Posts Tagged ‘ SpinTunes-1 ’

Geeky Pleasures Radio Show Interview Available Online

August 9, 2011

This past Friday, August 5, I had a great time participating along with a few other past and present contestants in the SpinTunes Interview on Jules Sherred‘s Geeky Pleasures Radio Show on The Look 24/7.

We talked about many different aspects of being a part of SpinTunes. During the conversation, I got to cover my involvement in SpinTunes 1 and SpinTunes 3, including some discussion about a number of my SpinTunes song entries: Not Cool, Ballroom Dance, Another Universe, and Step Back Swooperman.

The full show is available at Jules’ website for streaming and download. Enjoy!

SpinTunes Wrap-Up

August 16, 2010

My participation in the SpinTunes songwriting contest has come to an end!

It was a valuable experience. I learned a lot about my songwriting and how to improve it, as well as about how to best participate in this type of songwriting contest. Indeed, in each of the first two rounds, I barely avoided being eliminated. In Round 3, I nearly made it to the finals. Because of quirky goings on regarding qualification, my final round shadow entry then seemed to come even closer to making it into contention in the finals. Then, several involved in the contest told me they believed it not only my own best song in the contest but the best entry for the final round. So it seems like maybe I came somewhat close to being the overall contest winner. Regardless of the “what if” factor, I’m really proud of my participation. I’m proud of all my songs, but it’s especially gratifying to see meaningful results from my explicit attempts to learn as I went and to grow as a songwriter and game player.

Along the way, I had many thoughts and insights, and I met a bunch of great people, my fellow competitors in particular, a group with a lot of songwriting talent and an earnestly friendly sense of competition.

If you’re interested, I’ve just published, at a different website, two posts inspired by my SpinTunes experience.

One is a more personal description, a blog of sorts: Highlights from My SpinTunes 1 Experience.

The other describes more general thoughts on songwriting contests and how they could be run: Thoughts on Songwriting Contests.

If you’ve read some other things of mine, you know I can write a bit long. And these posts are no exception! At the beginning of the second one, though, you can see a quick summary of my recommendations and suggestions for songwriting contests, in case you want just some bullet points. If you want more detail, then, both in the thoughts post itself as well as the experience post that includes some of what led to many of those thoughts, believe me, the detail is there for you!

One last note. As you’ll see if you read the first post on my experience, I discovered pitch correction with my Round 3 entry, Will It, and then used it again for Round 4’s Ballroom Dance. That accounts for an improvement you may hear in the vocals from those later two rounds over the two rounds before. You’ll see in my experience post how I came to justify using this feature as something other than cheating.

For posterity, I’ve gone ahead and corrected the pitch on the vocals for my entries for the first two rounds — Step Back Swooperman and Another Universe. I’m hoping the revised recordings will end up online soon. A note in that section of my experience post will be updated to indicate if and when they are available.

I don’t expect to change opinions too much. Pitch correction can’t turn me into a great singer. But, when the revisions are available, I hope you’ll give a listen, and I hope that maybe you’ll think at least a bit better of them compared to first impressions.

And if you haven’t left comments yet, please feel free to do so at the posts for each of the four songs — I love feedback!

My Shadow Entry for Round 4 of SpinTunes

August 11, 2010

With only two contestants having made it to the final round and me in third place behind them in Round 3, my song for Round 4 of the SpinTunes #1 songwriting contest is a “shadow” entry. There was a chance it could have become finalist if one of the top two didn’t make the deadline, but they both did, so my song was a shadow and there it will stay.

I’m really proud of it, though, and I hope you’ll check it out. It’s called Ballroom Dance. You can check out the the song, lyrics and story behind it.

The final round is being voted on by eliminated contestants, but there is still a public poll, which may be used in the case of a tie between the two finalists. Feel free to head over to SpinTunes to check out all the entries, finalist and shadow alike, and vote in the public poll if you like as well.

Ballroom Dance

August 10, 2010

Play the song here!

My little Nonna Bella used to tell a tale to me
Of all her lovely times back in old Italy
Where out on the piazza filled with lotsa people there
They’d eat and drink and dance out in the country air
I asked her, “Teach me how to dance like you did”
She said, “I can’t remember how to do it
I’m old, and anyway, those dances may not be for you
When not in Rome, why do as Romans do?

Ballroom dance
Why not go try a class?
Ballroom dance
Don’t just sit on your backside!”

Aristocrats in old Vienna floated round and round
The men in powdered wigs, the ladies, poofy gowns
A ballroom so magnificent, each surface blazing gold
That’s where they did the waltz back in the days of old
Compared to them, I feel just like a beggar
Say “Austria,” and I think Schwarzenegger
If I were an archduke then maybe waltzing would be grand
But I prefer Franz Ferdinand the band

Ballroom dance
Just try it and you’ll see
Ballroom dance
But waltzing’s not for me

A steamy night in Buenos Aires, couples barely dressed
At times open embrace, but mostly chest-to-chest
Expressing their passion longingly, and in their mouth, a rose
But frankly, I don’t want bleeding gums or pollen up my nose
Sometimes I can’t tell the steps from cha-cha, rumba or samba
And when teacher says, “Feel your burning desire!,”  Ay, caramba!
The fancy footwork’s frustrating, and don’t even mention the dips
For Latin and spicy I’ll stick with my salsa and chips

Ballroom dance
Just try it and you’ll see
Ballroom dance
But tango, no esta por mi

