Sometimes certain songs become a kind of study. Here are a few that have my attention either because of the composition, mix, or instrumentation.
“Siren” by Samuel Sim was the theme music to the British Home Fires series. A female vocal ensemble layers haunting parts with spare accompaniment from rhythmic strings. This piece opened my eyes to the under-used potential of smaller female vocal ensembles.
“Carol of the Russian Children,” as arranged by the Singers Unlimited, is another enchanting example from a smaller vocal ensemble.
“Appalachia Waltz,” written by Mark O’Connor, was recorded for solo cello by Yo-Yo Ma. It is a magnificent showcase of the virtues of a bowed instrument. I can’t imagine arranging it for, say, piano with nearly the same beauteous effect.
I’m not closely familiar with the band Joseph, and honestly I do not entirely like the ethos of their music, but “Green Eyes” is a riveting rock song. Without sounding dated, the verses evoke vintage jukebox and then blow up into an explosive chorus, which despite its hugeness feels wide and spacious, even empty. The performance of the vocalist is dynamite.
At first I thought this song was an example of mix, performance, and instrumentation saving an average melody. But then I heard Joseph's performance with just two vocalists and an electric guitar, and they still really delivered.
Rachmaninoff thrashed me in college with his Op. 33, No. 2 etude in C Major for piano. It starts innocently with short C major arpeggios but then vaults into Phrygian mode by superimposing A-flat harmony over the theme. Or, maybe it's just a direct modulation to A-flat major. At least, not having studied advanced music theory, that's the best sense I can make of the tonality.
“Phrygi - what?”
If you’ve ever studied music, you probably played the eight white keys on the piano from C to C. That’s the famous “Do - Re - Mi” major scale. If you play all the white keys from A to A, you create a minor scale. Compositions may be written in either major or minor, but there are many other patterns they can follow.
For example, “Scarborough Fair” could be written in A minor, but you wouldn’t actually play only the white keys from A to A. You would swap the sixth white key for a black key (F becoming F-sharp). When you sit down and play the A minor scale with that change, you are now playing not a minor scale but another type of scale called a mode. This particular mode is the Dorian mode. (“Siren,” above, also has Dorian elements.)
Now, if you instead change the minor key by lowering the second note, you create the Phrygian mode. This is the pattern that much of Rachmaninoff’s etude seems to follow, at times shifting to other tonalities.
Like a flip book, this piece comes alive with velocity. The profusion at 1:36 almost makes me see colors.
(If you have studied advanced music theory, feel free to update me with better analysis.)
These pieces as well as several others are in a small eclectic playlist called “Songs That Fascinate Me.”