By Lindsay Eagar
There are twelve tones available for songwriters to play with in Western music theory. (If you’re unsure about what I mean by “tone,” think about how different car horns sound based on their make, model, and how old they are. Some are low-pitched, more like a grunt; some are high-pitched and shrill.) These tones can be placed in all manner of patterns and given other variations—rhythm (how long a tone is held), harmony (combining more than one tone at a time), and musical instruments, which can provide any number of different textures of sound.
To some songwriters, the combinations are endless, intimidatingly so, even. For other songwriters, twelve tones are not enough.
Just like any other artistic skill, the more you write songs, the more you find yourself coming back to the same building blocks—pet rhythms, pet melodies, pet chord progressions that you just can’t migrate away from. It can be difficult to steer away from your initial, well-trodden musical instincts and create something entirely new.
One way to break free from your usual creative patterns is to use a limitation. A set of rules, some strict boundaries. Yes, it can turn artistic expression into something like homework, but it can also force your brain to see things from a new perspective and take risks.
Here are a few examples of songwriters who forced themselves to work with extraordinary limitations and the resulting creativity produced musical innovation.
A MUSICAL DARE
Pytor Tchaikovsky, a Russian composer, wrote the music for the Nutcracker ballet between February 1891 and April 1892. The score includes a pas de deux, a ballet dance duet between a male dancer and a female dancer, in which there are traditionally plenty of dramatic lifts, dips, and twirls. In Tchaikovsky’s ballet, the pas de deux takes place just before the finale. The Sugar Plum Fairy and her Cavalier present an emotional, impassioned, romantic dance to a song that does so much with its limitation: its melody is a simple descending scale.
The story behind the Pas de Deux goes something like this: Tchaikovsky, a stressed composer writing the score for a ballet he was “little pleased with,” is attempting to follow up his tremendous successes, Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty, Romeo and Juliet. He’s been commissioned by the Director of the Russian Imperialist Theatres to write this ballet, and it’s slow-going. Hardly a labor of love.
A friend essentially dared Tchaikovsky to write a song comprised of only a scale, claiming it would be impossible to make it work. Tchaikovsky took to the piano, tinkered with a falling G-major scale, and created this grand, glorious, romantic cello-centered piece that serves as the emotional climax to his ballet.
The best renditions of this song let the instrumentalists take their time, gliding down that scale as if they have forever to move from note to note, and the swell of the oboes and trombones in the final moments of the song are sure to leave a lump in your throat.
All from a simple scale.
MATH IN MUSIC
Math is inherent in music. Each song is comprised of measures, and each measure has a certain amount of “counts,” or beats, that must add up to a specific number. It’s fraction work. Most of the time, the math is buried so deeply beneath the intuitive parts of music theory that tend to take over the craft. But the members of the band Tool decided to push the math front and center for their 2002 song, Lateralus.
Tool frontman Maynard James Keenan has explained that this song was composed based on the Fibonacci sequence, a mathematical pattern where each number is the sum of the two previous numbers (so 1-1-2-3-5-8 and so on). The lyrics themselves are matched with the Fibonacci sequence by their syllables: “Black (1), then (1), white are (2), all I see (3)…”
This mathematical inspiration makes for an unusual listening experience. We’re typically trained to listen for consistent timing structures in songs (at least in Western music) and Lateralus changes its time signature over a dozen times. It’s a complicated composition, and yet the lyrics suggest that overthinking complex situations might steal our joy and hijack our intuition. The whole song seems to run on intuition itself—and while it doesn’t exactly thump along in time to your steadiest rhythm, your heartbeat, its switchbacks and surprises make it a fascinating venture.
Ostinato: a continually repeated musical phrase. This is what composer and film legend John Williams used to build his theme for Steven Spielberg’s Jaws. Two notes, a half-step on the tonal scale, repeated over and over again—this is the foundation of what would become on of the most effective, iconic movie scores of all time.
