Popular Music Education… #apme

Advocating for Popular Music Education – where do we go from here?

Steve Holley, Music educator

Steve begins with an overview of US music education generally, including high schools and universities, asking ‘why adapt now?’ and describing a necessary journey toward curricular adaptation. He takes us back to the mid-20thC innovators (USC, Miami, Berklee) who ‘took a chance on jazz’, and observes that the music education community thought they were crazy. Within 50 years of those early adopters, jazz in music schools had become mainstream. Steve believes that popular music education today is where jazz music education was in the 1950s, and predicts a similar trickle-down effect in future years, giving examples of schools where this is already starting to happen.

(Some of these ideas are explored in Steve’s recent NafME blog posts.

Steve’s overview of PME elements – a kind of manifesto for the opportunities he suggests institutions now have.

Music Technology, Bandlab and Berklee #apme2018

On the bus to the university this morning I introduced myself to the person sat next to me, who turned out to be John Bigus from my own institution (Berklee’s a great community, but it’s a BIG community, so it’s possible to work there for a long time without knowing everyone’s name). John is responsible for the PULSE free resource, available at pulse.berklee.edu, which is part of Berklee’s initiative to work with K-12 school age music creators and teachers.

John has been working with Bandlab, so there is an introduction from the company’s Lauren Henry Parsons, and our interviewer is Bandlab’s Michael Filson. It’s a cloud-based, free, 12-track DAW app (mobile app or browser-based) with 3.5m users across the world. It’s sponsored by the music instrument industry, which is why the end product is free for musicians – and a walled-garden version for students and teachers. It’s also part of a relaunch of SONAR’s Cakewalk.

Musicality and Creativity in Curriculum

‘Keeping Musicality and Creativity at the Heart of Curriculum and Assessment’

Presenter: Matthew Cossey (ICA Nexus / University of West London)

Matthew opens with a discussion of the role of curriculum in popular music education, noting that the skills musicians gain in Higher Ed are arguably much more important than the qualification. Like the industry, he says, we must be ruthless in prioritizing meaningful musical career skills, rather than focusing on those elements that are the easiest to teach, or have heavily established pedagogies.

Authenticity and the role of live musicians in hip hop production #arpOslo2014

Alex Stevenson, Leeds Metropolitan University

Author keywords:      ­Hip hop, Authenticity, Live, Sampling

EMU SP12/1200
EMU SP12/1200

Authenticity and the role of live musicians in hip hop production

ABSTRACT: Despite hip hop music’s origins as a live performance-based art form, utilising turntables and sound systems, the incorporation of digital sampling technologies gave rise to a sample-based aesthetic within hip hop production which traditionally rejected the use of live musicians. In his ethnographical study of hip hop production, Schloss goes as far as stating that as a hip hop producer ‘…it is the lack of samples – the use of live instrumentation – that must be justified’ (Schloss, 2004, p.67).

This sample-based aesthetic is strongly linked to the notion of authenticity within hip hop production (Schloss, 2004; Williams, 2010), however use of live musicians has been evident throughout the history of hip hop; from live hip hop band The Roots , the use of session musicians to re-play samples in Dr. Dre’s Chronic 2001 (1999) to the self-sampling approach of Portishead’s self titled album (1997). More recently in the UK, the formation of bands such as Introducing Live whose debut project in 2009 was to recreate note for note the entirety of DJ Shadow’s exclusively sample-based album Endtroducing (1996) with a 10-piece live band and the Abstract Hip Hop Orchestra who, inspired by Miguel Atwood-Ferguson orchestral tribute to J-Dilla (2010), perform live versions of classic hip hop tracks with a 16 piece ensemble, demonstrate the integral role that live musicians can occupy within hip hop performances that were once the reserve of the DJ and MC.

“What’s up with this ‘one’?!” … live and studio performance #arpOslo2014

Roland Huschner, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin

Sing it, Glenn…

“What’s up with this ‘one’?!!!” („Was ist denn das für eine ‚eins‘?!!!”) Discrepancies between live- and studio-performance and the consequences for musical efficiency of artists/bands in the recording studio.

Author keywords:      ­Recording Practice, Bourdieu, Foucault, Ethnography

Usually the recording studio is being thought of as an environment which enables artistic performance of the highest standard. Several of the disrupting factors of live-performance are successively removed during recording sessions or the architecture of the studio does not allow certain aspects to appear in the first place. Therefore the artist should be able to achieve individual performance of the highest level but for several reasons this is often not the case. The proposed paper deals with the question why despite all the advantages of the recording studio in comparison to live-performance the musical efficiency of artists still seems to be limited by several aspects that are the result of this specific environment. The technological, sociocultural or simply musical provenance of these aspects will be described and analyzed:

Why do even accomplished musicians for example suffer from the so called „red-light fear“ once the recording process begins? What effect does the idea of the highest possible transparency of the audio-material have on the playing technique and what does that mean for the agents? Are there specific reasons why certain studio-situations are more strained or affected by higher expectations than others and in what way do discursive formations from internal and external provenance shape these configurations between agents?

The paper draws from data that was collected from 2011 to 2014 in several Berlin recording facilities and rehearsal rooms. The data will be reflected in my PhD-thesis in musicology that deals with the role and function of the producer in popular music. The manner of collecting information consisted of participant observation and non-structured interviews. The analysis of the data is carried out with a specific model which seeks to combine elements of Pierre Bourdieu’s analysis of the field of cultural production as well as Michel Foucault’s analysis of power-relations, their origins and the technologies to sustain them.

