Listening to music

Last Friday I gave a talk about “Listening to music”. It all started after a conversation in which I was trying (and failing) to explain what the “progressive” label meant in “progressive rock” and “progressive metal”. I figured the only way was to show the same piece of music with simpler and more complex arrangements. This is the blog post version of that talk.

The idea of the talk was twofold: first, give a better idea of the possible differences between a straightforward rock song and a more complex rock song. Second, to show examples of musical decisions that make a song sound different, so it’s easier to spot why we like the music we like. It was never my intention to suggest that more complex music is better (everything has its uses), just to see that songs sound like they do because of a number of decisions made when writing and recording it.

Through the talk, we take the chorus of a song and rewrite it to be a simple as possible, and then we make changes until we’re back to the original.

Original version

This is the original version of the song (just the chorus, really). It’s not quite progressive rock, but it certainly has similar elements:

Now, we are going to rewrite it to sound as straightforward as possible.

Straightforward version

This is a completely rearranged version of the same chorus, in the most straightforward way that still sounded like a song someone could write:

Compared to the original, this should sound much more familiar, safe, and stable. Many things have been changed to reach this version. In the following sections we’ll undo those changes one by one and we will end up with the original version.

First change: chords

The straightforward version uses “power chords”, which are simplified chords used often in rock, punk, and metal. I prefer full chords, so the first change is just that:

The difference can be quite subtle, especially with this computer version. You can compare just the guitar in one and the other here:


Second change: bass line

If you pay attention to the song as is stands now, the bass is simply repeating the root note of each chord being played. The result is that the bass “supports” the guitar, making the sound of the chords fuller, but not much more. Instead, let’s make a more playful bass line, using some of the available notes in the chord (instead of always the root):

The only difference is the bass. Compare the old bass line to the new one:


🛈 Examples of bass line that don’t follow the guitar (in this case, not even rhythmically!): Drapery Falls by Opeth and Dry the Rain by The Beta Band (from 4:08).

Third change: rhythm

The next step is to change the rhythm. The common rhythm most pop and rock is built upon is 4/4, but I’m fond of 6/8 (a rhythm that sounds somewhat like waltz, and it’s often used in ballads). This difference is somewhat big because all instruments have to adapt:

Compare to the version in 4/4:

🛈 Example of song in 6/8: Somebody to love by Queen.

Fourth change: strumming

The first version in 6/8 has a very simple groove: it simply marks the chords being played and little else. Hence, we’ll change the guitar to have a nicer groove. The bass rhythm will be a variation on that, but while at it we’ll also changes the notes. Thus, both guitar and bass change:


Fifth change: drums and small details

In the previous version, the drums play a very straightforward 6/8 groove. I wanted something different for this song because I was going for an unstable, dark sound. So the drums had to change. This is, finally, the original version (same as at the top of this post):


🛈 Example of song with drums going against a 6/8 groove: Judith by A Perfect Circle, from 3:12 to 3:16 approx.

Apart from the drums themselves, the guitar also changes slightly in the second half of each line (between 6 and 8 seconds in). Compare the two:


🛈 Example of song with a sort of call-response between voice and guitar: Jeremy by Pearl Jam, at around 1:19.


As it’s hopefully clear by these examples, somewhat small changes can make a big difference in the feel of a song. When we stack several of those changes we can make a song sound very, very different.

And remember, complexity is not necessarily good! In this song I needed that unstable sound, but don’t get blinded by the fascination of complexity.