On song transitions

Sometimes, when bands make their albums, they get the idea to make one song transition directly into another, proving that the album format isn’t quite dead yet. The popular concept of “shuffling” kind of screws this up. I like listening to albums all the way through, probably largely due to the fear that maybe I’ll miss one of these sweet transitions: Shuffling through my playlist, one song just cuts off mysteriously! Terrified, I’ll hurriedly try to figure out what I just missed out on, only to learn that I’m already on to some other random track. I appreciate spontaneity, but this is just annoying. Below are some times when you should flip off your shuffling and slip into loop to fully appreciate these excellent transitions:

Radiohead, Kid A, between “Idioteque” and “Morning Bell”

The players in Radiohead take their song transitions very seriously. On Kid A, not only do you get that noodly ending on “Optimistic,” but also a neat little fade-out at the end of “Idioteque.” Does the song end there? Yes and no — the music smoothly transitions from a fuzzy guitar wash to insistent drumming and more of Thom Yorke’s crooning. It goes from electronic to spastic. Despite the smooth transition, “Idioteque” and “Morning Bell” are two distinctly different songs.

Wolf Parade, Apologies to the Queen Mary, between “Dear Sons and Daughters of Hungry Ghosts” and “I’ll Believe in Anything”

In this transition, the pseudo-ending of “Dear Sons” is reminiscent of its intro, until the drums kick in — kind of like Radiohead’s transition into “Morning Bell.” Perhaps intense drumming is a tenet of the song transition: Here, the band uses them to emphasize the songs’ different rhythms.

Justice, Cross, between “Genesis” and “Let There Be Light”

Though the two songs have the same sort of feeling at the transition point, overall each has a completely different mood: “Genesis” is loud and overbearing, whereas “Let There be Light” is a much more wobbly number, leading into Justice’s bouncy and poppy hit single, “D.A.N.C.E.”

The Microphones, The Glow Pt. II, between “I Want Wind to Blow” and “The Glow, Pt. 2”

This transition is great because it’s unpredictable; it moves from a repetitive drum rhythm and chord progression to crashing drums and cymbals and a wailing electric guitar. After getting your attention, the band switches back to acoustic guitar strumming while vocalist Phil Elverum sing-talks about taking his shirt off and other things.

On tracking

Music fans, especially those that listen to electronic music, are probably aware of a technique called sequencing, where the artist arranges notes played by a synthesizer in time. The artist often uses an interface called a “piano roll,” which mimics the traditional musical staff. Most electronic music is sequenced in this way, though some experimental musicians develop their own techniques, while others deviate entirely.

Tracking is a variant of sequencing, though it differs from the original in two principal ways. Unlike sequencers, trackers are only used to arrange and trigger the playback of samples. Secondly, trackers do not attempt to mimic the musical staff. Trackers arrange time along the vertical axis as opposed to the horizontal; they don’t separate sound sources by instrument or have a direct concept of note length. Instead, trackers trigger sample sound files and allow them to play for their lengths, and then another sample is triggered in the same channel. (Channels are represented as columns in the software, analogous to one “instrument” in the piece, though channels can also be samples.)

So why should you care? The tracking paradigm’s advantages are exactly the disadvantages of traditional sequencers — trackers are very quick and easy to use, requiring no knowledge of traditional music theory. Such ease has kept trackers out of most academic settings, but they’ve gained a following in the demoscene — a loose collection of groups making computer-based music videos rendered in real time. When working with tracked music files, it is also (comparatively) easy for musicians to write interpreters — programs that pass audio to be rendered as sound. And, as you don’t need a sequencer, you don’t have to write a synthesizer to use along with it.

But aside from demogroups, trackers are ideal for many college students. Are you a CS student looking to learn more about sequencing and sound processing? Write an interpreter for some well-known tracker format; it’s an excellent project. Are you an aspiring electronic musician? Start learning on a tracker. Lots of musicians who don’t even use trackers for final products first lay out sketches of their ideas with a tracker, because they’re so easy to use and quick to operate.

And it’s not impossible to become a well-known musician via tracking; all Venetian Snares music is tracked, for example, and there are plenty of others. From the old standby ScreamTracker III to the Impulse Tracker and FastTracker 2 (the two most popular trackers when tracking was at its peak in the late ’90s) to new hybrid software like Jeskola Buzz and Renoise, tracking is worth checking out.

On melody

In an interview with Playboy in 1980, John Lennon talked about writing the song “Nowhere Man”; “I’d spent five hours that morning trying to write a song that was meaningful and good, and I finally gave up and lay down,” he said. “Then ‘Nowhere Man’ came, words and music, the whole damn thing as I lay down.”

When we talk about John Lennon, we often recognize him as being one of the greatest songwriters in the history of rock music. But for those five hours, even in 1965, at the height of the success of the Beatles — he couldn’t write a good song. For that matter, after Imagine in 1971, Lennon seems to have lost his genius: He spent the last nine years of his life writing mediocre, unimpressive pop. This doesn’t seem to make sense. During those nine years and especially during those five hours, Lennon had everything he needed to write pure pop perfection. He had experience, he had written good songs countless times before, and he knew more about songwriting than anyone. But it wasn’t enough.

Inconsistencies like this abound in pop music. All too often, bands create one immaculate album and then go on to release several sub-par ones. I’ve probably listened to The Strokes album Is This It? over 50 times; yet I’ve only listened to the band’s next two albums once or twice. How did Weezer go from the brilliance of The Blue Album and Pinkerton to the lamentable Green Album? Another issue: In bands with two guitarists — both players then equally suited to songwriting — one guitarist often winds up writing all of the songs. Finally, there’s also the problem of one-hit wonders, where the gift of songwriting enters into a musician for just a few hours or days, leaving him as quickly as it came. The answer to all of these problems lies in one thing: vocal melody.

Melody is quite often the most important element of a pop song. It’s what you sing along to; it’s what attracts you and makes you come back for more. Without well-crafted melodies, pop songs tend to fall apart. Unfortunately for songwriters, this most important element is also the most elusive. Writing melodies cannot be taught; melodies must be summoned, and quite often they just don’t come. The best songwriters know what things lead to a good melody: certain chord changes (although too much theory can be detrimental), experimentation, and practice in general; but none of these strategies will ever guarantee that one will come.

To be sure, all art involves this inconsistency. There is no “formula” for great literature, painting, poetry, or film, yet melody is somehow different. Your brain undergoes an instinctual “yes/no” reaction when it hears a melody, while these other art forms usually leave room for a “maybe.” Melodies can neither hide nor argue.

Give some credit then to those few bands that are capable of putting out one solid album after the next. Still, don’t be surprised if their next record bombs; even John Lennon couldn’t keep it going forever.