Creative Process Part 4 — The Audience’s Creativity

Thus far, we’ve examined creative process from the perspective of those making art.  But the audience for any work of art engages its own creativity.  What if Clark Terry’s advice to those learning to play jazz — “Imitate, assimilate, innovate” — tells us something about how we receive art as an audience?

I think his formulation captures exactly what happens:

  • First, we imitate.  — We listen to a piece of music, or read a book, or watch a film, and we take what we see into ourselves and begin by imitating it.  We recreate what we are hearing (or reading, seeing, etc.) inside of us by way of our imagination.
     
  • Then we assimilate. — Once we have recreated those images, we begin to embellish them.  We ascribe details and meaning that may have been missing from the work we took in.
     
  • Finally, we innovate. — After recreating and then embellishing the images, we discover parts of ourselves that stand outside the work, and sometimes, beyond our previous experience.  The act of taking in the art has given us access to a part of ourselves.  What we have accessed is not part of the art, it is a discovery made possible by our own creative imagination.  The art made it possible, but the act of discovery (and perhaps the thing being discovered) is the result of our own creative innovation.

Consider these examples of how I think this works:

Imitation

We imagine ourselves in stories.  We are drawn to characters with whom we empathize and contexts that we find most appealing, perhaps because they are more readily imitated in our imagination.  We imagine ourselves fighting off the antagonists.  We imagine ourselves running for our lives.  

When we listen to music, we imagine ourselves playing the song.  We might even play air guitar or drums.  The impulse to reenact what we are hearing is a natural form of the imitative component of our creative imagination.

Beneath theses surface forms of imitation, we imitate by way of repeating the artwork to ourselves by way of revisiting the images.  

Assimilation

We take a few details from a story and fill in the world around it with details of our own, thereby embellishing and augmenting the work.  An example of this: my memory of John Bonham’s drum sound on various Led Zeppelin albums is always larger than what I hear when I sit down to listen.  His sound is huge on record; it’s even bigger in my imagination.  The suggestive power of the recordings has led me to recreate and then embellish the largeness of the sound.

Innovation

I can report that I sometimes have the urge to listen to music without knowing what I want to hear.  Yet the impulse to listen seems to be specifying some song album I must identify before I can start: 

Is it Hejira?  Maybe. 

Fulfillingness’ First Finale?  Very Close. 

The Rough Dancer and the Cyclical Night? No, but I have to revisit that one soon.   

Aha!  It’s Journey in Satchidananda.

Alice Coltrane's album  Journey in Satchidananda . Image via  365jazz.wordpress.com

Alice Coltrane's album Journey in Satchidananda. Image via 365jazz.wordpress.com

 

My intuition has told me that this choice will give me access to some part of myself.  In this case, Alice Coltrane and her ensemble launch me into a journey of discovery (or rediscovery).  At the end of that journey lies some part of me that I may or may not have previously encountered.  My need to hear the album points to the particular piece of music’s role in helping me make that journey.  (Note that sometimes we listen to songs or albums over and over, because we want to stay in the place we've found within ourselves by way of listening.)  I enter into unconscious recreation of what I’m hearing, and then mental embellishments of what I’m hearing, and then finally access a part of me that lies beyond the music.

All of this happens in abstract, which is why absorbing art is so wonderfully mysterious.


Thank you for reading.

Creative Process Part 3 supplement — Teaching Song Writers

Yesterday, I described how in my work with Music That Makes Community, I have taught song leaders to lead singers who are not reading the music from paper.  The pedagogy draws on several principles we’ve encountered in this exploration of creative process.

Another workshop I have led for Music That Makes Community addresses how to write a song.  The workshop participants span a wide spectrum of experience and training, and the pedagogy exploits this by focusing on experiential learning, which not only helps beginners take advantage of their musical intuitions but also reminds trained musicians of how listeners absorb the ideas of composers.

The pedagogy relies on several principles we have encountered already:

Imitate, Assimilate, Innovate (from Clark Terry)

The importance of clearing one’s mind by focusing on something external (from Sanford Meisner)

The process of staging these processes one step at a time (from Bill T. Jones)

The workshop lasts 45 minutes and has what looks like a simple agenda.  Prepare participants to write their own music by inviting them to experience how . . . 

