Saturday 15 September 2012

Musical analysis of pop, rock and reggae


I was keen on pop music aged about 10-11, and played in a sort-of 'group', but throughout my teens I was interested by firstly folk music, then classical - and only around twenty did I take much of an interest in pop.

A thing I liked to do was use my basic musical knowledge (derived mostly from classical) to understand a bit about pop.


Because pop is simple, it was possible for even a modestly knowledgeable person to realize what was going on - although one thing I soon realized was that pop was more complex, and more diverse, than I had assumed.


For example I realized that within pop there was pop-as such, which was based on tonic-dominant harmonies (e.g. the Beatles) and rhythm and blues/ rock and roll based on tonic-subdominant harmonies (e.g. the Rolling Stones).

One of the biggest groups - Status Quo - had broken into the scene as a I-V pop group (Pictures of matchstick men) and then become the classic rock and roll I-IV outfit.

I recognized that punk rock was something new in terms of its use of minor chords in fast and aggressive music; and that its other musical innovations were singing in an English (not fake American) accent, machine-gun drumming and distorted rhythm guitars.

I was surprised to find that the loudest and most wild 'heavy metal' group - Motorhead - was actually a punk band in terms of its harmonies - and their sound was built on an unique strummed-bass guitar sound from Lemmy.

I was interested by the two trios which dominated early 80s English pop: the Police and the Jam: and that the fact that the Police singer played bass meant that the group was built around the unique and virtuoso rhythm/ lead guitar talent of Andy Summers; while the Jam's singer played guitar, therefore was restricted to rhythm guitar and their bass player - Bruce Foxton - was in effect playing lead on the bass as well as underpinning the sound.

I had always liked reggae (since the late 1960s) but couldn't understand what made it different: however listening to the 'two-tone' revival of ska and rocksteady (e.g. the Specials), I un-picked that the basis was (if counted as four to a bar) a combination of four elements:

1. off-beat rhythm (on guitar or organ)
2. coming down hard on the third beat (usually snare drum)
3. bass guitar which syncopated (in a triplet rhythm)
4. a hi-hat or other percussion tapping eight beats (semi-quavers) to the bar as background

And I recognized that the novelty group Madness, were actually great musical innovators, and had created a new and uniquely English (indeed Cockney) combination of  singing, dance, humour, sentiment and a 'fairground organ' sound built up from ska.

Signs of a misspent youth, no doubt...



B322 said...

I always wanted to do the same sort of analysis to pop and rock and all that, but even when I learned a little theory, I still lacked the ear; I could never identify an interval or a chord or whatever. I'm still trying to figure out what interval it is that makes me dislike country-western harmonies; I think it is a sixth or something, where my ear demands a third, but I could be totally wrong.

The "fake American accents" thing is fascinating. As a kid I once declared that the Beatles must be American because "British people don't sound that way". I was told that all English-language singing sounds the same, which I believed until I heard the Clash and the Sex Pistols. (I also heard that one of the reasons Mick Jagger sounds so odd is that he is trying to sound like American blues men, and the reason Joey Ramone sounds so odd is that he is trying to sound like Mick Jagger.)

So now I am wondering who else is faking American accents and who just has a unique singing style and/or a non-RP regional British accent I'm not familiar with. Let me guess:
Syd Barret is doing an American accent on "Astronomy Domine".
Andrew Eldritch does an American accent on pretty much every Sisters of Mercy song ever.
David Gilmour doesn't try an accent but has a pretty light / middle-class accent to begin with.
I couldn't even begin to guess if Peter Murphy is singing in his natural accent. That guy is from one of the more posh districts of Jupiter, if I'm not mistaken.

The thing is, the Swedish and Norwegian bands I know don't sound any more or less American than the average non-punk British band. This is true even if they're singing in vaguely Elizabethan syntax! If anything I think they would be trying to approximate RP British. So I'm probably just hopeless at recognizing sung accents. (I'd really like, at some point, some helpful Briton to provide a version of one of the Harry Potter movies with the individual's accent described in subtitles. Since the kids, at least, seem like their from all over the isles, that would bring us up to speed pretty well.)

