not at all the same as "bartime pairs"

A few months back, one of the music-related e-mails in my inbox was from a songwriter I hadn’t heard of named Bennett Samuel Lin. Lin is the main songwriter for a band called Bobtail Yearlings (whom I also had not heard of), but rather than promoting his band directly, in this case he was interested in feedback on a book he’d just published, called The Bobtail Method for Composing Unique Pop Melodies. (The Method is available both in book form and online as a free PDF file, at the band’s website – painfully cute front page and all.) While Lin does have some formal musical training, his method doesn’t seem to follow typical songwriting advice or approaches. His main idea is that chord sequences and melodies ought to be composed together, rather than either a melody being written separately (often come up with from the blue sky) and chords built around it, or a chord sequence being written, over which an impoverished, stereotypical melody is improvised.

To this end, Lin walks his readers through the way chords and melodies work and work together. His basic device he calls “the barline pair”: “exactly what its name implies: two barlines, signifying a harmonic progression of three bars, with one chord per bar.” And what he does with this simple, simplifying device is provide for the musician a sort of puzzle: he leaves the third bar unspecified. So we begin with a question: given these two chords and/or these two melodic lines (he walks us through the construction of both), what chord and melodic line makes musical sense in that third bar? There are, of course, numerous possibilities – but Lin begins by exploring the nature of melodies: their distribution of steps (half- or whole steps), skips (a third or fourth, sometimes), and leaps (generally a diminished fifth or greater), their “points of emphasis” deriving from their intervals, changes in register (any leap defines a change in register), and rhythmic characteristics.

In practice (and probably because to construct a book, you have to begin somewhere), Lin begins with chords, in that he constructs “barline pairs” for every possible sequence of two chords, which chords he’s categorized in terms of their harmonic relation, from closest to furthest. Progressing through the book, the reader finds the chords, melodies, and rhythms increasing in complexity and moving away from the harmonically, melodically, and rhythmically obvious.

So how useful is all this? First, I’m probably not his ideal audience: I do have some musical training, enough that it’s reasonable when I write songs to proceed more intuitively, confident that I can spot out both the over-obvious and the unduly recherché chordal or melodic sequence. Well, I’d like to think I can, anyway: point is, at first I found myself thinking that Lin’s approach was maybe too formalistic, too intellectualized, and that sometimes one just needs to trust one’s ears. But (and I think Lin would argue thus), where do one’s ears learn what works? Much of the music we hear is, for better or worse, rather clichéd harmonically and, these days, impoverished melodically – so one’s ears may well be a poor guide, prone to lead one down only the most worn, well-traveled, and predictable paths. The advantage of Lin’s method for beginning musicians is that without being as arbitrary as, say, the twelve-tone school, he doesn’t privilege particular chord sequences but shows readers how each one might be made to work reasonably well, in certain contexts. And I suspect that such methodological order might help such musicians get a handle on the unruly array of possibilities a keyboard or guitar presents to them.

I’m not sure about some of Lin’s quirks: nearly all his examples (at least in the early part of the book) are in 6/8 time because, he says, this “is an optimal [meter] for creating an interesting melodic contour that feels neither too sparse nor too crowded [and which] … provides greater flexibility for consolidating a fluid melodic pace when different barline pairs are assembled into a single musical work, which can then be converted to common time (four quarter notes per bar) all at once.” Maybe…I’m not entirely persuaded. I was also concerned (as I said above) that the musical exercises that would result from “The Bobtail Method” would be logical but uncompelling musically (that is to say, emotionally). Some of them probably are…but then, they’re intended as exercises and examples in some cases, while others are drawn from his own compositions. Fortunately, nearly twenty Bobtail Yearlings tracks are downloadable from the band’s website, and they go some ways toward answering the question of how well Lin’s ideas work in practice. My first impression is fairly positive: they generally begin from a folk-like texture, but their variety is broader than “folk-like” suggests, and while they are more diverse harmonically and melodically than most pop music, they’re not egregiously or clumsily so. In practice, at least, Lin wears his theoretical approach lightly and gracefully. That cutesy splash page does characterize the music to an extent: if you’re one of those people who requires a heavy dose of obvious angst and heaviness in your music, you’ll probably be disappointed. (Me, I think being boringly dark all the time is easier than the opposite, yet somehow critically more accepted.) Also, banjo.

My only real criticisms of the book are both trivial: I wish the print version had been made available bound such that it could lie flat, to make it easier to rest on a music stand and play the examples. (Perhaps future editions, if they come to be, can be bound this way. You can always download and print the PDF version however you want, of course.) I also think it might have been helpful, when Lin demonstrates the effects of particular chord sequences, to have provided examples from well-known songs rather than just his own music. While copyright no doubt prevented him from reproducing the notes and chords of such songs, he could certainly mention them (as in the well-known mnemonic – a bit outdated but still effective – that to remember a melodic interval of a rising augmented fourth, think of the first two notes of Bernstein’s “Maria” from West Side Story, say). This would allow readers to “hear” in their heads the effect of such chordal sequences even if they’re away from an instrument, and it would also illustrate (in conjunction with the examples from Lin’s own songs) that the same chord sequence can result in sometimes dramatically different effects, depending upon other musical components (which melody and rhythm are chosen with those chords, texture, etc.).