The Death of the Songwriter – attribution of creative ownership in popular music production #arpOslo2014

Screenshot 2014-12-05 18.46.19Here’s my own abstract and presentation from the Oslo conference. I was delighted to learn that in the audience was Jon Marius Aareskjold, a Norwegian sound engineer (and academic) who was actually involved in the production of ‘Irreplaceable’. We’ll be working together on a research paper about the track sometime in 2015.

Death of the Songwriter – ARP Oslo 2014 pdf version

ABSTRACT: The creation of recorded popular music has always been a collaborative process. Listeners enjoy an audio product that consists of a composition (usually with lyrics) that is arranged, performed, recorded, mixed and mastered. All of these activities combine in an object that creativity psychology would define as creative – that is, original and valuable (Boden 2004; Mackinnon 1963; Weisberg 1993). Sometimes creative contributions are fully demarcated but in practice there is often substantial overlap between roles, and individual creators frequently take on more than one role.

Drawing on the author’s research into creative behaviours in songwriting teams (Bennett 2012) and his experience as a forensic musicologist in copyright disputes, this paper discusses the challenges posed by collaborative popular music production, for copyright law and for the recorded music industry. The traditional binary allocation of creative activity across two objects (the ‘song’ and the ‘sound recording’) was developed many years ago and may no longer be truly representative of the way popular music is made. Creativity that is obviously derivative such as melodic quotation or audio sampling is a form of linear collaboration that makes authorial attribution particularly difficult, not least because of the complex interrelationship between moral and economic rights in copyright law.
Audio recordings of successful hits will be analysed to frame a discussion of the specific creative contributions that led to particular sonic outcomes; these will be contrasted with the Intellectual Property that subsists in the finished work. The paper proposes mechanisms by which the disparity between the extent of creative contribution and ownership of song copyright might be addressed.

Bennett, J., 2012. Constraint, collaboration and creativity in popular songwriting teams. In D. Collins, ed. The Act of Musical Composition: Studies in the Creative Process. Ashgate, pp. 139–169.
Boden, M., 2004. The creative mind : myths and mechanisms 2nd ed., London ;;New York: Routledge.
Mackinnon, D.W., 1963. The Identification Of Creativity. Applied Psychology, 12(1), pp.25–46.
Weisberg, R., 1993. Creativity : beyond the myth of genius, New York: W.H. Freeman.

Engineering: Creativity and Collaboration in the Recording Studio #arpOslo2014

Mixing deskPaul Thompson, Leeds Beckett University

(co-written with Phillip Mcintyre, University of Newcastle – presented in Phil’s absence with his apologies for not being able to make it in person)

ABSTRACT: Sound engineering has historically been viewed as a technical rather than creative endeavour (Kealy, 1979), particularly within the commercial recording industry where the sound engineer, the record producer and the musician have an identifiable history of delineated unionised roles within the domain of record production.

There is general agreement in the literature that creativity may be best thought of as the bringing into being of ‘an idea or product that is original, valued and implemented’ (Wolff, 2000: 81) and there is growing evidence that creativity occurs through the convergence of multiple elements; an agent, a knowledge system (the domain) and a social organisation that holds the domain knowledge (the field), through a dynamic system of interaction (Csikszentmihalyi: 1988, 1997, 1999 & 2004).

Drawing upon current literature, interviews, case studies and data gathered from an extended ethnographic study in the recording studio, this paper explores the systems model of creativity where sound engineering is identified as a creative endeavour within the broader creative and collaborative system of record production.

Paul describes sound engineering as a ‘layer’ within music creativity, and relates his view to Boden’s discussion of creative myths:

Co-writing songs

Illustration by Andy Watt

This article originally appeared in Total Guitar magazine issue 229. Reproduced by permission. Words: Joe Bennett. Illustration: Andy Watt. Click the image to download a pdf.

There are very few jobs where you promise to give away half your wages before you get to work, but this is what happens when two or more people decide to write a song together. And they do it with good reason; did you know that almost half the number of chart-topping hits in the USA since 1955 were written by more than one person? But if collaboration is clearly an effective way of writing a song, how is it done? How do two brains work together to produce something truly great?

IASPM 2014: Songwriter as Seeker

Richard Parfitt (Bath Spa University)

Mona Lisa
The cultural status of Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks is likened to the Mona Lisa; mythology and history may make it impossible to see the art objectively.

Richard begins with a discussion of a personal experience of seeing Mona Lisa recently at The Louvre, and uses this as a springboard to reflect on the difficulty in separating a work from its mythology. He then discusses the ‘Text’ and the ‘Context’ with reference to Tagg.

Leonard Bernstein’s view of Elvis is cited – he described the latter as ‘the greatest cultural force in the twentieth century’ and reflected on his influence on musical grammar. This leads the paper to a discussion of craft and art, and the relationship between creative constraints and an ideas-driven agenda. Such constraints, Richard suggests, can include technically poor musical skills (Sleaford Mods and Ian Curtis are cited as examples), and with these constraints some songwriters can thrive if they have an ‘ideas-driven agenda’.

Guardians of the legacy: why 1970s pop produces awesome mixtapes

“I am Groot” [translation: I love the way the constraints of early 1970s recording technology engendered greater creativity in many artists from the classic rock era]


[this article originally appeared in The Conversation, August 2014. Words: Joe Bennett.]

The top selling music album in the USA is currently Guardians Of The Galaxy: Awesome Mix Volume 1 – and has been for three weeks. Those who have seen the film will know that the track listing is based on a fictional mixtape made by main character Peter Quill’s dying mother, and given to him when he was a boy (shortly before his abduction by cannibal outlaw pirate aliens). Mrs Quill’s music tastes consisted mostly of classic pop from the 1970s, and the songs play an important part in the story.

