Another Universe

Play the song here!

Lyrics
The clock is ticking
Sand spills away
Some things may happen
Yet all’s the same
I feel I’m standing
On solid ground
But what’s below it?
Could it fall down?

There in the mirror
It looks like me
But something’s missing
I just can’t see
Outside, a smile
Within, a frown
Only the clock hands
Go all the way round

But in another universe
Everything’s reverse
Life is sublime
There’s another me
Dancing fancy free
All the words rhyme
Each to their own rhythm
And I’m right there with ’em
But that’s in another place and another time

It’s love or money
They’re foes or friends
Selfish or selfless
Uses or thems
Choose Column A or
From Column B
We can’t pick both sides
Nor in between

Through life I tiptoe
Eggshells each spot
I’m scared of changing
And scared of not
It doesn’t matter
Just who’s to blame
If I do nothing
Then life stays the same

But in another universe
Left and right converse
No ors, just ands
Calm instead of strife
Grabbing hold of life
With all three hands
Nothing is neglected
Everything accepted
Everyone just understands

Yes, in another universe
Everything’s reverse
Life is sublime
There’s another me
Dancing fancy free
All the words rhyme
Each to their own rhythm
And I’m right there with ’em
But that’s in another place and another time

Story
Spintown decided to launch the SpinTunes songwriting contest. The challenge for SpinTunes 1 Round 2: John Hancock Time – Write a song where the choruses are a different time signature than the verses.

My Round 1 song, Step Back Swooperman, had fared pretty poorly with the judges. Though these weren’t the only reasons, their comments made clear that my singing and production — both of which I know full well are not core strengths of mine — held some responsibility. Though I write songs to fulfill their own potential independent of what I as a performer or producer can do with them, I figured I’d be better off with a different approach, playing down the vocals and the production. For Round 2, and probably afterward as well if I were to make it that far, I thought that as much as possible I’d stay in a tighter vocal range and take a minimal, more piano-oriented approach to the rest.

When the Round 2 challenge was announced, with constraints only on a very basic element of the music and freedom to do whatever else we might want with the music and especially the lyrics, I quickly had a cascade of thoughts that brought me to an idea for the song.

First, I immediately decided that I wanted to write about a topic that would itself make the time signature changes meaningful instead of arbitrary. What occurred to me right after that was the notion that the different time signatures could represent different times — different time periods in the experience of a narrator, who would be describing a significant contrast between them. Given that time signatures “feel” very different, it seemed obvious that the two time periods should evoke very different feelings for the narrator. Right away, I thought that the song should begin with the narrator describing life as it is in the first verse, while the chorus could describe not only a different time but one that hasn’t even happened yet, a hoped-for time. At that point it was clear to me that the verses would describe a somewhat troubled, confused and dissatisfying life, contrasting sharply with the fantasy of the choruses.

This seemed a strong enough idea that brainstorming happened easily, ideas just coming to me. Many of these initial, fast-and-furious ideas for lyrics would end up finding their way into the song, including the recognition of the fantasy as merely a fantasy, as “another place and time.” This would seal the connection between the content of the story and the form of varying time signatures defined by the challenge, making things clearly non-arbitrary as I’d hoped.

The basic musical framework also just popped up. Thinking of a life of stagnation, I imagined someone at work or school watching the clock, just waiting for things to end. I also pondered how lives of dissatisfaction and conflict are usually wrapped up with dichotomies and dilemmas, in which we feel caught between two choices that seem unable to co-exist. The tick-tocking clock and the dualistic thinking both suggested not only lyrical content for the verses but also 2/4 as their time signature. The chorus fantasy would need to depict a more holistic life where nothing needs to lose in order for something else to win, and life flowing effortlessly as a result. The circular, fluid, waltzing feel of 3/4 time was the ideal choice both for musical feel as well as symbolism. From there, the main musical themes of the final song popped out quickly as well.

As time would go on, I would discover many opportunities to create depth in the meaning underneath the musical structures, and I’ll go into more detail on that below, in a section just for those who are interested in that sort of more in-depth interpretation.

