2 Shades of Grey

Songs from the soundtrack of your life


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Happy songs don’t do well in charts – a sign of the times?

For eleven months last year the charts were dominated by sad songs in minor keys.

Songs in major keys had only short spells in the charts. Some, like songs by Clean Bandit, DJ Khaled, and Harry Styles, lasted only a week at the top.

And it’s not just the minor key. For the first time since 2002 the average bpm of number ones fell below 100.

The research, carried out by Popbitch website and published by the American Psychological Association, concluded that “popular music has, in general, become sadder-sounding over time with an increasing use of minor keys and slower tempo”.

Another study in 2011 found that “lyrics of popular music became more self-focussed and negative over time” with the number of minor songs doubling since the 1960s.

This may be partly due to a change in formats. Vinyl 78s could hold 3 minutes of music which led to a high number of bpm. Streaming (the curse of modern charts) allows an unlimited length of song or album and s reducing the number of songs making it to the top of the charts – only 14 last year.

Popbitch refers to a 2009 study by American researchers which found that “when social and economic times were relatively threatening, songs that were longer in duration, more meaningful in content, more comforting, more romantic, and slower, were most popular”.

This is not the first research lately to identify this shift. I posted last year about this


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Duane Eddy – not Douane

I’ve had this EP for over 50 years and only just noticed his mis-spelt name. 

I also found this bizarre recording on youtube of Duane Eddy and the Rebel Rousers performing “live” dressed in confederate army uniforms with confederate flags decorating their moving fork lift truck as they played on a TV show in Miami Beach in 1958.

You wouldn’t get that past health & safety today never mind the PC brigades.

Other Duane Eddy posts here and here

 


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Streaming services make charts meaningless

Streaming services like Spotify are making charts meaningless. No matter how many plays they say equals a bought track it’s not the same.

Music fans skipping through a whole album in 3 minutes is not the same as actually buying a CD or vinyl or even a download.

That’s why songs are staying in the charts so long or why one artist (the ginger busker for example) hogged all the chart places.

Not since the 1950s have songs stayed so long in the charts i.e. when  songs like “I believe” by Frankie Lane stayed at No 1 for 18 weeks or “Secret love” by Doris Day (9 weeks) and “Cara Mia” by David Whitfield (10 weeks).

Last year’s single “Despacito” stayed top for 22 weeks as did songs by the afore-mentioned Ed Sheeran, and Drake.

Of course we’ve had other long stays at No 1 when people actually bought records e.g. “Everything I do for you” by Bryan Adams in 1991, “Love is all around” by Wet, Wet, Wet in 1994, and “Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen in both 1975 and 1991. But it seems that’s not going to happen again.

The chief pop and rock critic of The Times (which ran this story) said “The charts are essentially broken. They are no longer a representation of what people actually listen to“.

The way the system works makes it harder for new artists to break into the mainstream because the playlists offer up only a small sample of songs.

Streaming also has an impact on song-writing.

No more three-minute pop songs as streaming services start paying royalties after 30 seconds. So you don’t even have to play a whole song . Which explains how Ed Sheeran’s album dominated all the top 10 spots last year.

Slow build-ups are out. You have to get the hook or the song title in during the first 30 seconds. Like an executive summary so people know what to expect e.g. in Despacito

And choruses (or pre-choruses) had better get in early or, as Spotify’s head of songwriter relations says “if you’re not loving it you’re skipping it”.

An analysis of hundreds of hits over the past 30 years (published in Musicae Scientiae) found that intros averaged about 20 seconds in the mid 80s but only 5 seconds today.

So great songs from the past that wouldn’t get a look in the charts today include “Hotel California”, “Sympathy for the Devil”, Shine on you Crazy Diamond”, “Money for Nothing” and other Dire Straits songs I might add like “Telegraph Road“.

Is it the listening public’s need for instant gratification (brain-damaged by over-using smartphones) or just a commercial ploy by the streaming services. Whichever I don’t like it!


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from Major to Minor

American statistician have analysed 120,000 pieces of music and come to the conclusion that the happiest sounds in music – the minor and major 7th chords – are dying out. And lyrics are becoming sadder since the 1950s.

Pop songs are usually written using a mixture of major and minor chords. In the 1950s the four-chord sequence often featured in doo-wop music was  very popular. A major chord followed by its relative minor, then up to the subdominant 4th (or its relative minor) before moving to the dominant fifth usually with a 7th. e.g. C – Am -F – G7 or C – Am – Dm -G7.

Think of songs like “Blue Moon“, or “Where have all the flowers gone“. And more recently Wham’s Xmas song “Last Christmas” which uses only those four chords throughout the song.

