And The Livin' Is Easy

 
 

The blogs are already speculating about this year’s official song of summer. This annual race to the top is based on chart performance and general ubiquity. There are rarely any major upsets and most “winners” have actually been out and getting airplay since well before summer started. By the time the song is finally crowned we’ll all be sick of it anyway.

Recently, I’ve been thinking about another, more personal kind of summer song. I’m interested in the songs of summer we choose for ourselves, because of the memories and feelings they evoke. To explain what I mean, here is an excerpt from a blog post I wrote one year ago:

Some songs of summer are explicit in their thematic summer-ness, with talk of fiestas, beaches, and cruising with the windows down. Others just evoke a certain feeling: that stuporous heat that rises off the pavement and wraps itself around you, or better yet the evening breeze best enjoyed while stoop-sitting on a summer evening. Then there are the summer bangers, songs that could talk about or sound like anything at all, but they just happen to be the songs you blast in the car for all of June, July, and August. These too will forever be summer staples.

These are the songs you put on a playlist for your summer kickback. They mix together in a satisfying blend of radio hits, hazy underground cuts, and throwback favorites. For me that means any early Kanye, Chance the Rapper's "Windows," and Vic Mensa's "Orange Soda."  It means "The Recipe," Kendrick Lamar's love song to Los Angeles. When I'm feeling homesick for Brooklyn summers I need Joey Bada$$ and forebears—like J Dilla and MF DOOM—whom Joey's Pro Era crew lovingly emulate. Recently, I'm also digging the dreamy music by Phony Ppl, another Brooklyn group that is definitely on the come up.

I wrote this post to introduce a playlist of summer songs for my college radio show. (You can listen to it here.) I think I made a good start brainstorming what gives music that “song of summer” status. But of course I was thinking exclusively about hip-hop. Do the rules change for other genres? Are there certain rhythms or timbres we associate with summer? I think so. All it takes is a little spring reverb to get that summery surf rock sound. Or, like Magic!, you can always rip off reggae—VOILA summer smash hit!

Ultimately I think it all comes down to memory and cultural association. Does your family always play Bruce Springsteen at the annual clam bake? The Boss will naturally be a summer staple for you. The summer I graduated from high school, I went to see The Morning Benders play Central Park SummerStage. Their song “Excuses” became the perfect soundtrack for my hazy responsibility-free interlude before college.

As always, I want to know what you think. I’m wondering about your personal songs of summers past. As always you can tweet us about it. Or better yet, record a voice-memo on your phone and tell us about a song that once defined your summer. We might stick it in a Pitch uncore!

If you’re in the market for a 2015 summer jam, I recommend this and this.

 

Olle the Death Metal Viking

 
 

We’re heading deep into production mode at the moment. So for the next while, this newsletter will probably be a bit shorter, and it will mostly be about the stories we’re working on. It used to be the norm that journalists kept their work under wraps until it was published. But there’s a swelling group of folks who think transparency in journalism is important, and they're starting to share their work as they go. I’m one of those folks. I like transparency, because it lets you build a closer, more collaborative relationship with your audience. It’s fun, and it’s also really helpful because you guys have great ideas.

So here’s what I’m working on: I’m researching a story about vocal health, and how much singers do or don’t worry about it. Initially, I became interested in the story after I had been out of classical voice lessons for over a year. I still sing of course—in the shower, in the car, in the kitchen while I do the dishes—but probably not with the best technique. Recently I’ve been wondering if maybe I’ve hurt myself screaming along to Potty Mouth too many times. Something about my voice just doesn’t feel right.  

But I don’t want this story to be about me. Instead, I’m thinking about the athleticism of Opera singers, the pop star’s grueling tour schedule, and heavy metal vocal technique. How do these different singers maintain their voices? How sustainable is their particular singing style?

Do you know a singer who’s lost their voice or been forced to make changes to their style for the sake of vocal health? I’m talking about friends and acquaintances but also celebrities and musicians you love from afar. John Mayer, for example, had to go on vocal rest for months, although I maintain that had far more to do with karma than singing technique.  

At any rate, I’d love to hear from you. Tweet @hearpitch, find us on Facebook, or just email me back, and let me know which singers you think I should be talking to.

Oh, and watch this video of Olle the death metal viking doing vocal warm ups. The first time I watched it, I laughed so hard I cried.

 

Kids Make The Darndest Things

 
 

Last week, we reissued our most adorable episode to date, featuring Seattle second graders dancing to “YMCA” and composing their own music. If you haven’t listened to “Paintings to Sing,” you can do so right here. If you have, read on!

The first time I heard this episode, I was taken by the idea that all children could learn music composition, whether or not they have a special aptitude for, say, the violin. This one Seattle classroom is not the only place where people are teaching music in this way. Morton Subotnick is a composer and an early pioneer of electronic music. He also develops technology for early music education. He thinks kids should be able to create music without knowing standard music notation. He told The Guardian, “You wouldn't prevent children from expressing themselves in paint before they've learned to draw, so why shouldn't they be able to compose without reading music?" Subotnick invented an iPad app called Pitch Painter, which is exactly what it sounds like: more paintings to sing. This time the iPad “sings” your composition back to you. You can watch the app in action below:

 
 

 
Subotnick’s approach to education strikes me as a little revolutionary. Music ed can feel very rigid and full of obstacles to overcome before you get to the fun stuff. Before you can play music, you must learn to read it. Before you can compose music, you must learn music theory. If you’re in college, you can’t study other genres before you master the principles of western classical music in Theory 101. That barrier alone weeds out plenty of aspiring music majors, myself included. To me, music theory is like math, my brain just doesn’t want to think that way. That’s also why I quit piano as a kid. I never stopped singing though, because singing is innate. Subotnick is saying that composition can be innate as well.

To be clear, I’m not knocking music theory, nor do I suggest that kids shouldn’t learn to read music. But Subotnick is right; reading music is not a prerequisite for composing music, even after you graduate from finger painting. I can’t think of a better example of innate composition than the songwriting process of Ester Dean. She is the woman behind some of this decades most infectious hooks, writing for Rihanna, Kelly Clarkson, Katy Perry, and so on. In a 2012 profile for The New Yorker, John Seabrook explains that Dean doesn’t sit down at a keyboard to plunk out a melody and she never puts pen to staff paper:

“Dean’s preferred method of working is to delay listening to a producer’s track until she is in the studio, in front of the mike. ‘I go into the booth and I scream and I sing and I yell, and sometimes it’s words but most time it’s not. And I just see when I get this little chill, here’—she touched her upper arm, just below the shoulder—’and then I’m, like, ‘Yeah, that’s the hook.’’ If she doesn’t feel that chill after five minutes, she moves on to the next track, and tries again.”


Dean isn’t the only songwriter to work this way. Sia Furler is another prolific hit-maker who can’t read music. She “writes” by scatting over a track until words and melodies coalesce into song.

In “Paintings to Sing,” the teacher cites academic development as her motivation for integrating music into the curriculum. I certainly think that’s important, but the most thrilling thing about Alex’s episode is that young children are being told they don’t need to wait to create their own music. They can do it now. Those second graders might not all grow up to compose but I hope they might be like the Tavi Gevinsons and Kanye Wests of the world—people who never wait for permission or “proper” training to start creating things. They always just create.

Make art! As they say.