Saturday, May 30, 2015

"Family", "Marriage" and Heterocentrism

As always, I get quite irritated at the use of "family" and "marriage" rhetoric to discriminate against people who do not identify as cisgendered or heterosexual.

There are 2 commonly used statements that deserve attention and scrutiny.

"Gay marriage and the gay agenda seeks to redefine marriage."

"We won't be able to have children if everyone turned gay."

First, it is same-sex marriage, not gay marriage. You could say your marriage is gay/happy.

As for the gay agenda, just do a historical study of the term. It is a term created and used by the conservative segments of Christians in America. Their purpose is to seek to judge, dehumanise, denaturalise, trivialise, pathologise and demonise fellow human beings who identify as gay.

Judge = wrong, sinful, immoral.

Dehumanise = don't deserve equal rights.

Denaturalise = a wrong and immoral behaviour, behaviour can be changed. "Alternative", "Lifestyle", "Against nature"

Trivialise or demean = jokes about sexuality, sissy, "be a man/lady".

Pathologise = it's a condition, sickness, it can be cured.

Demonise = (slippery slope arguments) will cause moral degradation and the whole population to be wiped out.

If you want to rely on something that is so emotionally stirring and unquestionable as religious faith, just to justify why you should do any of the above to someone who you perceive as different from you, just because such acts are based on "values" that resonate with your community, do you think it is right and responsible?

Historically, the term "gay agenda" was coined in desperation and frustration that some conservative Christian segments, with their siege and bunker mentality, in reaction to civil rights movements and greater awareness on gender and sexuality issues. It - very opportunistically - leverages religious piety/fervour to affirm homophobic prejudices, and what better way to validate it than with unquestionable faith and socio-religious affiliation.

In another trajectory, on the idea that there is a "natural" and thus divinely mandated order of things, we get rhetoric on "alternative" and "lifestyle", since we would very conveniently choose to believe that being in the majority and having the privilege of centuries of socialisation, ritualisation and institutionlisation, and common heterocentric experiences, that well, heterosexuality is natural, thus normal, and endorsed (rather reinforced) by socio-religious institutions.

In Singapore, you see alliances being forged across secular and religious communities, doing their very best to manipulate, leverage and normalise rhetoric of the family and marriage. Imagine trying to pass off the political ideology and religious dogma of one community as something that is universal. Imperialism?

Marriage is not the issue, but sex. But conservative circles don't like to talk about sex. They are sex-negative and, ironically, are observed to be frequently infatuated with their imaginings of homosexual sex.

Religion has to make sense of sex, and religious communities therefore have to institutionalise it in order to subsume it under the cosmos of the mythology that binds the community emotionally, so they won't question it. The conceptual duality of sacred-profane can only persist with enforcement. You enforce it with laws, social norms/normatisation and violence. When these processes occur over generations, people develop less a capacity to question/challenge, while at the same time - in this case - succumb to the naturalisation of heterocentrism.

Some religious communities are far too concerned about survival of dogma in the context of mortality. Procreation fits the puzzle. And the act of procreation is ascribed a certain set of meanings that make it the gold standard of sex.

This is why you have hate-mongering nuts flapping their gums on the importance of procreative sex, in the process trying to demonise non-procreative sex. And same-sex couples become a convenient target. What better way to enforce the idea of procreative heterosexual marriages than to create environments in which people feel bad/guilty they don't fit in or feel "incomplete" - e.g. premarital sex, cohabitation, single parent, infertility, etc.

Gay people and gay marriages do not threaten straight marriages. Straight people threaten straight marriages.

In religious mythology, there is the common theme of inherent human weakness and the susceptibility of succumbing to temptation. And we rationalise human beings to be simply imperfect, compared to another higher level of being(s) that would fit or transcend our humanly idea of what constitutes "perfection" - seems like something one can aspire towards.

That discourse takes on a heterosexist/homophobic tilt when LGBT people and the topic of same-sex marriages are publicly positioned as weaknesses to which our imperfect selves have succumbed. So put on your iron-spiked chastity belts, eat your Kellogg's and think pure thoughts.

It is ridiculous to charge that if everyone turned gay, our human race will die. This belief is a combination of the uncritical assumption that people can turn gay and are destined to get married and procreate. This is compounded by the lack of understand of sexual orientation and attraction.

Religion, if it provides the comfort in appreciating the workings of the world and people, of life and death, has its place in society. But what irks me is that there are some folks who use it to influence communities to either reinforce existing or create new biases, to varying extents of oppression and violence.

Any way, no, there will be no gay apocalypse in which everyone turned gay and we won't be able to procreate. There will be lots of heterosexual people who remain comfortable with their different-sex attraction, their different-sex lifestyles and their different-sex marriages, and these folks will see no necessity in putting down others just to justify and validate their belief systems and lifestyles.

