The Challenge this week is to write a song that uses the famous four chords of popular music – I – V- vi and IV! They do not have to be in that order though. These four chords have been played over and over in songs of so many various genres of popular music. Here is a very partial list of some songs that have made use of these progressions, taken from Wikipedia. Notice the many different years and artists that are represented:
My girlfriend Arielle bought me tickets to go to the Vernal Equinox celebration at the Chapel of Sacred Mirrors. As a big fan of the work of Alex Grey, I was beyond excited. Here is a description of CoSM from their website:
“The mission of CoSM, Chapel of Sacred Mirrors is to build an enduring sanctuary of visionary art to inspire and evolve the creative spirit… CoSM is a church, a context for a community that honors and practices art as a spiritual path. CoSM offers a visionary cultural nexus to empower a global community. To further the spiritual practice of art, CoSM offers workshops and cultural programs.”
In addition to that, the grounds house some of Alex’s most iconic work such as the Cosmic Christ:
The Vernal Equinox Celebration at COSM
Since attending Alex Grey and his wife Allyson’s Vernal Equinox celebration this past weekend, there remains an earthy after glow that lingers all around me. Alex and his wife lectured about the significance of the Vernal Equinox and how this is a time of rebirth – the tipping point where there becomes more light than darkness and new growth commences. Alex talked about how our bodies contain the same designs that are found in nature, mentioning for instance the bronchial tree in the lungs, and then Alyson urged us to focus on regrowth in our own lives at this time of year. It felt like New Years Eve all over again. I truly appreciate being given this deeper sense of a new beginning because I’m definitely behind with getting things started in 2016. Just look at the date of my first blog post! After the lecture, there was live artwork being made by Alex, Alyson and some other artists, electronic music and dancing, a giant outdoor fire with flame artists, a makeshift tent dome with experimental sound designers and strange visuals being projected onto the ceiling, and an all around great time.
Meeting Alex Grey and Receiving a Blessing
While there, I had the great fortune of meeting Alex and having him sign my copy of his book “Art Psalms”. His message was “To Gary, With Love and Blessings on your Creative Path! Alex Grey.” He also left me with some original art work! He drew a left hand with a flame in the palm of it and an all seeing eye pyramid with wings! I am still wondering if he observed that I was a lefty when I handed him the book. He seemed to struggle for a moment drawing the left hand when maybe he is accustomed to drawing the right, and he apologized for it being a little messy (such a humble guy). When he was done, he blew on his work to make sure the pen ink was dry before closing the book. His genuine warmth and graciousness and his kind inscription has left me with a stronger resolve than ever to walk straight ahead on this creative path. He handed me a bottle of inspiration that will sustain me for some time. I see the flame and the eye in the hand as a declaration of the power of self-directed creativity – to have a vision and make it a reality. Receiving these guiding symbols and encouraging words from a man who has championed visionary art and dedicated years of effort and continual refinement to bringing inner glimpses of spiritual and energetic truth into the outer physical world by way of his hands, means a lot. It is more than a physical gift. It truly is a blessing.
The Community at COSM
The Vernal Equinox lecture started at 7PM, but we arrived at the COSM grounds around 5. If you ever go to an event and want some time to view Alex’s work and the CoSM grounds, it is worth going early, where you are practically alone to view, reflect, and ponder. When we got there, the only people among us were the volunteers setting up for the event. I could tell though that they were all members of a special kind of community. As I walked toward the gift shop I saw that the volunteers were all eating in a back room before the festivities were to begin. As other volunteers arrived, hugs were shared and genuine words of kindness exchanged. It was someone’s birthday. It was also my birthday, and it was a gift from my girlfriend to be taken to the event, so I was there celebrating life. I told this kind lady across the room that we shared this special day and she came over and gave me a hug! I wanted to know more about the positive vibes among these people. I asked the sparkling blue eyed and long haired young man making my coffee at the CoSM Mushroom Cafe how long he has been volunteering. He told me about two years and I asked him what it was like. He said it was awesome and in addition to working the events, adults get to have a lot of childlike fun and do things like play laser tag in the woods after hours! They also get to stay in the volunteer dorms! Some of the jobs of the volunteers included setting up chairs and furniture, moving Alex’s artwork, working at the cafe, the gift shop, working the admission table, etc. Another volunteer, Eli, explained to me the process for applying to volunteer – you just fill out some forms on the CoSM website. This women was nice, friendly, but brought an element of strong leadership to this business operation that, as the night rolled on, was much needed. There were long lines for drinks and sandwiches, packed quarters, and she kept things in control. When I posted on Facebook where I was a friend told me that her friend Eli is there volunteering all the time and this was not the only connection I had here! I also ran into a volunteer named Tem that I had played on a couple of gigs with in NYC! Ironically, those gigs were put on by the brother of the friend who knew Eli, and both were unaware that their respective friends worked together!