1. Melodies have a shape that takes the listener on a journey.

2. Memorable melodies include surprises such as  . . .

Melodic Leaps
Dissonance
Syncopation 

We start by singing a familiar melody, “Amazing Grace” (the participants are almost all writing for a church context), and painting the melody with an imagined paintbrush. 

We talk about the basic shape of the melody we just painted.  It takes a journey and then returns home.  (This is not a prescription, only a bit of noticing.)  We then sing the words with the order of the melodic phrases inverted, so that “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound . . . ” is sung over the melody of “I once was lost but now am found . . .” and vice versa.  And we talk about what we noticed about that switch.

I then invite a participant to step forward, find one of the short texts I’ve posted along the walls, and sing the words using a melody of her own.  “See if you can sing one that takes a journey and returns home.” 

Note the various principles are at work here: Imitation (basing her melody on a simple shape idea of going away from the starting point and then coming back to it); focusing on something external (the texts posted on the walls relieve her of having to come up with words of her own); staging things one thing at a time (we have not yet discussed melodic leaps, dissonance, or syncopation.)

After she has improvised a melody, the group sings it back to her, and we discuss how the melody journeyed away and then returned home.  Two or three more participants are invited forward to try the same thing.

Then we move on to melodic leaps.  I have the group sing the opening lines of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” as they paint the shape of the melody with their imagined paintbrushes.  We then try singing the same words with some of the leaps removed and talk about what difference the leaps and their absence makes.  We repeat this as we sing the opening lines of “Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered.”

A workshop participant improvises a melody using a text such as those seen behind her.

A workshop participant improvises a melody using a text such as those seen behind her.

The other participants sing her melody back to her.  Images via  facebook.com/MusicThatMakesCommunity

The other participants sing her melody back to her.  Images via facebook.com/MusicThatMakesCommunity

Then I invite a participant to come forward, take a sample text, and sing it using a melody that takes a leap.  She sings, the group sings it back to her, and we talk about what difference the leap made.  More participants follow.

We follow this same pattern of learning as we sing and then improvise our own melodies with dissonance and then syncopation.  (Come to one of our workshops to see all of this in action.)

The participants are then asked to spend 40 minutes writing a quick song of their own (usually one-line in length) that they can teach to the group.  We invite them to use any of the sample texts on the wall or use a text of their own choosing.

Judging by the quality of the songs that are brought back to the group by even first-time songwriters, this method works.  We hear songs that have a sense of melodic shape (whether or not it returns home or not), melodic leaps, dissonance, and syncopation.  Most of the songs include several of these elements.  The participants are surprised to find how capable they are of doing something that many of them had never even thought of attempting.  They are also surprised by what their fellow participants come up with.

All of it attests to the insights of Terry, Meisner, Jones, and other master creators who have paid attention to the process of learning.


Thank you for reading.

Creative Process Part 2 supplement — The Reader's Journal Exercise

 
Vladimir Nabokov.  Image via babelio.com

Vladimir Nabokov.  Image via babelio.com

 

We’ve been exploring creative process through the lens of jazz trumpeter Clark Terry’s formulation, “Imitate, assimilate, innovate.”

The last two posts have focused on acting teacher Sanford Meisner’s famous Repetition Excercise.  We saw Meisner and then acting coach Jack Waltzer state that the value of this exercise, rooted in imitation, is that it gets us out of our own head.  We focus elsewhere and thus clear the way for our impulses to emerge naturally (instead of artificially as the result of overthinking).

Hold that thought and consider the following quote from Vladimir Nabokov.

“A wise reader reads the book of genius not with his heart, not so much with his brain, but with his spine.”

Vladimir Nabokov, “Good Readers and Good Writers” 

By reading with the spine, Nabokov is describing something very much like the natural impulses that the Meisner exercise aims to produce, attention unfettered by overthinking (and in Nabokov’s case, over-feeling, too). 