Back in the real world of 2014 pop music, cross-media promotion clearly gives the album an advantage over other top spot contenders such as Now 51, The Gaslight Anthem and 5 Seconds of Summer. Even so, people won’t buy music unless it’s good; clearly, thousands of 21st century moviegoers have realised that four decades ago a lot of mainstream pop music was, well, awesome.

The “dadrock” era of the late 60s and early 70s casts a very long shadow over popular music’s cultural history, and it’s difficult to deny that some of these recordings have stood the test of time.

‘Awesome Mix Vol. 1’, as provided by Starlord’s mum.

In this period rock and pop music listening was, famously, the primary leisure activity (along with sex and drugs) of the postwar baby-boomers. If you were born in the spring of 1955 you would have been 17 when Bowie released The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. Popular music was the ideal cheap mass-distribution retail recreation product. Unlike movies, where (pre-VHS or DVD) you had to pay every time, a single vinyl purchase would give you an infinite number of listens to your favourite song. So vinyl sales increased.

Because people were buying so much music in the ‘70s, this allowed artists and songwriters to take artistic and commercial risks. Listen to the ridiculous “ooga-chaka” intro and verse in Hooked on a Feeling – 12 bars of completely unaccompanied vocals. Or immerse yourself in the epic back story to Bowie’s “Moonage Daydream” and follow Ziggy Stardust’s ascendancy from quasi-religious alien to rock star. Would either of these be likely contenders for the top ten singles chart of 2014?


But all this creative freedom was constrained by technology. The early 70s saw the transition from 4-track, through 8-track, and eventually up to 16-track recording, so artists could not overdub instruments indefinitely. Synthesisers could only play one note at a time. Digital sampling had not yet been invented, the earliest sequencers could play only a few notes, and drum machines were limited to preset rhythms. So almost every part of the arrangement was played live by humans in real time.

This is important because it shows how different playing music in a band is to editing music on a screen. In a 1970s studio, if a musician made a mistake there were only two options – re-record the part, or leave it in. And studio time was expensive, so everyone had an incentive to get it right. These conditions drove strong musicianship, intensive rehearsal and (thanks to the large industry markup on retail vinyl) big rewards for those songwriters, vocalists, producers and instrumentalists who could produce great sounds within these constraints.

When a human musician is playing an instrumental part, he or she is responding, moment to moment, to the rest of the song arrangement. In the first four bars of The Five Stairsteps’ O-o-h Child, we can hear Dennis Burke’s soulful drum groove react to every note in the trumpet melody, pushing and pulling the timing and dynamics to fit perfectly into the arrangement, as his brother James holds the descending guitar chord in bar four until the exact point when the brass section decays. To listen to this recording is to experience six musicians – independently, simultaneously and together – drawing us into their soundworld for every moment of three minutes and 17 seconds.

These days it’s possible to program this level of detail into a sample-based computer workstation, but the result is usually more perfect, consistent and accurate than humans can manage. We hear the technical inaccuracies of 1970s musicians as performance subtleties, constantly reminding us of the presence of a real person at the other end of the microphone. This communicates the humanity of the band to the listener.

But we shouldn’t be luddites, nor should we rose-tint the 70s. Objectively, pop music sounds better now than ever, in the same way that 2014 movies look better than 1970s movies. We have higher fidelity, more control of the mix, an effectively infinite palette of synthesised and sampled sounds, and more accurate vocals through comping and auto-tune.

Today, 10cc would not need to record 624 voices for three weeks with a 12-foot-long 2-inch tape loop stretched around the studio just to make some ethereal backing chords. And yet here we are in 2014, watching Hollywood’s finest CGI-powered contemporary sci-fi while listening to a 40-year-old vocal recording.

Creativity thrives when given a problem to solve, and the constraints of 70s music technology forced musicians to exercise all their artistic communication skills. As Igor Stravinsky said in 1942, “the more constraints one imposes, the more one frees one’s self of the chains that shackle the spirit”. Technological limitations collided with consumer demand to provide a golden age of creativity in popular music. Mumrock will never die.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

Who Writes the Songs? Creative Practice and Intellectual Property in Popular Music’s Digital Production Chain #crassh3c #songwriting

Screenshot 2014-03-29 15.01.33
Discussion of the originality spectrum – is ‘newness’ defined by non-plagiarism from the Domain?

Joe Bennett (Bath Spa University): Who Writes the Songs? Creative Practice and Intellectual Property in Popular Music’s Digital Production Chain
In music, two objects can be owned – the composition (sometimes including a lyric as a ‘literary work’), and the sound recording. The separation of song and recording is the basis on which the music industry distributes monies, but equitable IP distribution becomes more difficult when creative individuals’ contributions (of melody, lyric, arrangement, performance or production) overlap or are non-­‐linearly created. In the 1960s it became increasingly common for performers to write their own songs; from the 1980s, democratisation of recording technologies gave songwriters and performers the opportunity to self-­‐produce; and by the early 21st century most digital home studios had more production power than the world’s leading studios had enjoyed only 30 years earlier. 1 These changes in creative context mean that songwriters no longer need to notate their work as they did in the early 20th century; production, lyric, melodic, arrangement and performance elements can be created, edited and adapted at any stage of the creative process. Non-­‐linear creative practice in song production has implications for ownership and copyright that may challenge the historical privileging of melody & lyric in popular music’s legal hierarchy. 2 This paper will provide examples of creative practice, and discuss the legal, musicological and ethical questions that 21st century song production presents for the music industry and for future music creators.

