Today’s Tip is going to depart from the usual in that we’re going to discuss music theory and composition. Naturally, this is a subject that takes years to cover in its entirely, but we’re going to start with a very simple and basic concept that can be applied to any level of writing. Because it is so simple, it is often missed, yet it is the reason why some music sounds better and holds our attention better than others. It is also a technique that when applied to MIDI sequencing, will contribute towards more a more realistic and less machine-like sound. What is it? It’s simply the number “three.” That’s right. Three happens to be a magic number in music. Follow:
If you were to hit a table with your hand you would simply be making a random noise. If you were to follow it with a second hit, you have implied something: the anticipation of a third hit. If in fact, you do strike the table a third time, in equal divisions of time, you have achieved two things: a beat and boredom. Hit the table four times in equal time divisions and you become a metronome. Going back to the third beat, why do we say we create boredom? It’s because you have given us exactly what we anticipated. Hence, we are satisfied that we know what is coming next, and the ear shuts down. We stop listening. After all, who listens to a metronome with any interest? If, on the other hand, we play two even beats and change the timing of the third, our listener’s ear is drawn back in. We have given them what they anticipate, but with a surprise. Hence, we encourage them to keep listening. Let’s say for example, that our three beats are two quarter notes followed by an eighth note and a doted quarter note rest. If we repeat that phrase twice, we then set up the anticipation of a third phrase. If we repeat the phrase a third and fourth time exactly the same way, we lose our listener’s ear, since one again, they know what is coming. Can you see how you can apply this concept to drum programming in a MIDI sequence, and why repeating the same looped phrase over and over again (even if it’s a sample of live drums playing) can equate to boredom in music?
Think about it. Human nature dictates that we pursue a mystery until it is solved. Once solved, we never come back to it. The same holds true for music. Once we are satisfied that we know what to expect, we are finished – our ear shuts down and we move on. That is not to say that repetition cannot be an effective musical technique. It can be in certain contexts, and particularly if we temper repetition with surprises.
This brings us to the concept behind the musical figure known as the Motif, which is a melodic phrase that repeats twice and is followed by a different phrase – a musical surprise if you will. The idea of repeating the phrase twice is to establish it in the listener’s ear and to set up the anticipation of a third phrase. The surprise is what keeps our listener interested in our music.
If you analyze the music of Johann Sebastian Bach, you will find that he never repeats the same thing three times in a row, whether it’s a phrase or an accompaniment in the bass. The same holds true for Mozart, Beethoven, and many other great composers as well. Apparently, this concept is something they were all aware of. If you analyze most hit songs, you will begin to see the number three in action also. Look closely at the drum patterns and bass lines. It is very common to see a very subtle change in the drum pattern (usually in the hi hat or kick drum) in the third bar of a 4-bar phrase – not significant enough to confuse the pattern, but it contributes to an almost sub-conscious effect to keep our ears engaged. Naturally, in a 4-bar phrase, the pattern changes more significantly to punctuate the fact that it is the end of the phrase. (Much like the way we use a comma or a period.) The same will hold true for larger phrases. If you examine a bass line in a pop tune, it is quite common to see the part played exactly the same way for the first two verses, and then you will hear variations on the third verse. Again, nothing so dramatic as to take focus away from the primary parts, (usually vocals) but enough to hold our interest in the music.
You will also see this in action on a larger scale in music. The song-form of popular music AABACAB, which used in almost all hit songs, is based on this concept. Letter ‘A’ represents a verse, letter ‘B ‘is the chorus and C represents a bridge. Notice that almost every song you have ever heard at least follows the pattern of verse, verse, chorus. (AAB) The melody of the verse is played twice to establish it in our ears, and is then followed by a surprise to grab our attention, which is the chorus. Hence the phrase that has been with us since the days of Tin Pan Alley, “Don’t Bore us, get to the chorus!”
In order to really see the number three in action, the best advice we can give, if you’re willing to take the time, is to MIDI sequence a several number one hits Karaoke style. Make sure that you nail the drums and bass note for note, and after a while you will begin to see the number three emerge to the point where it seems as if the rhythm tracks to songs spanning twenty years or more could have all been done by the same drummer and bass player. You will also find the same holds true for other rhythm instruments as well. For example, look at the voicing of chords played on keyboards. More often than not, you will find that the keyboardist will use different chord inversions on the third verse than those used on the first two verses. The same will hold true for choruses.
Try applying the magic number three to your own music if you are not doing so already. It will make the difference between a piece of music that commands attention and one that sinks into the background after a few bars.