The music I just couldn’t learn

Our guitar trio is working up a transcription of a proto-madrigal from around 1490 written by a Frenchman named Pierre Certon. It’s got ridiculously tricky phrasing and rhythm. The other two guys nailed their parts and love to rip through the piece at an excessive tempo. I, on the other hand, holding down the bass part, am just baffled by this piece. I cannot get the hang of it.

So I finally realized what I needed to do. I’ve been a singer all my life, not a guitarist. So what is the secret to the phrasing of a madrigal? Lyrics, of course.

I looked it up, and the Choral Public Domain Library came to my rescue.

The piece is called “Je ne fus jamais si aise”. I found a modern, nicely-typeset version of the original three-part madrigal with the lyrics. I asked my wife, the French teacher, for some help pronouncing the early Renaissance French.

Now I sing the lyrics of the bass part while I’m plucking it out on the guitar. My brain reacts to lyrics, phrases, and sentences, cast as melodic figures, and translates that into what my fingers should be doing on the guitar. Problem solved.

Et la la la la la la la…

How Rock Ruined Songs

More specifically, how guitars ruined singing

Ever since the rock era, singers have gotten a raw deal.

It has to do with keys and tonality.

From the dawn of time, before the ascendancy of the rock guitar, people wrote songs. A song was a melody with an accompaniment. It didn’t have a particular key; whenever an individual singer was chosen to sing the song, he or she got to select the key according to how the melody fit with that individual singer’s vocal range. The accompanists, band or orchestra would accommodate the singer and transpose their accompaniment into whatever key suited the singer.

This is because every singer has a relatively small, limited range of notes that he or she can sing well.

Every song or melody has its own range of pitches–the distance between the lowest pitch in the melody and the highest pitch. This is called the tessatura in classical terminology. Some songs have a small, narrow tessatura and are easy for anybody to sing; others require a wide range of pitches, and the composer’s insisting on a particular key would mean that few singers would have voices suited to singing that melody’s wide tessatura. If you’ve got a band, and a certain singer, and you want to perform a certain song, there’s no point in performing that song in a key that will make the singer sing badly due to the necessary limitations of that singer’s voice.

Pick any classic from the Great American Songbook. Start with Rod Stewart if you absolutely have to. Now find five or six different singers over the decades of the 20th century who recorded that song and had a hit record with it. Chances are each singer chose a different key from all the others to record that song, and the band that accompanied the singer accommodated. Same song, Five or six singers, five or six recordings, five or six different keys.

But this goes way back before the jazz era. There are ample examples of composers of grand opera or oratorios who wrote arias in a certain key but then changed the keys to accommodate the ranges of the particular singers cast in that role for certain concerts and performances. Over time, certain pieces from ancient famous operas have been traditionally performed in a certain set key, but it never started out that way. When a new opera or Broadway show is created today, the key of each song is chosen to work with the singer who’s been hired to portray the role, generally speaking.

The thread running through all this is that composers in the past wrote songs for singing, for singers, without regard to any particular musical instruments used for accompaniment. They wanted to write a song that any good singer could sing and adapt to his or her voice. More generally, orchestral or band musicians of all sorts knew that if they were accompanying a singer in a song, they would need to develop enough musical talent to play a piece on their  instrument in  any key that was called for, at the drop of a hat. It’s still this way in jazz, R&B, country, just about every form of popular music other than rock or folk.

Today, though, rock music has changed all that. Why?

Guitars, and records. Rock music is composed and written to be performed using a certain limited set of techniques idiosyncratic to that strangest of instruments, the guitar, and usually in certain fingerings that cannot be transposed. Everything else in the song, including melody, tessatura, harmonies and arrangements, accommodates the guitar.

In the rock tradition, a band usually writes their own songs, to be recorded only by that band, to make a record that will be marketed and sold. Most rock songwriters only write for their own band and they don’t much care if other bands or other singers want to cover that song in the future. They consider their initial recording to be the definitive version of the song and they don’t much care if other musicians want to adapt that music into some newer creation. Furthermore, fans are accustomed to hearing that song in its original version on the radio or the record player (or whatever medium you’re playing back your recordings on).