Understanding Collaborative Songwriting

“You Won’t See Me” – In Search Of An Epistemology Of Collaborative Songwriting

This research paper was published in the Journal on the Art of Record Production issue #8 – proceedings of the 8th Art of Record Production conference, Université Laval, Quebec (2013).  Full version

Université Laval, Quebec

This paper proposes an observational methodology by which we may gain deeper understanding of the creative processes used by collaborative songwriters. Almost every aspect of popular music production and consumption has been discussed and analysed in scholarly work, but the creation of the song itself has rarely been subject to scrutiny. This is perhaps due to the fact that very little of the songwriting process can reliably be inferred by listening to an audio track or reading a score. Therefore, two methods are proposed in combination – interview-based and participatory auto-ethnographic observation. In both cases the songwriters themselves generate the qualitative data. The aim is to construct a framework that researchers may use to provide answers to the question “how shall we know the mind of the songwriter?” The methods proposed here have been tested with more than 20 professional songwriters between 2009 and 2013, and a selection of these observed co-writes will be published as case studies in 2014.


Download full text (pdf)

RMA Study Day session 3a: Sean Williams and Diana Salazar

ScoreSean Williams (University of Edinburgh)
Performing shapes: studio performance practice in realising Stockhausen’s Studie II

What are the benefits of spending 200+ hours executing highly repetitive technical tasks using old-fashioned equipment in order to make a new version of a 3 minute long piece of electronic music from 60 years ago?

I give a brief account of my working methods calculating parameter values, fixing and calibrating machines, splicing tape, measuring dB values using 50s technology and discuss issues arising including the effects of large scale repetition of physical tasks; the difficulty of implementing seemingly straightforward technical instructions; the role, hierarchy and detectability of errors; the need for reflexive practice to adapt the results of technical processes to achieve the desired results.

RMA Study Day session 3: Mark Doffman, Mirjam James and Karen Wise

Session 3 (Chair: Jonna Vuoskoski)

Mark Doffman (University of Oxford), Mirjam James (University of Cambridge) and Karen Wise (University of Cambridge)

Panel discussion: What are the challenges in researching processes?

With reference to studies carried out by members of the panel, we explore some of the methodological issues that are relevant to musical processes and their exploration, focusing on the challenges posed by three main questions: Where is the process situated? How do you capture processes? How do you make sense of the collected data?

CMPCP logo

[JB notes]
Mirjam discussed some of the methodological challenges researchers face when undertaking fieldwork to investigate ‘creativity/originality’ in classical music performers (see project page and video). Should the process be short, medium or long? How long (musically) should the object under investigation be?

RMA Study day session 2 – Laudan Nooshin, Joe Bennett, Nikki Moran

(Chair: Ruth Herbert, University of Oxford)

Laudan Nooshin (City University London)

Between a rock and a hard place: discourse, practice and the unbearable lightness of analysis. Methodological challenges in studying creative process in Iranian (classical) music

Since the late 1980s, an important strand of my research has sought to understand the underlying creative processes of Iranian classical music, a tradition where the performer plays a central creative role and which is therefore often described as ‘improvised’, both in the literature and – since the mid-20th century and drawing on concepts initially adopted from European music – by musicians themselves. Methodologically, perhaps the greatest challenge is tracing the relationships between musicians’ verbal discourses – usually taken by ethnomusicologists as evidence of cognitive processes – and what happens in practice. Of course, the relationship is a complex one and the dual ethnomusicological methods of (a) ethnography and (b) transcription and analysis don’t always tell the same story. In the case of my work, there was a disjuncture between musicians’ discourse of creative freedom, albeit underpinned by the central memorised repertoireknown as radif, and the analytical evidence which showed the music to be highly structured around a series of what could be termed ‘compositional procedures’, but which are not explicitly discussed by musicians.

RMA Study day session 1: Eric Clarke, Mine Doğantan-Dack and Rees Archibald

Faculty of MusicOur opening speaker is Prof Eric Clarke, who opened the day with a discussion of the recent shift in musicology from a product-based to a  process-based approach. He cited Christopher Hasty’s book Meter As Rhythm, which takes such an approach to rhythm. Eric cites Margaret Boden’s definition of creative products as “ideas or artefacts that are new, surprising or valuable” – this is the product-based definition I use in my own work (that is, I’m not researching songs that do not exhibit all three characteristics). This is contrasted with more nuanced approaches including Ingold (2007) and Howard Becker’s Ethnomusicology and Sociology (1989). Becker takes the view that ‘Art is something people do together’. All of these authors (including, I infer, Eric himself) eschew the idea of the ‘lone creative genius’. His view (and I agree) is that both approaches are necessary in understanding creativity.

He goes on to identify some of the challenges of research methodology, and notes that the documentation of process itself (for research purposes) can paradoxically create an artefact that is itself a product! Many of the artefacts (figures, scores, graphs etc) are fixed objects that do not fully represent the music – they are reductive of the music but not necessarily of its process – often to a single ‘snapshot’ of an aspect of the music (frequency curve, amplitude over time etc – for example a Sonic Visualiser diagram).

Documenting Collaborative Songwriting

Today I’m at the Royal Musical Association study day at the University of Oxford, presenting a paper about the methodological challenges of observing and analysing collaborative songwriters’ creativity. For the convenience of those who are there today I’ve pasted the references at the bottom of this post. An academic paper with more detail will be published soon in the Journal on the Art of Record Production (Issue 8, December 2013).