Besides the volunteers, there were also the artists and entertainers. There were two painters amazingly talented painters in the room where Alex’s Cosmic Christ is housed and one was painting a striking coyote who was tangled in multi colored yarn. In another room their was an artist making a Mandala out of died sand and two other painters. In the back room where the dancing was taking place was another artist painting a baby in some sort of otherworldly cave filled with shards of gems. And then there was Alex painting a self portrait and Alyson painting symbols of some unknown language. Both of them kindly welcomed visitors to chat with while they worked (that is how I was able to meet Alex as well).
Trust and Openess
The amount of trust, acceptance and compassion that Alex and his Wife have for all the people that come to their home is staggering. Besides having a couple of security guards, anyone that buys a ticket can come in without having their bags or jackets checked, and roam freely throughout the first floor of the house. There are personal keepsakes on many of the shelves, books, a guitar and other instruments, along with the artwork on the walls. Many of the attendees might also be in frames of mind that could potentially lead to poor decision making. However, “drunk” is not one them, which is probably the state of mind that leads to the most crime. No alcohol is sold at COSM. Some people were definitely intoxicated, but seemingly on substances that do not typically lead to violence or crime – Marijuana, Psychedelics, MDMA. However, boundaries can becomes blurry in these states. When Alyson got up from the painting that she was working on, a girl say down on her chair just inches from the painting examining it thoroughly. I was afraid that she might touch it. People came up to here asking if she was the artist! Ultimately, I got the sense that Allyson and Alex are in acceptance of anything that might happen. In our modern civilized society, fear is hardly ever useful yet it most often rules our lives. I found it very telling that I was more afraid for Alex and Allyson’s possessions than they were.
This was HARD!!!! I’ve always admired rap as an art form and wished I was good at it, but I now have a new found level of respect for rappers, and I want to do this again! I used a Ghostface Killah instrumental called “Tones Rap” that I found on Spotify and added words, rap, and a hook to it! If you look, you’ll see I am a few days behind in posting this song. This took me completely outside of my comfort zone. It is the first time I’ve ever created a rap and there were a few different challenges that had to be overcome to make this happen.
Finding a rapper voice! Rapping is rhythmic talking. You have to change your diction to make the phonetics of words flow more freely. Rs or no Rs, or over accentuated Rs? Do I need to open my mouth wider than usual? Man, I have to breath a lot! monotone? Vary the pitch? What kind of attitude or mood? I found myself imitating different rappers. There are so many expectations on who can or cannot rap. I’m an overeducated middle class white guy with a big vocabulary and a rather conservative demeanor. Will that work? I listened to other rappers who might have a similar background to myself. Aesop Rock grew up right down the road from me! Checked him out for a few hours. He kind of sounds like a Long Island Soccer Mom who was previously a man. I love it. I listened to Sage Francis – somewhere between a slam poet and rapper, and then I listened to early Eminem.
Finding the flow. Great rappers have a phrasing style that is simultaneously complicated, musically engaging, yet seemingly natural! To make it complex, engaging, and natural together is a quite the feat. Being I don’t have much of a rapper voice, I wanted to make sure that my flow was at least musical. I did about 45 takes with different rhythmic ideas for my phrases until I settled on something that felt as close to these three things combined as possible. I added and removed little words to make it work as I altered the phrasing.
Rhyming complexity. This is where I had the most fun! Making lines rhyme, and adding secondary rhymes within each line! This is where I felt the most artistic satisfaction:
Headlines attack, a fracking of the mind
Drilling Line after line, all is black in no time.
Drops of Pitter patter on the roof of my soul
soon a whole sea of mind control,
Leaks in through my peep hole
down the drain goes my daily mental pain.
