Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Bach & Brian

Stuff I'm reading about, and vaguely understand: in music theory, counterpoint is roughly defined as two or more distinct melodies performed simultaneously.

This technique, widely used during the Baroque period, is considered unique to Western music. J.S. Bach is thought by most to be it's greatest practitioner; his music was dense and complex, yet light on it's feet. By Bach's time, though, counterpoint was becoming passé. Serious composers moved on to other things.

Not surprisingly, very little modern pop or rock music (say, post-Beatles) incorporates counterpoint. Maybe it's because both thrive on immediacy and directness; when a song starts to sound too complex and fussed-over, it loses it's rawness.

A few rock composers managed to figure it out, though. Probably the best "contrapuntal" composer was Brian Wilson.

Listen to "Good Vibrations:" forty seconds into the song, and Wilson is effortlessly playing at least 3 distinct melody lines against one another. After the second verse, he gives us some nice counterpoint at the bridge/interlude (complete with harpsichord -- right back 'atcha, Bach) before introducing a brand-new, ebullient counterpoint around the 3:15 mark. And then he finishes with a cello and a theremin. Whew! (By the way, Wilson was around 24 years old when this was composed.)

Despite all this complexity, "Vibrations" still sounds like a happy rock song written by the same guy who did "Fun, Fun, Fun."

I'm having a hard time thinking of other great examples of rock/pop counterpoint. Focusing solely on vocal counterpoint, here are a few that might qualify:

• "God Only Knows" - The Beach Boys - Great stuff starting around 1:15, and again at the 2:00 mark.
• "Happy Together" - The Turtles - features a pretty nice contrapuntal chorus at the end; bonus points for an end-of-song resolve!
"Monday, Monday" - The Mamas & The Papas - Nice contrapuntal bridge at 1:23
• "California Dreamin'" - The Mamas & The Papas - The entire 40 second intro before the first verse
• "A Rose For Emily" - The Zombies - Pretty stuff at :30 and 1:18
• "Chimacum Rain" & "Parallelograms" - Linda Perhacs - Experimental 70's folk by a dental assistant; nothing here had a chance at the top 40, though.
• "She's Leaving Home" - The Beatles - :50 in, at the chorus. Not the best example of counterpoint, but a beautifully written and clever combination of voices. The intro for "Paperback Writer" is a better example, but very brief!
• "Scarborough Fair" - Simon & Garfunkel - Textbook counterpoint starting with the second verse.
• "Cybele's Reverie" - Stereolab - Starting around 1:45, some simplistic, yet charming counterpoint, in French, no less.

Help me add to the list, music freaks!


johnNokc said...

Out, damned spot! Out, out I say!

In the second paragraph, you use "it's" instead of "its."

Curiously enough, you use the contraction correctly in the third paragraph.

I've spoken to you about this before, Deedge. One more time and I'm coming over there and ripping the apostrophe key off your keyboard.

grizzard said...

Ugh... I need some kind of handy pneumonic memory device to help me remember that one!

johnNokc said...

Um, I think a pneumonic device might indeed help. Just paint "its" on a big balloon and use your pnuemonic cevice to blow it up.

Groan, you would have to remind me of the days when the senior account person was fond of writing that "there is no distinction here as we have a parody product."

Weezie said...

How does counterpoint differ from a bridge? Is it because a bridge is transitional in nature and the counterpoint is a piece unto itself?

Bridge (music):
b. a transitional, modulatory passage connecting sections of a composition or movement.
c. (in jazz and popular music) the contrasting third group of eight bars in a thirty-two-bar chorus; channel; release.

grizzard said...


yes, that's how i understand it. Think of the Beatles song "We Can Work It Out." The bridge is the section that goes "Life is very short, and there's no time for fussing and fighting my friend..". It's a little snippet that separates the main verse and chorus. Often a bridge will have a minor sound and a different tempo to contrast with the main parts of the song.

A bridge can being written using counterpoint, or any other device, like harmony.

Not all pop songs have a bridge; sometimes they're not necessary. Some composers write bridges because they think they help the song, but they really don't.