Documenting collaborative songwriters’ creativity using Linear Event Analysis

It is a little-known fact that almost half of the hit songs in the USA of the last 60 years were written by collaborative teams[1]. Songs acquire immense cultural and economic value, and good songwriters are celebrated in the music industry, but collaborative songwriting practices remain largely unexplored by popular musicology or cognitive psychology. Psychologist John Sloboda[2] identified the methodological challenges in understanding the creative mind of a composer, and concluded that the best way of acquiring evidence of compositional decision-making was real-time reporting of composing as it occurs. Such ‘verbal protocol analysis’ into composers’ creativity has been attempted by a small number of researchers (e.g. Collins[3]) but such methods are necessarily interventionist and therefore risk subjecting the composer to the observation effect. Collaborative songwriting is immanently communicative, so some of the methodology problems identified by Sloboda can be solved through ‘linear event analysis’ – i.e. audio recordings of the songwriting process. This evidence base can be triangulated with computer-assisted generation of iterative documentation such as ‘track changes’ lyric edits and ‘save as’ audio files. These evidence bases can then be compared with the finished product – the song itself – and tentative conclusions about authorial intent and processes can be drawn. In this paper the author will describe his emergent research into observation methodologies for popular songwriting, and outline the techniques and systems he has used to try to answer the question ‘what do collaborative songwriters do’ in a musically meaningful way.

Keywords: songwriting, popular musicology, music psychology, creativity studies.

[1] T. F Pettijohn II and S. F Ahmed, “Songwriting Loafing or Creative Collaboration?: A Comparison of Individual and Team Written Billboard Hits in the USA,” Journal of Articles in Support of the Null Hypothesis 7, no. 1 (2010): 2.
[2] John Sloboda, The Musical Mind : the Cognitive Psychology of Music (Oxford University Press, 1985).
[3] David Collins, “Real-time Tracking of the Creative Music Composition Process,” Digital Creativity 18, no. 4 (December 2007): 239–256, doi:10.1080/14626260701743234.


  • Bamberger, J., 2003. The Development of Intuitive Musical Understanding: A Natural Experiment. Psychology of Music, 31(1), pp.7–36.
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  • Bennett, Joe. Collaborative Songwriting – the Ontology of Negotiated Creativity in Popular Music Studio Practice. In Journal of the Art of Record Production, 2011.  Available from http://www.joebennett.net
  • Bently, L., 2009. Authorship of Popular Music in UK Copyright Law. Information, Communication & Society, 12(2), pp.179–204.
  • Bugg, J., 2012. Jake Bugg interview: “I’ve achieved what I wanted to’ – Telegraph. Available at: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/music/rockandpopmusic/9718719/Jake-Bugg-interview-Ive-achieved-what-I-wanted-to.html.
  • Cantor, J.S., 2006. Fearless Innovation–Songwriting for Our Lives: Inspiring Learners with Arts-Based Practices that Support Creativity. Multicultural Education, 14(2), pp.57–64.
  • Collins, D., 2007. Real-time tracking of the creative music composition process. Digital Creativity, 18(4), pp.239–256.
  • Demers, J., 2006. Steal This Music – how intellectual property law affects musical creativity. University of Georgia Press.
  • Hayden, S. & Windsor, L., 2007. Collaboration and the composer: case studies from the end of the 20th century. Tempo, 61(240), p.28.
  • Hewson, J., 2009. Songbook: James Blunt. Available at: http://www.skyarts.co.uk/music/article/songbook.
  • McIntyre, P., 2001. The Domain of Songwriters: Towards defining the term “Song.” Perfect Beat: The Pacific Journal of Research into Contemporary Music and Popular Culture, 5(3), pp.100–111.
  • Moore, A.F., 2012. Song means : analysing and interpreting recorded popular song. Ashgate.
  • Padgett, A., 2008. Rhetoric of Predictability: Reclaiming the Lay Ear in Music Copyright Infringement Litigation, The. Pierce L. Rev., 7, p.125.
  • Sloboda, J., 1985. The musical mind : the cognitive psychology of music, OUP.
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  • Zollo, P., 1997. Songwriters on songwriting, Da Capo Press.

Mona Lisa by Jay Livingston and Ray Evans – analysis of a co-write

The following is an excerpt from a forthcoming academic paper, the whole of which will be published in 2014. I’m researching the methods by which songwriting teams collaborate. In my analysis of the way Livingston and Evans wrote ‘Mona Lisa’ , I’m observing the various factors that influenced the writing and eventual musical/lyric content of the song. Words: Joe Bennett (c) 2013. 

Jay Livingston (seated) and Ray Evans

Jay Livingston and Ray Evans became a collaborative songwriting team in 1937 and enjoyed a 64 year creative partnership. They specialised in songs for films, and their work was recorded by many of the USA’s most successful singers, particularly in the pre-rock ‘n’ roll era, including Bob Hope, Debbie Reynolds, Johnny Mathis, Doris Day and Peggy Lee. Their hits include Que Sera, Sera, Buttons and Bows and Silver Bells.

Mona Lisa was written sometime in 1949, having been commissioned for the 1950 film that was eventually entitled Captain Carey, USA. Livingston describes the specifics of the commission, and alludes to the creative constraints that were imposed upon the song before it was written;

We had to write an Italian song. It was a picture called OSS, which was the CIA during World War II. Alan Ladd was in a little Italian town, and they wanted some way of warning him that the Nazis were coming with a patrol. He was there with a little radio and the partisans, and they [the film company] said, ‘Why doesn’t somebody play a song on an accordion, a street guy.’ He was blind but he could really see, and he’d start playing this song and that would warn Alan Ladd.
I started to write something kind of scary, but we thought ‘no, that’s going to warn the Germans.’ So we wrote ‘Mona Lisa.’[1]
…[the film studio] said that [the Mona Lisa melody] sounded Italian and they liked it.

