Why We Need Pop Stars like Gaga and Britney

People hate on pop music all the time. Like really really hate on it. They point to the rise of auto tune as proof that the worlds most popular singers can no longer sing. And they may be right in that respect. But the  world needs Lady Gaga and the Britney Spears. Heres why.

Its a Culture Thing

Culture is what defines a society, and society without a culture is dead. Maybe Lady Gaga cant sing without Autotune, but why does it matter? She has impacted the culture of our society in a huge way. So what if here vocals are modified in order to make them sound good? It doesnt matter. People like her music. They dance to it, sing with it, and scream and cheer for her and concerts. The same goes for Britney Spears, Owl City, and whoever else people have decided to hate on.

But Why do we Need Them?

So far I have only told you why it is O.K. for them to be part of culture, so now I need to give you why the are a necessary part of it. Think of were our world would be without the Autotuned masses of pop singers currently around? It would be somewhat boring. I dont see anyone doing what they are doing without Autotune, so why get mad at them for doing it with Autotune? It makes no sense.

They are necessary to our culture because they change the culture. A culture that does not evolve is a boring culture, and a society with a boring culture is a boring society. If we just stuck with The Beatles (dont get me wrong. GREAT band) where would we be? Things have to change or the world is a boring place.

So I say to you again. Who cares if they are Autotuned? People like, it. They are being entertained. And, by entertaining people, the pop stars are changing the culture in a dramatic way. This is why we need them. I dont care if the music is bad. Leave them alone. Dont insult their fans. And you dont even have to think of them.

The Song With Too Many Parts

If you are in a choir, you have probably sung in a least two parts. You have probably sung in three, and there is a good chance you have sung in four.

But have you ever sung in 40? Chances are you havent but, for some of you, the answer just might be yes.

Enter Spem in alium. A 40-part (although there are versions with just three or four parts)Latin motet written in late 16th century by Thomas Tallis. It is written for eight different choirs with five parts each to sing, and is easily one of the most complicated songs in the history of music (dont believe me? Take a look at the score). But why would anyone have been so silly as to write a song. It has such a ridiculous amount of parts that it wouldnt even be worth counting.

Why?

The belief is that it is competition. You  may want to think that the motives for writing such an incredible piece of music was 100 percent pure, but that may not be the case. It is quite likely that this song was written in response to a song written by an Italian composer, Alessandro Striggio, who wrote some songs with a very large amount of parts. According to a letter that was written around the time, a Duke (it is believed he was Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk) wondered if there was an Englishman who could create such incredible music. So Tallis set out to do so. And he succeeded.

But How Can That Many Parts Sound That Good?

Thats the big question isnt it? Spem in Alium is written to be sung by eight choirs in a horseshoe or circular pattern. The music starts in choir one. After some time, choir two comes in and, a little while later, choir one falls silent. The music continues around the horseshoe pattern like this, then turns around and comes right back. The choirs do not all sing at once until the end. And at that point it is just breathtaking. You have never heard anything like it.

How Is A Piece Like This Written?

If I knew this, far more people would know who I am. What I do know is that it takes experience, and a lot of it, to be able to write something like that. Experience that I just do not have.

I would suggest you listen to it, if you cant listen to the whole thing, then wait until you have time and come back.

Musical Ensembles: The Choir

[This is part of the Ensembles for All Series]

Ah yes, Choirs. Chances are at some point in your life you have sung with some sort of choir, most likely a school choir. They can create beautiful (or chilling) harmonies, with three, four, or even more different parts at the same time. Its not easy, but that is not what we are concerned with. We are curious as to how they are structured. Much of my musical experience has come from this type of ensemble, so it is what you could call my area of expertise.

The Mormon Tabernacle Choir

There is no really wrong way to structure a choir. In fact, it greatly depends on what you are given in terms of voices. If you have a choir made up completely of men, then you probably wont have sopranos (Chanticleer is a notable exception). A choir made up completely of young boys probably wont have tenors (although some young voices can dip into that range) baritones and bases.

I should say now that choir is actually a blanked term more then anything. Choir is technically a term only used for vocal ensembles that sing for a church. However, when I say choir in this post, I am referring to any type of larger voice ensemble.

The Voice Ranges

Naturally, different people have different singing ability. Generally they can be labeled as one of the following.

  • Soprano Usually made up of women, young girls, or young boys. Generally sing from about C4 to C6 (see An Explanation of Scientific Pitch Notation)
  • Contralto (Alto) Again usually made up of women, young girls, or boys with unchanged voices. Have a range of about F3 to F5.
  • Tenor The highest male voice in a choir. Has a range of about C3 to C5.
  • Bass The lowest voice in the choir. Made up completely of men. People that sing this usually have a range of E2 to E4.

Sometimes other voices, such as Baritone or Mezzo-Soprano are added, but these are generally the four subdivisions. However each voice may be subdivided further. Much of the three part music for higher voices is written SSA (soprano, soprano, alto) or SAA (soprano, alto, alto). In this instances, there is a chance that one Soprano part will be higher then the other. In this case, the people that sing the higher soprano part are considered first sopranos.

By far the most well known format is the SATB (soprano, alto, tenor, bass) format. This the most often used format for choirs with both male and female vocalists. Some of the best known choirs use this format.

Now naturally it would make sense to assume that all singers that sing one part would stand together. Although this is true in many cases, it is not always so. Sometimes the members are staggered, which can look nicer. Its harder to sing that way, as the individuals singers dont have as much support, but then no part is coming from only one place.

I hope this gave you a good idea of kind of how a chorus is structure. Remember, that is what this series is aiming for. Just the nuts and bolts. None of the fancy stuff (although there may be time for this later).