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6 Comments

Filed under books, noiselike

6 responses to “not at all the same as "bartime pairs"

  1. Tim Walters

    I read the PDF, and kept waiting for him to talk about functional harmony, antecendent/consequent, or any of the things that make tunes make sense on a global level. But no. And sure enough, listening to the songs, they’re a series of cool changes that don’t add up to any kind of coherent musical narrative. It’s cool, in a Beach-Boys-do-Stockhausen-moment-form kinda way, but it’s very much the opposite of catchy. Add the odd vocal character (which I like) and the near-inaudibility of the lyrics (which I don’t), and I think it’s not really fair to blame the lack of sales on indie-culture bogosity.

    I’ll be downloading the albums, though, and maybe I’ll eventually learn to hum them…

  2. 2fs

    Good points, Tim – maybe another way of looking at it is that in focusing on the integration of chords and melody, he’s neglected song structure. Nothing that I can recall about the relation between a bridge and the verses, or even the chorus and the verses, for instance, and not that much on structuring phrases so they “rhyme” without being the same, within a particular song section.

    Still, I’d say it’s useful, particularly for broadening newer writers’ sense of the possible. And I’ll go back to my “ears” thing (which I suppose is really going back to a “talent” thing): eventually, a good songwriter will learn when something works or not, regardless of whether rules or principles say it should, and will learn how to construct sections of songs that work together effectively.

    I’m curious, though: you seem to link “catchiness” to these structural concerns. I’d guess most people think of catchiness in terms of hooks or short melodic phrases, or perhaps riffs or rhythms – that is, material having little to do with structural aspects of a song. (They might well build those structural aspects but in themselves aren’t part of them.) Am I misreading you?

  3. B

    It’s interesting to see someone tackling the issue of melody. It seems like a lot of people can recognize an interesting chord progression or notice something above average in a set of lyrics, but an interesting _and_ effective melody is tough to qualify. I don’t know how many times a friend will have me listen to something based on the quality of the songwriting, only to have the lack of melodic invention be the turn-off for me.
    The other interesting aspect is the idea of using cliches effectively — they’re cliches for a reason, and that makes them powerful tools.
    Melodic invention is the thing that really distinguishes quality songwriting, in my opinion. Not sure this guy has really figured it out, but I like the idea.

  4. 2fs

    I think I mentioned this in another context recently – but “catchy” for me doesn’t always connect to melody. My best example is one of my favorite Go-Betweens songs, “Five Words” (I’m partial to the Peel sessions version) – which doesn’t really have one, since the vocal line largely sing-speaks – yet that song is a total earworm for me. It’s something about the way the chords and rhythm are sort of half off-balance with themselves… Of course, I don’t think it’s everyone’s fave Go-Betweens song, so maybe it’s just my weird ears…

  5. Tim Walters

    2fs: I think you are misreading me a little. I wasn’t thinking of overall song structure, but within an element of that structure (chorus, verse, etc.). My bad for using the word “global.”

    To rephrase a little: if you want a 16-bar melody to be catchy, you can’t do it by working in barline pairs. You have to introduce some regularities at a higher level than that. You can, of course, do it by brute repetition, but that’s a low form of catchiness; you might well get “Macarena” or “White Punks On Dope” stuck in your head, but you probably won’t enjoy it, and you probably won’t whistle or hum it as you walk down the street (if you do, please stay on the other side from me).

    Song structure is important for the overall effect of a song, but doesn’t really affect catchiness; the grabbiest melodies in the world, by necessity, are orally transmitted folk tunes, and those tend to be purely strophic.

    B: I agree that it’s good to see someone writing about melody. If this booklet convinces just one songwriter to stop writing “melodies” that are just little circles around one tone of each successive chord, it will have been well worth it.

  6. B

    I find i’m more deliberate in my attempts to explore melodic ideas than the other primary songwriter in the band, and I often have to push him a bit to stretch outside of some predictable pattern. It’s odd because he’s very gifted and certainly has good ears, but doesn’t always notice when a melody falls flat. I’m often surprised at how out-of-touch with their own art even a great artist can be. Neil Young’s best stuff is full of fantastic little melodic and lyrical details, but he obviously can’t tell a good melody from a bad one!
    And it’s interesting how some artists can use a relatively straightforward melody in a way that works and others can’t. Out of two guys whose melodies are built on a fairly conventional vocabulary of blues and tin pan alley styles, Nick Cave usually drives me nuts with his tired sounding melodies, but Randy Newman’s are amazing. Of course, Newman can also write something like “I Think It’s Going To Rain Today”, which Cave never will!

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