Popular Music Course – So Far, So Good by Mel Rosenberg - מל רוזנברג - Ourboox.com
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Popular Music Course – So Far, So Good

After fruitful careers as a scientist and inventor I've gone back to what I love most - writing children's books Read More
  • Joined Oct 2013
  • Published Books 1543

‘Bitzer,’ said Thomas Gradgrind. ‘Your definition of a horse.’

‘Quadruped. Graminivorous. Forty teeth, namely twenty-four grinders, four eye-teeth, and twelve incisive. Sheds coat in the spring; in marshy countries, sheds hoofs, too. Hoofs hard, but requiring to be shod with iron. Age known by marks in mouth.’ Thus (and much more) Bitzer.

‘Now girl number twenty,’ said Mr Gradgrind. ‘You know what a horse is.’

From Hard Times, by Charles Dickens.

Popular Music Course – So Far, So Good by Mel Rosenberg - מל רוזנברג - Ourboox.com

We started out by trying to define what a popular song is. We then talked about what makes a song memorable and loved, generations after it was first written and performed. We thought that it’s all about the quality of the voice (and also improved our own singing) and what the voice represents to us. We compared Bing (with the great voice) and Billie (with the great feel). That got us thinking about the importance of the singer, her/his persona, and that even someone with a mediocre voice but an amazing persona can have songs that last and last.


We talked about ‘covers’. Brian Hyland had a hit with his 1962 cover of the Four Tops original song, “Sealed with a Kiss” that you all seem to remember and love. But it took Gary Lewis and the Playboys (who could barely sing and play professionally) to make a hit out of HYLAND’s original rendition of “Save your heart for me”, and this wasn’t a one time thingie because Gary Lewis and the Playboys also covered Sam Ambroise’s “This Diamond Ring” and turned it into a hit (and perhaps not a bad song either – although/because it reminded you of the Beatles, the Kinks, the Shadows, and reminded me of “Sukiyaki”.


Frank Sinatra was a great singer, he recorded over 700 songs, among them only a few dozen are remembered widely today.

We talked about whether you can predict a song’s success and talked about Noah Askin’s TEDx presentation analyzing tens of thousands of songs with a proprietary algorithm. The conclusions were somewhat predictable – that hits are similar to other hits of the time, but with a little something different and special. Hey, isn’t that the same as practically ANYTHING?


And what do you need to correct that something special? And once you’ve created it, isn’t it easy as pie to analyze it, to copy it, to reproduce it, etc. Oh, and he also discussed the importance of DANCEABILITY – hey, we talked about that too (and we’ll talk more about it today). Of course danceability wouldn’t explain the immortality of ‘Eleanor Rigby’, ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ or even ‘Over the Rainbow’ (the greatest popular song of the last century, and it’s not only me saying so). So maybe it’s rhythm? Fingersnappingness and foottappingness?


We talked a lot about whether we can completely analyze a song and its popularity (or any art form for that matter). More importantly perhaps, to what extent does understanding each ‘atomic element’ of a song (or piece of art) help you enjoy it? Is enjoyment of no consequence in an academic setting? Or perhaps you need a bit of both. Have a look at the song opposite. Can you analyze a relationship rationally?


“I’m not much to look at
Nothing to see
Just glad I’m living
And lucky to be
I’ve got a man crazy for me
He’s funny that way

I can’t save a dollar
Ain’t worth a cent
He doesn’t holler
He’d live in a tent
I’ve got that man crazy for me
He’s funny that way”



We talked about what music does to the brain (not only listening, but also learning to play an instrument). We watched how hard it is to ‘sit still’ when you here a popular tune that you love.


In our second lesson we talked about how regular folks listened to music and why the 1920s made popular music widely available, not only through sheet music, player pianos and performances, but also through radio, phonograph and movies with sound.





In our third lesson we talked about one of the key people who created the popular swing music of the thirties and forties- Jerome Kern. We also discussed the AABA song structure that he pioneered/popularized. We played “Yesterdays”, one of his most popular songs for jazz musicians, and heard a fifties rendition of “I’ve Told Every Little Star”.




We also affected our brains by playing recorder to the tune “Stand by Me”, with vocal accompaniment and tap dancing (thank you Gal).


I faced a dilemma in preparing the third lesson. I love the Gershwins perhaps more than Kern. Should I have taught them instead? But Kern was more of an innovator in the particular GENRE I am teaching (whereas Gershwin was innovative in writing classical jazz pieces). Or maybe I should have concentrated on Cole Porter who wrote his own beautiful music and naughty lyrics?



