Dane Palmer is a Boston-based marimbist, bike mechanic, and theater technician. Recently graduating from Boston Conservatory, he has performed all over, most recently in Shenzhen, China. Dane is currently commissioning pieces from many sources, all based on showing the commonalities between popular music and classical.
“I do think it’s important that people who profess to really be interested in music….to expose themselves to the width and breadth of the music available to them, and in this day and age that’s everything.” -Chris Thile-
I have a day job. I’ve spent the last 5 years paying my bills as a freelance theatre technician and bike mechanic in Boston. Every day working with people who don’t listen to music that we define as ‘intellectually stimulating’. We would get to work and turn on the radio. I spent a long time fighting this by plugging myself into my phone and listening to what I wanted to listen to. But after a while this became anti-social and boring. So I unplugged, and started living with what was on the radio that day. After a while, I found myself analyzing whatever was playing and noticed there was a lot more to pop music than I had been told.
The biggest realization I had was that 99% of the time you’ll hear pop music it’s recorded. This means it’s the same every time. But it also means that every single sound is permanent. The performer or producer is saddled with the weight of this performance being concrete. One of the things that I like the most about performing live is that as soon as I play a note, I can’t get it back. If it’s wrong, it’s wrong. But they don’t have this luxury. Now they also have the luxury of being able to try as many times as they want until they get it right. Which just means that they have no reason for it not to be perfect. That just seems insane to me. The only thing that’s acceptable in the popular music world is perfection.
I tried to discuss this with friends and classmates. As soon as I mentioned ‘pop music’ in any capacity, they turned off. They would stop listening and thinking and participating at all. I’d ask their opinion on different artists and they would have never heard of songs that have hit number one on charts all over the world.
I’m going to very briefly show you some of the thought behind a song that many of my colleagues consider to be a horrible crime against music. And explain where it all came from. Some terms you may need to know for any of this to make sense:
8-bit : a computer architecture which was used to make early video games on systems like Super Nintendo and Gameboy. Chiptunes were originally written using these early computers and today the sound is emulated in much more complex programs that recreate the restrictions that these early computers had.
Synthesizer : A sound creating device often times built to look and play like a piano. All it does is synthesize sounds with timbral parameters created by the musician. I will shorten this word to it’s common name of ‘synth’.
Kesha’s song “Tik Tok” is heavily influenced by a style of music called chiptune. If you don’t know what chiptunes are think Gameboy or Super Nintendo. The song starts off with her singing over a very standard chiptune sound that is acting as the chord structure and the bass line at the same time. It’s very simple, but it’s job is to show the key and create a rhythmic opposition to the melody line. Then starting at ~00:17 the drums come in. Still very simple (just bass drum and snare) but this is very typical in a chiptune song, and Kesha follows chiptune rules extensively. The synth notes are inverted to add a sense of movement upward and create a growing sense of excitement. As the chorus starts, the synth sound changes slightly to add more body and and depth to the sound. The original sound still can be heard in the background helping to fill out the sound. Hi-hat is also added to have more rhythmic drive going forward.
So far we have 6 layers. Bass synth, mid-range synth, bass drum, hi-hat, and 2 layers of vocals. One of the biggest restrictions of chiptunes is that they can only have 8 layers of sounds (chiptune is derived from an 8-bit computer system. 8-bit = 8 sounds).
The bridge takes a lot of these layers away, using only a synth sound that is much more rounded than the initial synth sound, very quiet hi-hat, and vocals. Eventually adding in two more layers of a bass drum and an arpeggiated synth in the background.
The final chorus uses the same six instruments as the original choruses, but also adds the arpeggiated synthesizer and another vocal layer acting as a descant in the background of the main vocals.
This is a very quick and dirty analyzation of how and why Kesha uses the sounds she does and how her layering is influenced by chiptunes and 8-bit music. There are many other rules and constraints she is following, along with many reasons she chooses the sounds that she used, but I’ll save that for a later time.
Just for comparison’s sake, here is an chiptune exclusive version of Tik Tok posted by ‘FrankJavCee’ on youtube. You can easily hear how the sounds in Kesha’s version are almost identical to the sounds that chiptunes are able to make.
This explanation is not to make you like the song. Or to make you like Kesha. It’s just to show that there is a reason to listen and try to understand every genre of music. No music is beneath anybody. It’s rather eye opening to be able to pull the same amount of care and construction out of a Kesha song as I would pull from a composed academic work. The biggest differences are usually where the intellectual emphasis is placed.
I like to think that gaining this knowledge of styles of popular music, and incorporating it into programming concerts and recitals is a way to get new audience members in the door. By applying culturally relevant rules and ideas, we have a chance to make music that is culturally relevant again.
I’ll leave you with a video made by Chris Thile, a mandolin specialist who has performed with artists as diverse as Yo-Yo Ma and Bela Fleck. The quote at the beginning of this post is from this video. He is asked to talk about his opinions on the way that audiences respond to different genre’s of music, and how that affects him as a performer.
Other works to check out:
Penelope by Sarah Kirkland Snider (on spotify)
Dance tracks by Steve Mackey (on spotify)