February has dawned, and with it that most artificial and Hallmark of holidays – Valentine's Day. Now, rather than get into a rant about how this day has been co-opted by greetings cards firms and marketing departments and turned into a stress-filled, chocolate covered rose-tinted nightmare, I thought I'd try and provide something useful and interesting for my readers (Hello, Dave. Hello, Keith.)
If you're reading my blog, chances are you're a guitar player or at the very least a musician of some sort. And if you're a musician, chances are you're probably skint.
So, what to do when Valentine's Day comes a-calling and you can't afford fancy restaurants or jewellery? Well, you justify all that expensive equipment you blew all your money on by writing your significant other a love song, of course!
Now, in an earlier blog post I tok a brief look at some of the common elements that make Christmas songs sound the way they do (http://www.jmguitartuition.blogspot.co.uk/2013/12/what-makes-christmas-song.html) – so let's see if we can't examine one or two classic love songs to learn a trick or two.
Firstly, let's look at some rhythmic elements. Most love songs/ ballads tend to be slow and mellow in tempo, to induce a relaxed feeling in the listener and put them in a more receptive frame of mind. In terms of time signatures, good old 4/4 is of course the favourite, but don't overlook compound time signatures like 12/8 or 6/8 (think REM's classic “Everybody Hurts” - not exactly a love song, but a classic ballad nonetheless). There does seem to be something about the gently rocking triplet feel of these time signatures that we find soothing at a very fundamental level – perhaps recalling the motion of being rocked to sleep in a cradle as a baby.
Moving to look at harmony, most love songs revolve around standard diatonic progressions, particularly favouring the I, IV, V and vi chords. Think “You're Beautiful” by James Blunt, or “No One” by Alicia Keys – both standard I-V-vi-IV sequences, with the “thoughtful” nature of these sequences accentuated by a relaxed tempo and the use of a 1st inversion in the V chord to create a descending motion (C-G/B-Am). For a dramatic middle 8 or bridge, a common device is using a major III chord (think of the F# in the bridge of Everybody Hurts”) to create a sense of tension and often implying a key change. Many classic ballads (think “Parisienne Walkways” or “Still Got The Blues”) also use the cycle of fourths chord sequence.
In terms of melody, a great way to bring out the emotional centre of a chord is to target it's third with the melody. This accentuates the major or minor nature of the chord, and melodies that leap in thirds and fifths tend to be very pleasing to the ear. The old trick of jumping registers to really push the dramatic big chorus is very prevalent in this style of music - think of the huge note that starts the chorus of “I Will Always Love You”.
Dynamically, most love songs tend to follow the quiet verse/ big chorus template, but many continue to build throughout the song. It's also interesting to look at some of the textures and instruments that are favoured – guitar tones tend to be clean (Strat in between pickup positions, maybe a little chorus and delay) or often acoustic. Nylon strings are popular in this style, giving an air of sophistication (“I bring thees geetar all the way from Spain because I luff you so”).
Piano is a popular texture too, it's resonance and depth fitting this style perfectly – certainly balladeers such as Lionel Richie and modern day equivalents by musicians like Bruno Mars make much of the piano's full sound. Strings in pad form and as countermelodies, motifs and hooks are all hallmarks of the classic love songs too, building to an impassioned conclusion as the torured songwriter bares his/ her soul to the listener and leaving not a dry eye in the house.
So – out of cash this Valentine's? Boot up GarageBand and get cracking!