Friday, July 30, 2010

Song Bio - Insomniac Lullaby

This song was written for Spintunes 1 Round 2, "John Hancock Time" where the challenge was to write a song where the verse and chorus had different time signatures. Aside from that (and a minimum length) the song could be about anything. The song I wrote was Insomniac Lullaby.

<a href="">Insomniac Lullaby by Caleb Hines</a>


Approaching these types of challenges, where the topic is wide open, is always difficult for me, because I don't know what to do. I depend on the challenge to give me a concept to expand on, but these types have very little to expand. One obvious route is to play off the idea of "time", but that route can easily lead to very meta songs. Now I don't mind the occasional self-referential humor, but I've found it to be somewhat pervasive in previous songwriting contests that I've participated in, so I try to handle it with caution, if at all. I wanted something different.

From the previous Spintunes round, I was thinking a lot about how different musical techniques have different effects on listeners (incidentally, this was studied in Baroque music as well, and tied in with ancient Greek theories of rhetoric and oration...). So, my take on this song was to ask "why is the narrator changing time signatures?" Or more specifically, "what effect will changing time signatures have on the listener? And why does the song need to create that effect?" The obvious answer is to create a contrast of some sort. Unfortunately, that didn't narrow the topic a whole lot, but it was a start.

Also, I knew I was capable of meeting the challenge, because I had previously written a song that did exactly this for Song Fu. The song "Mr. Nehemiah Bloodwormer" ended up changing from 6/8 in the verses to 9/8 in the chorus, due to the sheer number of syllables in that name. In that song, I thought the transition was pretty smooth, so in this song, I deliberately wanted to see if I could emphasize the change a bit more. That may have harmed the song just a bit, because the judges seemed to have higher praise for songs that made a more smooth transition (and there were many that did this excellently). That makes sense, but wasn't what I was going for; fortunately, I think most people realized that.

I played around with a couple past song ideas, but none of them really fit the kind of contrast I wanted to create, so instead, I started toying around with specific time signatures. I kept coming back to the idea of doing a slow sort of peaceful waltz in 3/4. Then I remembered that in a previous Song Fu, someone had suggested a lullaby as a possible topic for a future challenge. That seemed like a good idea, and it would fit the slow 3/4 timing.

I think it was when I realized that the obvious contrast to a lullaby is insomnia, that I was sold on the concept. Not being able to sleep at night is a problem I have often had, and judging by comments from other participants, I was not alone. It seemed like a perfect topic that everyone would be able to relate to. At this point my song was going to have the verses unfolding a 3/4 lullaby, interrupted each time with some frantic chorus about not being able to sleep. But as I started to sketch out some lyrics, I began to realize I had far more to say about the staying-awake part than the going-to-sleep part, so I switched the verse and chorus around.


Another thing that happened when I first started to think of lyrics was that I came up with the phrases "tossing and turning throughout the night" and "lying in bed and trying to fall asleep". which both had a meter that would fit into a five-based signature. Now, I originally didn't want to use an exotic time signature, because I was sure that a lot of other people would be doing it (and I was right). But neither was I going to limit myself -- if an exotic signature genuinely produced an effect that I wanted. In this case, using 5/8 instead of 6/8 on the verse gave a frantic unresolved feeling that you get at night, where one thought ploughs over another before the previous one finishes.

In terms of the story, what little there is, I decided to cover as much time as I could in the verses, so I pushed the start of the song back to the moments before getting in bed, and had the song end at the beginning of the next day, without having fallen asleep. (On rare occasions, this is the only way to reset my biological clock.) Other than that, the words weren't too difficult to come up with. In fact, it seemed surprisingly easy to fit words into the "3+2" rhythm pattern.

Meanwhile, the chorus is basically just a short list of standard advice of how to fall asleep -- relax, close your eyes, etc. It represents those moments of clarity and reason, where you try to convince yourself that this time you really will asleep, by sheer will power. Of course, ultimately, it doesn't work. Incidentally, one of my sisters commented that she had no idea two lines could last for so long.


I knew I wanted a guitar in the chorus to do a simple oom-pah-pah, like a waltz. That meant I had to play the guitar, which is something I don't do well. Fortunately the tempo was slow. I know a few chords that I can fake well enough, mostly in the key of G, so that pretty much determined what I was going to do. The chord progression itself is pretty basic, essentially just alternating between IV V I and ii V I, with an additional chord at the end of each line to lead into the next:

C D7 G Em
Am D7 G G7
C D7 G E
Am D7 G

For the verses, I wanted something frantic and distressed so I decided to change to a minor key. This meant that both of my Spintunes entries used a minor key verse and a major key chorus. Also, I decided to use a descending chromatic scale in Insomniac Lullaby, to signify the pain of being tired and unable to fall asleep. The bass progression G F# F E fits under the fingers well enough on the low E string, and G and D are open string. This meant I was going to be playing the verse in G minor (which is the absolute minor of the chorus, instead of relative minor) making for a rougher modulation than in Clockwork Man. Coincidentally, Clockwork Man also had a descending scale in the verse progression, albeit a diatonic one (Am G F E). Lest I become a one-trick pony, I made a note to myself to not use the minor key in the third challenge, or a descending bass scale -- and to come up with something upbeat and happy instead (that didn't work out so well, by the way).

Instrumentally, the verses sounded a bit sparse with just guitar, so I brought in a piano as well, and swapped around which one was playing chords and which one was playing at arpeggios in different verses. The piano arpeggios are 16th notes instead of 8ths, because I'm better at playing piano than guitar. I also brought in some drums (relatively rare for me) to represent the pounding in your head when you can't sleep. And of course, I recorded a bass part as well. This was my early mix, which I could have submitted, but as usual, I wanted to add more.

First of all, I had planned from the beginning to add at least one recorder to the chorus. Recorder is what I do best, and while I try not to overuse it, a lullaby practically begs for it. In the end, I decided to go all out, and use a full 4-part (SATB) recorder quartet, something I hadn't done in any previous challenge.

Finally, for the verse, I decided to add some violin fills to add some interest and restlessness. This was my first attempt at recording a violin part, and it turned out to be harder than expected. The violin is pretty new to me, and I'm even worse on it than I am at guitar. Also, I was using an old bow that didn't properly tighten all the way (which I've since replaced) and which I was holding incorrectly. Fortunately, I was able to stick mostly to open strings. In the second verse, I quad-tracked it (which made it sound a bit more tolerable) in order to go along with the generally louder/stronger feel of the multi-tracked vocals, drums, and 16th-note arpeggios in the piano. I managed to make a little nod towards Beethoven in this verse too -- the dotted-note rhythm in the violin imitates the theme in Moonlight Sonata.

Several people commented that they didn't like the ending. I deliberately wrote the verse to end on the dominant chord in order to smooth the transition from minor to major keys. And because of the lyrics in the third verse, it doesn't really make sense to repeat the chorus. By this time, its morning, and the character couldn't go to sleep even if he were able to. So my only other choice was to record some sort of final ending at the last moment, even just a final tonic chord, or leave it as it was. I thought ending on the dominant was a good way to picture the lack of resolution as the character begins his day without sleep, so I just ended it.

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