I was very tempted to just forge ahead with the song, skipping an Appreciative Inquiry since I’d already gotten so much to go on with both music and lyrics. However, knowing full well from experience how AI can bring tremendous benefit not only in terms of spurring initial brainstorming but also in terms of bringing depth and focus to a project, I went ahead and did an AI on the core idea of different times.

Through the AI, a lot of what I discovered was no surprise at all, strongly affirming all the more spontaneous creativity I’d already done. However, a recurring theme in the AI was surprising, at first seeming too far afield, but then turned out to be a nice addition which even led to the very title of the song. This came about because the AI brought up stories like Back to the Future, Groundhog Day, Rashomon and (though nowhere near the classic status of the others mentioned) Click. All of these involve powerful notions of alternate realities, and often the distinction between some of those realties as sought and others as something to be avoided, the notion of one of the realities being the way things are supposed to be.

I’d also come through the AI to a complex notion about the value of fantasy. Fantasies and hopes seem, on the face of it, optimistic. But sometimes the fantasy itself is like a vicarious experience, leading us to never really get out of our status quo. Otherwise, even if a hope is actively pursued, if it is met too often with failure, the very existence of that hope can become associated more with the disappointment rather than with the actual hope itself. Even in these times, though, the hope may be all we have to keep us from giving up entirely.

The richness of these ideas made me realize that I could incorporate them in an emotionally resonant way, without turning the song into a science fiction tale. Physicists theorize about the existence of an infinite number of universes and how similar many could be to our own, including even alternate versions of ourselves with slightly different life stories. This seemed to gel with the story I was already trying to tell. Thinking about one’s hopes as something that might already be real in “another universe” seemed a colorful way to nail the tension between the narrator’s real and imagined lives, as well as the tensions I was just describing as inherent to the notions of hope and fantasy themselves. A parallel universe, and therefore the narrator’s hopes, would seem very far away, given that these other universes are incomprehensibly inaccessible to us. At the same time, it would all also seem palpable, the fantasy closer to realization, in the sense that it would be how things already really are somewhere, not merely a wish for how things could be or would be.

Another notion that came up in the AI was the idea of action needing to be taken to create change. Time can pass, but just because one finds oneself at some other time doesn’t mean anything will necessarily be different, at least not in a fundamental way. In the AI, the story of Gandhi came up, and the courage he and his followers had to have in order to take action in the face of those seemingly more powerful than they were. Rather than merely paint the pictures of two different times in the song, then, I could also bring up at least the notions of action, courage and fear that would come into play in actually creating change for a stagnating life. Without this, the song, painting two realities but doing no more, might end up just embodying the very kinds of dilemmas it critiques. The suggestion of action would make the song itself more of a story with direction, just as the narrator wants in life.

You can check out the Round 2 songs at SpinTunes, or more permanently at BandCamp, and you can get directly to Another Universe at Bandcamp — but you can listen and download for free from BandCamp right from the player at the top of this post!

I always intend for my songs to stand on their own for the listener. These stories behind the songs are here because some, including myself, find it valuable to explore the creative process. With most songs, I wouldn’t bother describing too much more detail about thematic interpretation or especially music theory. For this song, though, the strong connection between music and lyrics that inspired the very idea for the song kept working its way into so much of the song’s realization. This makes a deeper excursion into the workings of this song seem worthwhile, at least for those who may be interested. If you’re not one of those people, feel free to just skip down to the bottom of the page to leave a comment if you like. Otherwise, let’s go deeper into another universe.

A Closer Look

Some musically technical language is used to keep things from being longer than they already are here. Hopefully the main ideas will come across even for those who don’t fully understand the music theory.

Intro

The introduction is just a few seconds long, lone notes suggesting a ticking clock. The 2/4 time signature is established. It may feel more like a 4/4 tempo with each line of the verse’s lyrics taking up one measure, and 2/4 is usually used in marches and polkas with 4/4 being used most other times a piece has a completely even beat. In 2/4, though, and with extremely short measures so that four are needed for each line in the verses, the song’s tempo can remain exactly the same as we move from the verse into the chorus and have each section keep an appropriate feel. This signature, then, simply makes more musical sense for the song, not being imposed merely for the sake of enhancing the symbolic meaning the number two has throughout the lyrics.

