Music, Mysticism, and The Groove
Victor Wooten's Elements of Music
In 2009 I attended the NAMM trade show. NAMM is a convention for gear makers to show off the latest technological developments, and many of the world's top players are often in attendance. During this excursion, I witnessed the legendary bassist Victor Wooten play his version of Amazing Grace live. After his performance, he gave a talk and answered audience questions.
The topic of his talk was "Music as a Language." He compared how we learn a language to current teaching strategies in music. He described the process of learning to play music as being backward when compared to learning a language. For instance, most people consider music lessons synonymous with learning to read music. In contrast, people speak their native languages for years before learning to read them.
The way he compared learning the musical language to learning English stuck with me for years. At the end of his talk, he promoted the book he had just written, The Music Lesson. I bought two copies and had one signed for my friend, a Victor Wooten devotee.
The first time I read the book, I appreciated the stuff he was saying about music and language. But the spiritual undercurrent of the book was opaque to me for many reasons. I was a 21-year-old know-it-all atheist and didn't want anyone selling me some new-age claptrap. I took the lessons I could and kept the book around for a while.
Flash forward 14 years. I'm starting this songwriting blog and thinking of ideas for newsletter topics. One of the reasons I called this newsletter The Analytical Songwriter is because I wanted to talk about songwriting and music from a linguistic perspective. The title made me think of Analytic Philosophy and Noam Chomsky. The way Noam Chomsky speaks of improvisation using language reminded me of Victor Wooten's book, so I reread it.
Boy, am I glad I did.
I gained so much more from The Music Lesson this time around. The book moved me in a way that it couldn't have 14 years ago, partly because my beliefs have changed but also because I have had to work through my frustrations as a growing musician. Some things you can't appreciate until you've lived a little.
I want to share with you some of the things that struck me as useful for songwriting. While this book deals primarily with music's performance and improvisational aspects, we can extrapolate its lessons to the craft of songwriting. In particular, I want to explore Wooten's elements of music and how they provide a listening rubric for musicians. Reading this book twice over the past two weeks has convinced me that we can and should engage these elements of music in our work as songwriters and composers to tell our stories with a more profound sense of emotional honesty.
One word of caution before I enumerate Wooten's elements of music. Wooten's book eschews dogma. I don't think Victor intended to set anything in stone. We should observe these elements as helpful concepts. Use these as a loose guide, and play with them.
Victor Wooten breaks the language of music down into ten different but equally weighted elements:
The book explores how these elements embody and help us connect to music. When we approach music emphasizing only one or a few elements, it is likely to seem less natural or authentic. We can connect more deeply with our audience by playing with all the elements. Our music becomes co-creative as opposed to one-sided or transactional.
In the book, a mystical guide named Michael helps Victor explore the elements of music. Michael is a Socratic fool archetype. He begins his discussion of notes with a critique of modern teaching methods in harmony. As he sees it, notes are the only element of music that schools seem to focus on. Because our society places a high value on academic approaches to any subject, we tend to over-emphasize the importance of hitting the "right notes."
When writing songs, it's evident that this applies to notes in a melody. If hitting the right notes were the secret to success, Daniel Johnston wouldn't have a career. When composing, we do not need to obsess over pitch perfection; sometimes, that even works in a song's favor (I'm looking at you, Biz Markie.)
But the less obvious application of this element is in our words. I'm guilty of having used a different suffix on a word to pad out its syllabic content. To this day, I get cold sweats wondering when someone will call me out for saying somnolescent instead of somnolent. The reality is nobody cares if it gets the point across. The beauty of poetry is that we can play with the language to gesture toward broader meaning. Placing a "wrong word" in a context that conveys meaning is no different than playing a "bad note" over again to reveal that it is leading to a "correct note."
In the book, Michael has Victor explore articulation by playing a bluegrass song. Although the piece is not harmonically challenging, it becomes attractive to Victor through the subtlety of the bassist's expression. The notes on the bass are whole notes that are muted just before the end of the bar to keep the chord changes locked into the rhythm. Had the notes been bowed or held longer, the effect would not have been the same. We can think of articulation as how we attack notes and sustain them. Mechanically this is tied to human breathing, but it is also how we let notes breathe. We can use this element to imbue the notes with more emotion.