To deal with our mortality, we respectively attempt to storify our existence, rationalising them into phases/milestones, e.g.:

  • Born, die
  • Born, suffer, reborn, suffer again
  • Born, reborn, transcend
  • Born, marry, die
  • Born, marry, children, grandchildren, die
  • Born, hardship, success, , die
  • Born, get love, give love, , die
In the process of rationalising our mortality, we colour them based on prevailing discourses that shape our worldview and ideas that resonate with us at various points in our lives. When some start believing that their story is universally applicable to all, and feel the need that others should share the same beliefs, we get defensive people who don't appreciate a diversity and plurality of belief systems, and will resort to oppression and violence to ensure alignment.

Who made it compulsory that "family" and "marriage" undergo a heterocentric audit? Why is compulsory?

In championing straight procreative families and marriage, is it really necessary to put down homosexuality and same-sex marriages? The same logic applies to validating one's masculinity through the trivialisation of femininity, is that really necessary and what are the achievable sustainable results?

Are people not sold on the intrinsic value of straight procreative families and marriage, that they require external and unrelated demonised same-sex examples?

What is more damaging to Singapore then? Gay people? Or self-proclaimed straight defenders of the straight family and marriage who doggedly believe homosexuality is inherently wrong and can be "solved", who opportunistically leverage (the fault-lines of) culture and religion to validate their positions and publicly justify their bias against fellow Singaporeans who identify as a homosexual? Who is being divisive here?

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Tweaking mindsets before tweaking "family" policies

In his maiden major speech as Minister for Social and Family Development (MSF), Tan Chuan-Jin talked about the declining trend of nuclear families in Singapore, and how policies can be more inclusive to non-nuclear family structures.

It would appear the government is ready to reevaluate the paradigm with which it approaches its policies.

This is also significant for people who advocate equality regardless of gender identity and sexual orientation. But I believe, to appease (or rather, not provoke) some segments of society that claim to be representative of the silent conservative majority, the policies will continue to communicated in a way that is sufficiently heterocentric enough for a homophobic proponent of the "one man/father, one woman/mother" rhetoric.

It's a bit early to say, but I think this may signal an inclusive set of policies that may be a lot more inclusive that it can seem. (and in case your vendor's robots are crawling this article, MSF, you can label it as a "positive" article when you report to your bosses, ya?)

This is also a good time for MSF to intensify engagement with academics and researchers in the social sciences, and hopefully, the mindset with which MSF defines and approaches "family" will be more inclusive and (family)-structure blind.

At the same time, Singaporeans need to have a change in mindset that non-nuclear families are not "alternative" families. If our state were to do any nanny-ing for the good of Singapore, it should educate and sensitive its citizens to have a more holistic understanding of "family".

I think we've just been far too occupied with the form of the family (who's in it), rather than its function (what it provides - care, support).

And we should adapt our policies to bring the best out of function of the family, rather than myopically focus on its form. Since how a family functions does not have a direct, tangible and immediate impact on our much valued productivity and GDP, it'll be good to see how these policies can bridge those gaps.

I'm sure when it comes to being that proverbial building block of society/nation, "how well a family functions" would be a lot more relevant than the prescriptive "what a family should comprise".

The times they are a Chuan-Jin'?

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

A look at Dick Lee's Our Singapore

Our Singapore. And we have yet another National Day celebration theme song recently released. It's written by Dick Lee, known for writing that song, Home.

Singaporeans are a hard bunch to please, looking at the spectrum of comments aimed at the song.

To be honest, I used to hate Home, because having been acclimatised to guitar-driven Brit rock for the last 15-17 years, I thought the song was way too "Sino", which was probably why a majority of Singaporeans liked it. Just a matter of taste.

I held that impression till 3 months ago, when I was doodling Home on the Electone and piano. I played it in C major because that was the most accessible key signature for me on the keyboard. It's a forgiving one too, because in playing most oldies and pop-rock numbers, you wouldn't have any business playing the black keys (C#, D#, F#, G#, A#) unless you really need to. It was also a good way to make out the chords of a song I happen to hear, before transposing it to its intended key.

Home is well-written and I actually enjoyed playing it on the piano.

Kit Chan's recorded version is in A. Her live version is in G, I think. Dick Lee sings it in F, and I figured that's his range. As if moving from G to F would allow for a "grander and more inspiring arrangement" (i.e. our National Anthem... eh hem). Any way, to my knowledge, key signatures are meant to suit the singer.

Dick Lee's use of F/A (F major on A, not "fuck all") is, in my opinion, the masterstroke of Home. It opens the pre-chorus ("I will always recall the city..."). It makes the transition to Bb a lot smoother than say the old school F major on F. He could have used Am, but he chose a happy hopeful sounding chord in F/A. If I've the opportunity, I'll ask him why.

That F/A in prechorus of Home is as significant as the C/Bb chord in the chorus (2nd chord) of Count on Me Singapore, which also happens to be in F major. For me, they define the songs.

Okay, so back to Our Singapore. I wasn't interested at all, but was asked for comments from a friend on Facebook. So decided to blog about it.

