Sir Paul McCartney has retold the story so many times now it’s legend: He woke up from a dream one morning in 1965 with a melody in his head, immediately went over to a piano to capture it, and then spent the next few days humming it to people and asking what the melody was. No one had ever heard it before, so he put some words to it, recorded it, and 3,000 versions later, “Yesterday” is arguably the most famous pop song ever written.
It’s as if “Yesterday” were waiting to be discovered by someone after 5,000 years of civilization.
Are there limitless combinations?
Western music (as opposed to Eastern, not the country and western kind) has 12 notes in its scale, which you can organize into almost limitless combinations – some not so beautiful, and some that can elicit deep emotions and memories. In the movie Amadeus, Antonio Salieri describes hearing Mozart’s work for the first time: “This was a music I’d never heard. Filled with such longing, such unfulfillable longing, it had me trembling. It seemed to me that I was hearing the very voice of God.” Now that’s good.
I like to think that musical compositions are not so much invented as they are discovered. everything2.com user ferrouslepidoptera agrees, writing, “It seems more like trying to find the proof for some mathematical theorem. You’re not quite sure how to get from point A to B, so you thrash around a lot trying different things until you discover the proof, or the melody.” Similarly, songwriters try different combinations of chords and notes, sometimes agonizing over the right progression until something just sounds right.
John Lennon and Paul McCartney had no formal musical training; in fact, when told that a Times music critic applauded the Beatles’ use of Aeolian cadences, Lennon thought the term referred to exotic birds. Granted, it takes some musical knowledge to craft the song, to coax it out of the ether in a way that makes it sound just right. But it’s there, and potentially, anyone can grab them. All Lennon and McCartney had was a guitar and a piano – and thousands of songs in their heads, pointing the way to other compositions. Sometime before 1965, McCartney heard “Georgia on My Mind,” which may have planted the first seeds for “Yesterday” (as Aaron Krerowicz points out, the two songs share 10 of 11 chords but sound nothing alike.)
Songwriting is easy for some
For some, lightning only strikes once or twice. Dexys Midnight Runners created the perfect song, “Come on Eileen” – a rompous, Irish folk-tinged smash hit that I took to instantly. But, at least in the States, it was one-and-done for them (Yes, Brits, “Geno” was a hit for you, but it’s not nearly as melodic. The closest they ever came to a wonderful melody was “Celtic Soul Brothers,” which couldn’t crack the top 80.)
For some, it’s easier than others. Again, from Amadeus: “[Mozart’s music] showed no corrections of any kind. Not one. He had simply written down music already finished in his head. Page after page of it as if he were just taking dictation. And music, finished as no music is ever finished. Displace one note and there would be diminishment. Displace one phrase and the structure would fall.” Like McCartney, Mozart seemed to have it all figured out.
Sometimes I’ll hear a song and the musical part of me tries to predict what comes next. Sometimes I get it wrong and I’m pleasantly surprised at the new direction the song takes; other times I’ll get it wrong but think, “Hmmm, a vi chord may have sounded better there instead of a IV chord.” In those instances, it’s as if someone came close, but missed. Yes, it’s a discovery, but it’s a diamond with flaws. Another, better song still remains hidden for a few more months, years or decades before someone gets it right.
When Night Ranger plagiarized us
When I was in seventh grade, my best friend and I wrote what we thought was the next great pop song (Yes, we were 12, but we were going to hit it big). We got excited for a few days, maybe weeks, and did nothing with it. Four years later, we heard the intro for our song being performed on the radio as the pre-chorus in Night Ranger’s “Sister Christian.” We didn’t copyright it, of course, and they hadn’t been listening in the school’s band room the day we composed it. But we were livid – not because they had stolen it from us, but we had found it first.
Some people lament that like fossil fuels, the number of songs we can unearth is limited. But given the differences in tempo, instrumentation, pitch, harmonies, chord progressions, production and, of course, melodies, the possible combinations are astronomical. Not every combination will yield a “Yesterday,” but I keep listening and hoping that another gem will be unearthed by someone, and I can marvel in its brilliance and perfection.
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