Here, the constraints of the brief are imposed by the client, Paramount Pictures, who has pre-specified several characteristics for the song. It must ‘sound Italian’; it must be melodically strong, and implicitly recognisable after only a few accordion notes, given its intended role in the film’s plot. If it had broken any of these constraints the client would have exercised veto and either demanded a rewrite or commissioned a different songwriting team. These requisite musical characteristics were therefore imperatives for Livingston and Evans: they were economically forced to obey the specified constraints without which the song would not have been approved or released.

Melodically, Mona Lisa makes repeating use of a four-note melodic motif that can be heard sung as the title phrase from [0:19] on the 1950 Nat King Cole recording[2]. In the key of C major[3], the notes are G-Gb-A-G or sol-se-la-sol[4], usually played as four quavers[5]. In the song’s 20-bar structure, the four-syllable motif appears twice in bar 1, three times transposed in bar 5 (A-Ab-B-A / F-E-G-F / D-Db-E-D) over the vocal line ‘is it only / ‘cos you’re lonely’ / they have named you’), and twice at its original pitch in bar 9 (‘do you smile to / tempt a lover’). The four-syllable idea is reused further throughout the song even when the pitches are not derived from the underlying four-note pattern. In the lyric below I have underlined the phrases where the melody is prominently following a four-syllable phrase;

Mona Lisa / Mona Lisa / men have named you
You’re so like the / lady with the mystic smile
Is it only / ‘cause you’re lonely / they have blamed you?
For that Mona / Lisa strangeness / in your smile?
Do you smile to / tempt a lover / Mona Lisa?
Or is this your / way to hide a / broken heart?
Many dreams have been brought to your doorstep
They just lie there and they die there
Are you warm, are you real, Mona Lisa?
Or just a cold and lonely / lovely work of art?
Mona Lisa
Mona Lisa topline transcription, with four-syllable groups highlighted

The song clearly owes a lot of its melodic content to a four-syllable rhythmic motif, and combining Livingston’s testimony with my retrospective melodic analysis we can assume that this was deliberate. [6] The interview evidence makes it clear that the song was written using a title-first approach, based on an idea by Evans, as Livingston recalls;

…Ray had the title ‘Primadonna’. There was a big song called Ballerina out[7]. You shouldn’t do it, but you do imitate… [8]

Here, Livingston admits to low-level plagiarism (or at least adaptation) from an existing successful work. Ballerina, like Mona Lisa, scans its four-syllable title over four quavers, albeit at a different point in the bar (the lyric phrase ‘Dance, Ballerina dance’). Livingston responded musically to Evans’s four-syllable title idea by repeating the word ‘Primadonna’ and finishing the melodic phrase with nonsense syllables;

I was driving in the car, and I went ‘Primadonna, Primadonna, de da de da’. I wrote the whole melody [in the car that day]. [9]

The melody of the whole song is structurally rather unusual. It lasts for only 20 bars and although it appears (due to its opening title placement at the start of verse 1) to begin as a predictable AABA standard, it abandons this form somewhere around bar 10, leaving the verse 2 melody to metamorphose, I suggest, into an extended outro that builds to the final melodic resolution provided in the line ‘lovely work of art’. Both songwriters attested to their preferred usual adherence to 32-bar form, and described their deviation from it in Mona Lisa as intentional because the lyric had ‘nothing more to say’[10].

After Evans’s title contribution and Livingston’s commuter-written melody had been created, the partnership evaluated both, with the initial title being replaced by mutual agreement;

Of course, we didn’t like ‘Primadonna’ as a song. He [Evans] came up with the title ‘Mona Lisa’ the next day.[11]

The partnership had therefore reached an agreement that the four-syllable title melody – indeed, the whole melody derived from it – would not be adapted further. The lyric was then fully completed by Evans, presumably in the ‘final’ version that eventually become the definitive Mona Lisa hit (neither Livingston nor Evans allude to any subsequent lyric edits). However, at this point the client intervened, creating new commercial constraints (a change of title for the film) that demanded a rewrite. Livingston and Evans, ever the jobbing professionals, obliged and provided what was required.

They loved title songs because it sold their picture.[12]
…they changed the title of the picture OSS to After Midnight. They said, ‘We need a title song. Throw the lyric to Mona Lisa away and write After Midnight, because that’s a pretty melody and it sounds Italian.’ So we wrote, ‘I’m so lonely / and it’s only / after midnight / Did we leave the / candlelight, the / wine too soon.’ Same melody. [13]

When Livingston says ‘same melody’ he means exactly the same melody – syllable for syllable, with identical pitch and bar placement. Here is the full After Midnight lyric, transcribed from Livingston’s piano demo recording, and published here for the first time;

Soft guitars were playing as we whispered our goodnight
And the gondolier caressed his song
Love is on the way I know it’s just about in sight
May it soon come along
Theme (sung to the ‘Mona Lisa’ melody)
I’m so lonely, though it’s only after midnight
I’m so tattered by the soft Italian moon
I’m so restless, are you restless after midnight?
Did we leave the candlelight, the wine too soon?
Do you lie awake as I’m awake this midnight?
Does the tick-tock of the clock seem much too slow?
In the hush of each long lonely hour
How I miss you, long to kiss you
But I know love will grow, love will flower
And then we’ll share this after midnight afterglow[14]

We can see here the exact preservation of the melody, and its implicit pride of place in the song’s hierarchy; both the client and the collaborative team had clearly decided that the melody was finished (probably in part because it had already successfully circumnavigated the client’s veto by meeting the specification that it must ‘sound Italian’) and were working to find a lyric to fit the constraints of the new commercial brief. The eventually abandoned After Midnight lyric sings extremely well, with a minimum of sibilant and plosive consonants, natural-sounding syllable scansion, and strong vowels in every adjective and noun. To me as a listener, subjectively and with the benefit of hindsight, After Midnight is a weaker lyric. The protagonist’s single-bed reflections on his moonlight-and-wine date are well crafted and tell the song’s story, but the imagery is predictably genre-typical and less new or surprising than the questioner’s unusual and enigmatic speculation in Mona Lisa.

