Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Write a Song for Singapore, and Striking a Chord

The following post is a little bit technical, but then again, most of my posts are. You could skip till after the hash symbols and read my recommendation on National Day Parade Songwriting.

Probably it is my backlash for not even being in the top 10 for the OMY.sg Most Insightful Blog category. Seriously? My use of sociological, poststructuralist, feminist, queer theories aren't insightful enough? How about music theory?

Okay, I'm sorry to have snapped like that, but I would love to win those bragging rights and earn that holiday for me and wife again. But that lies second to the fact that I would want the issues I have been championing to be read by a larger audience and hope that we can slowly change and adopt these causes.

Any how, this post is about songwriting, in particular the National Day Parade.

With 5 chords, you can write a song that would become the theme song of the National Day Parade. Amazing, no?

That is Corrine May's piece for the NDP 2010 theme song, entitled "Song for Singapore".

Most of the song is the looping of 4 magical chords:
D major, A minor, C major, G major.

If broken down into its basics, it's basically:
1, 5 minor, 7, 4.
Or simply 1-5-7-4.

As for the counter-line, it does not skip as much, which allows for the song to sound melancholic, pensive, bittersweet.... WAIT A MINUTE!

That's the same chord progression as The Verve's "Bittersweet Symphony"!
That's also the same chord progression as Rialto's "London Crawling"!

Back to counter-line, it's probably:
(D, C, C, B) or (F#, E, E, D)
The counter-line goes down, and gives the song it's unique feeling.

The chords are spaced apart from one another, jumping down 5 keys, then jump up 3 keys, then down 5 keys again, which resembles most (1 step forward 2 steps back) policies in Singapore, no?

It is inevitable we would compare Corrine May's song with last year's Electrico song "What Do You See".

"What Do You See" comprises 6 chords, one more than Corrinne May's song.
For the verse, we have
E B G#m A
E B C#m A
F#m B

The chorus, we have
E G#m A B
C#m B A G#m F#m A B

For the unimaginative bridge, we have
B C#m B C#m
B C#m A B

The two NDP theme songs (of 2009 and 2010) contrast greatly in songwriting styles. Electrico are rock musicians, too big for indie, too indie for everyone else, unfortunately. For me, simply overrated. But they make the music do the talking, rather than the vocals.

Their chords are the normal 1-3-5 chords, for example, they would play B chord (comprising B, D# and F#) with the 6th note (G#), just to make it tainted, dirty and edgier. Their A chord isn't just A chord (A, C# and E), but it is A major 7 (A, C#, E and G#). Musicians like to be experimental, so they would love to play with the configurations of individual chords.

But what makes a song a song is its bone structure, that is the counter-line. Musicians always have to dumb it down for the masses. Electrico uses that U2 "With Or Without You" chord sequence to open the song. Tried and tested, but a very reliable chord sequence that can be used for both verse and chorus.

For the chorus, they begin with that Foundation's "Build Me Up Buttercup" chorus 1-3-4-5 chord sequence, or if you are familiar, the verse of "One People, One Nation, One Singapore". The beauty with 1-3(minor)-4-5 chord sequences is that they are bound by a pretty tight counter-line. In the case of "What Do You See", the chords go "E-G#m-A-B", but the counter-line goes "E-D#-C#-B". But the end part of the chorus, while uncharacteristic of the song, is good pop songwriting with that snakey counter-line that reminds us of every cheesy Chinese song that rips off Johann's Pachelbel's Canon in D (arguably one great classical counter-line that took root in the pop-rock world, and also firmly entrenched in Chinese musical pop culture).

The chorus goes "E-G#m-A-B-C#m-B-A-G#m-F#m-B" which has a counter-line that is winding down, like "E-D#-C#-B-C#-B-A-G#-F#" before it hits B chord. Very tight counter-line that makes a song listenable to most ears in today's society. Of course, Lady Gaga is slowly reintroducing to the world, what metal and hard rock musicians have already been doing for the past 30-40 years, that is the Devil's Triad, your wonderful augmented 4 or diminish 5.