Do correct me if I'm wrong. Here is what I think are the chords (will update when I give the song a few more listens):

F Bb F-C Dm
Am Bb F/A Gm C

Fsus4 F Bb Am
Bb Dm Gm-C F

Bb F/A Bb C
Bb F/A Dm-C F

Db Eb Db Eb
F Db Gmdim C

Somehow I feel Our Singapore doesn't seem to stand out. I mean, we all listen with our tastes and biases.

For me, maybe it's the repetitive use of Bb. Maybe that's the whole idea for the song - build it around Bb.

In contrast to Home, if I have to use it as an example, what makes it good is that you spend most of the song trying to return to equilibrium, which is that F chord. You start the journey with F, then you traverse a bunch of chords, make a pit-stop at the not-so-F F/A chord, and then, you finally hit F on the first chord of the chorus. F starts the verse, starts the chorus and ends the post-chorus.

You can tell stories with chords too, because like every story, there's an equilibrium state, a state of conflict, climax, resolution and a return to the equilibrium, or in some cases a new equilibrium (e.g. transpose to a higher key). That's why songs like My Way and Can't take my eyes off you sound pretty good, even when played as instrumentals - and that probably explains why some hit Chinese songs happen to resemble Canon in D.

The problem with Our Singapore is that there's an abundance of F/A (not helped by the fact it's built around Bb), and it is used quite frequently. The build (to the chorus) is rather short, which means the journey along which you take your listeners, is short.

Even the bridge is short, repetitive and uninspiring, in my opinion. Ok, maybe the length of the bridge doesn't matter. Just look at say, the bridge of No Doubt's Don't Speak:

(From a chorus in F minor key) Pre-bridge transition: Fm Eb C Ab
Bridge: Db Ab B Gb Adim Ab

Again, it's just a preference over repeating Db and Eb. Ya, that sequence creates a grandiose feel, but it feels dated and somehow the "come down" to C - to end the bridge - sounds quite abrupt. I can't figure out how it could have been done better. Maybe drag out of the bridge, double its length. I don't know. Look at Corrinne May's national day song; I think she did the bridge (which also contains the 6b and 7b chords) better.

The whole song sounds a little bit stiff. Should probably throw it more sus4's (like what Elton John did with Something about the way you look tonight, the live version of which happens to be in *gasp* F major) to loosen it up.

The combination of Gm-F/A (or Am)-Bb-C (I call it the 2-3-4-5) has been a success formula in Count on me Singapore and Home, since they're so tightly bunched together any way, so I guess Dick Lee was trying something different. Unfortunately, Our Singapore stills uses a different permutation of that 2-3-4-5 combo.

The only part of the song I thought stood out was the last line of the chorus, which had the chords Dm C and then back to the equilibrium F. Straightforward but effective.

It's not as if he spammed chords in between Dm to C, say Dm, F/C, G7/B, Bb, C, F like the last 2 lines of the chorus in Home. He did it differently and achieved a different effect for Our Singapore, which seems to be characterised by the quicker return to F.

I think we need a different songwriting style. Corrinne May (2010) and her Bittersweet Symphony-esque Song for Singapore broke the mould. Heck, so did Electrico's (2009) What do you see. Hopefully we'll get something different in the next couple of years.

In the mean time, I guess we can appreciate Our Singapore for what it is - a decent piece that very unfortunately sits in the shadows of Home.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

IKEA’s magic show decision opposes its stand on diversity

(Published - Today Apr 23, 2015)

I read with concern the reports on IKEA Singapore’s decision to continue its tie-up with a magic show performed by Pastor Lawrence Khong.

I believe IKEA’s explanation that it respects diversity, equality and the right to opinion has not seriously considered the fact that Mr Khong has been vocal against the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community.

I respect the fact that there are safe platforms in Singapore for people such as Mr Khong to express their opinions. However, I cannot endorse the nature and intention of his views because they are harmful, discriminatory and demeaning to sexual minorities, some among whom I consider my friends.

IKEA’s decision here appears to be different from its global stand that the company welcomes all families and is LGBT affirming, as stated in its sustainability report last year. Also, IKEA Singapore should understand that the right to opinion comes with the responsibility to observe that the expression of that opinion does not come at the expense of the rights and welfare of others.

We should especially consider that principle in a case such as this, when we have an influential religious leader with a noted history of publicly discriminatory speech against sexual minorities.

The views advanced by leaders in socio-religious communities have implications on social perceptions and policies, and this, in turn, continues to systematically disadvantage sexual minorities and non-heterocentric families.

The magic show that Mr Khong headlines deserves support only from businesses that share those views. In supporting the magic show, I see IKEA Singapore as supporting not only Mr Khong, but also his views. My family and I hope IKEA Singapore will carefully consider its position on similar matters involving such individuals in the future.

Ho Chi Sam

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Family, values and lifestyle

There have been quite a lot of opinions aired on IKEA Singapore’s decision to continue its tie-up with a magic show headlined by Pastor Lawrence Khong.