A hundred Slavic peasants, what a happy bunch of folk, A-
round the barn they gaily barrel, yes, they’re rolling out a polka
They get their fill of beer and sausage — that feels like my speed
Except it goes so fast, please, slow it down, I plead!
How did they do it after full days farming?
Two minutes in, my breathing rate’s alarming
We spin ’til I’m so dizzy, it just doesn’t seem so wise
Now, polka dots dance right before my eyes

Ballroom dance
Just try it and you’ll see
Ballroom dance
But polka’s not for me

My other grand-maman, she came from Paris — that’s in France
I’ve seen her drink red wine, but, no, I’ve never seen her dance
She’s watched me hoof around the world, but never as in Rome
She says that I should try a step from my own home
If so far I just feel malaise, ah, c’est la vie
Who knows, perhaps someday, instead, joie de vivre
A foxtrot, quick-step, jitterbug, or Lindy Hop or swing
But, ’til then, dancing doesn’t seem my thing

Ballroom dance
I tried some, now I see
Ballroom dance
Perhaps, one day, for me


The Challenge

Spintown decided to launch the SpinTunes songwriting contest. The challenge for SpinTunes 1 Round 4: Musical Road Trip – Write a song using at least three different ethnic styles. The music from each of the three parts of the song should give the listeners a mental image of a place or group of people from a certain area.

My Round 3 song, Will It, fared much better than my songs in the earlier rounds, placing third. However, all but two contestants were being eliminated for Round 4, so I just missed that cut. Adding a however to the however, the contest rules provided a chance for eliminated contestants to get back in if one of those two entrants failed to make a submission on time. In third place, I had more motivation than anyone else to shadow Round 4. Even though time was going to be very tight for me, I decided to go for it, especially given the nature of the challenge.

I’ve always loved playing and composing in different musical styles, so this challenge really appealed to me right out of the gate. At the same time, I’m much more experienced with pop music idioms and less so with ethnic styles, so this challenge was also challenging for me. I knew I needed to find an idea that would work in itself while also letting me use ethnic styles that were at least somewhat familiar to me, minimizing the amount of research and trial and error I’d have if I went with less familiar styles.

One notion I had from the start was using the various styles to provide different versions of what was, underneath, the same song. This would allow the whole piece to be unified not only by topic/story/lyrics but also by the essence of the music itself, despite the stylistic variations. I also felt this would be both a good challenge for myself as well as possibly something to distinguish my entry, on the chance that others might not take this approach.

The Concept

Though I felt my writing had benefitted in the first two rounds from using Appreciative Inquiry, I hadn’t used it in Round 3, and I ended up placing much higher. I don’t really believe there’s a causal connection there, but the Round 4 challenge was such that I felt I basically just needed to see what ideas I could come up with that would allow for multiple ethnic styles brought together. That specificity led me to some basic brainstorming and to feel that an AI wouldn’t really help much in this round, so I skipped it once again.

I came up with probably about two dozen ideas. Some that I liked quite a lot would have required far more time and work and possibly research than I’d be able to put in before the deadline. Some involved musical styles that I could do confidently enough, but I wasn’t sure they would really count as ethnic, even though they might give a sense of people and place. Some might have benefitted from foreign language lyrics, which I wasn’t in any position to do.

Needing to balance the strength of the ideas themselves with my abilities and familiarity with different musical styles, and also wanting a topic that would make narrative sense of everything being sung in American English, I found myself drawn to one of the many ideas on my list — the notion of someone taking a ballroom dance class and sampling the different styles.

Ballroom dance includes a number of swing dances, and I’ve written many swing-based songs over the years. However, I ruled these styles out for this challenge, feeling them to be not technically ethnic enough. Still, swing dances are only part of the standard ballroom repertoire. Competitive dancesport typically includes waltz, Viennese waltz and tango, as well as other Latin categories such as samba, cha-cha and rumba. Less formally, ballroom classes — like one I took in college — can include polka and other dances. Here were a number of musical styles in which I’d already written in the past. Some examples:

  • One of the centerpiece songs from Cupid’s Arrow, the first full-length musical I wrote, was Let Her Know, an upbeat rhythm and blues number that had, for comic effect, waltz and samba breaks in which Cupid tries to teach someone how to dance. There were the multiple styles in one song as well as the dance connection, including two ballroom styles.
  • Many years before Mel Brooks did his own, I started writing a musical adaptation of The Producers, including a tango for the moment when the main characters devise their devious plot.
  • In the next full-length musical I wrote, The Right Circles, a suite of songs based on around a theatrical audition were set to a Strauss-like waltz. Except for the 30 seconds per section rule, another song from this show would itself have met the SpinTunes challenge. Three Historical Figures had a playwright and songwriter improvising tunes: DaVinci’s was sung “like a Venetian gondolier,” Napoleon’s with a “mournful, French cafe sound,” and then there was the “Einstein Polka.”
  • Latinize, beginning as a tango and shifting into samba, talks lovingly and laughingly about the joy of dance, and Latin dances in particular.
  • I’d also written a vals — a form that combines waltz and tango — for the Turner Classic Movies 5th Annual Young Film Composer Competition.