"What Do You See" has similar chord structures to "One People, One Nation, One Singapore", especially when its post-chorus transition to the 6th minor, resembles the "...One Singapore"'s pre-chorus transition to the 6th minor in "Strangers when we first began...". Nevertheless, it is good use of the 6th minor.

Any way, what the NDP theme songs of Electrico and Corrinne May share in common is their lacklustre and uninspiring bridge. The ultimate pop song will always have verse, pre-chorus (build-up to chorus), chorus (climax time!), post-chorus (to wind down from the excitement of the chorus), and of course that magical bridge. The bridge breaks the normal 1-2-1-2 structure of the song with different chords and chord sequences, but ultimately leads to 2 outcomes, the reintroduction of the chorus, or transposition (when you shift the keys of the song higher, just like Michael Jackson's "Heal The World").

Electrico and Corrinne May just respectively muck around with 4 and 3 chords for their bridges. Perhaps, in the process of writing their songs and cringing at the lyrics, their songwriting intelligence told them, "Hey Uncle, better put in a chorus. Otherwise people buay song ah!"

Electrico plays around with the 4-5-6, because I guess they like to be on top. Corrinne May likes to get down and under with her 6b-7b-1. Despite the uncreative bridges, both musicians still stick to the plot.

"What Do You See" strictly plays with the 1-2-3-4-5-6 chords. Decent musicians would know that if they want a song to be a 10-course Chinese dinner, they better don't add mutton curry with papadum to the set. The flavour of the song is best preserved with the use of the chords that are already featured in the verse and chorus.

As for Corrinne May, she uses B flat (Bb), C and D chords in her bridge. B flat major is the distant cousin to the D-A(minor)-C-G chord sequence. It builds up to a climax, because B flat goes to C and then to D, climbing higher and higher, a departure from the normal ending with a 5th chord, which would transit back to the first chord.

The B flat chord is a good masquerade for the D chord, because it contains the root note of D chord, which is D, Einstein! Most cheerful songs will use this (6 flat) chord to make people think we are returning to equilibrium (i.e. the first chord), but we are making a slight detour. 4th chord to 5th chord is probably too weak a transition, so let us use 6flat chord to 7flat chord to make a bigger point.

The ending of songs like "Stand Up For Singapore" and surprisingly, JJ Lin's ultimate songwriting monstrosity "You Are The One Singapore" have the 6b-7b-1 build-up too, but they use the chord sequence to end the song with a bang.

Speaking of the devil, "Stand Up For Singapore", a well-written song, uses a bit of both the chord structures of Electrico's and Corrinne May's songs. It's got that 3rd chord minor, and they also got that 7th chord.

Corrinne May's song is a breath of songwriting fresh air. Because we have grown so accustomed to the Chinese-influenced/dominated songwriting styles, that play with chords along the 1-2-3-4-5-6 lines.

Look at the song "Home" sang by Kit Chan. It tangos in the safe and sturdy structure comprising chords A, B minor, C# minor, D, E and F#m (1-2-3-4-5-6!!!). The beauty of these six chords is the variety with which you can create chord sequences.

The Chinese wet dream of pop songwriting would involve the toying with the 2-3-4-5-6 structure and end it with the 5th chord for a transition into the chorus.

For those of you who feel Electrico's "What Do You See" sounds a little bit (stereotypically) Sino, a morally neutral word for Cheena, you are probably right. It is because the 2-3-4-5-6 structure has been invaded and over-used by East Asian pop, which also happens to have a strong influence here in Singapore, before we were doubly desecrated by hip-hop music. I can't given East Asia too much credit, because a little band called Michael Learns To Rock has also mastered the art of cheesy songwriting by maximising the utility of counter-lines and truckloads of chords, apart from those AWWW/URGHHH lyrics.

With these chords you can have any kind of sequence you like to have a transition:
You get the picture, right?

If you are really into Chinese music, you can probably go:
YEEEAAAAAHHHH, keep toying with those suckers.

Corrinne May's song offers a sound that is rather British or European, just by its chord sequence. Of course, with her choral singing style, she has carved out a unique identity amidst the ocean of guitar-playing female "singer-songwriters".

You can slap The Verve's Bittersweet Symphony's string loop to her song and it would fit in nicely like JJ Lin's cheer in a Singapore Sports Council executive's office.