As for the tempo itself, the song begins at 120 beats per second, which also works equally well on two levels. Musically, it felt ideal. Thematically, it makes the “tick-tock” happen in real time.

Only days after putting this intro in place, I realized that the tick-tocking, on two Ds an octave apart, is nearly identical to how the song Anything Goes begins in the 1962 revival of the musical of the same name (I was in a high school production of this show). That song’s first line of lyrics, sung a few seconds in: “Times have changed.” I now imagine I’ve made a subconscious nod to Cole Porter’s great song about the difference between the way things are and the way things used to be.

Verse 1

To convey the narrator’s feeling of emptiness and uncertainty in the verses, I wanted a sense of sparseness both musically and lyrically.

The words come in short phrases. The bit of silence between each line, as well as the fact of each line being split across four measures of music, nod to the sense of fragmentation that will become clearer as the song goes on. Odd numbered lines don’t rhyme at all, while even-numbered lines are in pairs, though mostly with imperfect rhymes. All of this supports the sense the narrator has of feeling somewhat lost, incomplete, off.

Musical accompaniment is fairly bare underneath. In the first stanza, each chord is played a single time underneath the “ticking clock.” In the second stanza, the ticking is gone, introducing a brief call and response, the higher-pitched chords suggesting the reflection the narrator sees “there in the mirror.”

In the recording’s mix, the piano is (as it was from the beginning of the Intro) pushed to the right in the stereo image, and given a very airy reverb, creating that sense of space in which to get lost. When the vocals begin, they are pushed to the left, with less reverb. All this not only gives each musical element a bit of space for the ears. The vocals and instruments are separated from each other, thematically appropriate. Further, the narrator is put in the position of “not being right.” Through the different reverb settings, the narrator is alienated from his empty-sounding surroundings.

The final things I want to describe about the verses, and in particular this first verse, are the musical sound, especially the chord progression, and the transition to the chorus. The chord progression in particular plays a far more crucial role in the song than a number of the things I’ve just mentioned. Both the progression and the transition, though, are much easier to explain by first talking about the chorus.

Chorus 1 — Chords

The very concept of the song involved the chorus being its own distinct, separate world from the verse, one in which the narrator might find wholeness, a resolution to all concerns, a sense of cyclic and effortless flowing. This was the motive behind the 3/4 time signature. Thinking about these notions, I also quickly came to consider an ideal progression for the harmonies underlying the chorus.

The circle of fifths shows some of the most basic relationships among the twelve notes (or, more technically, the twelve pitch classes). While an octave matches a note with a higher or lower version of itself and so makes for perfect harmony, it is essentially too perfect — colorless, static. The next closest and most consonant interval is a fifth — the distance between, e.g., a C and a G. There is some color to the interval in itself, but far more important, even though the fifth is harmonically just a drop removed from an octave, there is an implied movement. Starting at any pitch and moving by fifths (or, more technically, an equal tempered fifth), one passes through all twelve tones, eventually returning to the original pitch.

That implied movement has tremendous implications for music, including its having embedded within it one of the most basic building blocks of harmony. Descending from a note (and especially from a simple chord based on that note) to the note a fifth below (and especially to the chord based on that note), as from a C note/chord to an F note/chord, provides a powerful sense of resolution. That resolution can move, in turn, around the entire circle of fifths. It wouldn’t be an overstatement to say that this is one of the central defining features of most of the music that most people hear.

With the circle itself being a classic image of wholeness, the 3/4 meter providing a sense of circular movement, and the circle of fifths providing such a basic sequence of resolutions, it seemed an obvious choice to have the chorus’ chord progression involve a counterclockwise movement (as is technically the case) around the circle of fifths. Using major chords for the most basic kind of resolution, one after another would lead all the way round the circle, and the happy fantasy would be established.