The Crow said...

Everything has perceived value in direct proportion to its scarcity.
Youth has a surfeit of youth, and so attaches little value to it.
As youth declines to a dwindling, finite resource, its true value becomes clear. Too late.
So don't feel bad about your misspent youth, Bruce:
Almost all youth is misspent by those that have it.

Bruce Charlton said...

@OdE - the first time I heard a pop singer with an English accent was Bryan Ferry in Virgina Plain by Roxy Music - I suspect that Johnny Rotten (Sex Pistols) got his characteristic English sing song intonation from Ferry.

I think I can help you with Harry Potter movie accents:

Harry is RP (received pronunciation, BBC English, neutral) and so is Herminone but a privately educated version.

Ron is Estuary English, South East England - vaguely cockney.

Luna is from Ireland (Eire).

Neville is from Yorkshire (Southern NE England)

- what else do you want to know?

The Crow said...

I note, and did back in the day, with some surprise, that Sandy Denny was probably the first Brit singer to make a point of singing with a home-counties accent, in an age where everybody was trying to sound transatlantic.

If you don't know who Sandy Denny was, then treat yourself to a YouTube exploration. She worked a lot with Fairport Convention, and then with Fotheringay.
Unfortunately, most of her exposure on YouTube has been removed, due to copyright issues, but there remains enough to satisfy.

I met her once, in St. James's Park, before I had ever heard of her, and instantly fell in love :)

B322 said...

Well, I assume most of the professors other than Maggie Smith's wonderful Scot are pretty much Oxbridge. Is that right?

And Bill Nighy's soldier-politician? He sounded like no one else.

I can't remember if Draco Malfoy sounded consistently posh. His accent seemed a little coarse from time to time but they may just be my reaction to the character.

Miranda Richardson's Goblet of Fire journalist? I know "smarmy" isn't an accent.

Final, random question: were there any obvious Cornish or Welsh accents? I figure if there are Bulgarians and house elves; there should be some Welshmen.

Bruce Charlton said...

Among professors: Snape is of course the perfect RP accent; same for Voldemort; Dumbeldore - RP but slightly Irish tinged (don't know why...); McG Morningside, Edinburgh, Scotland; Sprout, Flitwick (and Sirius) and Lupin - RP; Hagrid, generic West Country rural - that is the nearest accent to Cornish; the Bill Nighy character was Welsh - perhaps a reference to David Lloyd George?; Draco Malfoy was sometimes RP/ Oxbridge but sometimes (accidentally) tinged with estuary English (his father, Lucius, has the classic over-enunciated English 'actORs' accent which never occurs in real life - think Noel Coward. It covers-up class and region of origin.); Rita Skeeter's accent was I mostly RP but with a strong 'lower middle class' south east England background coming through; Crabbe and Goyle were Cockneys (perhaps in reference to the gangster Kray twins - but Cockney is the stereotypical accent for thugs in English movies, as Glaswegian is in Scottish movies).

PMSS said...

Thanks for sharing this. I also enjoy reggae music. I recently watch BBC documentary about reggae music, starring Bob Marley titled Reggae: The Story of Jamaican Music. It is must watch documentary for those who love reggae and music fans.

Bruce Charlton said...

@PMSS - Actually, I'm not much of a fan of Bob M - I prefer the likes of Desmond Dekker and the lesser known late 1960s bands plus the late 70s British ska revival bands.

My all time favourite piece of reggae is this - Liquidator by Harry J All Stars:

dbk_999 said...

Are you aware of the Spanish study that came out about a month or so ago which involved some computer-abstracted sampling of pop music from around 1960 to the present, which basically had the conclusion that since 1960, pop music has gotten louder and dumber?

Another interesting take on pop music is First Things 'Postmodern Conservative' blogger Carl Scott's "Rock Songbook" posts, although the analysis isn't musicological, but more moral sociological. His basic stance is that Rock music has been at best trivial and at worst evil, but that we're stuck with it, so we might as well analyze its evil. (He's obviously also a former, maybe present fan.)I was suprised by the depth of some of the Analyses he does, particularly on the Zombie's "Time of the Season". A google search should turn this up.