Speaking of JJ Lin, an award-winning songwriter, his cheer is actually a deceptively well-written song, as much as possibly everyone would want to hate it. Perhaps it is doused in too much Chinese pop cultural cheese and with all that unnecessary hand gestures.

JJ Lin uses the old formula of pop songwriting, stripped down to its basics: The 1-4-5 sequence. Oh YEAH OH YEAH OH YEAHHHHHHHHH MOTHERF-----ZZZZZZZ!!!!

When he gets to the "You are the one, Singapore, take off my pants and see my balls YEAH" part, the songwriter adds a good touch to the piece. The song is in B flat major by the way. How ironic, be flat.

Eb, D minor, C minor, Eb minor.
Yes, there are 3 minor chords in the "You are the one Singapore..." part. By tradition, minor chords are meant to create a sad feeling to songs, but JJ Lin uses a consecutive order of 3 minor chords, but of course, after E flat minor, he caps the sequence with a quick F chord to transition back into B flat.

JJ Lin is smart too and uses the 6/8 or 12/8 time signature, depends on how fast you would want to get through the cheer. Marilyn Manson stumbled on that time signature with The Matrix soundtrack hit "Rock is Dead", and reused it for the song "Disposable Teens", simply because his fans love the beat. We do get tired of 4/4, 8/4 and 16/4 beats any way. That is why the rare appearances of 12/4 or 6/8 beat songs like Righteous Brothers' "Unchained Melody" and Seal's "Kiss From a Rose" are such gems. Rather, they stick out like uncut carrots from the soup of 4/4 music.

Songwriters know how to not only reach out to their audiences, but also please executives. I would speculate that Corrinne May's song gets the nod simply because it is definitely not as (stereotypically) "cheena" as its predecessors.

I have also tried to submit a song for the NDP, but got rejected. I had gone for the "cheena" chords of G, B minor, C, D and Em, and only used 5 chords in all for the song. The structure is basically 1-3-4-5-6, just one chord shy of Electrico's "What Do You See". In all honesty, I wasn't convinced it would make it any where, and the chord sequence was cheesy in the Chinese pop-rock sense. But it was worth a shot, or in this case, worth a shoot-down. Ouch.


Last year, I wrote something about writing lyrics for your National Day Parade theme song. You may read it here: http://thinkingbetterthinkingmeta.blogspot.com/2009/08/how-to-write-national-day-song.html.

This year, apart from lyrics, perhaps we can figure out how to write the chords of the song itself.

Say we are going to write a song in C major key signature.

F and G chords will be your best friends. F minor could come in handy.
Let us not forget the D, D minor, E, E minor, and A minor chords too. They would be useful too.

If you're going for a Corrinne May sound, you might want to have G minor, B flat major and A flat major in the mix too.

The next thing you need to do is to put the chords together. But what makes them stick together is the counter-line. Always remember that. Some chords comprise notes that are only 1 to 2 keys apart. Some chords share similar notes. The closer or more similar the notes of the 2 sequential chords are, the tighter the counter-line.

Look at the song "We Are Singapore".
There was a (C major) time when (D minor) people said that (E minor) Singapore won't (F major) make it but we (C major) did.

It goes from 1-2-3-4 and back to the first chord again.

We build a (F major) nation, strong and free (C major on E, or E minor), (F major) reaching out together for (D minor) peace and harmony (G major).

That's your toying with the chords. Lots of pop musicians love that sequence. 4-3-4-2-5. I call it teasing. The song will always tease its listeners who who expect the transitional chord, which is the 5th chord, or in this case, G major. But the musician is not cheap, so he/she will beat about the bush with F majors, E minors and D minors before finally moving to G major. It's called foreplay. Some like it longer.

You know what's a good chord sequence too? The teasing of the 6th minor, or A minor chord.

In Clement Chow's excellent piece "Count On Me Singapore", he does a good tease. The song is in F major, but I shall transpose it to C major to explain.

We're going to (F major) build a better life (G major) for you and (E minor) me (A minor).
We can (D minor) achieve. (G major) We can achieve.