Musically, though, this is actually not at all obvious. It’s incredibly rare for a piece music to traverse the entire circle of fifths in sequence, whether through chords or notes, and trying to do so could easily tend to sound like a technique exercise rather than an actual song. I started with a section of the circle, beginning on a G major chord as home base, since the song was in G-based keys in order to best suit my vocal range. Rather than rush to C, I added some color with one common way of realizing the resolution, by moving chords from G to GM7, then to G7, which desperately wants to resolve to C. After one measure of each of these, C resolves to F, which repeats the pattern to FM7 then F7 resolving to Bb. From there, the remainder of the circle is simple major chords, one per measure.

The melody is crafted to minimize the “exercise”-like nature of the circle of fifths. One phrase occurs twice during the first half of the chorus as it moves from G to C to F to Bb. A new phrase is repeated twice over the next four chords, and a final new, longer phrase rests on top of the final four chords of the circle. The magic number three phrases in all, sounding hopefully like a “regular melody” rather than a technique brushup.

Verse 1 — Chords

To contrast with the circle of fifths and its sense of completeness, the obvious choice for the verses seemed to be to use half of the circle of fifths. “Something’s missing” because the chords wouldn’t “go all the way round” like the clock hands the narrator watches, and the inability to “pick both sides” would be inherent as well. An incredibly common chord progression, especially in jazz standards such as Autumn Leaves, would do basically this.

The verses would be in the key of G minor (related to Bb major), so as to both contrast with the chorus, minor/sad vs. major/happy, while keeping them also the same in a significant way, showing them to be alternate versions of each other. Here, then, is a simple version of the progression in G minor:

Cm F Bb Eb Am D Gm G

The progression goes counterclockwise, forming a semicircle when it cuts directly across the circle of fifths from Eb to Am before continuing the counterclockwise path, leading back to where it began. I was concerned, though, that this progression was too common, and in any case might not feel right for the lyrical content. Still following a typical circle of fifths logic, it didn’t provide a distinct enough world of its own compared to the chorus.

I then recalled the chord progression from Hotel California by The Eagles. In G minor / Bb major:

Gm D F C Eb Bb Cm D

Like the Autumn Leaves progression, about half (in fact, in this case, exactly half) the circle of fifths was used, including another combination of major and minor chords. It takes, though, a more curious path, zigzagging among the first three pairs of chords, followed by an abrupt trajectory across two more chords to bring things back to where they started. This casting about seemed related to the narrator’s feeling lost and perhaps buffeted about by a life that cannot be controlled. Further, whenever two chords adjacent in the circle appear consecutively in the progression, the movement is clockwise, creating tension rather than resolution and therefore providing another nice contrast with the chorus’ progression.

Even so, there was something that felt off about this progression, too simple. The narrator is supposed to feel off “solid ground.” But here was a balanced combination of major and minor chords, all of which were formed in root position with a strong bottom. It didn’t yet sound like an appropriate underscore for the narrator’s disempowerment. A bit of playing around led me to this:

Bb/F D/F# Ab/Eb C/E Gb/Db Bb/D A/E D

This may look very different, but the respective progressions have quite a lot in common. The final chord is identical. The D/F#, C/E and Bb/D are simply inversions of the correlated D, C and Bb chords, sharing all the same notes, just put in a different order from top to bottom. The Bb/F shares two of three notes with the Gm, and those two are arranged the same way in both cases.

The remaining chords are less similar on the face of it but serve similar harmonic purposes. The Ab/Eb and Gb/Db are similar to minor versions of the F and Bb from the first progression, while both the Cm and A/E serve as tension-filled lead-ins to the final D.

The progression itself has some of the same basic character of Hotel California, going through a pattern before an abrupt change in path, but this is even more pronounced. The first six chords actually draw a pentagram within the circle of fifths, a complete cycle within itself now that there are two Bb chords. And yet, after reaching that second Bb, there is still the abrupt shift to A/E and then to a second D, these two chords pointing a path that would lead logically to G, but that move is never possible within the verse. Things get sucked back into the pentagram and the cycle repeats with a second stanza. It’s almost as if the chord progression traces a strange attractor which describes the chaos of the narrator’s life and the futility of trying to escape it.

