Dream is Collapsing
from Inception: Music from the Motion Picture by Hans Zimmer (2010)
A two note melody functions as a series of common tones over 4 chords: G minor, Gb Major/Bb, Eb Major, and B Major 7. Others will hear it differently, but I hear this as an unresolved progression in the key of Bb Major. In this context, the progression starts on the relative minor (vi), followed by a bVI (borrowed from Bb minor), a IV chord, and finally ending on a flat-two chord (borrowed from Bb Phrygian). While there are no Bb chords to be found, the melody helps to imply the key of Bb by pulsing on that note five times every bar.
Where the Streets Have No Name
from The Joshua Tree by U2 (1987)
This rhythmic delay technique is commonly associated with The Edge. The guitar plays 8th notes, while the wet signal from a delay unit is set to (roughly) a dotted eighth note, creating the illusion that a note is being performed every 16th note. After two notes are played, the spaces between each note played are filled with copies of the second to last note played. By doing this, you can play very sophisticated sounding arpeggiations, or play something twice as fast with half the effort.
Happy With What You Have To Be Happy With
from The Power to Believe by King Crimson (2003)
Although not entirely acting on it, The lyrics of this chorus create an infinitely looping sentence, which the song proceeds to use by breaking up the phrase “Happy With What You Have to Be Happy With” and starting it at various points. The length of these phrases seems to dictate the length of the bars, though some have more beats than there are syllables: 11/8, 11/8, 12/8, 11/8, 11/8, 11/8, 17/8. Another cool thing to note is the guitar stabs in the right side of the stereo field always hit on words that start with the letter H. After counting it out with eighth notes, a pattern emerges, though it starts to deviate towards the end:
3+2+3+2+2+3+2+3+2 | 2+3+2+3+2
3+2+3+2+2+3+2+3+2 | 2+3+2+3+2+3+2+3+3+2+3
Misty Mountain Hop
from Led Zeppelin IV by Led Zeppelin (1971)
Like the morsel before it, this clip is another example of a common rhythm trick heard at the beginning of songs. If you’ve never heard this song before, or you haven’t heard it in a while, you may be tricked by the opening phrase, which innocently sounds like the count starts on the very first note. What’s not clear until the drums drop into the groove is that the downbeat actually starts an 8th note late, deceiving your expectations in the process. Many of us have been fooled by this kind of thing many times, and will continue to be fooled by it. It’s so effective, that sometimes you can re-listen to the same introduction repeatedly, and hear it the “wrong way” every time. One interesting question worth posing is whether Led Zeppelin did this intentionally or not. It’s entirely possible that they didn’t.
from Beacons of Ancestorship by Tortoise (2009)
This is a neat little trick that you hear from time to time at the beginning of songs. The song starts out in 6/8, with an eighth note pulse implied by the only parts you can hear. However, when the drums come, they imply a different pulse and a new tempo, and that changes your whole rhythmic perception of the song. The drums play out in 4/4, but the original rhythm section continues on at its original speed, which creates a metric modulation. The former pulse of the song (the rhythm of the guitar), now sounds off as sextuplets in relationship to the drums.
Concerning the UFO Sighting in Highland, Illinois
from Illinois by Sufjan Stevens (2005)
The intro to this track has some of the most seemingly arbitrary time signature lengths I can think of, but it works to great effect and has a certain charm. There is some rubato but I couldn’t say whether it was intentional or not. If you count 8th notes, starting a new count whenever the chord changes, you get the following sequence: 4, 14, 17, 17, 13. Assuming this section has 4 bars, the first two numbers can be combined, which would then yield the following 4 bar idea: 18/8, 17/8, 17/8, 13/8. When trying to figure out time signatures, I’ve found that it helps to start with an easy signature like 4/4, and then figure out how many extra beats it takes to get to the end of the bars.
from A Charlie Brown Christmas by Vince Guaraldi Trio
In the spirit of the season, let’s take a look at a bit of one of my all-time favorite Christmas songs. We’ll say this section is 8 bars of 3/4 time in the key of C, played twice, but with some chord variation in the second half. The first 4 bars use a common three-chord progression, I IV V IV (in this case, C, F, G, F), with a melody made up of 3 consecutive turns with passing tones in between, moving downward. The melody is also harmonized by a second line that sounds up a diatonic third from it. In the key of C, a diatonic third is always the note two white keys to the right of the original note.
The turnaround starts on the root (bar 5), while bars 6-8 are borrowed chords, which add a lot of interesting color to the song. The first time through, these chords move up in minor thirds: C, Eb, Gb, A. The second time through, they start to move up the same way, but the last two chords move up in perfect fourths instead, and you get: C, Eb, Ab, Db. Db Major resolves resolves nicely back to C at the beginning of the section, partially because Db to C is a root motion of only a half-step. More importantly though, in the key of C Major, Db Major is a tritone substitution, meaning it performs the same harmonic function as a more common G chord would in this situation.
from Grand Opening and Closing (2001) by Sleepytime Gorilla Museum
As far as I can determine, the technique on display here is called rotation, a kind of permutation often attributed to set theory. It’s rare and refreshing to see this kind of effect put to use outside of Atonal / Minimalist music. The riff in this morsel makes use of a set of 4 notes, which are always played in the same order. However, over successive bars these notes fall on different beats due to the rhythm in which the notes are played. Every other bar in this passage starts with a quarter note on an anticipated beat, helping to establish the properly jolted rhythmic environment to pull off the rotation technique. In the turnaround, an extra beat is added, making it 5/4. This combined with a dissonant downward spiral of notes makes the section as a whole very disorienting in a way I enjoy. You’ll have to listen carefully to pick up where the bars begin, as the anticipated beats make it harder to hear.
As always, if you find examples of rotation or any cool technique that is along the lines of this blog, please share!
from Effloresce (2003) by Oceansize
Polymeter is responsible for many of my favorite morsels. In this example, The section (which you’ll hear twice) is comprised of 24 bars, but the bass and the guitar take different roads to get there. The guitar phrasing takes the traditional road, sounding off in 8 bars of 3/4, while the bass does something pretty cool: 2 bars of 7/4, 2 bars of 7/8, and 1 bar of 3/4 to fill it all out. I find this to be especially smooth because 3/4 and 7/4 meet at 21 bars (3 bars of 7, or 7 bars of 3), and after doing so, the bass and guitar both need only play 1 bar of 3/4 to round things off nicely.
from Pat Metheny Group (1978) by Pat Metheny Group
This is a neat 4 bar section. A figure is played for 2 bars, and then it’s transposed. All of this happens while staying in the same key, and the figure stays in the same scale, C Pentatonic Minor. The figure is also being played subtly by the piano in two separate lines: one in unison with the guitar, and the other down a perfect fourth, which, by harmonizing the riff, adds a bit of character to the whole section.