Livingston and Evans were clearly of the same view. Despite having satisfied their client, they preferred their original lyric and thematic concept, but considered that Paramount’s expenditure on an orchestral demo had sealed the fate of Mona Lisa. However, at this point the client changed the film title again, and the partnership took the opportunity to achieve its original creative intention;

We liked Mona Lisa. We didn’t think it was a hit, but it was pretty. But they wouldn’t change it. They wanted that title song [After Midnight]. They made a demo with a 44-piece Paramount orchestra of After Midnight, which means that’s the end of Mona Lisa.
Then we picked up Variety a month later and it said, ‘Alan Ladd’s new picture, After Midnight, is now called Captain Cary, USA.’ We said, ‘Hell, let’s go see if we can get our Mona Lisa lyric back.’ So we went up to one of the executives and he said, ‘We don’t have a demo.’ I said, ‘Yes, you do.’ See, what I did was, there was half an hour left on the recording dates, and I said to this guy, ‘Would you just sing the same melody and read these words off, just for me?’ I don’t know why I did it – just for protection. [15]

This sequence of events shows Livingston and Evans combining creative self-belief (their preference for the original Mona Lisa lyric) with music industry awareness (the need to ‘get their song back’ in copyright terms) production-chain pragmatism (asking a favour to ensure a demo was made), reputational professionalism (achieving all of this without upsetting their client) and economic reasoning (ensuring their song still appeared in the film whilst being suitable for commercial release).

Stimulus processing occurs between the co-writers in a linear fashion; Livingston initially agrees to write a melody in response to Evans’s working title Primadonna. The partnership then evaluates the title in its melodic context and agrees to replace it, keeping the melody fully intact. From the limited evidence base provided by retrospective interviews, veto is not apparent within the partnership, partly perhaps because the co-writers’ roles are so clearly demarcated into music and lyric duties, and because the partnership was, by 1949, more than 10 years old. The co-writers encounter two types of constraint – those they impose themselves (the four-syllable title constraining Livingston’s melodic work, and, later, the finished melody constraining their collaborative lyric work), and those that are imposed upon them (the ‘Italian feel’, instant recognisability and title changes required by the client). They are also constrained by the song form conventions of the era, although in this case they choose to break with (AABA) form – implicitly in service to the melody, and as they later reflect, perhaps also to avoid stretching the lyric theme too thinly.

Who are the true creators of Mona Lisa? There is no doubt that Livingston and Evans are credited as such (e.g. in ASCAP’s records), and that Livingston wrote the music and Evans the lyrics (with collaboration from Livingston). But it is also true to say that this powerful and enduring standard would not sound the way it does today were it not for the creative constraints imposed by Paramount Pictures – before, during and after the original songwriting session. The client’s implicit veto played a significant role, because it preserved the melody throughout the various lyric edits, and also because Livingston and Evans would have been industry-aware enough to know what not to write for a commercial film studio client. For example, they would not have considered writing a song where the title did not appear prominently, given the contemporaneous assumption of cross-media selling of a song in film and audio recording markets. Livingston freely admits that he took the idea of composing a theme from a four-syllable word from Russell and Sigman (Primadonna from Ballerina). And what of the unidentified Italian composers who created accordion melodies involving flattened fifths and maudlin pentatonic descents that the client (and Livingston) heard in the melody? To stretch the thread of artistic influence further, did Leonardo Da Vinci influence the songwriting by creating a painting whose enigmatic facial expression inspired the narrator’s speculation in Evans’s lyric? Should its sitter, Lisa Gherardini[16], be considered to be partly responsible for the song, given that her likeness and expression inspired the painting that inspired its lyric theme? Or are all of these influences simply bisociative links, with Evans and Livingston being ‘creative’ only to the extent that they successfully select, combine and adapt these raw materials? Although some of these questions are deliberately facetious, they do demonstrate the researcher’s ‘anxiety of influence’ in establishing all the contributory factors to a song’s content, given the many cultural and industrial factors in its creation. Interestingly, a 2013 Google search for the text string ‘Mona Lisa by’ is autocompleted by the search engine with the top two suggestions being ‘Nat King Cole’ followed by ‘Leonardo Da Vinci’. We can conclude that, in the data-driven worldwide ‘hive mind’ of Internet search engine users at least, Mona Lisa is ‘owned’ by Nat King Cole – the artist who first recorded it [17].

Mona Lisa demonstrates that Livingston and Evans were, by 1949, an experienced co-writing team with an awareness of market demands, absorption of songwriting convention and contemporaneous repertoire, and a willingness to negotiate – with each other as co-writers, and with their paymasters. Their successful navigation of these challenges among ever-changing industrial and artistic constraints is evidenced in history by the song’s demonstrable endurance as a ‘standard’. The co-writing process shows evidence of cultural influence and commercial intervention. These factors inform collaborative creative endeavour, enabling the co-writing team to pitch their work via industry gatekeepers to a Field of music consumers. Mona Lisa survived the Field’s filters and became a co-written classic – and I contend that the unromantic circumstances of its birth do not prevent it from being a ‘lovely work of art’.


