I try to keep up on what the kids are doing these days (honest) and I’ve noticed that with young bands songs tend to hover around the 3 minute 30 second to 5 minute mark. Speaking from a purely personal preference point of view, my own, this is far too long for rock music in a pop music mold. Sometimes it works because there’s enough going on to hold my interest but usually these songs can be easily trimmed and/or elaborated on. I’m not convinced that people take the time to craft their songs. You don’t need to be some combination of Burt Bacharach and Steven Weinberg to maximize your songs potential, it just takes a little extra time and attention. It’s Rock ‘n Roll, not Rocket Science! So, in the interest of bringing to light a few little techniques one can use when composing a Rock ‘n Roll Number I’m re-publishing this piece I wrote many moon ago regarding the then in-style (and still much beloved, by me) Fiery Furnaces and their album EP. Taking a closer look at some well-crafted music can really do wonders for your own writing.
Tropical Ice-Land: Modulation and The Key Change
Heard a lot of the time in torch songs, tin pan alley tunes and jazz standards but not so much in rock music, the key change is a great way to subtly change the feel of a song. The average person doesn’t usually notice unless there’s no modulation. Without a modulation to the new key the change can seem harsh or drastic but with it a key change can be imperceptible. The modulation here is really simple. The song starts out in the key of E major going back and forth between E and A chords with the chorus being A and B chords. It modulates to the key of C major about two minutes in via that A major chord followed by a C major chord. This chord change is repeated a few times then sticks to the C major chord, the new key, which rides out the rest of the song. The result of the modulation is that we know something’s going on, there’s this part of the song that wasn’t there before and it sounds a little bit out of place but it makes perfect sense once we settle into that new key, though you may not know it’s a new key. And that’s the magic of the modulation and key change.
Duffer St. George: Re-Occuring Themes
That piano stuff at the beginning might sound like a non-sequitur but it serves an important purpose, it ties the verses and chorus’ together because they’re in different keys. That piano goes between an F major chord and a B major chord. But the verses are in E major. And the chorus consists of the chords G, F, C and Bb. So, what’s going on here? Well, F is one of the chorus chords and B is the 5th of E, leading naturally back to it, so those two chords together walk that perfect harmonic line between the verses and chorus’, which is why it comes back after the first chorus. About that first chorus, listen to the bassline. It gets kicked up several octaves and played as a theme during the outro which is really just an elaboration of the chorus. Once you notice how parts re-occur here you’ll start noticing it in a ton of other Fiery Furnaces songs, often with variations, especially in the long suites on Blueberry Boat. It’s great way to keep a longer song interesting for it’s duration but in this case it’s all contained in two and half minutes.
Smelling Cigarettes: Constant Tansformation
There’s a lot going on here, key changes, chord changes and themes re-occuring and a completely new part of the song which is tacked onto the end. It starts with an A diminished to C major chord progression then ends up on a D major chord which sets off this long, winding progression that starts with that D and goes, G, D, A/C#, A/G, F, G and ends up on a C major. Then that A diminished - C part comes back before launching a completely new chord progression in C major with a Bb in the descending bassline. Then another new progression, bass and drums only, that also serves as a modulation and ends up on an A major followed by an interlude and a variation of the long, winding progression I mentioned above and the C major progression with the Bb in the descending bassline, all of it taken at a faster tempo and ending up on a D major chord. Then we get that A dimished - C major deal again which is used to modulate to a B, A, G# progression using the bass notes F#, G, C, D and B. This one uses all the techniques I’ve talked about and it uses them all within the first four minutes.