It’s been almost a year since I did one of these posts where I infuriate music nerds by explaining everything simply enough for you to understand, but just wrong enough to be really, really annoying.
As I’ve mentioned before, I am both a music snob and a music slob. Some people have deep, broad tastes. They appreciate everything from classical to metal, and know lots of obscure things about everything on the spectrum. My tastes are narrow and shallow. I basically only like electronic music, and I only like the catchy mainstream stuff. I’m not particularly knowledgeable. I can’t explain the musical roots and influences of an artist or genre. My talent for music appreciation begins and ends with, “This sounds catchy. I’ll listen to it until I’m sick of it.”
So reading music lessons from me is like getting lessons in movie production from somebody who only watches Michael Bay movies. It’s not that I can’t teach you anything, it’s just that there are literally tens of thousands of people in the world who could teach you orders of magnitude more.
But as luck would have it, I run this blog and not them, so you’ll have to settle for the flakes of knowledge I manage to glean from Wikipedia and my own misguided experiments. Today’s lesson – which has already been obnoxiously spoiled by the post title – is on the genre of “house music”. Here’s an example of the form:
I really like this tune, right up until the singing starts somewhere after the one-minute mark. I’m not a huge fan of having vocals beyond “ooohs”, “ahhhs”, and maybe the occasional two-word interjection encouraging the listener to get down, get up, feel the beat, or shake some part of their anatomy. Anything more complex than that is annoying. Partly because it’s a lot of words that, after deciphering them, don’t seem to mean anything, and partly because the people who compose these lyrics generally can’t rhyme for shit.
It’s a terrible idea for me to share this track, since it’s going to set the bar pretty high for my attempt. (Spoiler: I’m not anywhere close to being in this league of composition.) But I need to show you what I was aiming for before I can explain why I fell short.
House music originated in the early 80’s, just after the birth of the electronic keyboard and just before the death of disco. This was back in the time when people were still figuring out all the crazy stuff you could do with an electronic keyboard and all the different sounds it could make. It was a time when an enterprising DJ could invent a new music genre with nothing more than some psychoactive drugs and a three-day weekend.
There are conflicting stories on how house music began, who invented it, and how it was named. But everyone seems to agree that it originated in Chicago and was centered around a couple of particular clubs. Even all these decades later the sound is still associated with Chicago, despite the fact that it went global ages agoIn the MAGIX Music Maker program I use, a lot of the house loops have “Chicago” in the name..
It’s not my favorite genre or anything. I don’t go looking for house music when I want something to listen to. But it does manage to fall into the narrow band of stuff I can enjoy if it appears. The thing that fascinated me about it was that one part of my brain knew what it was and the other part didn’t. If you played me some electronic music, I could correctly identify if it was house or not. But if you asked me to explain what made it house music, I wouldn’t be able to tell you. I could sort songs into house / not-house, but I couldn’t explain what criteria I was using.
This intra-cranial dysfunction amused me, so I decided to see if I could figure it out. I opened up a new project and began trying to copy the style, looking for the DNA that made this genre what it is.
Several hours later I had nothing to show for my efforts except for a small collection of song snippets that were almost, but not quite, entirely unlike house music. So I cheated and looked it up on Wikipedia.
As you might expect, the boundaries of musical genres are kind of flimsy. House music seems to have these ingredients:
- A kick drum on the 4/4 beat. It inherits this from disco. This produces the steady thump-thump-thump-thump that most club music is known for.
- Really large chords. In the past I’ve described chords as collections of 3 notes that go together according to the mystifying and hopelessly obtuse properties of the heptatonic scale. But if you know what you’re doing you can stack a lot more notes on top of those three. Music nerds will bury you in theory and math if you ask them to explain which ones, but you can work it out yourself if you get a three-note chord going and experiment with additional notes until you find something that doesn’t sound like a cat walking on a piano.
- Wikipedia doesn’t say so, but I think it’s actually kind of minimalist in terms of number of instruments playing at once. I heard all of the crazy chords and assumed the music was complicated, so I began stacking up tons of simple instruments. This is backwards. What I needed to be doing was sticking to three instruments, all of which are trying to play tons of notes.
- Constant key or instrument changes. Unlike (say) techno or dubstepI originally typed ‘Dumbstep’. You may or may not find this appropriate, depending on taste. where you might loop the same hook for a whole minute, house seems to suffer from musical ADHD and jumps to a new pattern as soon as you begin to recognize the old one. This seems to counter the simplicity of the arrangement. Instead of maching eight different instruments / tracks together in a giant pile, you only do three at a time, but change them frequently.
- A lot of examples have vocal loops, but that’s true of nearly all electronic so I don’t know that it would be fair to say it’s a characteristic of house.
- While not written anywhere, on Soundcloud House tracks seem to have about an 85% chance of featuring a picture of a conventionally attractive woman in the thumbnail.
- Lots of them feature vocals, the overwhelming majority of which are female.
- My gut tells me house songs are more likely to contain major chords than its sibling genres like techno, electro, eurodance, dubstep, chillstep, etc. They’re all in minor keys, of course. (Like, half of them are A minor.) But house has this upbeat party vibe that makes it more likely to throw the occasional major chord in the mix.
So after hammering away at these constraints for a while, I managed to come up with this:
I even went the extra mile and gave it a stock photo lady for an icon, just like the pros use!
I wouldn’t add female vocals even if I could, but it felt kind of barren without any voice at all. So I threw in some french lady from Archive.org, reading public domain fiction in French.
It has a certain charm, but it doesn’t quite sound like the stuff you’d hear in a real club where genuine human beings would gather for actual dancing. It’s lacking something, and I’m not sure what it is.
It’s said that a bad musician blames his instrument. It’s already been established that I’m a bad musician, so I guess it doesn’t hurt if I go this route. The other tracks – the ones made by real musicians – sound… fuller? They don’t have more instruments, but the ones they’re using sound richer somehow. In particular, the lead I have playing at the minute and a half mark sounds way too “8-bit” and not enough “Chicago”. It might be a limitation of the software I’m using, but it also might be that I’m just not using the existing instruments to their fullest. I’m not sure what my sound needs. More “real” (sampled) instruments instead of wave-synth? More echo and reverb? More sound-bending effects like flange or phaser? Even taller chords?
I don’t know. I tried. Hope you enjoyed the attempt, even if you don’t dig the result.
 In the MAGIX Music Maker program I use, a lot of the house loops have “Chicago” in the name.
 I originally typed ‘Dumbstep’. You may or may not find this appropriate, depending on taste.
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