I would like to thank Jay Livingston’s son-in-law and publisher Randy Talmadge for proof-reading this article and for providing additional information about the Livingston/Evans partnership.


[1] Carter, Writing Together : the Songwriter’s Guide to Collaboration, 77.

[2] Nat King Cole, Mona Lisa, CD, vol. Nat King Cole – the Ultimate Collection (Capital 2008), 1950, http://open.spotify.com/track/3KC5yrPGuw8NFjtCBt5qOZ.

[3] The Cole recording sounds in Db major – transposed here to C major for clarity.

[4] I use solfège to describe these notes purely for wordcount convenience and clarity. The syllable se refers to a flattened sol (fifth).

[5] The notation is a reductive compromise in terms of timing; Cole’s vocal stretches the timing of the last two syllables of each four considerably, and so not all four-syllable groups are notated as quavers in my transcription.

[6] Copyright footnote: I claim academic Fair Use when providing this annotated 21-bar excerpt. It is reproduced here for scholarly non-commercial purposes only. This reductive transcription represents the topline only and serves to illustrate my discussion of melodic and lyric phrasing in the work.

[7] Ballerina by Sidney Keith Russell and Carl Sigman. Published in 1947; hit recordings include Vaughn Monroe 1947, Bing Crosby 1948, Jimmy Dorsey 1948 and Nat King Cole 1957.

[8] Carter, Writing Together : the Songwriter’s Guide to Collaboration, 77.

[9] Carter, Writing Together : the Songwriter’s Guide to Collaboration, 77.

[10] Zollo, Songwriters on Songwriting, 18.

[11] Carter, Writing Together : the Songwriter’s Guide to Collaboration, 77.  Actually the title was suggested by Ray’s wife Wyn.

[12] Jay Livingston, Mona Lisa by Nat King Cole – Songfacts, August 1988, http://www.songfacts.com/detail.php?id=6552.

[13] Carter, Writing Together : the Songwriter’s Guide to Collaboration, 77. I have underlined the four-syllable phrases as they appear in Mona Lisa for clarity.

[14] Jay Livingston, After Midnight (alternate Lyric for Mona Lisa) (Famous Music Corp (ASCAP), 1949). Transcribed from http://www.livingstonandevans.com

[15] Carter, Writing Together : the Songwriter’s Guide to Collaboration, 77.

[16] Heidelberg University library, “Mona Lisa – Heidelberg Discovery Confirms Identity,” 2005, http://www.ub.uni-heidelberg.de/Englisch/news/monalisa.html.

[17] We can perhaps also conclude that a famous pop song attracts more per-click cultural interest than the world’s most celebrated work of fine art.

IASPM day 3: Pete Townshend’s Lifehouse Method: Technology as Shared Creativity. Roberto Bolelli

7.3. Musicians Revisited. Chair: Rob Bowman

Pete Townshend’s Lifehouse Method: Technology as Shared Creativity. Roberto Bolelli (Independent scholar)

Pete Townshend (The Who), after Tommy (1969), begins to work on the Lifehouse project: it preconizes the internet era and provides for the use of sophisticated technologies, but it will be brought to light only in 1999. Lawrence Ball, David Snowdon and Townshend elaborated the Lifehouse Method, launched on the net in 2007: the method’s software creates a musical ‘portrait’, from some data inserted by the participants. The site’s notes axplained that the 5 minutes of music, in case of any use, should be credited to Townshend-Ball, plus the realizer of the portrait. The site generated over 10,000 portraits and some examples were published on the website. One year later the page was shut down and the project was discontinued. Finally, in 2012 Ball publishes the double CD Method Music, in wich the composer develops the tests conducted some years before. This paper, after the description of the Lifehouse project and the Method, underlines how technology modifies the connection between production and fruition of music: the Lifehouse Method is an extreme example of that modification, illustrating the sense of ‘property’ of music in the internet era, although the aim of establishing a kind of ‘shared creativity’ is not took off.

IASPM: Panel: Drumming, Drum Kits and Drummers (Gareth Dylan Smith, Matt Brennan, Bill Bruford)

A Phenomenological Study of Drumming. Gareth Dylan Smith (Institute of Contemporary Music Performance, London)

The presenter – a drummer in punk, blues, and riff-rock bands – explores the real-time, spatial, embodied experience of playing the drums, in an attempt to convey the essence of what it feels like to make music on the instrument, alone and with others, in various musical situations. The presenter draws on audio, video, metaphor, analogy and rich, intimate personal descriptions to convey the intangible – but known and, to many, familiar – sense of what it is to be a drummer in time, body and space. He uses the writing of Merleau-Ponty as a framework to discuss the ‘re-creation and re-constitution of the world [and of music] at every moment’ (Merleau-Ponty, 1945: 240). Also referencing ‘trancing’ (Becker, 2004), ‘groove’ (Feld and Keil, 1994), ‘listening’ (Jean-Luc Nancy, 2002), and the ‘magic ride’ (Hart, 1990), the presenter argues that a phenomenological lens is an essential element in understanding the art of drumming. Evidence from other musical instruments and disciplines is considered to build the case that such a view of how music is realised may be crucial to understanding musical experiences in cultures around the world, including in popular music where the drum kit and its emulation retain central roles