Aside from my own familiarity with some of the relevant styles, I felt the notion of a ballroom dance class lent itself nicely to the challenge. Different dances are covered from week to week in such a class, giving a good reason for one musical style to come after another. Waltz, tango, polka and other Latin styles could work well. Rather than just a laundry list of dances and styles, though, I felt I needed a reason for a song to cover this ground. A story. Why was someone going to this class? This led me to think that the student wouldn’t like each dance, making it that much more important to have to try out each one. And that led me to wonder why this person would want to learn to dance in the first place. Given the challenge, even the explanation of the student’s motivation would need an ethnic style, even if it was outside the ballroom repertoire.

Since all non-swing ballroom dances have European roots in whole or part, it seemed natural to look to other European styles. I thought about someone growing up with images of dances from someplace in Europe that didn’t spawn ballroom dances. My earlier work in these various styles gave me a couple of options — Italian and French.

Thus, an Italian grandmother paints the picture of dancing in her youth, but she is now too old to demonstrate or even remember the steps in order to pass it on, so she suggests her grandchild take a ballroom dance class. For fun and to support the notion of dancing, I’d use a tarantella rather than the “gondolier’s” ballad style I’d used before. With dissatisfaction about the ballroom styles and now a non-ballroom style introducing the story, it seemed natural to have another non-ballroom style to create bookends. Hence, the French chanson at the end, with another grandmother, suggesting that the student stop looking to foreign dances for inspiration. The student ends the song considering the possibility of swing dances — the ballroom styles I’d written off as not ethnic enough for this challenge.

Interesting that Italy and France, two romantic countries, are essentially unrepresented in ballroom dance. And perhaps a little strange to have a song about ballroom dance include musical styles from outside the ballroom repertoire, while excluding many standard Latin ballroom styles and all American ballroom styles. But it all made narrative sense.

Ironically, I really like ballroom dance, and dance in general. Like I said, I took a ballroom dance class in college, where I first learned waltz, tango, polka, cha-cha, jitterbug and probably a couple of other styles as well. In high school, I did a comic ballet in the musical Anything Goes. My wife and I took a swing class for about a year before our wedding, and we choreographed our own first dance. And in my early 30s, I took a year of tap at a local dance school. So I felt a little bad writing a song that seems to frown on dance. Still, it all made narrative sense. Plus, it’s clearly the story of one particular person who is only saying that it’s “not for me,” not making a judgment about dance in general. Finally, the student remains open to the possibility of enjoying other dances not yet tried. So hopefully I’m off the hook in terms of disparaging something I actually like.

The Song

Musically, I really enjoyed the idea of taking a single basic song and setting it in different styles. The changes might be somewhat abrupt, but this would give a comic effect appropriate to the song’s concept. Just to have something to go on, I started writing in the tarantella style, coming up with the basic melody and a colorful but simple enough chord progression, which I later realized has some resemblance to that of I Could Have Danced All Night from My Fair Lady, which seems oddly appropriate.

Eventually, though, the song would never appear exactly as originally written in any of the five sections of the final product. The tarantella essentially kept the original melody, while all other sections have some stylistically appropriate melodic changes. Tarantella itself simplified the chord progression dramatically, down to just I-IV-V, appropriate for the style. Waltz brought a somewhat radical reharmonization, and tango its own noticeable changes to the harmonic progression. Polka and French chanson are perhaps closest to what was originally written, though their chord progressions are identical to neither each other nor the original. Even so, throughout, the melody and overall character of the song remain essentially in tact across all five sections, with changes only as appropriate to serve the needs of the shifting ethnic styles.

Instrumentation was something I wrestled with for a bit. I thought about doing a piano solo, which I knew I could make sound really good, but as good as I could do, I felt it just wouldn’t come across well enough for this challenge compared to orchestration. Deliberately, though, I kept the arrangement somewhat small, almost as if for an actual small band to perform. That idea came from researching arrangements for the different styles and seeing that most are usually done by only a few musicians. The tango, for example, is typically played by an orquesta típica, a sextet comprised of piano, double bass, two violins and two bandoneons. Accordions could feature prominently in many of the styles I was using, as could piano and bass. Tarentella more or less requires tambourine, which I also added to the tango. A drum set made sense for tarantella and polka. I left accordion out of the tarantella even though it could have been appropriate, since I thought it would make its entrance more dramatic with the tango. Different accordions follow in each of the polka and chanson. The strings in the waltz compromise the small-band nature of the other sections, but that seemed necessary for the style. I left strings out of the tango since I was satisfied with the sound without them, but I did add a tuba in the bass of the polka.

While I’d originally thought to do a separate samba section, the song was already looking to be somewhat long, and five sections seemed like plenty, especially when one, the tango, was already Latin in flavor. The samba did briefly insinuate itself into the tango section for comic effect, though, with the lyrics at that moment pointing to some other Latin styles of ballroom dance.

Speaking of lyrics, there are only a few others I’d like to highlight. “Don’t even mention the dips / For Latin and spicy I’ll stick with my salsa and chips” has a sort of oblique double pun, with the dancing dips also referring to the salsa which is itself a dip for the chips, and salsa itself also referring to the Latin dance of the same name. In the polka, the peasants “barrel” around the barn as “they’re rolling out a polka” — punny references to famous polkas such as Beer Barrel Polka and Roll Out the Barrel. Their beer and sausage, says the narrator, “feels like my speed,” only the narrator then switches from talking about preferences to the actual speed of the dance, which is just too fast. Beyond these few things, the song pretty much wears its lyrics on its sleeve, everything else to be taken basically at face value.

