What makes a song memorable? This is a question I have pondered since reading the post, The Difference Between A Great Guitar Player And A Guitar Great, at Hook in Mouth. The article explores which style of playing is more memorable – technical or artistic. Although the commentary explores various heavy metal and rock guitarists, the subject matter can apply to any genre of music.
Today’s number one hit often resembles last week’s chart topper. Music lovers dig in the interwebs for original bands in order to escape over-produced music. Radio leaves out many of the best songs in favor of those that lack originality.
Musical greats, such as Ludwig Van Beethoven, Igor Stravinsky, Louis Armstrong, Eddie Van Halen, Bessie Smith, Fats Domino, and Sergei Rachmaninoff, all have a common bond. Each has a unique musical voice. Memorable musicians may have some technical prowess. But a true artist searches for the right combination of melody and harmony, technicality and expression.
When Paul McCartney writes a song, he isn’t mimicking the previous one he wrote or copying a recent hit from Coldplay. McCartney’s songs may have a similar quality, but they never sound alike. He will compose a song and rework it several times until it is perfect to his ears. That’s how true artists work. Now, the art of songwriting has become a competition between financiers versus composers and players versus artists. A technically proficient performer won’t necessarily produce memorable music.
In December 2009, I received a DVD, Beethoven’s Guitar Shred, featuring The Great Kat. Several guitar magazines have proclaimed her as one the fastest guitar players. A graduate of Julliard, Kat has arranged popular classical works in a heavy metal style. One arrangement on the DVD is the first movement from Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5. The Great Kat butchers an approximately six minute work into a little over a minute of music. She plays fast, leaves sections out, and obliterates the musicality of the piece. I might have been impressed if The Great Kat had kept the music intact, but with a metal tinge. Disparaging Beethoven’s grand work with speed does nothing for the listener. I can appreciate technical playing, but songs need to breathe in order to be memorable.
Yngwie Malmsteen, inspired by classical music, wrote several heavy metal songs that explore virtuosic playing with a classical feel. Malmsteen’s “Trilogy Suite Op. 5” is more interesting than anything performed by The Great Kat. Considered one the fastest guitar shredders, Time Magazine called Malmsteen one of the top ten electric guitarists. In addition to Malmsteen, Steve Vai, Joe Satriani, Al Di Meola, John Petrucci, Miles Davis, Tito Puente and Stevie Ray Vaughan are all great musicians with incredible technical facility that have produced memorable music.
Arnold Schoenberg, the godfather of atonal and serial music, wrote many works that are memorable for their ability to stretch the imagination rather than for their beauty. Listening to Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire is like hearing nails on a chalkboard. Schoenberg’s music pushed the boundaries of tonality forcing listeners to reconsider what is labeled musical.
Music is memorable for many reasons. It can be technically proficient. It can have a beautiful melody. It can be so strange that you will never forget it. Imitators and over-produced music are forgettable. Just because a song is on top of a music chart today, doesn’t mean it will remain in the minds of music fans ten years from now. Anyone remember Lou Bega’s “Mambo No. 5”?