To go with this progression, the melody is crafted to be a bit melacholy, as much as possible given the major chords underneath. Half steps are used next to notes from the underlying chords to add some dissonance, allowing the melody, sung by the narrator, to add to the complexity above and beyond the use of major chords. The narrator’s singing betrays the supposed happiness of the environment.

Now, there were odd colors coming from these new chords, including implied minor/sad tones, despite the fact that all were actually major chords that “should” sound happy. Now, the chords were scattered more throughout the circle of fifths rather than simplistically occupying one hemisphere, half still missing but that fact being more disguised. Now, all but the final D chord were inversions, i.e., not having their root note in root position at the bottom, and leaving as the only root chord the one chord that demands to go to the key’s root chord, G (or even Gm), yet the verse doesn’t allow it to. Now, the melody was adding tension as well.

Far better than a more obviously sad progression would, this seemed to gel really nicely with the verse’s sense of a confusing, superficial, incomplete life that might have no “solid ground” below. The progression makes sense and yet, at the same time, produces an “off” feeling much like the narrator goes through life with.

Transition and Chorus

With the contrasting chord progressions, time signatures and stories in place for verse and chorus, they needed to be connected. As the first verse approaches its end, the time signature shifts into 3/4 in time for the verse’s final two words, including one extra word/syllable compared to the previous stanza. At this same moment, the pan shifts over the course of the one measure that contains those two words. Vocals and piano shift places, piano left and vocals now right. As the chorus is about to say, “Everything’s reversed.” All of this suggests that the fantasy is intruding on the narrator’s “real life,” as if the narrator is daydreaming. A moment later, we are into the chorus in earnest.

In the chorus, not only are the harmonies and the time signature different. The feel is busier, bouncier, happier. The vocal reverb remains the same, but the piano reverb has changed, the environment much less ghostly. The words flow more freely and articulately. Life is more full.

In contrast to the imperfect scheme of the verse, as the chorus now says, “All the words rhyme.” Indeed, where the verse’s loose scheme was about pairs of non-rhymes and imperfect rhymes, the chorus has a very tight scheme based around the number three. There is a triple rhyme providing a superstructure for the chorus as a whole — “sublime,” then “rhyme,” and culminating in the key word “time” that sums up the very inspiration for the song. In between, there are couplets — “universe” and “reverse,” “me” and “free,” “rhythm” and “with ’em” — but there are three of them, so the chorus affirms the transformation of twos into threes.

The song-related imagery throughout — “dancing,” “rhyme,” “rhythm,” all of which participate in rhyme since even “dancing” produces an inner rhyme with “fancy” — affirms the deep connection the song makes between form and content, music and lyrics.

Finally, on the most basic musical level, the chorus begins with a G major chord in root position. The Gm (or, more specifically, the Gm7) that was implied (by the Bb/F) in the verse has been transformed, and the dominance of inversions has given way to root positions, giving the narrator more stability. The M7-7 resolution pattern above veers a bit from this, but in a colorful way that complements the sense of resolution rather than detracting from it. Aside from that added pattern — which itself exemplifies the dominance of three over two by taking three chords and three measures to move from one position on the circle of fifths to the next — all chorus chords provide solidity in root position.

Toward the end, though, just as the fantasy of the chorus disrupted the reality of the verse, the formal transition happens early here once again. With once again two syllables to go, the time signature shifts back to 2/4, along with the pan neutralizing the stereo reversal and the piano reverb going back to its original airiness. It is as if the narrator has been woken up from a dream before it could be completed. The music and lyrics have both told of the shift from one time to another, leaving the narrator back in empty, confusing reality.