Since I’m just the kind of person to notice such things, I couldn’t help but wonder if this song turns out to be a critique of globalization. The narrator is tantalized by foreign things, but never finds satisfaction in them. The initial inspiration is peasant dancing — the Italian tarantella — which the student cannot access. Another peasant style seems to be the best fit — the Slavic polka — but even this doesn’t work. Everything else — waltz, tango, chanson — either is genuinely urban or is associated with the urban — Vienna, Buenos Aires, Paris — and jibes even less for the student. In the end, the student comes to see the need to pursue something closer to home, as opposed to more dances that have immigrated across national and cultural boundaries. Is the message of the song “dance local,” a cultural corollary to various messages we hear about ecological health? Will even the swing dances disappoint, being likely more urban than the narrator’s apparently rural and peasant-like tastes? Or is it this just a silly ditty that doesn’t mean much of anything? You decide :)


You can check out the Round 4 songs at SpinTunes, or more permanently at BandCamp, and you can get directly to Ballroom Dance at Bandcamp — but you can listen and download for free from BandCamp right from the player at the top of this post.

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.

My Song in Round 3 of SpinTunes #1

July 27, 2010

Will It, my entry for Round 3 of the SpinTunes #1 songwriting contest, is complete — and your vote could make the difference in how I do.

The results are being determined by a panel of judges, but ties will be broken by popular vote, via the poll that will be up for the next few days in the right sidebar at SpinTunes. Only two contestants will move onto the final round, with everyone else being eliminated, so the vote could be very important this time around.

To be fair, especially since I failed to mention it for the first two rounds, you should know that you can vote for up to three songs in the poll. I hope you’ll give all the songs a listen and vote for the three you like best. I hope mine is one of them — The Offhand Band – Will It, as it’s listed in the poll.

You can also check out the the song, lyrics and story behind it here as well. Please note the Caught Red-Handed warning label at the top of the song’s post, the first ever for The Offhand Band. Proceed with caution!

Will It

July 23, 2010

Caught Red-HandedCaught Red-Handed!
Warning! The Offhand Band usually strives to write satisfying songs that are cool for kids, fun for families and great for the grown on their own. In part or whole, we believe this song doesn’t fit that description. Proceed at your own risk! Learn more.
Play the song here!

The pains have just begun
But we’re prepared, expecting all goes naturally
Upon first light, the babe to breast
She’ll stay with us for all the rest
No nursery
All together as it’s meant to be

And then when doctors done
Back home to where our family future feels so bright
We’ll live to give a strong attachment
All life long without a catch
But on first light
We find out that there’s something not right

Will it be okay?
It’s not up to me
Not anything to do or say
Will it be alright?
Can’t will it to be
Want all my fears to take their flight
To stop, to end
Will it ever be okay again?

Arriving, all seems fine
Nine months, no complications through this very day
The sweat, the pain, through all the hours
The triumph that will prove your powers
But now you pray
One quick touch, then they took her away

It wasn’t your design
A newborn and her parents in two separate rooms
The bonding never comes to pass
She crying trapped behind the glass
You’re helpless, too
Their machines hold her instead of you

Will it be okay?
It’s not up to me
Not anything to do or say
Will it be alright?
Can’t will it to be
Want all my fears to take their flight
To stop, to end
Will it ever be okay again?

Back home they finally come
But they don’t feel a family yet, they self-condemn
Mistakes are made, they’re sad and rough
They wonder if they love enough
Just what’s the stem?
Is it what happened, or is it them?

They wish that they were numb
Attached to expectations, they can never win
Perhaps if they can just let go
Accepting that they’ll never know
What could have been
Maybe finally their love could begin

Will it be okay?
It’s all up to me
In everything I do and say
Will it be alright?
Must will it to be
Just stop my putting up a fight
I’ve got to bend
Or I’ll never be okay again

The pains have just begun…


The Challenge

Spintown decided to launch the SpinTunes songwriting contest. The challenge for SpinTunes 1 Round 3: Happy To Sad In 4 Seconds – Write a sad song about birth, a moment that is normally a happy moment, and make it a real tear jerker. You can’t use the words “Happy” or “Birthday”.

Just as in Round 1, my Round 2 song, Another Universe, had fared pretty poorly with the judges, barely passing me into the next round. Though much of the point of that last song was the contrast between the verses depicting a bland current life and the more lively imagined universe of the chorus, the biggest critique of the song seemed to be that the verses were lacking. There was also sentiment against the song being perhaps too generic and also too minimalist in production. Some more general comments made by one of the judges made me realize that I’ve been allowing myself to be too swept up in the nature of each challenge, and that it is more important to simply write great songs that happen to meet the challenge. My Round 3 song would need to be stronger and more specific throughout. Also, since the judges continue to weigh production despite the contest being nominally about songwriting alone, rather than continue with the minimal piano-centric approach I’d settled on in Round 2, I conceded to it being worth putting in extra time and effort on production for this round.

When the Round 3 challenge was announced, I wondered if it would be possible to meet it while sticking with The Offhand Band’s main “mission” of creating songs that are all-ages-friendly and ideally positive in nature. A few possibilities occurred to me, but I wrote them off, feeling that they wouldn’t allow me to write a song that could stand up to the judging as well as possible. I came up with the idea of a warning label to let visitors know when some content here may be worth screening first before letting just anyone at it. I suppose, then, that I have this challenge to thank for leading me to expand The Offhand Band’s possibilities.

