of challenges, and I’ve managed to do just that for nine years of blogging. But, I just need to take a break for a while, to attend to other things in my life.

I LOVE that definition of hiatus that I included at the start of this post — A gap or interruption in space, time, or continuity. It sounds so Sci-Fi, and given that I’m taking a virtual hiatus, I feel like a time traveler!

Hopefully, on my “travels” I will find my muse again and I’ll return to Fish & Bicycles with renewed vigor and determination.

In the meantime, I’d like to thank all of my regular readers and the many folks who have chosen to Follow Fish & Bicycles. I’ve been honored by the time people have taken to check out what I’ve been doing here.

Cheers!

My Teen, My Tug o’ War: A Poem

tug-o-war1

my teen, my tug o’war
the rope stretched taut between us
we pull
me wanting him closer
he wanting to get away…
…and yet, no letting go

for 15 years years I’ve been telling
the same old joke
about how my son had a lot of nerve
growing up
how, if I could, I would freeze his growth
at any given time
for as long as I needed him to be
that age
that size
that capable
Until I had had my fill
Until I was ready to move on

but I’ve never had that power
over time and space
and now…
…he’s been weightlifting
he’s ripped
he could kick my ass in a fight

and so here I am
reduced to being grateful that he hasn’t yet
let go of the rope

we tug

Hamlet Mashups: Brevity Is The Soul Of Wit

hamletI’ve mentioned several times, here at Fish & Bicycles, that I concentrated in Shakespeare while working on my bachelor’s degree in English, most notably in my October 2011 post concerning the film Anonymous, a fictional exploration of the Oxfordian Theory, which argues that Shakespeare didn’t actually write the works he is so famous for.

All that is to explain that most things Shakespearean usually grab my attention, and today is no exception, as I’ve come across two items on the web, within minutes of each other, both related to Shakespeare’s Hamlet, arguably the Bard’s greatest and most influential play.

First, via a tweet by Studio 360 host Kurt Andersen, an eye-popping and highly entertaining mashup, by Geoff Klock, of 65 very short clips from 65 movies and TV shows, some from actual productions of Hamlet, and others references to or quotes from Hamlet, the latter often from the seemingly most unlikely sources imaginable.

As a former student of Shakespeare, I find the sources of the references and quotes to be particularly fascinating. From Gilligan’s Island to action flicks, from children’s cartoons to The Simpsons, I have to wonder just how many original viewers recognized, much less understood, these.

I suppose the fair and non-cynical thing to say would be that the widespread influence is undeniably impressive, regardless of how much impact these snippets of Shakespeare may have had. So, yeah, I’ll leave it at that and not spoil it by over analyzing.

Next, via McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, John Peck’s hilarious Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and Hall and Oates, a kind of mashup of its own, with just words instead of video.

Here, without any commentary from me, for it needs none, an excerpt:

    ACT III, SCENE II

    Danish march. A flourish. Enter HAMLET, KING CLAUDIUS, QUEEN GERTRUDE, POLONIUS, ROSENCRANTZ, GUILDENSTERN, HALL, OATES, and others.

    HAMLET

    They are coming to the play; I must be idle:
    Get you a place. Where be Ophelia? My own person,
    Like the sun, doth daily rise to greet her.

    HALL

    I wouldn’t if I were you,
    I know what she can do,
    She’s deadly, man, she could really rip your world apart.
    Mind over matter, ooh, the beauty is there,
    But a beast is in the heart.

    OATES
    (silent)

    HAMLET
    (clears throat)

    Go, bid the players make ready.

    ROSENCRANTZ AND GUILDENSTERN

    We will, my lord.

    Exeunt ROSENCRANTZ and GUILDENSTERN. Enter OPHELIA.

    OATES

    Whoa-oh, here she comes.

    HALL

    Watch out boy, she’ll chew you up.

    OATES

    Whoa-oh, here she comes.

    HALL

    She’s a maneater.

    HAMLET

    Let the show begin!

    Enter a dozen SAXOPHONISTS.

    KING CLAUDIUS

    Gods, no! Give me some light: away!

    Exeunt all.