If you think of how many ways there are to play a note on the Guitar, you can start to get an idea of how this relates to songwriting. You can play a string with a hard attack or a softer pluck. You could brush it with your fingers, drum it with your thumb, or tap it with your fingertip. Each of these methods of playing a note has its sound. We can accomplish the same thing with our words.
When we write lyrics, we can use more consonants at the beginning of our words. We can use vowels or assonance to draw out sounds or sing a syllable across multiple notes. We can arrange words to open up the vowel sounds toward the back of the mouth or close them down as we move them up to the front of the mouth.
Michael demonstrates the importance of technique in the book by making a fire using the hand drill method. In doing so, he elucidates that technique must be sufficient, even if unorthodox, to achieve its aims. Poor technique will block our playing by injecting thought into the process. He states that our musical technique should be so good that we can forget about it, the way that we do with speaking. When you talk, you don't think of all the complex mechanics of moving your tongue, mouth, and vocal cords. You speak, and words come out.
As songwriters, technique can refer to strategies we take to make the songwriting process more efficient. We can think of our approach to capturing ideas, returning to those ideas, and then writing and editing drafts of songs. Techniques will be different from one songwriter to the next, but output indicates good technique. If you're struggling to finish songs, your technique could be a good starting point for troubleshooting. Your technique should yield a system that enables you to forget about it and focus on capturing and developing your ideas.
I love this element because it relies heavily on equivocation for its explanation. Feel can be interpreted as the act of tactile interaction or emotional experience. Both illustrate what feel is in music. In the book, Michael uses the example of blues musicians. Blues musicians are not the most technical players, but they play their notes with so much emotion that audiences can feel the music's honesty. Victor also notes that blind musicians he had known were captivating performers and considered that they had to feel their way around their instrument to achieve this.
Michael also introduces the idea of emotional blending----this happens when musicians project their emotions to the audience and achieve an empathic link. Feel is essential for the editing process. A song can feel wordy or sparse. Words make us feel certain things, and even phonemes or sounds can do the same. We can use feel as a guide when we write lyrics. Abstract words make us think; concrete terms make us feel. These are things we can consider as we put pen to paper and as we revise.
Victor Wooten describes an experiment to explore dynamics----this is a good one if you have the space to do it:
Put on Curtis Mayfield's song Superfly and stand about 10 feet from the speakers.
Raise your hands to your chest level with your palms facing out.
Turn slowly in a circle for a couple of rotations.
The strangest thing about this experiment is that you will feel a tingle in the palm of your hands as you face the music. It's an interesting perceptual shift that shows us a little about dynamics.
We perceive music with our whole body. Using dynamics, we can make our songs more engaging and convey more emotion. Considering how and when your songs will transition between loud and soft dynamics will bring more drama and excitement to them. The Pixies had a formula for this: Loud, quiet, Loud. However, Victor points out that dynamic intensity doesn't always mean louder. The softer something is, the more demands the listener pay attention.
We can also consider dynamics in our word choice. Some words are associated with dynamics by their nature. For instance, if there is a fire, you expect someone to yell, "FIRE!" Awareness of these associations allows you to bring dynamics to your lyrics independently of any musical accompaniment.
The chapter on rhythm was one of my favorite sections of this book. It features a character named Sam, who is an 11-year-old boy that shreds the bass. He helps Victor tune into rhythm and tempo by programming a drum machine to hold a steady beat. As he shows Victor how to groove, he removes part of the drum loop until they count 4 bars using only the blinking LED on the drum machine. It's an incredible section of the book and one of the most inventive ways I've ever heard of building your internal sense of time.
I recommend this practice to anyone who plays music or writes songs. You should download a drum machine app (GarageBand is a good one) and program a four-bar beat. You can subtract bars progressively until you count all four bars off an audible "1" beat. I thought my sense of timing was rock solid until I tried this. I've been using it in my piano practice to challenge myself with basic exercises.
The benefit of this exercise is that you will feel how words connect to the groove. One of the things I see most often with songs written by people who don't play an instrument is a lack of internal rhythm. The words have a poetic quality but don't imply any rhythmic structure. A more robust internal metronome will give you a sense of whether the lines you write are singable. Couple that with a study of older poetic forms, and you'll be well on your way to writing with more rhythm.
Tone is an elusive element in all art forms. Michael makes an interesting observation when he points out that we use this word to discuss photography, color, writing, speaking, and even muscle condition. We use this word every day without a precise definition, and such a definition would be elusive. But, like dynamics, tone is one of the ways that we perceive music with the rest of our bodies. That may be what gives the word such a broad application.