Some folks feel it is no big deal because, after all, it is just some harmless (and a very well-produced) magic show. Based on that argument, it really isn’t a big deal. Even if Pastor Khong decides to evangelise in any way during that magic show, it still isn’t a big deal. People pay to be entertained and they have the right not to do so.

The issue here is that Pastor Khong, being a prominent socio-religious leader with a noted history of homophobic speech, is being supported in some way by a business that has taken considerable steps internationally to be LGBT-affirming.

So IKEA is either blindsided by this or just plain hypocritical.

I wrote to Mediacorp TODAY, knowing that this would be a very complex situation. A lot of people will simply see it as an innocuous magic show by a pretty good team of entertainers; that it should be separate from the influential figure in one Christian segment of Singapore. There’s the risk of being seen as petty.

I'll now focus on another related issue. Let’s take a step back and look at the semantics.

Pastor Khong has reasoned that he hires LGBT performers although he disagrees with their “lifestyle”. Now imagine an employer known for his racist or sexist opinions claiming he still hires other ethnicities and women – this was an example shared by another person who was trying to make that same point I would like to make.

But of course, in this case, the prevailing mindset (that some socio-religious communities want to preserve) is that sexual orientation and identity are downplayed, denaturalised and trivialised, rationalised in a way to be deemed morally wrong, unnatural, a treatable sickness, an adoptable-thus-discardable trait. And to further demonise non-heterosexual identities, you have camps that use the notion of “family”, a low-hanging secular fruit ripe for steeplejacking, and create this siege mentality that the family is being threatened – now that can invoke some strong emotional reactions.

We need to recognise that inequality exists. And there are people in the wrong end of the divide trying to get everyone else to understand that we need to work together to address this inequality. There’s marginalisation and stigmatism, and this is not helped by mindsets that are rigidly heterocentric and at the same time firmly rooted in the belief that homosexuality is wrong, sinful, unnatural and whatever your Constitutionally-protected brand of religious speech impresses upon you.

There are some who claim that Pastor Khong is being victimised here, being denied the freedom to express his opinions or work a magic show. Again, look at the inequality that exists. Look at the various domains of the lived daily realities of straight people versus homosexual people in Singapore – healthcare, welfare, NS, social attitudes, media policy, etc., heck, even the right to marriage.

I feel this rationalisation of “lifestyle” has been one of the most effective rhetoric used against LGBT persons. It sways opinions as quickly as it denaturalises queer identity. Even in surveys and news reports, it is used.

“Do you approve of the gay lifestyle?” How do you even answer this loaded question if you are LGBT-affirming?

Same goes for “Asian values” and how it evolved from an Asian politico-economic reaction to Western criticism to something that took on a whole new dimension that is sexual (or rather heterosexist) morality.

Throw in “lifestyle” and it immediately destabilises and trivialises all the experiences, feelings, history and relationships any queer-identified person has. Back that up with Constitutionally-protected religious speech and you have communities that believe that this is the only way to rationalising non-heterosexual identities, I mean, “lifestyles”.

It stems from the belief that queer-ness is not natural because according to the laws of “nature”, that we are all meant to be straight, that marriage, procreative heterosexual sex and reproduction are endorsed and mandated in that particular sequence, and that anything else we adopt deemed to deviate from this prescribed course is something that can be corrected.

This reminds me of the term “confused” when it’s used on people who do not fit the labels available to them, and later end up seeing themselves as confused. On the contrary, they know who they are not. But in using “confused”, the labelers trivialise and stigmatise, and the labelled risk internalising them. Just like how you’ll call yourself “pro-choice” as opposed to “pro-abortionist” (and “pro-life” vs “anti-choice”).

Throw in “lifestyle”, “family” and “values” and you have concocted a robust plan to sway opinion and policy. These are terms with which the ordinary person on the street can – and at times, rather emotionally – identify. At the same time, it delegitimises queer identities.

You can see it in the mainstream media and in social media, when you've homophobes using these words to justify maintaining this divide and inequality. Is there any way we can better protect LGBT Singaporeans?

If the Singaporean government has the moral fortitude, it would put gender identity and sexual orientation in the Constitution, and implement coherent laws and policies that align with it. That way, “lifestyle” will remain where it originated – within specific socio-religious circles. 

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Playing the piano at the hospice

I guess without the habit of practice, some things tend to fade away.

As I looked into the repository of draft blog entries in my Blogger, I felt disgusted at their quality and analytical limitations. The sharpness is lost, so they're deleted. Or perhaps there is no more rage that would have inspired another 1,500 to 2,000 word essay.

The past 12 months has made me an empty shell. I left my job, although it would seem an irrational decision since I believe it is possibly the best job I could ever have.

During the 3-week lull period, I got to do a 7-day stint as a volunteer pianist at a hospice. It was purely by chance in my first visit I noticed the existence of the instrument sitting outside the wards. Besides, I thought it would be fun to do something different, while at the same time recharge my batteries.