Additional Verses and Choruses

The chorus finishes with its final word sung on a G as we move back to the verse’s chord progression. Combined with the underlying Bb/F, we have the sense, for the first time, of a genuine minor chord, the Gm or Gm7 that has up until now only been implied as the verse progression starts. It is as if the tension between the two worlds itself contains a unique element, a bit of reality that neither world contains on its own. The presence of an actual minor chord, even if only present through the combination of voice and piano, acknowledges the possibility of actually facing unpleasantness directly, rather than having it either hide under a pleasant facade as in the verses’ strange use of major chords or cast aside completely by the chorus’ fantasy of blatantly pleasant major chords. At this same moment, the tempo increases a bit. All these elements suggest some growth to come in the storyline.

Before beginning the next verse in earnest, there is an instrumental interlude. It follows the exact same chord progression as the verse, but half as much time is spent on each chord. The instrumental melody that lies on top is itself a truncated version of the complete sung melody from the original verse. With the themes of incompleteness and fragmentation brought back to the fore, the second verse expands on these notions.

The narrator mentions a number of common dilemmas, seeming to gain some awareness of just what lies underneath life’s shaky ground. When an issue becomes that polarized, the conclusion is that it’s possible neither to pick one side over the other nor to choose some moderate option. Underneath the words, the chords are played with a simple low-high-high-low accompaniment pattern, suggesting the polarity and opposition — low-high on one side, it’s reverse immediately following, the two constantly cycling around each other, like the swing of a pendulum that can only go back and forth between extremes.

At the start of the second stanza of the second verse, the narrator mentions tiptoeing through life, and the piano mimics pizzicato strings to suggest this cautious movement. The narrator is facing the truth of the situation, realizing that change may only come through action and that fears may have to be confronted in order to do this. Where imperfect rhymes were perpetuated in the first stanza, here the rhyme pairs are perfect, as if the narrator is starting to think more clearly.

Once again, the final two words of the verse begin the musical transition, this time not only through time signature, stereo pan and reverb but two additional elements. Instead of just one measure and a fairly seamless transition from verse to chorus, the height of the narrator’s hesitation gives way to a tremendous build across four measures, providing a step by step path from the D (down through C, B, and A) as it moves to resolve with the upcoming G that bursts forth in the next chorus. That build is heightened by a significant acceleration of tempo. It’s as if the narrator intends to force fantasy into reality through sheer will.

The second chorus describes that other universe as a place where dilemmas are resolved. Left and right are not opposed as they are in the current reality’s politics. Instead, they converse, they reconcile. The reference to “all three hands” comes from author Daniel Quinn and his colorful way of describing how one can get out of one’s own box, one’s own paradigm, to find solutions for what seemed like intractable dilemmas. What’s required is thinking about “no ors, just ands,” as in game theory’s notions of win-win games as opposed to win-lose games. In this song, all of this seems to go particularly well with the idea of an alternate universe, denoting not just a metaphoric shorthand for resolving dichotomies but the possibility of people being truly different in that other place, as if they may actually have a third hand to use.

Musically, the second chorus shows a subtle evolution. Where the first chorus was primarily about simple major chords in root position, this second one is filled with a two-step resolution from most chords to the next. In the bass, the root is followed by the third, while in the treble the harmony moves the chord from major down to a 7th. In these opposing directions, there is no opposition, but rather the complementary harmonic motion from one chord to the next counterclockwise around the circle of fifths.

The third chorus repeats the lyrics of the first, but the music has further evolution. The three-step major-M7-7 resolution used sparingly in both previous choruses is now riddled throughout, used for every chord change around the circle. Likewise, the bass now has its own three-step motion, from root to second to third. Where ones dominated the first chorus and twos dominated the second chorus in terms of how the chords resolved, threes now dominate the third chorus.

This final harmonic evolution for the choruses is particularly bright, almost too bright, as if the narrator is too entrenched in fantasy — which we’ll soon find out is likely the case. Before we do, I simply want to point out a macro observation about the song’s structure up until now. There have been two verses in 2/4 time, and three verses in 3/4.

Outro

Up until now, there have been just two main sections — verses and choruses. But we should know enough by now to realize that three transcends two. Can the song really be over with the final chorus?