Here’s how most rock music gets written. A song is based on a guitar accompaniment, not on a singer’s melody. A guitarist sits down with his six-string guitar, tuned to E or maybe Eb. He plays riffs or licks on his guitar, and because he’s not a technically sophisticated composer, the riffs he plays depend upon fingering patterns based around the guitar fretboard, specifically involving open strings: the notes E, A, D, g, b and e. Most rock guitar arrangements use a lot of those open notes, which is why a great deal of rock music is written in the keys of E, A or D; other keys are rarely used. In other words the particular limitations of the guitar, according to the easiest way to play it, dictate a great deal about the music being composed.

This would not happen if you were writing music in your head, at a desk on paper, or at a keyboard instrument, particularly if you started your composition with a melody and built the song around that after the fact.

The rock guitarist completes the accompaniment first. He may have no idea of a melody at all at this point. Then he brings in the singer in the band and says, “Here are the guitar licks. Compose a melody that you can sing over this exact music.”

The singer  takes what the guitarist has given him as set in stone. Naturally this particular singer is not going to compose a melody that he cannot sing. So he creates a unique melody and tessatura that fits his voice, and his voice only. This becomes the song.

If another singer were to come along with another rock band and want to do the song in a different key, his guitarist would revolt. He would say, “I know those exact licks required to play that song. If you were to raise or lower the key, I couldn’t play those exact licks on a guitar because of the positions of the open strings and the chord voicings used in the original. So it must stay in the same key, because nobody would accept it if I re-voiced the guitar part to suit a different key.” The singer, therefore, may have to strain awkwardly to hit some notes that just don’t fit in his voice. It’s probably not going to sound as good as it could.

Needless to say, all this flies in the face of the entire history of the world’s music before the rock era, and in the face of every other genre of music that’s existed alongside rock.  Rock has created a set of expectations that are rigidly adhered to, but that make no sense to every other kind of music and all other musicians. And rock’s expectations are rooted in lazy guitarists who won’t learn their instruments well enough to be able to play pieces in any key.

All good piano players who work as accompanists can take any song in any key in printed sheet music, or by ear, and transpose it on the fly up or down to whatever key the singer they are working with requests. Furthermore, popular songs that have stood the test of time are usually available in multiple print editions in  different keys; often in editions with keys selected for “male low”, “male high”, “female low” and “female high” vocal ranges.

If a jazz band meets in a club and a singer is invited to sit in with them, somebody might suggest a certain song to sing. The next question goes to the singer: “What key do you want it in?” The band plays the song in that key.

Jazz guitarists, if you are curious, don’t have any problem at all modifying their guitar parts to fit into any key selected by a singer. They learn not to rely on idiosyncratic guitar licks that require open strings. They just take the melody, and the chord progression, and they figure out on the fly how to play good-sounding chords that fit the melody in the key chosen. They don’t care if the licks they are playing are exactly like Eddie Van Halen fingered them on that record; that’s not what jazz is all about.

So what can we do to regain the proper flexibility that good songs and good singing requires? I appeal to all rock musicians; don’t insist that the songs you write must depend on specific fingerings involving open strings on a guitar or bass! That’s a lazy way out. And if you are in band performing covers or arrangements of older songs which you insist require certain fingerings or open strings, use a capo whenever it’s needed to suit the singer. If the singer needs to have the key lowered below the standard E, A or D, get yourself a baritone guitar and put the capo below the E position. Drop the song to Eb, D, C#, C, B, whatever makes the singer sound best. If you have a baritone guitar, you can keep the same fingerings if you insist.

In summary, any good performing group should be able to perform any given song transposed to whatever key is selected by the lead singer. Any good musician should know his instrument well enough to be able to do this. All the other musicians in the world know this, and practice this; it’s time for rock bands to learn to do the same. The music will only get better as a result.