Generally speaking minor chords sound sadder than major chords. Apparently 60 years ago the dominant 7th chord outnumbered minor chords. FYI a dominant 7th chord is a major chord with a minor 7th on top of it e.g. C – E – G – Bb. Think of white piano keys. Middle C  (Root) then 2 keys up to E (major 3rd) then two more keys up to G (Major 5th) then miss next white key and add next black key Bb (minor 7th).

I think that could be due partly to the fact that dominant 7th chords are frequently used in what are called turn-arounds i.e. the music at the end of each verse which leads into the next verse. Dominant 7th chords have a tension which needs resolving by moving to a major (or minor) chord. Think of Roy Orbison’s “Dream Baby” which is played with dominant 7ths crying out for resolution on the last line of each verse.

Also many songs written in a “twelve bar blues” format would feature the dominant 7th e.g. “Lucille” or “What’d I say“.

Perhaps surprisingly what the scientists found was that the chords most associated with upbeat words were minor 7th chords i.e. like a dominant 7th but with a flattened 3rd e.g. C – Eb – G – Bb. These were widely used in soul and disco music in the 1970s. The major 7th chord was also popular at that time.

They say that music became grimmer since guitar music became popular although that might be changing a little now. And with that the increase in the use of minor chords, the huge decrease in the use of dominant chords (down from 10% to 1% since the fifties) and the disappearance of the major 7th chord.

The major 7th is a beautiful chord with a bitter sweet dissonance as the major 7th note clashes with the root note e.g. C – E – G – B. You can hear it at the beginning of Chicago’s “Colour my world”, and in the Beatle’s song “Misery” as they sing that word.

You’ll hear a combination of major and minor 7th chords in Glen Campbell’s “By the time I get to Phoenix” and in “Valerie” by the Futons and Amy Winehouse.

And in jazz standards it’s a common feature e.g. “Every time we say goodbye”

So let’s not write these chords off just yet. Leonard Cohen knew what he was talking about in “Hallelujah” and what do statisticians know about music anyway?


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Xmas shopping aided & abetted by Xmas songs!

Looking forward to another round of Jingle Bell Rock or White Christmas?

A clinical psychologist has warned of the effects of continuous Xmas music on your mental health. “because music goes right to our emotions immediately and bypasses rationality” says Linda Blair (no connection with the Blair Witch project although you might wonder if she’s related to the Grinch).

She goes on to say “it might make us feel trapped – it’ a reminder that we have to buy presents, cater for people, organise celebrations”. Or it might be that the music is so annoying we can’t wait to get out of the shop?

She thinks shop staff are most at risk and have to tune out the music otherwise “you spend all your energy trying not to hear what you’re hearing”.

So what are the big stores actually doing this year (apart from churning out increasingly irrelevant Xmas ads which are so PC)?

Marks and Spencer will be a music-free zone but Asda will only have one hour a day free from christmas tunes and will even let staff become DJs for the day!

Asda perceptively said “we love the arm and fuzzy feeling that the festive season brings but for many Brits the novelty starts to wear off in December“.

So why do you have to start selling Xmas stuff so early?

John Lewis is having christmas music for the first time this year. In the past they have invited small groups of musicians or choirs to play and sing to create more atmosphere. And that’s fine, 2 Shades has done that in Tesco in the past. “The music at the Christmas Shop is a new addition”.  Yippee, more piped music!

Sainsbury‘s is also expanding its musical reach. Usually only played in its cafés it will be played throughout the stores this year.

Not everyone is happy Pipedown, a pressure group for silence in public spaces, said “It was estimated some years ago that department store workers on the shop floor will have been forced to listen to Jingle Bells up to 300 times in the run-up to Christmas“.

Marks and Spencer was probably the first store to stop playing piped music and there is evidence the public don’t like it so it’s a bit disturbing to see that some stores have turned up the volume as it were just for Christmas.


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Music while you work

Biz Psycho

Millennials are re-creating the war-time experiences of having music played in factories by bringing music into offices.

Last year PRS for Music, the music licensing organisation which collects royalties for musicians, granted 27,000 licences for offices to play recorded music, up almost 10% on the previous year.

And that’s good news for musicians who must be heartily sick of being ripped off by young people ripping tracks from web-sites in the belief that they are “entitled” to free music.

Whether or not music does help productivity is open to debate. Certainly the government thought it did during WWII when they promoted “Music While You Work“.

The American company Musak actually patented a “Stimulus Progression” system to keep factory workers focussed by varying the intensity of the music in 15 minute chunks; something I have posted about elsewhere

Many factories have scrapped music on health &…

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