The fantasies of a dissatisfied person are almost invariably likely to be unrealistic. If such people could truly imagine a reality that could work well, they would probably be able to create it. Their lack of ability to do so proves how skewed their thinking — and their fantasies — must be. A truly workable reality would surely have some of the elements they fantasize about and hope for, but just as surely it would have at least some resemblance to their lives as they already are.

If there is to be another reality that the narrator can actually live in, it obviously cannot be in an unreachable separate universe. Neither can it simply be more of the current reality. It would have to involve some kind of blend.

Following the third chorus, then, is something that appears to be familiar in many respects but remains unique in crucial ways — an instrumental “outro” that provides a definitive third section for the song, transcending the two types of sections that came before. As we’ve just seen it must be, it is in key ways a hybrid of verse and chorus. The bouncy feel is very obviously carried over, keeping the jazzy 3/4 feel from the final two choruses. The chord progression hearkens to the verses, but things are also rather, and importantly, different.

A chord progression highly related to Hotel California’s — and therefore also to the progression used in this song’s verse — is found in, among other places, Chim Chim Cheree from the musical Mary Poppins. In an interview on the soundtrack CD, the Sherman brothers, who wrote the score, talk about the evolution of that song’s chord progression. Starting off as something more heavy and simplistically minor, they considered it a breakthrough when they reharmonized it, giving it a “richness” that made it more “universal… not strictly minor.” Here it is, transposed to G minor:

Gm D+/F# Bb/F C9/E Cm9/Eb Gm/D A7/C# D7

Like Hotel California, this has a blend of major and minor, and it makes a lot more “sense” to the ears than this song’s verse does. Unlike the Eagles’ song and like this song’s verse, it includes a number of inversions. Unlike either the Eagles’ song or this song’s verse, it has more harmonic complexity, going beyond basic major and minor chords.

The Sherman brothers’ declaration of its “richness” and being “universal” suggests that it has something not present in these other progressions. Embellishing it to enhance that notion, I arrive at:

Gm7 D9/F# F6/A Cadd9/E EbM7 Gm7/D Ahalf-dim7 D7

Most obviously important, the piano has its first genuine minor chord — the Gm7 that was implied in the first verse and present but hidden as the first chorus’ last word was sung. Now, it is here in earnest. Unpleasantness has been allowed into the experience of life, but not merely or simplistically unpleasantness, because the progression contains no simple major or minor chords. The chords are all more complex than that, and with a different type of chord for each root note. Inversions are used in many places again, but here they leave us feeling a sense of order and direction rather than rootlessness. The major-M7-7 pattern is related to the first three chords here, and the notion is expanded on, with this progression having a continiguous, linear bass, broken only by the sensible clockwise-around-the-circle-of-fifths resolution from the final chord back to the first. The progression has, at its bottom, as its foundation, a path that is in many ways as solid as the paths the chorus showed, without being as simple.

With all this color and logic even beyond the Sherman brothers’ progression, these chords are meant to symbolize, at least compared to the rest of the song, the richness of real life in all its complexity. It contains pleasant and unpleasant in many shades, none exclusively black or white, none purely major or minor. It seems an apt resolution to the dilemma the narrator has between the chaos of current reality and the delusion of idealized fantasy. It is, in some sense, what reality is supposed to be — or, even, the reality that was always there underneath the narrator’s experiences and imaginings.

True to form, this chord progression is repeated three times. The first simply establishes the progression through the jazzy 3/4 rhythm we were already experiencing — whatever else life may hold for the narrator, the lively, flowing, circular feel of the chorus fantasy is preserved here. Next, the chords are simplified back a bit as a new melody is added, affirming the section’s identity as novel for the song and suggesting that change is inherent to a workable life. Finally, change continues, with everything integral — the time signature, the progression, the new melody — taken into a stylistic shift. This last iteration is much less bombastic, maybe even a bit cute and winking. It ends with a brief coda in which a “sad” G minor chord is played bouncily in each of its three inversions, one measure each, giving way at the last moment to a pleasant G major chord in root position. All of this is as if to suggest that this reality that will work well is going to be not only more balanced in the vein of the new outro chord progression, but also more quiet, more modest, outgrowing any need for grandeur, in fantasy or otherwise — and that, in the end, despite what happens along the way, everything turns out okay.