Perhaps you’ve already heard the tale of how John Williams brought this score to Spielberg, excited to showcase the theme. He played these ominous two notes, faster and faster in a frenzy, and Spielberg laughed, thinking it was a joke. When Williams insisted, Spielberg listened carefully… and realized the potential in this seemingly simplistic melody. It brings to mind a heartbeat, a breath in and out, and Williams brilliantly layered other sounds atop the ostinato: quick percussive strings, a French horn which trumpets out an audible warning.
The theme is relentless, and it builds to a loud, penetrating, suspenseful high register that signals to the listener’s brain, “Danger! Danger!” So much emerging from those two little notes, but Williams knew exactly what he was doing.
For every Tori Amos song (and by now there’s hundreds), there’s a wild story of its conception. This song, Marianne, recorded for her third album, Boys for Pele from 1996, is no exception.
The song is full of cryptic lyrics, but one can find a tale within about a girl named Marianne, who is in the apex of childhood, but who came to some sort of tragic early demise. Tori later explained that she wrote this song in honor of a friend of hers who died of a drug overdose—a person who Tori feels close to, even in death. The music for Marianne is primarily piano, though in the bridge, there is a chorus of symphonic strings that add to the intensity of the haunting melody.
When Tori recorded the album, she also took on the role of producer for the first time in her career. She chose to record most of the tracks at a church in County Wicklow, Ireland, and set up her beloved Bosendorfer piano in a large box within the chapel. This album is more experimental than her first two, with harpsichord, organ, and multilayered instrumentation on many tracks. And as they were setting up to record one day in Ireland, Tori had an itch to play something… and so she sat down and played a song.
The whole thing was composed as it was played and recorded. The engineers were hearing it for the first time—Tori was hearing it for the first time. Her background in classical piano and music theory might have let her compose such a complicated song on the fly, but her fearlessness as a songwriter was ultimately what gave her the gumption to even try.
A UNIVERSE OF POSSIBILITIES
First, let me just point out what might not be obvious to some: collaboration in songwriting (in any artistic endeavor, in my opinion) is absolutely a creative limitation. Yes, there are absolute pros to working with other musicians. They will have specialties that you do not. They will have different pet patterns and rhythms and go-to melodies than you will. And yet any kind of group project requires meticulous boundaries. Add to that a National Geographic-esque, science-centered concept for this album and you can see the challenges.
Planetarium came out in 2017 with a beautiful backstory. Composer Nico Muhly was commissioned to write a long-form piece for a European concert hall, and chose to ask three of his musical friends to help him. Singer-songwriter Sufjan Stevens, drummer James McAlister, and guitarist/composer Bryce Dessner from the band The National were up to the task—to create a sonic tribute to the solar system.
They spent days brainstorming and grooving, writing down the best snippets of song ideas and dividing up a list of space topics—planets, black holes, stars, big bangs, etc. Then each of them went home to work on their assigned songs individually.
When they met again, they worked on the songs together again, each adding their own particular ingredients to the mix—McAlister handled the rhythms, the techno textures, Stevens worked on the vocals and the pop hooks, Dessner took control of the guitars, and Muhly arranged the orchestrations, a string quartet as well as a brass choir comprised of seven trombones. The songs dip in and out of mythologies and pop culture nods, referencing Genesis, David Bowie, Saturn the Titan eating his children, stargazing at Methodist summer camp. If it sounds like a big ordeal, it absolutely is. Someone online once said the album feels like a Disneyland ride—moments of great turbulence and movement, then sweeping rushes, then calm sparkles.
“Normally when we make records, you can make the record and then figure out how to play it live. In this case we made a big live show and then figured out how to record it,” said Bryce Dessner of the recording process. When they did perform it live, they used a huge inflatable orb, lasers, images of space projected in the venues—and the album conjures up those kinds of images and sensations, but also factors in the kind of loneliness one must feel in space. And I believe those very human emotions are present on the album because it wasn’t just a single composer creating an hour-long ambient reflection on space, it was braided from pieces of all four musicians. Their concepts, their fears, their glories.