Despite having only touched the piano for a few minutes every 1 or 2 years in the last 20 years, I wrote to them and asked if I could play for the patients and staff. Thankfully, they thought I was neither crazy nor incompetent, despite the lack of practice and familiarity with the piano.

11 years of formal Electone organ training. Played the guitar since 1996. Been writing and recording songs since 1997. I quietly believed I could do pull it off, although I was initially disappointed at the quality of playing.

Being at the hospice was a sobering experience. I feel there's love, and there's also sadness.

It was a 1-hour shift. My first shift was a difficult 45 minutes.

The lack of practice and conditioning was felt almost immediately. The weighted keys and sustain pedal weren't totally alien, but I knew I needed years of playing to reach the level I desire. My left hand was sluggish and occasionally played the wrong keys, while my right was heavy and a little too ambitious (wanting to simultaneously play both melody and chords).

It wasn't only the fatigue in the forearms and wrists but the choice of songs and the environment that made the first time difficult. Maybe I thought too much of it.

To make things easier, I had transposed most songs to C major key signature, after having listened to them on YouTube to make sure I got the melodies and chords right. Of course, there were the hours of practice.

At every milestone of a song, I would tell myself I was talented and "it" would come back to me. But of course, that would have ignored the reality of 11 years of grind that sharpened my aural abilities. Fortunately, that compensated for my lack of conditioning on the piano, and of course, the use of the sustain pedal to patch over the weak playing of the left hand and the use of arpeggios on the right - a piano hack? I don't know.

Tomorrow's the last of the 7-day stint. Been clocking 1.5 hours in the last few sessions although the soreness is there.

It's still a hospice, and I always have a heavy heart walking into the premises and sitting myself down by the piano. But as a volunteer putting in a 1 to 1.5-hour shift, I knew my role was to do my best to make the environment relaxing and enjoyable for the patients, staff and other volunteers.

Looking forward to playing tomorrow again, and will probably miss doing it after that.

Here's the whole set (in no particular order):

Malay Songs:
Di Tanjong Katong
Chan Mali Chan
Burung Kakak Tua
Rasa Sayang
Bengawan Solo

Chinese Songs:
小人物的心生 (or is it 声?)

Miscellaneous Singaporean Songs:
Count on Me Singapore
Stand up for Singapore
Singapura, Oh Singapura

Beatles numbers:
The Long and Winding Road
Across the Universe
I Wanna Hold Your Hand
8 Days a Week
Let It Be
Hey Jude
You Won't See Me
Imagine (by Lennon, of course)

Other Rock/pop numbers:
We are the Champions (by Queen)
Don't Look Back in Anger (by Oasis)
Yellow (by Coldplay)
The Wild Ones (by Suede)
Leave a Light On (by Belinda Carlisle)
My Heart Will Go On (by Celine Dion)
Let It Go (from Frozen)
I Do I Do I Do I Do (by Abba)
Shanty (by The Quests)
Julie Tearjerky (by Eraserheads)
Sabai Sabai (by Bird Thongchai)
That Thing You Do (from the movie of the same name)

Moon River
Love Me Tender
Somewhere Over the Rainbow
You Belong to Me
When You Wish Upon a Star
Don't Know Why
Dream a Little Dream

Theme from New York New York
Mack the Knife

Doodles and Fillers:
Theme from Super Mario Brothers
Young Men (by Suede)
Strawberry Fields Forever (by The Beatles)
Champagne Supernova (by Oasis)

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Chord variations

I have only in the last two to three years started paying attention to the technique of "jazzing" up chords. As an amateur songwriter, I was always oriented towards the British influenced blues-tinted guitar-driven rock for a good 8 years before accommodating in my songs shoegazer's heavy layering of guitars for a couple of years.

Although I am probably not able to identify the names/terms of the chord variations, my early songwriting already used the following: Major7, Major Add9, Minor7, Minor6, Minor Add9, Aug4, 7 Sus4, 7 Add9, Major9. They are like people whose faces we recognise, but whose names we don't remember.

Examples in C and Am minor key signatures, and in ascending order of chords:

C Maj7 = C, E, G, B.
C Maj Add9 = C, E, G, D.

A Min7 = A, C, E, G.
A Min6 = A, C, E, F#.
A Min Add9 = A, B, C, E.

C Aug4 = C, F#, G; or C, E, F#, G.

(Fifth chord) G7 Sus4 = G, C, D, F.
(Or if I'm going to move from Am to D7, I'll use D7 Sus4) D7 Sus4 = D, F#, G, A, C. 

(Another variation of D7, following Am) D9 = D, F#, A, C, E.
(Fifth chord) G9 = G, B, D, F, A.

The variations in the chords (as opposed to your typical orthodox 1-3-5's/C-E-G's) allow more options for stringing chords together since the virtual counterline of notes that connect one chord with the next will be tighter. At least that was my take on it (and at least it explains why Canon in D "flows").

For instance, in the key of C major, let's use the example of C chord transitioning to F.

