The Song Remains the Same

Are you unsatisfied with current trends in music? Although good music has always been produced, does it seem to you that there’s less and less good music coming out these days? Well, you’re not alone. Joan Serrà and his colleagues at the Artificial Intelligence Research Institute in Barcelona have studied music over the past few decades, and their conclusions show that music has become more homogenous over time. And louder too. You can read about their research at The Economist.

Granted, it’s hard to find good music these days. And perhaps my age is showing too. The defining style of music for me was the New Wave of the late 1970’s. The early 1970’s featured a lot of good music, but nothing that really spoke to me the way the music of Elvis Costello, Talking Heads, Blondie, and B-52’s did. In the 1980’s, I explored other musical genres, like jazz and classical. But other pressures increasingly hampered my ability to keep up with current events in music. But most of what I did hear in the 1990’s and 2000’s wasn’t especially noteworthy, in my opinion.

Fast forward to Christmas 2007, when I got my first ukulele, an inexpensive Beaver Creek. I fell in love again with music. Sure, I tried my hand at guitar when I was young. But I lost interest after a while, especially once I tried practicing the barred chords. But the ukulele was something else. Four strings, four fingers – what could make more sense? The neat thing about the uke is that it’s easy to form the chords. And not just the basic chords. In many cases, more esoteric chords aren’t that difficult either. Practice helps immensely, of course. However, the success rate at learning chords, and the ease of playing barred chords, makes it possible for anyone to master songs that use more than just your basic chords.

What’s the point of today’s missive? I suppose it’s this: More musicians should learn ukulele. With it’s ease of learning and playing, I would suggest that it’s easier to explore different and original chord sequences on the uke. Have you ever wondered where the diminished chords have gone? They were very common in the early 20th Century. How come we don’t see them very often today?

Think of the songs of George Harrison, and note that he was a big fan of the ukulele. I wonder how many of his songs were inspired from just noodling on the uke? If you have a uke handy, try out this iconic chord sequence, one strum per chord:

Familiar? Should be. It’s from one of his most famous songs! And the rest of this song can be played just as easily. And not just the chords. The melody line of this song is easily played as well.

For some time now, I’ve been wondering what the next big trend in music will be. Will we ever again see some new movement as sweeping and refreshing as the late 1970’s New Wave? Is there enough cohesiveness among music fans to give a New New Wave a chance in today’s fragmented entertainment environment? Or will commercial interests continue to foist blandness upon us?

I call on all songwriters and musicians to turn back the tide. Let’s bring back variety and interest to our songs. Have all the songs already been written? No, of course not. There’s a whole slew of new chord sequences to explore. And the ukulele can help you to explore them.

Cheers! Hans

Busking in Support of Joe’s M.I.L.L.

Ever willing to push the limits of my comfort zone musically, I eagerly plunged into volunteering for a couple of busking sessions a few weeks ago. The idea was for area musicians to busk for a half hour on Kingston’s market square and donate the proceeds to the Joe Chithalen Memorial Musical Instrument Lending Library.

Now then, I’m the first to admit that I’m not the greatest musical performer. But I also admit to an ulterior motive, to try to raise awareness of the ukulele in this city. So I picked out about 20 of my best songs, and went downtown.

My first session was at 11AM at the corner of Brock and King, at the north end of the market. On market day, this is the busiest, and noisiest, corner. Most people just walked by, few willing to admit to the presence of a street performer. I was relieved about 40 minutes later by a guy playing blues on a resonator guitar.

I then signed up for another session, but at a quieter corner of the market. Fewer people walked by, but there were a few sitting close by listening to the performances, sometimes commenting on the songs. This time, Roger, the librarian at Joe’s M.I.L.L. joined me on acoustic bass for a few songs, which was much appreciated.

What did I learn from this? First, I’ll never make a living by busking on the ukulele! But more importantly, I now know first hand what it feels like on the other side. I’ve always enjoyed listening to street musicians, and generally, I always try to be supportive, even if I don’t have time to stay and listen. But most people just pass by quickly, not even wanting to risk the shortest eye contact. While I was performing, frankly, I didn’t care that much about the loose change thrown into my ukulele case. I just wanted at least some small acknowledgment from the passersby.

So my point is this: Be kind to street musicians. They’ve all practised for years to get to the point of being able to perform in public. Even if you can’t spare some change, at least say hi, or offer some sign of support. It doesn’t take much effort on your part, but can mean a lot to the performer.

Omnifariously yours, Hans