Killing insiders with outsiders, (and) both insane
the same name, two sides but one game
Both die in this bout
vice versa inside out,
They bothy’ll curse ya in self doubt, they both coerce ya to be proud
They think their farmers but their cows,
Trapped below as I watch them bleed out
4. Check 1, 2! It seems like so many raps have intro talking and with the long intro on this track, I wanted to say something. I had some leftover lyrics with nothing to do with so at the last minute I just recited them as quick as possible as an intro! They fit the rest of the words perfectly, so contextually, it really worked for me.
Pride point figments of a hand me down imagination.
Celebrating fragments of a made up self’s fruition.
Checking off the boxes of the things we put our name on.
Disposing of the others things, new enemies to hate on
5. A sick beat! There are so many instrumental out there available for you to experiment with. Some of them you can even purchase the license for. Some artists purposefully put out instrumental albums to follow up their complete albums so that their fans can rap by themselves! Aesop Rock has two records like this. I chose the instrumental for Ghostface Killah’s “Tones Rap” that I found on Spotify.
The Challenge for the 4th week is to write a song that incorporates either rap or speaking! It doesn’t have to be all rap or speaking. It can just be a sprinkling of it. I’m going to jump right into the Freestyle Freewrite activity that I talked about in the last blog post. This is where you put on a beat and give yourself 5 or 10 minutes to just dump out your ideas without second guessing them or stopping your pen or fingers from writing or typing. Then you go back and mine for gems!
I listened to an artist named Anderson Paak on the way home from work who teetered on the fence between a singer and a rapper during one of his tracks. It was super cool and inspiring! This is going to be fun!
I know what you’re thinking. This isn’t a protest song! But…it is. I’m protesting the unbreakable ties between time and money, and the inability to get out of the struggle when you really need to. I didn’t say it had to be political!
Right after setting this challenge for myself I began thinking about Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders and violence on the news and ISIS and all of those kinds of things, but then I asked myself, “What is the bigger problem that lies at the root of all of life’s woes?” From my experiences, it is the disconnection between our truest selves and what the world wants us to be, and what we usually become. The revolution that we need is a personal one. It all starts with our own choices. We must find a personal freedom that exists independently, before any other kind of freedom can be of any significant consequence. Many protestors that I have met have been amazingly inspiring people. But many more of them seem to be unhappy people that don’t get along well with others, and aren’t a light unto themselves either. They are often lost in a blame game. Their actions may still be admirable, but they are missing the most important fight there is – the fight for a personal freedom that doesn’t depend on any specific circumstance. When one is at peace within, he or she doesn’t seek validation from others, and therefore is able to think and act with true purpose and fearlessly build the life that is in line with his or her values. My song is about discovering that I’m not living the life that I want to live and having trouble breaking out of a box that I’ve worked really hard to build for myself. It’s a strong and powerful box! There’s a lot of great things about it. Many people would love to live in my box! But..it’s a box.
I’m getting to know more about Logic! The drum part is from one of the built in drummers on demand, and I gave it a swing rhythm to match the bluesy reggae vibe. I played the bass using one of the bass patches and a midi controller. For the guitar parts I went through a Scarlett 2 channel interface.
Harmony and Pitch Correction
I had fun harmonizing on this one but wanted to save it for the second verse to build a little bit.
Writing Lyrics with Freestyle Freewrite
As a music teacher, one of the activities I would do with students was the “Freestyle Freewrite”. This is where you put on a beat and write for 5 minutes without stopping yourself to judge. You just spew it out and then look back to see if there were any good nuggets or little seeds that you could massage into something good! The first few lines were born of this activity and then I used those as a starting point for the rest of it.
The challenge this week is to create a protest song! This is great timing with the election season really heating up!
What is a protest song?
According to Wikipedia: A protest song is a song that is associated with a movement for social change and hence part of the broader category of topical songs (or songs connected to current events). It may be folk, classical, or commercial in genre.
I’m going to disagree here and say that it can be of any genre. I recently heard a protest song without words by Jazz artist Kendrick Scott about “The overwhelming racism that a lot of brown, black and especially African American’s go through at the hands of the Police Department.” It is entitled “Ku Klux Police Department.” Go to about 21 minutes to hear the introduction.