The constituent notes of C major are C, E and G, while F major is F, A and C. 

There are a handful of virtual counterlines that would connect these 2 chords:
1. C to C (0 key)
2. E to F (1 key)
3. G to F (2 keys)
4. G to A (2 keys)

For me, it is not the individual, but the collective set of counterline transitions that determine the extent to which one chord will "flow" to another chord. I religiously apply this principle to my songwriting because I always believe it makes the most sense for the style of guitar-driven pop-rock songs I like to make.

Now, when I "complicate" and "fuzzy up" the chords C and F to be, say Cmaj7 (C, E, G, B) and Fmaj add9 (F, A, C, G). I get this:
1. C to C (0 key)
2. G to G (0 key)
3. E to F (1 key)
4. B to C (1 key)
4. G to F (2 keys)
5. G to A (2 keys)
6. B to A (2 keys)

I would consider Cmaj7 moving to Fmaj add9 as something that's transits/flows well, because not only do you have a very small shift in keys (e.g. B to C and E to F), the second chord also retains components of its predecessor (e.g. notes C and G).

That explains the feeling some of us experience (well, music invokes different reactions) when we encounter the following chord sequence: C, Cmaj7, C7.

This is because each subsequent chord carries with it the essence of the previous chord, making the transition smooth-to-seamless, and in the case of C to Cmaj7 to C7, sounds like it's sliding smoothly downwards.

C = C, E, G.
Cmaj7 = B, E. G.
C7 = Bb, E, G.

You can get the above sequence in popular songs like Can't Take My Eyes Off You or Kiss Me.

So, for your orthodox pop song or old school rock and roll song, you can take a more direct approach by transitioning from C to C7 before you (very obviously) move to the fourth chord F major.

But if you're going indie rock or even jazz, Cmaj7 can be used in place of C. The major7 bunches up the notes in a chord, going against the grain when it comes to orthodox major and minor chord formation (i.e. your 1, 3, 5s), in which the notes in those latter chords have a somewhat comfortable separation from one another. The major7 compresses the notes, and serves to make the chord sound more like a "transition" chord, i.e. doesn't sound like the root chord, or sound quite like the equilibrium on which the entire song should be resting.

For example, in a pop song in C major key signature, we would know (and gladly take for granted) that all roads point back to C major because it is the root chord and equilibrium with which all chord sequences end. But when you use C Maj7 to open or close a line of chords or a movement in the song (e,g. verse, chorus), it doesn't immediately assure the listener that it is the main chord of the song and, I believe, would impress upon the listener that something is definitely coming up next, hence my labeling it as a transition chord.

Same case when moving from G back to C in C major key signature. Some use G7 (G, B, D, F), and others use G and transition it to G aug5 (G, B, D#). The destination is the same, i.e. C major (C, E, G), but it is all about finding the variation of the G chord that would make it a lot closer to its following chord.

In trying to return to C major chord, how am I going to make that journey back to the E note (which is part of C major chord)?

The closest the G major chord has to offer is D, which is 2 keys removed from E.

G7 has F, which is 1 key removed from E. So you could "fall back down" to C major from G7. Alternatively, G aug5 has D#, which is always 1 key removed from E. This allows you to "crawl back up" to C major from G aug5.

I don't know what's the accurate term that best captures the "jazzing up", "fuzzying" of chords, but depending on the effect you want to get out of the song, certain chord variations will help. This is especially useful for an amateur musician like me, who has in the earlier stages of songwriting, made chord sequences out of orthodox 1-3-5 chords, before adding variations.

Let's use "Count of Me Singapore" as an example. It's in the key of F. If you're an old school pop songwriter who loves clean and orthodox chords, this would be your chordwork.

You and (Fmaj) me
We'll do our (C) part
Stand to- (Gm) -gether (C)
Heart to (F) heart

We're going to (Bb) show the world
What (Bb/C) Singapore can (F) be
We can achi- (Bb) -eve (C)
We can achi- (F) -eve

The arrangement mostly relies of first (F), fourth (Bb) and fifth chords (C), comprising the clean and orthodox 135.

Now, let's do an extreme make-over with jazzed up chords to achieve a dreamier effect on the song, which it doesn't really need because it's already a very well-written song. That "Bb on C" chord in the original song alone, in my opinion, the genius stroke that at the same time holds together and defines the song.

(C7 sus4) You and (Fmaj7 add11) me (Fmaj7)
We'll do our (C7 sus4) part (C7)
Stand to- (Gm7 add9) -gether (C7)
Heart to (Fmaj7) heart

(F7) We're going to (Bb) show the world
What (Bb/C) Singapore can (Am7) be (Dm add9)
We can achi- (Gm7) -eve (C7 sus4) (C7)
We can achi- (F) -eve (F6) (F7)

For the heck of it, I'll put in the chorus:

(Bb) Count on (Bb/C) me Singa- (Am7) -pore (Dm add9)
(Gm7) Count on (C7 sus4) me Singa- (Fmaj7) -pore (F7)
(Bb) Count on (Bb/C) me to give my (Am7) best and (Dm add9) more
(Gm7) Count on (C7 sus4) me Singa- (F) -pore

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Gift of Song/writing

Mediacorp’s songwriting competition “The Gift of Song” is now in its voting stage. They’ve shortlisted 3 songs written for Singapore’s 50th year of independence.

