Twenty people are silently gathered around a table, heads bowed in concentration, listening closely.
“Did you hear it?”
“I feel like I heard it, but only in a couple tiny parts.”
“Really? I can totally hear it!”
“Wait, play it again, I’m not exactly sure what we’re listening for.”
“No, no, no! I’ve got the perfect example. Here, check this out.”
Someone else cracks open a laptop, starts playing a different song at the same time, people chime in with their opinions, voices and music overlap, it gets heated, and suddenly we’re in full-voiced debate like a mob of British Parliamentarians.
The burning issue at hand: identifying and scoring guitar twang. You know, that sproingy nasal boing of a plucked string, often associated with Country music. Twang can be produced through picking technique, by location of the pick on the neck, by the choice of pick-ups on the guitar, or by the amplifier in use. Each of those twangs sound a little different. And what about twang on the acoustic guitar? What if a steel-string guitar is used to pluck a few twangy notes now and then so you know that greater twang exists, even if it’s mostly strummed? The brain kind of fills in greater twang awareness during the less twangy strummed sections. How should we acknowledge brain twang?
After the twang hullaballoo abated, we dive into more pressing matters, such as how to how to determine melodic pitch when someone is singing with Cookie Monster vocals; the precise amount of Classical influence audible in a Black Metal song with an operatic-style lead singer; and how to precisely indicate when an a cappella group is vocally simulating real instruments (drums, guitar) so convincingly that casual listeners would assume they were hearing real instruments.
This was the scene at the recent Music Analyst’s meet-up at Pandora HQ in January. Once a year we get together to hash out any potential outlier musical “genes” or new sounds and gestures that have recently entered common use. The focus of our conversations can get microscopic sometimes, but in truth, it’s the details in a song that have the potential to add up to more than the sum of their parts.
The seemingly tiny elements of guitar tone, lyrical inflection, amplifier choice, degree of clarity in the vocal melody, are the slight distinctions which, when taken together, paint that finely shaded picture of what the song is, what it says, who it’s for, and what it’s trying to accomplish.
A slight degree of extra twang in the lead guitar might afford a Rock song access to a Country Rock listener. Or strumming a Country tune on a twang-less nylon-string guitar might be the thing that pushes it into Folk crossover material, but only if a handful of other elements align, such as lyrical content, other instrumentation, tempo, and of course, degree of vocal twang (!). And setting the lead vocals a few notches down in the mix can aim the focus of listeners toward the instrumental action in a song, whereas notching the vocals up a bit might transforms it into an anthemic sing-along.
As always, the little choices matter in song making. They manifest across the grand scale of the song. Some miniscule shift – a two degree turn of a knob here, slightly more pressure with the pick there, a hair more intensity in the vocal delivery – can add that hint of reference or touch of irony which activates an entire musical universe of lineage and history behind the song, fortifying it with weight beyond its 3 ½ minute scope. Songwriters, informed by the entirety of their musical history, put those tiny pieces of the puzzle into place. And we, as listeners, are affected, whether consciously or not, by the end results.