Of course, there is only music. Instrumental. No vocals, no lyrics. The narrator has not yet taken action and so has not yet begun to create this reality. As an instrumental, the outro represents merely the possibility of that new reality.

In the stereo image, the piano moves to center over the course of the first instance of the new chord progression, as if to substantiate it as a new reality. Audio is balanced, centered, for the very first time. We can only now realize that, as the pan had vocals and piano repeatedly shifting places, the left and right were never really conversing as the narrator hopes for in the third chorus. They were always separate and just swinging past each other, never integrated. The narrator may have been “not right” in the verses and “right” in the chorus, but that has meaning for the rest, the narrator’s surroundings. The fantasy world itself was “not right” while the real world, dissatisfying though it may have been, was, in some sense, “right.” Inherent all along was the message that the narrator must accede to reality, accepting even the unpleasant as part of life, in order to get a place where things wouldn’t feel off any longer. There was, indeed, something “right” about each of the two worlds the narrator bounced between.

What can’t ever be known from listening to the song is that, as the piano was centered, so was the vocal track. Maybe one day the narrator will get the gumption to act, to become cause and contribute to the changes that are so desired. Maybe one day the narrator will figure out what path to pursue to a workable reality, one very different from either dwelling on current reality or escaping to an unrealistic fantasy. Should that day arrive, this “real” chord progression, and the balanced stereo image, would be there waiting, ready to put the narrator’s words and deeds squarely (or is it roundly?) in the same space (and time) as the new possibility described by the outro’s music.

Donate
I work hard on the songs and the site, giving away a lot of stuff for free. If I could make a living by making art, I could make — and give away — even more. That could actually happen if everyone who listened contributed just a little bit. If you’ve enjoyed some of my free music or other content — on the site, through downloads, however — why not take a second and make a contribution to support me in making more? Just click on the Donate button in the right sidebar. Thanks!

If you’d rather buy some music, that’s great, too! Visit the Shop.

Either way, I really appreciate your support.

5 comments for “Another Universe

  1. sue coles
    July 14, 2010 at 12:18 am

    Hi Mark,
    Wow what a great song; I voted for you. Love the bright feel of it and the chord progression going backwards works well. Also your accent it rather great, I guess it is US accent with New York accent added, fascinating. Hope you win.
    Sue Coles
    Darling Hts Qld Au

  2. July 15, 2010 at 10:40 am

    GREAT entry, Mark! I don’t have enough superlatives to describe it. Nevertheless, I put a few of them in my review of round one entries at http://music.cratchit.org.

    And the write-up here… oh, yeah, I loves me some song bios, especially thoughtful and educational ones. You have a new RSS subscriber.

  3. July 15, 2010 at 12:38 pm

    Wow Mark! I love the song and I love reading about all the care and thought that went into every single aspect of writing and producing it!

    It is clear that you didn’t take any shortcuts when it came to making sure that the music supported the message and concept you wanted to convey.

    I LOVE that you brought the vocal track to center at the end, laying the groundwork for the narrator to possibly step into in the future. I think that is so powerful and would love to know if you ever perhaps write a song where that outro is the intro and the new song is about the new way of being. 🙂

  4. OHB
    July 15, 2010 at 4:05 pm

    Thanks so much!

    Dave, I only hope my future RSS output will satisfy. If you look backward, there hasn’t been so much activity here! But even if songs pop up only once in a while, you can at least count on me for those song bios 🙂

    Heather, I was really on the fence about talking about that vocal pan, since maybe I’d come across as really pretentious for doing something symbolic but inaudible, so I’m really glad you liked that. Your idea here makes me feel the song should be part of a musical theatre score, with that outro coming back as a separate song later in the story arc — nifty!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *