Tag Archives: music

Musical Scores for When You’re Sick of Instrumental Music

Last semester we Koalas wrote a series of posts about our work and study playlists. At the time we had a conversation about listening to instrumental music and how it was particularly helpful for my fellow Koalas when studying to quiet the mind or get the juices flowing or inhibit the jitter juices or…something. Maybe it’s because I fall asleep to the sweet sounds of a James Newton Howard mashup playlist—and have for two years—but the very idea put me right to sleep. I prefer lyrics and beats and catchy music from the radio.

But three quarters of the way through my first semester of grad school, something happened. I’m used to being surrounded by noise, but noise of a particular variety (namely those of children at all decibels). Suddenly, come November, all of the new noises in my life felt like they were culminating in Just. Too. Much. Even the commute I take up to MSU felt way too loud.

Classical music, although awesomesauce, still doesn’t work for me when studying. I needed something that contains drama and sound but without human voices. Recently, I’ve found myself listening to the Hunger Games musical scores (yet again, James Newton Howard saves the day). I like these soundtracks because there are four of them so I get some variety, they are familiar enough that I can tune in and out of particular songs at will, and they can be, when I need them to be, unobtrusive. I am familiar enough with the movies that they keep me engaged in a low stakes kind of way. So while these particular scores might not work for you, I would recommend digging up the musical score of a favorite movie or two and giving them a test drive while studying.

 

Writing Music Recommendations: Caribou’s Swim

I’m constantly listening to music—in my earbuds on the way to class, from my bluetooth speaker in whatever room of my apartment I’m in, in my friend’s car through an aux cord. That doesn’t stop when I’m writing. I need upbeat music to match the apex of my caffeine intake, as well as a repetitive beat and lyrics so they won’t distract me from all the words I’m trying to grasp onto as they mosh around in my head. Caribou’s Swim (2010) hits the mark.

What Type of Way: Post-Structuralism and Rich Homie Quan

Since its release in 2013, Rich Homie Quan’s masterwork, “Type of Way” has drawn the attention of rap-enthusiasts and literary critics alike. It could be argued that “Type of Way” is a vapid song whose vague lyrics refuse even to describe how, exactly, the speaker feels. It has been said that Rich Homie Quan’s song does not state a particular feeling, rendering the lyrics “feel some type of way” meaningless. After all, doesn’t everyone always feel some type of way? As the author refuses to describe the particular type of way the narrator is feeling, the entirety of the song is unclear. Which type of way does the speaker feel, critics wonder, and to what intensity do they feel this way? However, a closer, and critical, examination of Rich Homie Quan’s masterpiece reveals its true genius. The profound nature of Rich Homie Quan’s “Some Type of Way” is revealed only through a thorough and theoretical examination of the idea of a “type of way”; a detailed reading reveals that describing an emotion as “some type of way” is the only way to truly and accurately describe a feeling.

Approaching the song from Sign Theory, as described by Saussure, we can see that by intentionally neglecting to name a particular feeling, Rich Homie Quan creates a positive, and therefore unique, relationship between his feelings and the words used to describe it. Saussure describes the nature of speech by saying that, “in language there are only differences. Even more important: a difference generally implies positive terms between which the difference is set up; but in language there are only differences without positive terms” (Richter 848). In Saussure’s view, concepts in language are defined only by what they are not; in is in because it is not out, hot is hot because it is not cold. Were Rich Homie Quan to name a particular emotion in his song, he would be defining his feelings only in the negative, describing them only as not being other feelings. However, our brilliant song-master does not do this. Instead, Rich Homie Quan leaves the particular way that he is feeling unnamed, thus refusing to define it in the negative. Thus, “some type of way” becomes a positive statement, eliminating the arbitrary nature of language and defining feeling on its own terms.

Similarly, a reading in the tradition of Foucault indicates that referring to a feeling as “some type of way” does not create arbitrary distinctions between feelings, thus accessing the “thing in itself” of feeling in a way that naming a particular feeling does, and can, not. According to Foucault, the act of creating a word creates a conceptual distinction, thus creating a category. These distinctions define ideas by their similarities, thus ignoring their differences. In creating the category of “cat”, one groups a series of animals by their similar characteristics, ignoring their individual differences is size, temperament, and color. Foucault argues that these distinctions are manufactured, and necessarily inexact. Rich Homie Quan rejects this convention, however, by refusing to categorize his feelings. By feeling “some type of way”, as opposed to “sad”, or “happy”, Quan does not create categories that ignore the complex and fluid nature of feeling, describing feelings as they are in reality.

After thoroughly analyzing “Type of Way”, it is clear that the song is a masterwork, calling into question our ideas of feeling and the nature of language. In this work, Rich Homie Quan forces us to wonder, should we really create distinctions between feelings, or should we reject our false system of naming, thus accessing feelings as they are, not just as they are described to be? These age-old questions have yet to be answered, but perhaps Rich Homie has brought us just a little closer

Or, you know, it’s a really awful, vague song. Either way.

Works Cited
Richter, David H. The Critical Tradition: Classic Texts and Contemporary Trends. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2007. Print.

Jam of the Week: “Twilight of the Thunder God,” by Slaughter of the Bluegrass

Slaughter of the Bluegrass is a Swedish folk band that does bluegrass covers of death metal songs. In this case, they’re covering Amon Amarth’s “Twilight of the Thunder God.” The video above is the original Amon Amarth music video, with the sound cut and replaced with the SotB version of the song.

I chose this song, and this cover in particular, to talk about mood. I don’t have room here to discuss death metal in depth (although I could, and it would take a while), which is why I linked the original version above. You should go and listen to it, but suffice to say, death metal is pretty different from bluegrass. Although the lyrics are the same, these are basically two different songs. The original is much darker, much heavier, and much growlier than the cover.

This makes for a very different presentation coupled with the video, because the two versions offer very different moods, to use a literary term. Mood is used in writing to evoke certain feelings or emotions in the audience, and the same can be said of music. Bluegrass, despite sometimes having pretty dark lyrics, usually comes off as bright and cheerful because of the way it’s performed. Death metal tends to come off as aggressive, angry, or gloomy, even though the lyrics may not be any of these things.

The mood you present to your audience can seriously impact the way they interpret your writing. Think carefully about what you want your audience to feel, not just what you want to tell them, and construct a mood that works with your writing. Or give them a mood that doesn’t quite mesh with the content of your story, like Slaughter of the Bluegrass did it with “Twilight of the Thunder God.” You can pull it off too.

Jam of the Week: “Natural Science”, by Rush

Disclosure time: Rush is my favorite band. There are a lot of reasons for this, but songs like “Natural Science” are a big part of it. Rush’s sound has changed a lot over the 39 years since their first album, and none of their albums (or songs, for that matter) sound like each other, although they still sound like Rush. Part of this is because they like to try new things, and they change up some of the fundamentals, like time signatures, from song to song. Sometimes within individual songs.

“Natural Science” is a great example of this kind of variety. The song consists of three movements, or to use more literary terms, you might think of them as chapters. Each of these movements/chapters are different, but still form one cohesive song, and even within the movements there is a lot of variety. Part of the way Rush does this is by varying the tempo of the song, and I think this is important for making a song feel dynamic, especially if you’re trying to tell a more complex story than most popular music tries to do (something Rush excels at).

Varying tempo, or perhaps pacing, in your writing can have the same effect. The speed at which the narrative moves can make all the difference in a work of fiction. Think about  the narrative pacing of a film like Pirates of the Caribbean as opposed to something like The Hunger Games. The former is almost relentlessly fast, with the narrative rarely giving the audience time to catch up, while the latter, not without a significant amount of action, has a number of slower scenes.

Try shaking up the pacing in your writing, with events coming fast and hard at some points, or slower, with more time to dig into what makes the characters or events interesting. You don’t have to radically shift your pacing, or jump back and forth in one piece, but it’s worth thinking about pacing and how it helps, or hinders, the narrative.

Jam of the Week: “You’ve Got Time”, by Regina Spektor

I had heard of Regina Spektor before July 15th, of course, but I had never heard her before then, when I started watching Orange is the New Black on Netflix. “You’ve Got Time” serves as the theme song, and was recorded for the show.

I want to compare “You’ve Got Time” to System of a Down’s “Prison Song.” System (one of my favorite bands, mind you) puts things bluntly in the song: prisons are a way to control Americans, and American society relies too heavily on incarceration to hide its problems. There’s even a more-or-less spoken word section about the growth of the American prison system.

“You’ve Got Time,” on the other hand, is laden with metaphor, which seems like a good decision for a song about prison life. Metaphor is an important part of the English language, and kind of central to artistic expression. On the one hand, it’s possible for different audiences to interpret metaphors in different ways. On the other hand though, when an artist flat out tells you what they’re talking about it feels…less artistic.

I think it’s safe to say that Spektor is also criticizing the prison system (that’s a central theme of the show, after all) but she uses metaphor to help put the listener into the shoes of an inmate. “You’ve Got Time” isn’t about prison, it’s about the experience of prison. This is an important distinction.

When you’re writing something, any kind of piece really, it helps to really think about what you’re saying. There’s a big difference between knowing about something and experiencing it first hand, and there’s a big difference between telling someone about something, like prison life, and helping them understand the experience of that thing. I expect that, when done well, the latter is more powerful than the former: if you’re trying to reform prisons, for example, just telling people why prisons need to be reformed might not sink in, while showing them the details of prison life, in a show or a song, might be more effective. It’s just as possible to walk a mile, or something close to one, in someone else’s shoes through a song as through actual experience.

Jam of the Week: “Take on Me”, by a-ha

There’s a pretty good chance that you’ve already seen the video for a-ha’s “Take on Me.” I mean, you’re on the Internet right now, and I’m guessing it’s not for the first time. It’s a pretty famous video, and won a bunch of awards, for good reason. It’s creative, original, and it really illustrated what the then relatively new medium of music videos (or is it a genre?) was capable of.

It’s also a really catchy song, which is why I decided to write a Jam of the Week about it, because one of my co-workers got it stuck in my head.

But I’ve been trying to write this post for like a week, wracking my brain to figure out how to connect this song to writing. It hasn’t been easy, but I think I might have something.

Watch the video, but pay attention to the lyrics. They have nothing to do with each other, do they? Music videos, near as I can tell, come in pretty much two flavors: with a story, and without. The latter is usually just the band performing or the artist dancing or something (take a look at Solange’s “Losing You”). Videos with a story try and tell a story. Sometimes the story is kind of thin, just an excuse to show somebody dancing (most of Michael Jackson’s videos, amazing as they were, fall into this category). Sometimes the story is more coherent, it has a narrative flow, characters,  etc. Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” which is more a short film than a video, and is absolutely amazing, is a great example of this.

So “Take on Me” has a story, but unlike, say, “War,” from the first installment of this column, that story has, well, very little to do with the lyrics. But that’s not really important, because the story has characters, it has a beginning, a middle, and a conclusion (or rising action, a conclusion, and a denouement, if you prefer). Try watching the video with the sound off, and the story still makes sense. It’s a simple story: girl meets boy, boy pulls her into comic book, boy gets in a fight with random bikers (?), girl flees comic book, boy is transported into real world, they live happily ever after.

Maybe there’s something deeper going on here. Maybe the guys in a-ha really love comics, and this is a statement about the depth of the medium, and its ability to draw readers in. Maybe its about the dangers of relying too heavily on escapist literature and the potential for fracturing your grasp on reality. Maybe it’s just a really cool idea.

I think what I’m getting at here, is that stories can, and will be, interpreted in different ways by different audiences. I mean, this is essentially why people study literature. But more than this, it’s possible, with a little thought, to reinterpret your own work for a different medium, or a different audience. If a-ha hadn’t rethought their song as a music video it probably never would have been as popular as it is. Keep your medium in mind, and adjust your story to fit within it.

And as a final note, I give you this, the original “literal version” or a-ha’s “Take on Me,” created by youtuber DustoMcNeato. If you haven’t seen this, you don’t spend enough time on the Internet.

Jam of the Week: “Losing You”, by Solange

This week I want to share “Losing You,” by Solange. If you’re not familiar with Solange, I’m so very, very sorry. She’s Beyoncé’s little sister, so you can probably expect she’s pretty talented. You’d be right!

The song is catchy, but the lyrics have a somewhat somber feeling. It’s a song about facing loss. If the uptempo nature of the song and all the dancing in the video are anything to go by, it’s also about facing that loss with courage, and refusing to let it break you.

Can we talk about this video? It’s amazing, there’s just so much energy in it, and it looks like Solange just absolutely loved filming it. As far as inspiration goes, I don’t really know what to tell you. I don’t own this album yet, so I only get to hear the song if I’ve got the video playing, and then it’s pretty hard to get anything done, because I’m watching the video. I can say this though: this song usually puts me in a good mood. It doesn’t get me pumped up, but it does give me a sort of contented feeling, something that makes me feel like I can face down deadlines or edit difficult term papers or whatever other task awaits me.

Jam of the Week: “Birthday Cake”, by Stephen Walking

I don’t know how you feel about electronic music in general, it seems like people with opinions on it either love it or hate it. I’m in the former camp, I’ve been a fan of most of the sub genres for years now, but I’ve been listening to a lot of electro, house, and dubstep lately. This is how I discovered Stephen Walking.

Stephen Walking covers a number of sub-genres, but “Birthday Cake,” my favorite track by him so far, is electro. I listen to a lot of electronic music when I’m reading or writing for a couple of reasons. The general lack of vocals tends to be less distracting than lyrical songs, which is really useful. In a similar vein, since electronic music is primarily written for clubs, it tends to favor rhythm over melody, and good electronic music (especially trance) tends to remove the listener from the rest of the world. It’s probably best listened to through headphones.

“Birthday Cake” does these things well, but it’s also got just a ton of energy, this song gets me pumped up. Having the energy to write (or read, there’s a lot of that in graduate school!) is as important as having the motivation to do so. I find that music can keep me writing or distract me, and “Birthday Cake” tends to do the former.

If it helps, I also tend to listen to electronic music when I’m thinking about or working on science fiction. Something about electro and the like feel futuristic to me, and I doubt that I’m the only who feels that way.