Since they’re “competition” songs, I thought it’ll be interesting to give them a listen, and provide some thoughts on what works and doesn’t work for each song, from an amateur songwriting perspective.

Being Here
In the context of Singapore songs, Electrico’s “What Do You See” come to mind. Same genre, same mood. Same low baritone voice to appeal to the little Pearl Jams in you.

My opinion is that as contrived as it is, Electrico’s  2009 song is musically better, and better arranged.

The song’s in E major, and I would assume it was written using the guitar first. To further the violence that is stereotyping, I would think most keyboardists would write songs in C or G key signatures. But that is some cock logic, like saying that performing some song in F major as opposed to other key signatures would make it sound grander (Majulah Singapura, any one?).

On the good side, Ciao Turtle have songwriting guts. With Singaporean efficiency, they cut off 2 beats in the second bar of the verse, because they’re unnecessary to the song in John Lennon’s view. You’re not going to add in more lyrics or drag certain words just to fill up the rest of the bar, so why not take away a beat or 2? That motif appears again in the last line of the chorus.

| C#m - - - | A - |
| E - - - | - - - - |

That’s one of 2 parts of the song that stuck out for me, the other being the second last line of the chorus when Eddie Vedder, I mean Shabir, climaxes with a falsetto.

A clever touch would be the woah-oh-oh bit – I wouldn’t call it a bridge, but you know what I mean. They’re trying to make it singalong-friendly.

The song is straightforward and repetitive, and for me, served only one purpose – to painstakingly build up to that Scott Stapp, I mean Shabir, falsetto in the chorus, before it returns to equilibrium. I personally do not like chord arrangement of the last line of the chorus, but it’s mostly obscured by the vocals of Gavin Rossdale, I mean Shabir. To each his own.

| A - - - | - - - - | E - - - | - - - - |
| A - - - | - - - - | E - - - | - - - - |
| A - - - | - - - - | C#m - - - | - - - - |
| A - B - | - - - - |

It is straightforward because it mostly comprises a verse and a chorus. The songwriting is very directly and efficient, cutting off the pre-chorus. The song is strung together using 4 notable chords. It probably works for this genre of music. The climax in the chorus doesn’t start in the first line any way, so you don’t need a pre-chorus for the build-up.

This song sounds more like a song belonging to the final third of a rock album. It sounds understated, too wound-down and mostly anticlimatic. And to put this anglicised rock number next to a rather sino monster “Home”, people will have a hard time remembering it.

Fans of guitar-driven music will appreciate the simplicity and wholeness of the song. But for folks whose tastes have been cultivated by dance-pop and R&B, they may be divided on “Being Here”. For me, the style and genre of music here is meant to either convey a sense of longing or a sense of helpless loneliness and alienation, so it’s a little difficult going the Electrico way for a song about loving Singapore. So what do you see?

We are stars
When I first heard this song, I didn’t think it would make a good competition song. Sounded clumsy and schizophrenic. But it grew on me.

Of the 3 songs, I’d say this is the songwriter’s song (you’ve a song, and then you have a songwriter’s song; like how you have a musician and then you’ve got a musician’s musician). A songwriter’s song, for me, would be something that forces you to analyse it and respect it for what it is, and when you finally have an opinion, it may be diametrically opposite of another person’s, like the way the verse is written. Just look at the chords.

| C - - - | D - - - | F - - - | G - - - |
| C - - - | D - - - | F - - - | G - - - |

Yes, this chord sequence is perfectly fine. The Beatles used it in “You won’t see me”. But for a much slower pop song with R&B vocals, it felt strange, but strange enough for me to want to listen to it over again to try to understand what on earth is going on. It transcends certain boundaries, and maybe it’s doing it defiantly. Any way, songwriter’s song, baby.

And… It’s written in the key of C. DEH DEH DEHHHHHHHH.

The song causes me a lot dissonance, because I had expected a simple pop-light R&B mix (essentially pop sounds with soulful singing and the occasional runs). But visions of R Kelly and Silverchair (specifically and strangely “The Greatest View”) filled my mind. Rather than entertain, the song made me think and put away all preconceived notions of songwriting.

The overlapping vocals are unique, dreamy and not a Bukit Batok rat-scampering clusterfuck like 2013’s “One Singapore” (with extra cheese).

The arrangement could have done without the aimlessly winding strings, but that probably adds to the dreamy mood of the song. Speaking of dreamy, the F2 chord (or F major with a G) is a nice touch.

| C - - - | C - - - | Am - G - | F - G - |

I especially like the melody for the chorus, partly because I am a sucker for the major7ish-ness toward the end of the first line (i.e. “comets…”).