Considering the broadstroke possibilities for basic plots, it seemed obvious that something bad had to happen, it would likely end badly, and then those around afterward would either live in depression, live in denial, or grieve healthfully and move on. But what about a bad thing that happens and ends well? This could still be a tearjerker, as the challenge demands. But the challenge also demands sadness, so this might be seen as a compromise.

I had a notion, though, that suggested a way to take a bad event, give it what at first seems a happy ending, and then reveal it to be not an ending at all, with things remaining pretty bad afterward in a different way. I felt this would make for a unique and powerful take on the challenge topic compared to the basic plots.

Despite benefitting last round from doing an Appreciative Inquiry even when I’d initially felt I could skip it, I did skip it this time, because I simply felt confident enough in my initial sense of what direction to take.

The Concept

A sad birth story would be painful for practically anyone, staying with them for the rest of their lives. There is, though, a kind of person for whom it could be particularly tragic. Because of their values, not only would the situation itself be more painful than for most, but even if the situation were overcome, those very values could continue causing despair.

Parents engaged in a natural family living lifestyle, including approaches like attachment parenting and unconditional parenting, often believe strongly in providing powerful connection and support in infancy and childhood as the very means to help children naturally achieve healthy development. High priorities for many of these parents include natural childbirth, breastfeeding, co-sleeping, baby-wearing and stay-at-home parenting. They would feel very strongly about maintaining physical contact with the baby almost continuously from birth, nursing as soon after birth as possible and continuing as the exclusive means of nutrition for several months or even a year, and even having the baby sleep in the same bed with them. Sending the baby to a separate nursery room alone or to get nutrition from other means would be anathema for months, even years, yet no time more than the crucial first days of life.

Beginning labor believing that all was well and having such a strong and particular vision of what would happen afterward, a serious medical issue that demanded immediate separation would be devastating. Bad enough to be uncertain if your child would even survive. Far worse to go through that while also believing that each minute apart in the service of physical health could cause lifelong emotional damage to the child.

Underneath all this, though, would be a terrible, ironic truth. Truly unconditional parents would lament each moment of the crisis, but if they got through, they’d simply be grateful for the child’s survival, treating each day as a gift, an opportunity to make the child feel loved. Parents who couldn’t get over what may have been lost through the crisis, though, would reveal themselves to be conditional at heart. Rather than genuinely valuing love as unconditional parents are supposed to, they could attach greater value to an image of the perfection that they believed love leads to, and could therefore find themselves unable to fully love a child they see as less than perfect.

For these parents, even with the initial crisis overcome, that trauma is merely the beginning. With their idealized expectations of the child and themselves, neither the child nor they themselves can measure up. Every time they see a flaw in their child, they’d wonder if it was because of the birth crisis that was out of their control or because of their own ongoing failings as parents. The gap between reality and and expectation undermines their ability to provide the very things they believe all children deserve. Constantly plagued by the pain of that discrepancy, they would be forced to choose between either living a life of self-inflicted misery in which they harshly judge their child and themselves, or confronting the darkness inside themselves so that they might eventually align their hopes with reality. Only then could they become the parents they really want to be, helping the child grow up with as much genuine nurture as possible.

The Song

Opposing forces run through the story. The heat of pain increases as happy anticipation gives way to the terrible crisis and then again as the parents torture themselves emotionally as life goes on. At the same time, the nature of the pain is too much for these parents to bear, causing them to cling ever more to their expectations, denying reality, and so there is a simultaneous trend toward the cool of detachment. These streams, running at cross-purposes, and the ways in which they cause similar notions to change meaning in different contexts, are woven into the music and lyrics.

The music begins somewhat poignantly and quietly, a solo piano ballad, though one with busy motion. The feeling builds gradually, first when a synth pad comes in midway through verse one, then with ride cymbals upon the first chorus. Afterward, the song kicks in with bass guitar, acoustic guitar and full drum set. When the second chorus is done, bass and electric piano become frenetic — Muse was my muse for this climactic section. Through these macro patterns as well as various details along the way, the music conveys the growing sense of pain and conflict.

The lyrics tell a narrative fractured in two ways.

The plot itself is somewhat unstuck in time, with a sense of chaos and confusion that the music conveys as the song develops, perhaps as if the entire story is behind told in hindsight, by someone who keeps running over the various parts of it in his or her mind, first this, then that, all in circles, all repeating.

Labor begins along with the first verse, and the parents declare the vision they’ve had all along and the preparations they’ve made to achieve it. At verse’s end, they jump ahead to the moment when they realize something is wrong. The first chorus expresses the uncertainty and helplessness of the crisis, perhaps even the very first moment when nobody in the family really understands the nature of the crisis.

Verse two jumps back to arrival at the hospital, then forward to the tremendous sense of empowerment coming from going through unmedicated, natural labor and birth. That’s followed by the horrific disempowerment of the immediate separation of child from parents, then to some time later on when all are knee-deep in the crisis. The second chorus’ lyrics are the same as the first, as if all the family members just can’t get the uncertainty out of their heads.

The third verse reveals that the birth crisis is at some point overcome but that there is still more to the story, the pain continuing because of the parents’ unique emotional situation. The final chorus, with only slight rewording, conveys a completely new kind of uncertainty — one not about things outside one’s control, but about things very much in one’s control, if only one finds the courage to act.

The last line reiterates the first, meaning something new, but simultaneously giving that sense of the story swirling back on itself, repeating over and over in someone’s mind.