AN HOMAGE TO ONE OF THE GREATS
A lesser-known but certainly not less talented modern film composer is Clint Mansell. Mansell is most likely known for his work scoring the films of Darren Aronofsky—Pi, Requiem for a Dream, The Fountain, and Black Swan. His musical style, after listening to the bulk of his Aronofsky catalog, can be defined as atmospheric and dramatic, while still maintaining a certain minimalism with a violin as his trademark featured instrument. His work is subtle, with lots of repetition and slow crescendos—and in many ways, Mansell is an unusual composer to pair with a Tchaikovsky score.
But Aronofsky knew he wanted Mansell to score his psychological ballet thriller Black Swan.
Can you imagine what a heavy task it would be? To take Swan Lake, arguably one of the greatest ballet scores ever written, and compose your own rendition? But Mansell succeeded with triumphant acclaim.
“We had this idea to deconstruct [Tchaikovsky’s score], to rip it apart, to find the core of it,” and then reconstruct it “until it sounded like a mix of Tchaikovsky’s work and my own,” said Mansell of the composition process for Black Swan’s music. “I would take a four bar passage or a sixteen bar passage and build from there.”
Listening to Mansell’s score, the framework of the original composition is always present, though often in echoed refrains or introductory sequences to each number. Mansell leans into his usual subtlety, repeating loops and driving seemingly simple phrases to a meaningful, romantic ending. His take on Tchaikovsky transforms the gaudy drama of the original ballet into a claustrophobic, manic, suspenseful anthem for Nina, Black Swan’s main character, a new prima ballerina who goes mad as she rehearses for her upcoming debut as the Swan Queen.
Other composers might have shied away from the challenge of collaborating with one of the most beloved, decades-dead composers of Europe, but Mansell created something truly special.
ONE MAN BAND
Classically trained on the violin, Canadian born-and-raised Owen Pallett has composed for films, operas, rock bands like Duran Duran and Pet Shop Boys, as well as had many commissions from various national symphony orchestras and music festivals. Their music is complex yet accessible, ambient without being too esoteric, and comprised of many instrumental tracks playing rhythms, countermelodies, descants… and yet they compose and perform using only a violin, a synthesizer, and a loop pedal.
Watching them perform is a marvel, truly. They begin with the first rhythm, a bass line of sorts, something to ground the rest of the song, and record it into their loop pedal. Slowly they add layer after layer, letting us watch as they utilize the synthesizer to make keyboard tinkles, or the violin to pluck like a guitar or create a long stream of heavenly melody—and then, to make things even more wonderful, they sing along to their looping compositions. It makes you both exhausted and exhilarated to watch: all of this sound coming from one person in the middle of a stage.
So much of Pallett’s composing process comes from a similar place of displaced expectations—you could call it defiance, if you want to. When they’re feeling creatively blocked, they read all the lyrics of a favorite songwriter, go to bed, and wake up an hour earlier than usual—making themselves purposefully sleep-deprived—in order to write with the dreaminess of the alpha waves still pulsating through their brains. They then use the lyrics they’ve read as flashcards, jumping-off points for their own new material. They don’t use drumkits or click tracks as they write or record, because they prefer the organic (and, yes, sometimes inconsistent) rhythms of a human playing music.
“All the melodies, on many of the instrumental breaks, they feature the wrongest note. While writing the song, I’ll identify what note in the chromatic scale would be the wrongest note to add to the melody, and then I’ll stick it in there somehow.” So then Pallett is used to working with creative limitations, but they’re often intentionally backwards limitations. Breaking the rules on purpose.
Whether you yourself are a musician, or whether you’re a passionate listener, hopefully now you have some ideas about what it takes to write a song, let alone a decent one. The next time you hear a song you love, perhaps you do some imagining—what part of the song do you think came first? Do you think the song took one hour to write, or one year?
And how many more new songs do you think composers can write before we run out of possible note combinations? Mathematically, the answer is yes, there’s a finite amount of patterns to create… but we’re centuries away from such a cliff. In the meantime, may you never again listen to a song and take it for granted. Every creation is a wonder, every song a miracle.
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Lindsay Eagar is the author of several novels for children and adults, including HOUR OF THE BEES and most recently THE PATRON THIEF OF BREAD. She lives in the mountains of Utah with her husband and their two daughters.