Some well-known choirs:

  • Vienna Boys Choir (All boys with unchanged voices, sopranos and altos.
  • Chanticleer (All men, however some of the men sing soprano and alto parts.)
  • Mormon Tabernacle Choir (Men and Women. Soprano, alto, tenor and bass)
  • Choir of New College, Oxford (Men and boys with unchanged voices, Soprano, alto, tenor, bass)

[This is part of the Ensembles for All Series]

Music Performance Mistakes: Why You Shouldnt Be Worried

Perhaps the worst fear of any musician is a live performance mistake. Your going along just fine and dandy and all of a sudden you pluck the wrong note, press the wrong key, or hit the wrong drum. It sounded awful. Your band-mates (if you have any) are giving you looks. You feel stupid.

It happens to all of us

Well you shouldnt. In my talks with people that are part of an audience when I perform, most of the time they say that they didnt notice the mistake. Even if I point out the specific point in time it happened, they dont notice.

But why is this?

Honestly, most audience members are relatively dumb when it comes to the structure of music. They really dont know how it is supposed to sound. The only time they would notice is if it is glaringly obvious. If your voice breaks for example (especially if you are singing solo, I did it once, but, thankfully, I was with a chorus), or if you hit a note so very wrong that no one could help but noticing it.

You have to remember that you and I are musicians. We notice every little detail. If something goes wrong, no matter how trivial, we recognize it right away.

Let me tell you a story. A few weeks ago I got the opportunity to play in front of a large-ish group of people at a church service along with three other people. Two days earlier I had replaced my guitar strings. Over those days I had played my guitar a lot in order to stretch out the strings. It didnt work. My guitar did not stay in tune.

I was distressed. Thankfully we had another guitarist who could pick up the slack. In the meantime, I had to play my guitar very carefully in order to make sure that everything would sound OK. The only people who noticed were my band mates, the sound technician, and a few people who knew me well enough to tell that I was preoccupied.

So you see, you need to worry less about your exact sound when you perform. Even in the case of the more obvious examples, there is a good chance that they will forget it by the end of the performance as long as it is good enough for them to focus on.

Have you ever done something terribly obvious that you felt completely stood out in your performance (in a bad way) if so, what? And did anyone notice?

All Things Bright and Beautiful

Yes, this post is a little abnormal, but normality is boring.

Im stoked. Excited. For tomorrow is the day. THE DAY. Dont know what The Day is? Let me educate you. Dont feel bad for not knowing, I dont blame you one bit.

Once upon a time there was a 20 year old who worked loading trucks at a Coke factory. Unfortunately, this guy was an insomniac and had lots of trouble sleeping on a regular basis. On these nights, he would sneak down into his parents basement and record music that he wrote himself. Over the course of the next couple years, he acquired a Myspace following, and sold thousands of copies of his music. He released a couple of albums before he was signed by a record label. His next album had this little song on it called Fireflies, and before he knew it, he was famous.

If you do not know now, I am talking about Adam Young. The guy behind the smashing success known as Owl City. Youngs story is one of those success stories that we all wish we could replicate. This guy is really cool, but how does one come out of nowhere like this?

Young is the quiet, introverted sort. He suffers from Asperger Syndrome, but seems to do a relatively good job socially despite this. His music style can be most easily described as optimistic, with a general feeling of happiness. It is definitely electro-pop, and some have compared it to The Postal Service. Yes, they are similar, but Adam Young has his own gig. Perhaps he got lucky, or maybe, perhaps, hes just good enough.

I loved Ocean Eyes (his first studio-backed release). And I am incredibly excited for All Things Bright and Beautiful. As I write this the world is slowly revolving towards the 14 of June, which means that those wonderful people from down under (a.k.a. Australia) get it first. Oh well. I pre-ordered it weeks ago, I can wait a little longer.

P.S. (psst One of those last statements is not strictly true. He already has the whole album up on his Myspace page, but Im am being a good little boy and waiting until tomorrow. But you dont have to be.)

No One Plays the Ratchet or Why Percussionists are Awesome

In December of 2010, I had the privilege of being part of a guest choir at a orchestral concert. The concert was fabulous, but I found it curious that there were two of the members of the orchestra who never played anything. In fact, they were not even on stage. They were simply sitting in the front row, they seemed to be waiting for something.

After intermission, all was revealed to me. The orchestra had prepared a musical version of A Christmas Carol called Scrooge. It was done with very little acting. It was interactive so there was certain parts where members of the orchestras choir would queue the audience members to do something. Lots of fun. But what was really cool was that these two people, who had been sitting throughout the whole first half, finally got their turn up at bat.

It was fascinating. Between the two of them there were at least 25 instruments that needed playing. They had to be a complete team. Although each instrument was predominantly played by one musician, occasionally one musician would reach over and play one of his companions instruments if the other guy was already engaged. There was a huge variety of things; ratchets, chimes, plain old drums, and things that probably are not used terribly frequently in music. Most of them were use to express certain things that is not normally in music, like the opening of a door, or the falling of snow. But it added to the music all the same.

Now, do not confuse a percussionist as I describe it with a drummer. Although drummers are percussionists in ever sense of the word, these two were very different from drummers. I loved watching them. If you ever go to a musical like this one, watch the percussionists, I guarantee you will find them awesome.

Here I have a video for you of the Celtic Women. Now, the Celtic Women are excellent musicians, but they could not be what they are without the musicians who back them up. One really cool thing to watch is the percussionists. They have a drum set that completely encircles them, as well as other little odds and ends that they use on occasion. Although the video naturally focuses on the singers themselves, the Drummers are featured quite a bit as well. Take a look!