The chaos of fractured narrative is not the only distinguishing element of the lyrics, though. The story is told from shifting perspectives, amplifying the sense of chaos while, as in chaos theory itself, also hiding a definite sense of pattern and order within.

The first verse is told in the first person, plural, “we” — the collective family unit, expressing the notion of how they want things to be through their best laid plans. The second verse is told in the second person, as if they are dumbfounded by the crisis and can’t fully admit how out of control they feel. Finally, the third verse is told in the third person, plural, “they” — complete detachment, just as the parents are now feeling because of their reality gap.

Throughout, though, the choruses are in first person singular. The core feeling of uncertainty and fear lingers at all steps along the way, and it can only be experienced by each individual. Indeed, the choruses could be any of the family members talking — the mother, the father, perhaps even the child. The last chorus may seem primarily about the parents and how they must take responsibility for themselves, their expectations and their emotions in order to be the parents they hope to be. Yet it could just as well be the child, somewhere inside knowing that she must take responsibility for herself to the very extent that her parents are unable to do so for her. Even this, though, does point back to the parents, since they believe that the child can only become a healthfully independent and responsible adult if they can model it for her first.

The initial moment of uncertainty somehow remains with them, experienced over and over and never forgotten. The final chorus stays with them as well, but insists that the feeling will stay with them only as long as they are unwilling to give up their unrealistic expectations. That realization is itself the seed of a path back toward the optimism that started the song, but the path will be a painful one, through the traumas that led them to have unrealistic expectations in the first place. They must choose their pain — detachment and self-judgment everlasting, or self-confrontation. The latter may seem more daunting, but through the pain is the only way past it. As of the end of the song, no choice is made, only an attempt to muster up courage.

One way I wanted to draw out the contrast of the beginning and ending of the story was by using words in different contexts to mean different things. The core example is the chorus. The contest challenge inherently suggests fear and powerlessness, and this chorus speaks to that directly. “Will it” is both a question wondering what may happen in the future and a declaration that about people making things happen. “Okay” and “alright” at first refer to the fate and health of the baby but later on to the potential attitude of acceptance, as in being okay with something despite having alternate expectations. All these terms are doubly turned around by the way the last chorus turns helplessness into taking responsibility. Other examples:

  • “The pains have just begun” — First, they are the labor pains. Later, they are the pains of the emotional growth the parents will need to undergo and had no anticipation of when they first decided to enter parenthood. On that note:
  • “Expecting” has the double meaning of being pregnant and anticipating that the birth will go well, giving way to “expectations” in the sense of hopes and fantasies out of touch with reality. Likewise:
  • “Attachment” first refers to the parent-child bond, but later refers to the way that people are “Attached to expectations.” Ironically, one kind of attachment makes the other kind impossible. In order to be an effective attachment/unconditional parent, one must be detached enough to not get too swept up in one’s own hopes and imaginings.
  • “Upon first light” is not repeated with a different meaning but is used more than once, first to show their hope, then “But on first light” providing the first utterance of the crisis that contradicts that hope.
  • The choruses, all about fear, refer to the fight-or-flight response: In the first two choruses, the narrator simply wants “fears to take their flight,” to go away. In chorus three, the narrator wants to “stop my putting up a fight,” revealing that all along, with the fears never having gone away, those involved have been resisting their fears. Only by letting themselves actually feel their fear may they be able to get past them — and consequently past the fight-or-flight response.
  • A more minor pun, “She’ll stay with us for all the rest” is a reference both to co-sleeping in the family bed and more generally acknowledging that the child will stay with the parents through everything, unconditionally.

More Musical Details

Some final comments on the music, with a little bit of technical language that hopefully won’t bar understanding.

The song begins with an intro based on some chords very common in sad and dramatic music, which I’ll talk about as they appear in the song’s key. An Fm is followed by a Db, with Eb thrown in between though only with Fm and Db in the bass. It almost seemed cliche to use these chords, but cliches work for a reason, plus there are interesting evolutions from this pair of chords, noted below.

The verse chord progression is composed of a series of fairly rich but not too complex chords, including diminished, augmented, seventh and ninth chords. Underscoring them is an ascending bass line that is on one hand simple and linear but, on the other, a little unusual in moving all the way up from Bb back to F via half steps. All of this serves to build tension and uncertainty.

The chorus progression is built mainly around a chord with a name that is exactly right yet seems odd: the minor major seventh chord (mM7), sometimes referred to as The Hitchcock Chord based on its use in his films. Other chords are more dissonant, but there is something pure and horrifying about this chord, even when played very simply and softly. Although it can be found in chord progressions, I’ve felt that, in its purity as a frightening sound, it seemed very static, as if paralyzing someone with fear, coming out of nowhere and with no possible place to go afterward.

A unique property of this chord, though, suggested a progression to me. Using an FmM7 as a reference point, the notes of the chord are F, Ab, C, E. Remove the root F, and we’re left with an Ab augmented chord. But those three notes are equidistant. Travel four half steps repeatedly, and you end up repeating the sequence, Ab C E over and over up and down in pitch. That very fact means that these three notes can each serve as the root of an augmented chord — C augmented and E augmented contain the same exact three notes as Ab augmented.

Throw in the F to turn it into a mM7 chord, and one quickly realizes that, just the same, there are three mM7 chords that can be made, keeping the Ab, C and E and changing only the root note to be a half step above any of one of these three notes. Above the E, we get the FmM7. Above Ab and C, we get AmM7 and DbmM7 respectively.

