This week the Shift blog explores what makes a piece of music memorable. Whether it's a three-minute rocker or a three-hour opera, if it's going to last there has to be something worth whistling on the way home.
The elevator pitch
There's an old adage in business. If you say "I'm working on a ________" (book, play, movie, grant proposal, mayoral campaign) you have to expect that someone will say "Oh ya, what's it about?" If you don't have a short, clear answer that can be given within the space of an elevator ride -- i.e. "It's about ________" (a kid who is a wizard but doesn't know it, a vengeful Danish prince, a really big shark, a dress made of meat, stopping the gravy train) -- you're screwed.
The same is true with music. When someone gives your music their attention, they are the busiest of entertainment executives and they will give you almost no time to make your point. It has to be quick. It has to be catchy. It has to be now.
In pop music we call that catchy bit the hook, but it turns up in every kind of music and is as necessary to an epic jazz improvisation where it might be called a lick, as in a sprawling romantic opera where it is a motif.
You'll notice the italics. You're supposed to say it that way, too, seeing as it's French and all, but I like the word. It's from the same root as motivate, and that is the key. The listener isn't a halibut swimming around with its mouth open at the bottom of the sea just waiting to stumble onto something painful. They have to be motivated. They have to want that hook so much that they knowingly give in to waves of musical pleasure as it jams itself in their craw and mercilessly and inexorably reels them in.
Masters of the Motif
This week on Shift we willfully acknowledge our inherent fishiness, and are searching for hooks. We're motivated. We've found three artists -- one from pop, one from jazz, one from the classical world -- that we think are the hook meisters. Check out our three choices below and let us know who might be better, who we missed, and what you think of the choices we've made.
Classical: Richard Wagner
Wagner has the distinction of writing the biggest, longest, most over-blown and overwhelming operas, all of which can be reduced to a single, catchy and very singable line. Try Die Walkure, the second of his four Ring Cycle operas. What's it about? "Oh," says Wagner, "It's about fraternal twins who become lovers and their flying warrior stepmother." Here the executive in question decides he'd rather walk the rest of the way to the top floor, but wait! "It goes like this," Wagner says, and sings "Ba-bum-ba-dum DEE-dah." The executive stops. "Go on." He says. Bingo.
Jazz: Thelonius Monk
The conundrum around mid-century be-bop is that it's almost intentionally confusing. You weren't expected to be able to sing the tunes. You were supposed to be delightfully stymied by the whole exercise. But, people being people, it was only a matter of time until someone came along who could come up with crazy, inpenetrable tunes that, somehow, people found themselves singing as they went home.
That man was Thelonius Monk. Here's one of his best:
Pop: The Stones
Okay, for this post that should really read Pop: Keith Richards. It is his twisted, possibly subconscious genius we're celebrating here. That immediately identifiable sound. That grinding, grabbing, bending rhythmic drive. Yes, Mick has the strut, and Charlie lays down the beat, but if it weren't for Keef's tremendous and relentless hooks they'd all just be another bunch of wizened lizards in very, very tight pants.
There are too many great hooks to count in the Richards' ouevre, but my favourite is "Brown Sugar." It's worth noting here that when my kids were little I played this song for them, and once Mick Jagger's voice came in they asked me to start it again so they could hear Keith's great hook without any interference.
You set the hook
What are your favourite hooks, licks or motifs? Who have we missed? Tell us in the comment box below and if we think your hook is compelling, we'll bite and put it on the show.
on Jun 21, 2012