Or Irving Berlin? Or Frank Loesser? Or how about Harold Arlen who wrote some of my favorites? Or maybe the intriguing story of Sholom Secunda? Of course the list goes on. Hopefully the students will do their homework, look through the various e-books and arrive at their own conclusions.


In the fourth class we looked at songs from the movies. Again, it’s a topic for a whole course. There are movies about songwriting, movies about singers, movies about writers. There are movies with great song themes and soundtracks. There are songs that “make” movies and movies that “make” songs. There are musicals made into movies and movies made into musicals.


So we took a brief look at famous movies with famous songs, and then dived into the songs from movies that 1. won (or should have won) the Academy Award, and 2. that are the most popular movie songs ever! Disney lovers are everywhere!


Meanwhile Smadar Rabinovich posted a wonderful video on Facebook trying to explain what makes Bohemian Rhapsody so immortal. I wrote, “They give many different reasons. Just like we do in class. Work hard, be similar, be different, be musical, be the person behind your song. Surprise, yet familiarity, authenticity, integrity, singing, instruments, melody, simple and complicated, etc.



But if there were JUST ONE THING that makes this song eternal, what would it be? And why is it so hard to recreate this kind of success?


When Nir offered to write an ebook for our next class, I thought, why not? So our fifth class was called “Blues through the Ages”. We talked about the characteristics of the blues.  We talked about the origins of the Blues, its basic simplicity (three chords, twelve bars). We sang the “Wet Wipe Blues”. We then followed various genres from the twenties to the seventies, looking at songs in blues format. We took the opportunity to have a look at the Big Bands and the birth of Rock and Roll.


In our sixth lesson we looked at popular music from stage musicals starting with Oklahoma (we already took a look at Show Boat) in 1943, and then spend most of the course talking about Tony award winning plays from the Golden Era of the fifties. Yes, we will take a look at one sixties play, and finish off with Andrew Lloyd Weber, if we have time.


In our seventh lesson, we will look at our summary of David Machin on the importance of pitch, melody and phrasing. What are the criteria that make a popular song live forever (or a very long time)? We will look at the importance of the notes on the scale. And then we’ll discuss the criteria we have learned so far in reference to a specific seventies tune.


We’ll then finish our previous lesson on stage musicals by looking at the early successes of Andrew Lloyd Weber. And if we have time we will compare two TV programs that changed our love for music in the fifties and sixties: American Bandstand and the Ed Sullivan Show.


Well we didn’t have time to get to TV, and maybe that’s a good thing. There are so many video clips to show (particularly from the Ed Sullivan Show) and talk about. And who knows? Maybe someone in class will make an e-book of tv song themes. In the meantime, here’s one of my favorites.




In our previous class, we got around to talking about early TV and popular music, concentrating (and comparing) two of the most seminal shows dealing with popular music, American Bandstand and the Ed Sullivan Show.


This week we will finish our look at TV and move on to our next lesson, the storytelling singers of the seventies. Was that a golden decade for the genre of musicians who told their own stories in lyrics and music, or am I just imagining things?



Dr. Alon Amit gave us a wonderful overview of other seventies genres, including soul, funk and progressive rock.


Tomorrow we’ll summarize and look back at the course. We didn’t cover everything I had originally hoped to, but on the other hand, the expedition with you was much more than I could have anticipated! Thank you!



Chet Baker: my heart stood still, but not for me, Look for the silver lining

The Jungle Book: I wanna be like you.
Brian Hyland: sealed with a kiss
Gary Lewis and the Playboys: save your heart for me, this diamond ring
sukiyaki: Ue o muite arukou

The Shadows: Apache
Al Jolson: blue skies
Billie Holiday: Can’t help loving dat man, I’ll be seeing you, Pennies from heaven, He’s funny that way
Bing Crosby: Swinging on a star
Jerome Kern: A fine romance, The way you look tonight, I’ve told every little star, Smoke gets in your eyes, Yesterdays
Cole Porter: True love, Let’s do it, Night and day, Easy to love, Every time we say goodbye
Gershwin: Rhapsody in blue, when you want ’em you can get ’em, I got rhythm, love is here to stay, They all laughed, Let’s call the whole thing off.
Harold Arlen: I’ve got the world on a string, It’s only a paper moon, Stormy weather, Over the rainbow, If I only had a brain

Irving Berlin: White christmas, Cheek to cheek, Puttin’ on the ritz, Blue skies, Let’s face the music and dance, There’s no business like show business, Anything you can do I can do better, I’ve got my love to keep me warm, Bless America, How deep is the ocean

Sholom Secunda: Bei Mir Bist Du Shein, Donna Donna
Frank Loesser: Baby it’s cold outside, Standing on the corner, Guys and dolls, Two sleepy people
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