Note, then, that two of the three mM7 chords in this trio are F and Db — the roots used in the intro, themselves four half steps apart just like the notes in the augmented chords embedded inside the mM7 chords. Using the three related mM7 chords consecutively, then, there is simultaneously the sense of fear from their general quality, the notion of paralysis since so much of the harmony is preserved as one moves through the three chords, and yet also a sense of motion and development that resembles but is much richer than the movement from Fm to Db.

Moving from the C7/E at the end of the verse, one expects to come back to Fm as happened midway through the verse. Even changing this to the scarier FmM7, it would be a somewhat predictable move, making the scary less scary. To enhance the feeling of fear and uncertainty in the chorus, the chorus begins with an apparent key change, introducing an AmM7 and sounding a bit terrifying as it’s intended to. From there, movement through the trio involves FmM7 and DbmM7, preserving the relationship to the intro but casting it in a new light. The progression then seems to resolve with the consonance of an Ab, though from there we go right back to AmM7 and the cycle repeats one more time, this time moving from Ab through a few other dramatic chords that bring things back to the verse. Somehow, these mM7 chords, despite their inherent horror and stasis, play nice and make for a poignant chord progression that seems ideal to go with the lyrics of the choruses.

After the final chorus, when the first line of the lyrics is repeated as the last line of the song, a repeated intro phrase gives way to an Fm/C and then a Dbm before turning around through C7 back to the verse theme. This is yet another alternate casting of the cliche Fm-to-Db. We’d have a DbmM7 with the addition of a C, and though there is no C simultaneous with the Dbm, the C was very prominent in the Fm/C immediately preceding. This suggestively evokes a bit of the terror of the chorus chords and highlights, as an alternative intro, the beginning of a new painful life chapter.

The final musical element I wanted to mention is the fade at the end of the song. I grew up on pop songs with ending fades, but they don’t seem quite as common anymore, and it rarely occurs to me to use a fade in my own songs. Part of it is simply that there is no fading when composing on most instruments, including certainly a piano.

Another part, though, is an idea that made an impression on me from an unlikely place. I once heard the Pet Shop Boys explain that the fades at the ends of their songs suggested that the songs never end, that somehow, somewhere, they play on and on. Though I kind of like the Pet Shop Boys, I thought this was a pretty pretentious thing to say, a rationalization for what most pop songs had been doing for years anyway as opposed to anything genuinely special about their own music. Ever since then, unless there were a particular aesthetic or symbolic purpose, I figured there was seldom a good reason to do a fade.

Seldom, though, is not never. When a song ends with the notion of something just beginning — like pains that have just begun — the situation seems ripe for a fade. So, at the end of the song, we hear an instrumental verse fading away, suggesting that the story, and the pain, is nowhere near over.


You can check out the Round 3 songs at SpinTunes, or more permanently at BandCamp, and you can get directly to Will It at Bandcamp — but you can listen and download for free from BandCamp right from the player at the top of this post.

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Vote for My Song in Round 2 of SpinTunes #1!

July 13, 2010

Another Universe, my entry for Round 2 of the SpinTunes #1 songwriting contest, is complete — and your vote may make the difference in how I do!

The results are being determined by a panel of judges, but ties will be broken by popular vote, via the poll that will be up for the next few days in the right sidebar at SpinTunes. Please head on over and vote for The Offhand Band – Another Universe — especially since some contestants will actually be cut from the contest in this round!

And, certainly, please enjoy the song itself, too :)

Another Universe

July 7, 2010

Play the song here!

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

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.


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.


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.

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.

Vote for My Song in Round 1 of SpinTunes #1!

June 25, 2010

Step Back Swooperman, my entry for Round 1 of the SpinTunes #1 songwriting contest, is complete — and your vote may make the difference in how I do!

The results are being determined by a panel of judges, but ties will be broken by popular vote, via the poll that will be up for the next few days in the right sidebar at SpinTunes. Please head on over and vote for The Offhand Band – Step Back Swooperman!

And, certainly, please enjoy the song itself, too :)

Step Back Swooperman

June 25, 2010

Play the song here!

It’s not easy to be me
Child of a superhero
But it’s not that Dad’s off saving only strangers
While he treats me like a zero

Au contraire, he’s always there
Swoopin’ in most every minute
Always helping me to finish every little thing
As soon as I begin it

Homework answers by the score
So my scores are kind of crummy
With his Superbreath he cleans up all my messes
And he lets me win at rummy

Does heroics on his own
Tells me it would be traumatic
It’s no wonder he can leap tall buildings while
The highest I can do’s the attic

Though your Superintentions mean well, I suppose
The only super thing you do for me is Superimpose

Step back Swooperman
My style is cramped
My progress prevented
Development damped
I can’t get very far
As long as you’re party-pooper-man
Step back Swooperman

Hanging out sometimes with friends
Maybe going to the mall
But no matter where I go, your X-ray vision
Always sees me through the wall

Every little thing I do
You just have to have your knowledge
What on Earth will happen when I’m fighting bad guys
Much less partying in college?

Yeah, it’s nice that you just want to know I’m okay
But with your constant Supervision, how can I find my way?

