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Dave Stewart's Music Seminar (Part 1)

Grey Skies

Article from Sound On Sound, July 1990

Famed keyboardist Dave Stewart begins this new series designed to give you a few more compositional ideas than you maybe had before!

I'm a keyboard player, but I'm not just going to write about keyboards - I'm going to write about music. The way I look at it, it doesn't matter much how music is produced - it can be played equally well on rubber bands, multitracked sampled animal mating calls, boobams, a mazdaphone (an instrument made out of light bulbs by American composer/inventor Harry Partch), a theremin, ukelele, or any combination of the above, as well as the electronic keyboard instruments that you and I own. So when you see diagrams of chords in these articles, like Figure 1, don't assume that they have to be played on a keyboard. These pitches could be produced in an infinite amount of ways, by foghorns, flutes, xylophones or voices - in fact, they could be performed by instruments that haven't been invented yet. The important thing to recognise is that the pitches themselves have a relationship that transcends the choice of sound source. That relationship, to my mind, is the essence of music.

Figure 1.

Already I hear howls of protests from percussionists, vocalists, programmers, rappers, record producers, remix engineers, punk and heavy metal bass players, and all the other jobbers, iconoclasts, would-be innovators, and complacent imitators that make up the 'music business'. What about rhythm? What about the lyrics? Music is all about emotion! The notes aren't important (only 'musos' know or care about those), it's the sound that matters!

Permit me to explain. There is this universal thing called music, which has been floating around for a few thousand years. In music, you get notes, or pitches, that are carefully (or otherwise) chosen to have a specific effect. When allied with rhythm, which is basically a decision about how fast or slow to make these notes and what length gaps (if any) to put between them, the notes become melodies, and the relationship of the notes determines what kind of melody it is. By a process I don't understand, which is linked with what people call 'culture', we've devised a code that enables us to agree on an emotional response to these strings of notes, so we can have a 'sad' or 'happy' melody. And as the melodies grow more subtle, complex, and skillfully performed, so the feelings of the listener become more intangible, ambiguous, and poignant, Wonderful system, isn't it?

As music has developed, from the ritual two-note chant of the primitive tribesman to the ritual three-note chant of Frankie Goes To Hollywood and Simple Minds (Hey! One extra note in three thousand years - not bad!), the components of rhythm and sound (the stuff that goes with the pitches) have become more and more sophisticated.

In current rock music, rhythm has reached a highly developed state bordering on sensory overload. Layers and layers of it, cleverly performed or programmed, are piled up via multitracking or MIDI. In conjunction, the sounds used are often amazingly brilliant and varied, enriched by the technology of samplers and signal processors. (Though, unfortunately, very rarely by mazdaphones or other non-mass-produced instruments.) The combination of sound and rhythm is extremely exciting and seductive, so much so that the questions of melody and harmony seem temporarily unimportant. But what's underneath it all? The same old pitches that have been around for centuries.

You can ignore these notes if you want (and much house and disco music does), but if you do, it's my feeling that you miss the point of music. The notes are the heart of music - the DNA molecules that bind the body together... a corpse can be made to twitch and jerk via electricity, but only if it's truly alive will the body sing!

Figure 2.

Excuse me philosophising like this, but I'm going to write 12 articles for this magazine and I want you to understand my point of view, so that you'll appreciate why I'll keep drawing diagrams like Figure 2 and expecting them to mean something to you.

What I'm going to do in these articles is to look at a piece of music (usually composed by myself), examine some of the notes, harmonies, rhythms and sounds involved, and explain how their interaction produces a specific musical effect. I hope this analysis will be of interest to you, and that you will be able to play or programme some of this stuff on your own instruments - if you can, it should give you some insights into the workings of my musical mind, which I trust will not be too distressing an experience.

"The combination of sound and rhythm is extremely exciting and seductive, so much so that the questions of melody and harmony seem temporarily unimportant."

Let's start by looking at a piece called 'Grey Skies', a song from the album The Big Idea by myself and Barbara Gaskin. The inspiration for the rhythmic side of this song came from hearing African musician Salif Keita's brilliant LP Soro, though the subject matter of our song is intensely English. I set about creating an intricate, light rhythmic background of the type I'd so enjoyed on Salif's album by writing these keyboard parts, to be played together (see Figures 3a and 3b).

Figure 3a.

Figure 3b.
(Click image for higher resolution version)

I guess you might call this combination a 'cross rhythm', but despite the insistent pattern the brain soon accepts it as a 4/4 beat with odd syncopations. The accompanying drum machine hi-hat pattern, Figure 4, reinforces this tendency.

Figure 4.

"...a corpse can be made to twitch and jerk via electricity, but only if it's truly alive will the body sing!"

Over this ever-shifting backdrop I wrote a set of slower moving chords, mainly based on the scale of Db major. Figure 5 shows the chorus section, plus bass line.

Figure 5.
(Click image for higher resolution version)

Try playing all these parts together and see how it works! Note - you will need either a sequencer, a multitrack recorder, or three cooperative friends.

First published in 'Keyboard' magazine, Japan.
All musical selections copyright Dave Stewart/Budding Music 1989.
'Tenemos Roads' brief extract © Virgin Music 1977.


Import copies of Dave Stewart and Barbara Gaskin's CD The Big Idea can be obtained via mail order from: Broken Records, (Contact Details).

Broken Records will pass on any correspondence to Dave and Barbara!

Series - "Dave Stewart's Music Seminar"

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Part 1 (Viewing) | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 | Part 8 | Part 9 | Part 10 | Part 11 | Part 12

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Publisher: Sound On Sound - SOS Publications Ltd.
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Sound On Sound - Jul 1990


Music Theory


Dave Stewart's Music Seminar

Part 1 (Viewing) | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 | Part 8 | Part 9 | Part 10 | Part 11 | Part 12

Feature by Dave Stewart

Previous article in this issue:

> Ensoniq SQ1

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> Vangelis

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