Despite having studied some fairly highbrow harmony textbooks, it was actually the Beatles book (listed in the previous post) that prompted me to start distilling what I was learning into software. I’m sure I saw a quote once which said that a program is the clearest expression of an idea. A program is also a validation that an idea is general and coherent, much like a mathematical idea. As well as that, software is a running model; it’s alive in a sense that even the most clearly expressed printed word or formula is not.
Like most people, I was fanatical about music as a kid (heavy rock, in fact) and I honored my heroes by practicing their riffs and solos until I knew them by heart. But I didn’t speak the language of music. I just memorized the notes and the timings in exactly the same way I can still reel off the lyrics to Queen’s Teo Torriate – memorized phonetically because I don’t know a word of Japanese.
But there is a difference between ‘faking it’ with human language and doing so with music. If I sat now and made up Japanese-sounding speech, I’d never know whether I’d stumbled upon some actual Japanese. But, like plenty of people, I’ve sat with a guitar and stumbled through a half-million combinations of chords I hardly knew the names of until something sounded ‘good’. Needless to say, I never felt the songs I got from my trial-and-error method sounded good enough. So I set out to learn the language of music. Just as in literature or cinema there is a well-trodden road of standards and tricks to guide you and give you a stepping-off point for risks and innovation, there is also a body of wisdom around how to write great music. The principles which have made your favorite Western art music work for three hundred years are still the magic ingredients in today’s popular music and they’re known collectively as the theory of tonal harmony. I just compared music to literature and cinema but, for my money, comedy is a much closer parallel to music’s tensions and resolutions, its supernatural ability to get under our conscious defenses, and its incomprehensible magic.
My friend Frank gave me that Beatles book. He and I (and another good friend, Pav) were in an amateur band together in the early 90s. We wrote a few half-decent songs together but we never got anywhere. Those guys knew more theory than I did but I still think our root problem was just not knowing enough about how to construct a song. Frank’s Beatles book really made me want to return to music with the right attitude and really give songwriting another good go. And that means slow, steady steps.