Clement is brilliant with his use of counter-lines. It is back-to-basics songwriting. He also has clever use of C major on E, C major on G, F major on G and so on. This is a must-have for National Day Parade theme songs. Simple chords, but well-crafted chord sequences.

However, with contemporary musical tastes, songs these days should have at least a verse, a pre-chorus, a chorus and a bridge.

Your verse chord sequence should be the least exciting part of the song, but always either building to the chorus or ending on its own. For example, beginning with C major, and either ending with G or back to C again. You are not writing a Rock n' Roll song by ending with F7 or an alternative rock song by ending in F minor. But these chords, along with D minor are sometimes useful.

Here are some possible verse chord sequences:
C, Dm, Em, F
C, G, F, G
C, F on C, G on C, F on C
C, Am, F, G (Ooo my love, my darling, I hunger for your touch)
C, Am, F, Em or C on E, F or Dm, G
C, F, C
C, Dm, F, G (Stand up for Singapore, do the best you can....)
And if you're Corrine May, you can go C, Gm, Bb, F and loop it for the whole song.

For the pre-chorus, you would usually begin with an F, D minor or A minor, but all roads lead to G major.

For the chorus, well, you can begin with C, A minor or F.
As in Electrico's "What Do You See", you would have C, Em, F, G.
Or "Home", you would have C, Em, F, Em, F, Em, Dm, G (that is a long tease by the way)
How about "Stand Up For Singapore"? C, G, G, F
One People, One Nation, One Singapore. C, Em, F, G

Well, those are just simple suggestions. For all we know, songwriting might change, or rather, attitudes towards accepting different songwriting styles might change.

Chords and chord sequences may change, but some things still remain. Those awful cheesy rhymes!


Interestingly (again), Corrinne May's song doesn't employ the traditional pop song rhyming sequence. Perhaps this is a sign of things to come, but then again, the National Day Parade organising committee always changes every couple of years, so we might have different tastes.

One thing I can't understand is why would she be spreading the message of procreation? "With every generation there's more to be grateful for"

And why is she reinforcing paternalism and the warning against complacency? "Sometimes the best things are taken for granted"

Only Corrinne will know. But based on the chord sequence alone, it is a well-written song. Brief yet brave. You don't really have to use a long string of many chords to make a song, when looping 4 chords is all you need. Just ask Semisonic with their "Closing Time" song.

I might have missed out on other critical factors, such as melody (vocals). When you have that few chords in a song, you compensate with extraordinary vocal melody. If you have a limited singing range, sometimes you would compensate with greater instrumentation and more chords and complex chord sequences. Well, that's normally the case.

Songwriting is (un)fortunately very subjective, because audiences have different musical tastes and preferences. As for pop songwriting, for NDP theme songs in particular, the songs' simplicity belies their complex arrangements. They can do without the token ethnic instrumentation that pepper the opening, interlude and ending of the songs though, but they would still sound good if not better.

Maybe I'll try writing and submitting a National Day Parade theme song again for next year.

Any way, what is your favourite National Day Parade song?
(and if you managed to finish reading the entire 3,000-word post, say "outstanding, I made it!")


黃惠雯 said...

Seeing is believing.百聞不如一見............................................................

Sam Ho said...

wonder how i can remove this blogger spam

Estee said...


Soul Distraction said...

Was googling the Corrine May's song and glad I stumble across this blog. Excellent article.

Rocking faithfully, Elsa Faith

Elizabeth said...

outstanding, I made it. :)

Thanks for the technical review. Gives me insight into songwriting and suggestions on how to play "Song for Singapore".

Btw, I'm also a grad student in NUS in SoC (IS) and found your post while searching for Corrinne May's NDP song.

jonathan said...

Hi, insightful post. Just a thought though. I'm lead to believe that the NDP song is in the key of G which would then make the chord progression a V, II, IV, I or 5, 2, 4, 1.

Also, what do you mean by "counter-line"?

Sam Ho said...


in any key, "I" refers to the main/root chord.

so in the "I" chord in a G-major key signature song is G, while the "V" chord would be D.

the blogpost talks about the counter-line already. i don't think i can explain it in any other way already. check it out on wikipedia or google it to find out more.