Friday, 11 June 2010

Covers and the Amateur Musician

In a previous post (Enjoy the Silence), I asked the question: why do musicians like to cover this song? Having re-read the text, it appears that I didn’t really answer the question! A career in politics beckons, clearly.

So what is the answer? Well…I can’t really give a definitive answer but I can give you my own experience of choosing cover versions, such as it is. As an amateur musician, it’s fun to play songs written by others and shelf-loads of music books and bits of paper with chord progressions jotted on them attest to this assumption. I have many favourite songs but not all of them are fun to sing/play – and that’s the nub of this question.

For some reason not all songs lend themselves to being played by others, especially if you are not a particularly proficient musician. Whilst I have played the guitar for 35 years I’m not Eric Clapton, or anything like. Anyone who plays the guitar will know that chords in some keys are easier to play than those in other keys. Generally the ‘sharp’ keys are easier (C, G, D, A & E). In fact much guitar music in written in the key of E major as the open strings are tuned to notes that fit well.

So it is a bit of a bugger to have to play songs that have been written in ‘flat’ keys and especially those with loads of flats (ARE YOU LISTENING, KATE BUSH? D♭ MAJOR, INDEED!). Of course, you can transpose songs into easier keys but then somehow the original voicing is lost and it never quite sounds the same. So for a song to be fun to play it has to be written in a key that suits the player’s ability and feels comfortable.

The next point is all to do with vocal range. Assuming that no-one else is in the house and the windows are shut, I’ll have a go at singing my song of choice and here we encounter further possible pitfalls. Is the melody suited to your (usually limited) range? Is it too low/high, or does the melody have awkward intervals? (KATE BUSH AGAIN –EXHIBIT B ‘DECEMBER WILL BE MAGIC’). Don’t even attempt ‘December will be magic’ as in the very first phrase there is an interval jump of 12 whole tones, that is, an octave plus 4 tones. There can only be about 4 people in the entire world who can manage this leap and I’m not one of them.

Having dispensed with the technicalities, there are other parameters to consider. Is it boring? Playing one chord for 16 bars is not going to get you interested. On the other hand, a magical chord progression that sets off the melody can make the hairs on your neck stand up. Are the lyrics easy to sing? You’d be surprised how many aren’t. Too many syllables per note, tongue twister sentences and sheer nonsense ‘street-speak’ can ruin the enjoyment.

So my guess is that ‘Enjoy The Silence’ has an easy to sing melody with comfortable lyrics, a harmonic progression which is technically interesting yet easy to play and a general feeling of artistic creation. Am I getting close?


Adrian said...

This reminds me of a Beatles documentary seen all those years ago... (was it in Anthology?), and folks in the street are stopped and asked to sing their fave Beatles tune. You can sing, even I can sing, pretty much any of the Fab's songs.

Of course, it's fun to try the Kate Bush numbers, or maybe something by Nina Hagen or Klaus Nomi!

musicobsessive said...

Hi Adrian. You're right, of course. The secret of the fabs success is that the man in the street can sing the tunes no matter how complex they were musically.

Also, the BBC music show from the 70s/80s 'The Old Grey Whistle Test' was named after the practice of seeing whether the 'old grey' doorman could whistle a new tune on first hearing!

Adrian said...

Ah, thanks for that! I thought, here in the land of The Canadian Railroad Trilogy, that the show's title was some reference to a train!

Sing/play on ( :

Perplexio said...

It's funny you should mention this-- I've got a couple box sets that have some covers on them. One is a 4CD set of music by Canadian musicians (Oh What a Feeling) and then I've got a 4CD set of music by Australian musicians, and a different 3 CD set of music by Aussie musicians.

What I've noticed are a handful of covers by Aussie and Canadian bred musicians of songs performed by American or British bands.

Some examples:
John Farnham covering Help
Zoot covering Eleanor Rigby
Hush covering Glad All over (actually this cover is pretty damned fantastic)
The Screaming Jets covering Eve of Destruction

Well anywho back to the point-- perhaps taking a look at songs that get covered by popular/professional bands is a good indicator of the best songs to cover/attempt to cover by amateur musicians.

musicobsessive said...

Hi Perplexio. You could be on to something there. Of course, there are limits - I once saw a college band do a note pefect version of Yes's 'Roundabout' and wouldn't fancy having a go at that!

Perplexio said...

Speaking of covers I've also heard musicians interject snippets of other songs into guitar or keyboard solos. There was an outdoor concert near where I live last Thursday night. My wife & I were riding our bicycles nearby and heard the soundcheck. The keyboardist segued from the piano solo from Layla into the opening of Chicago's Saturday in the Park. It was pretty cool. Later on as I was using the grill outdoors, I could hear the concert somewhat clearly. They did some soul classics like Knock On Wood-- good stuff!

YourZ said...

I love it when artists cover their favourite songs. Have you heard M. Ward's 'Rave On', for instance. Sounds nothing like the original but is still very good.

As a song writer, however, I don't have a large repertoire of cover songs as it would defeat the purpose of writing my own music. Still, I do love to belt out 'Hide Your Love Away' on occasion.


Adrian said...

A particular challenge for those who would scale "Roundabout" or other Yes songs - is getting the laser light show right!

musicobsessive said...

YouZ - I do love a cover that redefines the song in a different style or performance, it makes you think differently about it.

Adrian - LOL! Does having a white/green/red torch count?!

Perplexio said...

There's a cover of Phil Collins Against All Odds on the Wicker Park soundtrack that's quite interesting. It's somewhat ambient in nature, I forget who performs it but it's so completely different from the original that I'd say it redefines the song.

Sarah Blasko also does a good job redefining a song with her cover of Cold Chisel's Flame Trees, I belive YourZenMine reviewed it a few weeks ago and both iirc gave it a good review.

musicobsessive said...

Thanks P. More stuff to check out!