Step back Swooperman
My style is cramped
My progress prevented
Development damped
I’m not asking for much
Just stop being such a snooperman
Step back Swooperman

Harder than you think
To grow up with falling not allowed
Now I’m on the brink
Since I’m not using it, I’m losing it now

Maybe I will steal away
And become a supervillain
Wreaking havoc so you’ll have to clean my messes
I’m sure that would be fulfillin’

Massive crises every day
Is there no-one else to brave ‘em?
Maybe if you just gave everyone a chance
They wouldn’t need someone to save ‘em

Step back Swooperman
My style is cramped
My progress prevented
Development damped
I might make a mistake
At least I’ll be Shake-My-Stupor-Man

Step back Swooperman
My style is cramped
My progress prevented
Development damped
I might make a mistake
At least I’ll be Shake-My-Stupor-Man
Step back Swooperman

Spintown decided to launch the SpinTunes songwriting contest. The challenge for SpinTunes 1 Round 1: I’m A Marvel, And I’m A D.C. — Write a song from the point of view of a superhero or supervillain.

Doing an Appreciative Inquiry on the subject, I quickly became interested in playfully critiquing our typical notions of superhero/supervillain. Thinking about how disempowering it is for “the masses” to always need saving by superheroes, I related that to helicopter parents — always hovering over their kids, providing “help” even when their kids don’t really need it. With helicopters and many superheroes having the ability to fly, the connection seemed particularly apt.

Some Googling on these kinds of parents revealed mention of them as, in fact, “superhero parents,” swooping in too often for their children. The rhyming connection between “super” and “swooper” seemed too good to pass up. Immediately, the idea and title for the song popped into my head. If Superman constantly swooped in as a parent the way he did as a superhero, he’d have a child who had a hard time getting to know his own superpowers, perhaps eventually rebelling to become a supervillian.

With many superheroes’ and supervillains’ origin stories involving their parents and/or traumatic/unpleasant experiences, here was an opportunity for a superhero himself to be the very origin of a supervillain, ironically creating his child’s unpleasant experience by acting exactly the same as he does in his role as a superhero. This nicely fulfilled my initial goal of tweaking our typical notions about what it means to be these kinds of characters.

Some more messing around with the word super led to fun puns with “superintentions” and “superimpose,” as well as “supervision” with its nice connection to X-ray vision. I love lyrical jokes like these, as well as alliteration and tight rhyme schemes including inner rhymes, all of which I brought into the lyric. But beyond these, I tried to have the song not just express the kid’s feelings but tell his story as well. This origin story would show his growing older without really getting enough of a chance to grow up, until finally he must get what he wants by striking out on his own in the only way he knows how, the only way he’s been allowed to act all along.

In the first verse, in addition to wishing he could help with his dad’s heroics, he’s clearly expressing things from the standpoint of a younger kid. Homework, bad grades and playing games are his concerns. In the same vein, the first chorus has him complaining, childishly, about his dad being a party-pooper.

With the next verse, he’s a bit older and trying to gain independence, spending time away from home with friends. But he still can’t ever really get away and wonders what will happen as he looks ahead to college and beyond. The second chorus also grows up a bit, moving on to a bit of justified paranoia and the request that his dad simply stop being such a snooper. In the bridge, he expresses how he’s finally “losing it,” with the double meaning of losing the skills he’s not using (“use it or lose it”) and also becoming enraged.

This leads to the culmination of the story. The final verse shows his plans to become a supervillain. He makes clear that wreaking criminal havoc would be just living up to the expectations his father has had of him all along, giving his dad a chance to continue cleaning up his messes. The final jab at his dad comes when he undermines the very idea of being a superhero, suggesting that people wouldn’t even need to be saved if they were just given a chance, i.e., the chance to cultivate the best in themselves that his dad never gave him. The last chorus affirms the greatest amount of maturity he can muster, admitting that he might make mistakes without his dad’s help, but at least he’ll get out of the mind-numbing helplessness inflicted on him by Superman / Swooperman / Party-Pooper-Man / Snooperman. He’ll become Shake-My-Stupor-Man — for the first time he’ll be a man of his own, on his own terms, even if his mistakes may involve supervillainy.

Musically, I wanted something that would play with both the drama and the humor of the story. John Williams’ score to the 1978 movie Superman jumped into my mind — a phenomenal score that is both serious and playful, from an obviously relevant movie that is itself also both dramatic and fun. Riffing on well-known superhero music would match the lyrical riffing on both the superhero mythos in general and the Superman story in particular.

Experimenting with the main theme’s famous ostinato — the rhythmically repeating low notes that underscore the march — I realized I could come up with a very different tune to lie on top. As the song evolved, I found many other musical elements inspired by the Williams score, about a dozen in all — see if you can catch them :)

Knowing I didn’t just want a serious, orchestral march for the entire song, I wondered if there was a way to incorporate more of a pop song feel as well. I realized that the ostinato had an interesting relationship to some typical reggae rhythms. More effortlessly than I imagined it would, a reggae-flavored pop tune flowed out of the orchestral seriousness, blending well musically, lending some nice musical humor, and going well with the son’s aging into a teen. With these two main styles sometimes showing up on their own and sometimes combined, along with the bridge pulling winkingly (and liberally) from the John Williams score’s “Can You Read My Mind” theme, the song ended up with a lot of musical color.

In addition to the musical references, I also nod in the first line of lyrics to the Five for Fighting song Superman (It’s Not Easy), which seemed appropriate for the difficulties this son of Superman was facing.

You can check out the Round 1 songs at SpinTunes, or more permanently at BandCamp, and you can get directly to Step Back Swooperman at Bandcamp — but you can listen and download for free from BandCamp right from the player at the top of this post!

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.