Not being a fan of lyrics in general (and I don’t pay much attention to them), and even less so since it’s a song about a country like Singapore (where you’ll get really cheesy and contrived lyrics in most cases), I however feel the opening lyrics of the chorus are by a mile the most compelling set of words written across the 3 songs. They are written a way for a very smooth delivery.  The first bars of the chorus (while stuck on the C major chord) probably provide a good case study for songwriting. Plus, after listening to each of the 3 songs, I only remember the lyrics to the first line of the chorus of this song.

Another edge this song has over the other songs is the use of a simple prechorus and bridge. Not overused like the smoke machine in the video. These parts don’t take anything away from the song and respectively provide an efficient transition from verse to chorus (although it could have a bigger buildup) and chorus to chorus. Perhaps the last note of the prechorus could have been higher than the second last note, but that’s just a personal preference.

It is not as polished as “These are the days” or as tight as “Being here”. The song could do with a better verse that would help the build-up to the chorus. Maybe redoing the verse in A minor and playing with F2s (or F major 2s, sus2s, etc), Gmaj6s and C major7s and 2s will help – make them dreamy. Given the chorus has 2 full bars of the same C chord, it would provide the only instance of clarity from the dreaminess and smoke that nicely define the other parts of the song, and thus make it a good climatic component. While I respect the use of the D major chord, I would personally omit it and favour the major2s, 6s and 7s and build the entire song around the chorus’ first line.

These are the days
Oh hey look, a woman is finally involved in this. You have 3 finalists comprising men and 2 male performers. Okay, we’ll tackle Gender another day.

2 things stuck out in this song. No. I’m not talking about that.

(1) Transposition (from B major to G# major). And (2) the roles of chords D#7 and A#7.

On the first listen, I thought “what a cheapskate way of writing a song” – you get a bunch of chords and recycle them into another key. After a couple of listens (is that even grammatically correct), there are differences in the verse and chorus other than the key signatures they’re in.

| B - C#m - | G#m - F# - |
| B - C#m - | F# - - - |
| B - C#m - | D#7 - G#m - |
| C#m7 - E/F# F# | B - - - |

| G# - A#m - | Cm - C# - |
| Fm - - - | A#7 - - - |
| G# - A#m - | Cm - C7 - |
| Fm - A#7 - | C# - D# - |

The thing about having a verse and chorus in 2 different key signatures is that you need good transitions between them. The transition from the verse to chorus is weaker than the transition from the chorus back to the verse. Maybe there are more viable transitions from G# major to B major. Taking the shorter route, going “up” (G# to B) always feels and sound better than stepping down (B to G#). Still, it depends on how you craft the transition.

The song could definitely do with a prechorus, containing a couple of lines, stringing chords that probably figure their way to the 5th chord of the G# key, i.e. D#. It’s not too difficult, you could stuff 2 chords in the last line of the prechorus, like the 5th chord of the B major key (F#) and you get | F# - D# - |, where F# is the false 5th chord fooling listeners into thinking we’ll return to B when F# was just serving as the 7th chord in the G# major key.

Before I get to the nice D#7 and A#7, the ending of the chorus sounds like it’s modelled after Dick Lee’s Home. DEH DEH DEEEEHHHHH… You know, that “come down” after the climatic part of the chorus, then you’ll want to slowly sing “for this is where I know it’s home” a capella. It works for Lee Chee Sin’s song.

Like the other 2 songs, there’s a streak of unconventionality in songwriting. Most pop or pop-ish R&B numbers typically don’t get from a second chord back to the first chord, but the song chorus’ second line did just that – using the A#7 as the last chord before returning to G#.

To get to the 6th chord minor of the verse (G#m), the song uses D#7. In most pop songs that would use a range of chords that include B, C#m, D#m, E, F# and G#m, you would think D#7 or chords with G in them would be unnecessary, since most chords are separate by 2 keys. The separation of D#7 and G#m is 1 key (via G). Anyway, the songwriter knows his stuff – when to play the card of looser and tighter separation/transitions.

With reference to the last line of the chorus, most pop songwriters will want to drag out F minor for one whole bar, or maybe add a D# major in the last beat as a transition to C# major. Other songwriters may choose to make it | Fm - Fm7 - | since F minor7 contains the D# note. But keeping to the spirit of the verse, he uses A#7. I personally prefer F minor6, but since the second line already uses the 6-2 pattern (i.e. Fm to A#7). Still, good touch.

If there’s another I can change in the song, it would be the intro strings. It goes F# B A# B. I would choose the higher B A# B than the lower one. An intro with a climatic riff would be better than one that feels a little down – the kind of down you feel when you think of the rising cost of living in Singapore.

Guess “these are the days” might win the voting competition, and it’s also helped by a very talented Farisha and children. But if it does get performed live or recorded again, I’d strongly recommend including a prechorus. WOAHOHOHHHHHH *clenches and shakes fists* is NOT a prechorus.

All the best to all the songwriters.