This week was a lot of fun! The challenge was to take a poem and put it to song. I went to poetryfoundation.org to try to find some lyrical poets with a strong rhythmic meter and I discovered Maya Angelou. The poem that spoke to me most was “Caged Bird.” In this week’s time I was only able to put half of it to song, but I’m looking forward to returning to this one day. Let me share with you what I came up with and then I’ll talk some more about it:
Logic Pro X
The story and imagery inspired me to work with some new sounds so I finally got around to messing with Logic Pro X! I bought a Midi Controller to try out some of the different synth sounds. I spent more time getting to know this program and learning how to create tracks than working on the song, but tonight I managed to put some of it together. I took a guitar solo at the end using some cool reverse effect in Logic to try to emulate a “Caged Bird”.
The hard thing about home recording when multi-tracking is hearing a delay when you are listening to yourself. I don’t know how to get around this yet. I had to record my vocals with no monitor in my headphones and it was throwing me off. I couldn’t really hear the tone of my voice as a result – only the resonance in my head. I’m looking forward to researching how to deal with this during the week.
The opening lines describe a descending bird so I went with some descending chords in a D minor and a descending melody to follow it. Then I went back up at the end of the first stanza for the word “Sky”. This is called word painting. I listened to examples of this in classical music back in my college days and this is the first time I’m actually using it!
It’s undeniable that this idea is very David Bowie influenced. It was not intentional but I’ve been listening to his new album Darkstar and have been reflecting on his life and music since his passing.
Phrasing and Harmony
I wanted to have the chords serve the melody instead of the other way around, so I tried to make the last note or word of each melodic phrase suggest a chord change, and then I found the right chord after! This is kind of a new thing for me too. I usually come up with some cool chords and then write something over them.
The phrasing on this one really challenged my singing. I have terrible breath control. Since starting this blog I started taking singing lessons and I’ve been sharing my ideas with my teacher. He gave me some tips on breathing with my diaphragm and I got that down, but I’m having trouble breathing through my nose between phrases. I automatically prefer to use my mouth. I managed to make it work by slowing the tempo and taking out a couple of words like “the”. Sorry Miss Angelou!
All faults may be forgiven of him who has perfect candor.
I love that quote. For this week, I’m going to put it in this context:
Sing it like you mean it, be honest, make something real, and it will endure. If you are trying to fit into a certain style, or reach a certain technical standard, then you will always be compared to others, but if your striving to be the fullest “You” that you can be, the standard becomes the candor itself – and it either is or it isn’t. Explore what you are! Go excavating!
This Week’s Challenge:
Find a poem. Set it to music. Give melody to the words.
My due date is Saturday March 5th! I’m hoping to get this in earlier to try to make up for lost time from Week 1!
The challenge for Week 1 was to create a “Two Chord Song.” Here is what I came up with! I recorded this live into GarageBand through a Blue Snowball USB mic while video taping on my iPhone. I then added some reverb and compression. After that, I overdubbed the HQ audio onto the iPhone Video in iMovie.
Well I don’t know just where I’m going
Hardly Know From Where I came
But there’s a wind blowin’ my way
And it’s calling out my name
Well I was told about the right way
I learned the rules and won the game
But when my home became the ball park
A dream so real came back again
Hello, do you remember me,
Wake up, it’s time to go now
Go Down, to the admission gate
Walk on, and you will see how
ABOUT THIS WEEK’S PROCESS:
The Biggest Challenge Was Perfectionism
So, it took me two and a half weeks to post this first song. I’m off to a terrible start! However, I’m not going to beat myself up over it. Habits take time to develop. Changing your ways does not happen overnight. You try your best, you fail, you make mistakes, you learn from your mistakes, you try again, and it gets easier each time.
The exact reason why I decided to create this 52 week challenge is the very thing that made me a week and a half late to post this! I am a perfectionist and I am not ok with things not being the best that they can be. The night of the due date, I decided my song sketch wasn’t good enough, so I started a new one, and then I realized that there I was stuck in my ways – never finishing anything because none of it is ever good enough while other creative people are moving forward by not letting “perfect become the enemy of the good.” They are allowing themselves to grow by accepting that growth requires mistakes and experience. Duh, that’s the whole point of this blog, Gary! You don’t have to love it. Just post something already and move on!
Going Full Circle
So the somewhat predictable irony this week is that my first idea that I abandoned, is the one I ended up running with. At first, I thought it sounded too cliche and overly romantic. How many songs have been written about the wind and travel? Endless amounts, and some of the best – but, there are good reasons. Those metaphors resonate with people – including myself – growth and change is something that we are always going through, and if we aren’t, there’s a problem (which is why I wrote the song).