In the case of instrumentation and orchestration, tone could reference the balance of bass and treble. Michael considers how bass tones move the body on a dance floor. If we think about an alarm, the treble tones cut through the noise around us and alert us to potential danger. Tone communicates far more than we realize.
Considering how tone applies to lyrics, we find that tone can give any word a whole new set of meanings. The word "no" could have different meanings depending on the tone of my voice and the context. How someone uses your name could either comfort or set you on edge. We should be aware of this as we select our words. We can play with ambiguity for effect or prevent miscommunication by being sensitive to tone.
Victor explores the element of phrasing through a character named Uncle Clyde. Uncle Clyde is an unassuming harmonica genius that presents himself as a frail homeless man. He doesn't let on that he's a master of the instrument until he tries to make a point. As he begins playing for Wooten, he sets up his improvisation by repeating simple musical phrases for a little while. As Victor gets bored, Uncle Clyde melts faces with complex jazz lines and chromatics. After showboating for a bit, he returns to the simple phrases to bring Victor back to familiar territory. He demonstrates the power of phrasing through his performance.
Phrasing is how we put elements together to arrive at a destination. In the case of Uncle Clyde's playing, it's how he put together simple musical phrases to make space for the more complex phrases he wished to introduce. This careful phrasing allowed him to set up the listener and prepare them for the can of harmonica whoop-ass he unleashed.
We want to be mindful of how we use phrasing in songwriting. How we construct phrases in a song's verse dictates phrases in the chorus. If we use wordy phrases in our verse, we should use fewer words in the chorus. We can set up a clichéd phrase and subvert it with an unexpected resolution. Phrasing allows us to create a roadmap for the listener's experience. Phrasing, along with space, is the genesis of form.
Space is a paradox. In the story, Victor explores the concept of space with a bookstore psychic named Isis. She takes him through the world of numerology and associates numbers with music. Isis leads with the fact that zero is a number that can represent nothing but also indicates something when it occupies space to the right of a number. She compares this to the bass. The bass serves as a foundation for any piece of music but can also take the lead and augment the melodic content of a song.
She then pivots to the fact that zero represents space and that most of any object's composition is space. From this fact, she begins to discuss how the creation of space facilitates all other things. Later in the chapter, Victor discusses space with a drummer who implements this concept in performance. This chapter is fun, and I won't spoil it by retelling it. But with just the fragment I've discussed here, we can get to the point:
Space facilitates events.
Only through the presence of silence can we discern meaningful notes. If you were walking down the street and all the ambient noise completely stopped, it would be disconcerting. Your Orienting reflex would kick in to seek the problem, and you would listen for the first sound you could catch.
We can leverage this in our songwriting by using fewer words and notes. Don't be afraid of silence as a way of making a point. Silence will give weight to the things you do say. Along with repetition, it will go a long way to improve your phrasing.
Listening is at the heart of all music, and in this book, Victor strives to show the reader how to listen with their whole body. Only through listening can we engage with other musicians and the music itself. The most important thing we can do while listening is to remain present. Some great moments in this chapter draw parallels between the natural world and listening on the stage. I would recount them, but listening or reading for yourself is better.
What I love about these elements is that they all culminate in listening. You can use each of these elements as guides for your listening. When listening to music that inspires you, observe how these elements manifest in the music. Listen to your performances to see how you can bring these elements to your songs. Practice listening to yourself through methods like meditation or walking. These are just a few ideas for working more listening into your songwriting craft.
As I reread this book, I decided to get the audiobook version to listen to it while doing housework. I'm glad I did. If you're curious about this book, I highly recommend listening. Victor Wooten recorded a soundtrack for the entire thing, and the voice acting on it is excellent. I'm glad I rediscovered this book when I did. It made me remember what I love about playing music and gave me a lot to chew on.
In the past, I've relied on dense mixes and polysyllabic lyrics to get my meaning across. A friend once said that my songs read like a doctoral thesis. I vacillate between seeing this as a complement or an insult, but I'm excited to let these elements guide my future songwriting.
Experiment with Wooten's elements and apply them as you see fit. You may be trying to improve as an instrumentalist. Perhaps you're just trying to finish an album. In any case, this book is a must-have for any artist. And these ten elements are an excellent framework for any musician looking to gain a deeper relationship with music and their instrument.