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.).