Cherishing All of Your Ideas
Knowing that I had to create something quick meant I had to cherish every idea as the potential “IT” idea, and not let anything get lost. Until starting this blog I’ve put random ideas in any old place. I’d record them on my Voice Memos app and not label them. I’d write lyrics on any random piece of paper and never look at them again. Most ideas I wouldn’t even record or write down. What a mistake all that was!
So this week, I changed my ways. I upgraded my system of recording my ideas and that meant switching from Voice Memos to Evernote on my phone and computer and keeping audio and lyric ideas together in the same place, and as well labeled as possible. The great thing about Evernote is that it syncs between the phone and computer! I will go more in depth on this in a separate blog post solely about Evernote for Songwriters.
Other Two Chord Idea 1:
I think the hardest part this week, was choosing which of my many ideas to run with! I listened to some other two chord songs and fell in love with the simplicity of so many examples. One example I loved was Citizen Cope’s “Holdin’ On.”
I used the same two chords as “Holdin On” but in a different key, and came up with this short idea:
I liked it, but it just felt awkward and I couldn’t seem to find the right key. I might revisit this in the future. I like melodies that use only two notes for a bit. That’s what I was doing with this lyric: “Soundtrack playing through my head…every little thing that… 1,1,1,2,1,2,1 1,2,1,2,1…”
Soundtrack playing through my head
every little thing that you said
shut the lights and hit the bed
Pitch black but I see red
I really want to call you on the telephone
baby with you i want to make a home
Other Two Chord Idea 2:
For another idea, I used a similar progression as the final one – I – IVadd9 in the key of C. I like all the space in this one but the two ideas you’ll here are too close together. It’s kind of like a verse and chorus all in 30 seconds. I like the space but this was another one that I forgot about the next day and didn’t really feel a connection to:
I fear that I might miss out on you
So I think I will wait around for you
When the sun comes out and the sky is blue, for you
I’ll be here, for you
When your fight is done and you’ve found the truth, for you,
I’ll be here, for you
Other Two Chord Idea 3:
For another idea, I was messing around with a Major 6 chord that I was using in a jazz guitar lesson a few weeks ago going down to the relative minor chord. It just has such a friendly and warm sound to me, and it made me think about a situation at a party with my girlfriend, how I was feeling anxiety until I looked her in the eyes. Those are the lyrics up above in the Evernote screenshot. I rather not share how it sounded. 🙂
The Ear Worm Test
Another reason why I went back to my first idea is that I found myself humming it in my head every day while none of the others really stuck with me. I’d be cooking eggs, and in my head singing “I don’t know where I’m going, Hardly know from where I came.”
Looking back over the past two weeks, I got a lot accomplished outside of writing a bunch of song ideas! I learned how to use both Ableton and GarageBand for multi-tracking instruments and adding compression, reverb, etc.
This first week’s challenge is to create a song that uses only two chords throughout and is at least aminute and thirty seconds.This length is a good middle ground between “just an idea” and a fully formed song.
Why only two chords? I’m getting rid of the annoying expectation for songs to have different chord progressions for different sections, and I’m keeping things as basic as possible! I could have said one chord, but it’s harder to come up with a good melody when there is no harmonic movement at all.
They don’t say “Less is More” for nothing. Here are some diverse examples of great (well, mostly great) songs that only use two chords throughout. It is amazing how memorable and catchy they can be with just the same two chord loop over and over! You’ll notice many of these songs keep you engaged not through harmony but through either catchy riffs and motifs, a well constructed melody, cool sounds, a unique mood, provocative lyrics, a great groove or a powerful performance!
Two Chord Songs In a Major Key:
“Shout” by the Isley Brothers: I – vi (C-Am)
“Haiti” by Arcade Fire: I – vi (G-Em)
“Achy Breaky Heart” by Billy Ray Cyrus: I-V (A-E)
“Feeling Alright” by Joe Cocker: I – IV (C-F)
Two Chord Songs In a Minor Key:
“505” by the Arctic Monkeys: ii – iii (Dm – Em)
“Lose Yourself” by Eminem: vi – IV (Dm – Bb) (There’s a passing V chord [C] in the chorus)
“Holdin’ On” by Citizen Cope: ii7add9 – I (D-7add9 – C) (There’s a passing #Idim going back to the ii)
In the next blog post I will share the steps along the way of my creative process! Stay tuned, and I hope some of you will take this journey with me. The deadline is Monday, February 15th at Midnight!