When I teach writing, I ask my students to keep a journal of favorite passages of writing by others.  Here is an excerpt from my instructions to them:


As you read begin to notice when the writing does something, stirs your imagination, strikes you as especially vivid, elicits even the slightest shift in your attention.  Take note of those passages (e.g. “p. 32, middle ¶”), and when you are finished reading, go back and record them in your Reader’s Journal, always noting the author, work, and page numbers.  Write out the passages by hand (or, if you must, type them, print them out, and paste them).  The act of transcribing the work from the page to your journal will further inscribe the text into your consciousness.  (Photocopying, not so much and is thus not allowed.) 

Then record any observations about why each passage might have moved you.  Your journal will begin to fill up with passages and notes, for example . . .

"The village of Holcomb stands on the high wheat plains of western Kansas, a lonesome area that other Kansans call “out there.”  Some seventy miles east of the Colorado border, the countryside, with its hard blue skies and desert-clear air, has an atmosphere that is rather more Far West than Middle West.  The local accent is barbed with a prairie twang, a ranch-hand nasalness, and the men, many of them, wear narrow frontier trousers, Stetsons, and high-heeled boots with pointed toes.  The land is flat, and the views are awesomely extensive; horses, herds of cattle, a white cluster of grain elevators rising as gracefully as Greek temples are visible long before a traveler reaches them." 

In Cold Blood by Truman Capote, opening paragraph

“Greek temples” a surprising but convincing note of epic grandeur

Sound sets so much of the mood: the flat A’s — “accent is barbed with a prairie twang, a ranch-hand nasalness” and then the sharpness of the T’s — “frontier trousers, Stetsons, and high-heeled boots with pointed toes.”

Pay particular attention to your aesthetic experience and cultivate that part of your awareness. Becoming a reader who notices even the subtlest effects will make you a better writer.  Furthermore, your Reader’s Journal will allow you to revisit those passages, study them, and unpack their magic, for instance, how the allusion to Greek temples sets off Capote’s description of the plains of western Kansas.

Enter at least 100 words of excerpts every week (not counting your insights about the passages).  Everything you read (in and out of class) is fair game. 


My goal, like Nabokov and Meisner, is to cultivate each student's attention as a reader.  Because if she can learn to access her impulses as a reader, she will begin to access them when she reads her own writing and thus learn to discern when her writing feels contrived and where it feels natural.


Thank you for reading.

Creative Process Part 1 — Copy and Compose

The following series on Creative Process draw heavily on Clark Terry's advice to young musicians:  “Imitate, assimilate, innovate.”  I am indebted to my close friend and colleague Donald Schell (founder of Music That Makes Community) for drawing my attention to Terry's quote as well as for the following crucial insight: Imitation leads us to our individuality.


In a previous post, I mentioned jazz trumpeter Clark Terry’s advice to those learning to play jazz: “Imitate, assimilate, innovate.”  Jazz players and improvisers from other traditions have followed this path.  They transcribe solos by favorite artists and learn to play them—imitation.  They bring some of those moves into their own solos—assimilation.  And eventually they find themselves playing something utterly original—innovation.  

Terry's insight is a powerful one, one which I want to explore over the next two weeks.  It goes much deeper than the surface understanding that I just presented.  It actually extends all the way to the audience.  They, too, imitate, assimilate, and innovate.  But let's start at the beginning.

The first observation is that Terry’s insight applies in any number of creative forms.  A recent discovery of mine is a book on writing, Copy and Compose: A Guide to Prose Style by Winston Weathers and Otis Winchester. 

From the introduction . . .  

Writing is a skill, and like playing the violin or throwing a discus, it may be learned by observing how others do it-then by trying to imitate, carefully and thoughtfully, the way it was done. In writing, we can “observe” by copying sentences and paragraphs written by master stylists. And we can consciously imitate these sentences and paragraphs in our own writing, making them a part of our basic repertoire. . .

Having copied a model, word for word, in our own handwriting, we next choose a subject of our own, one as distinct and different from the content of the model as possible. Then we write our own passage, keeping in mind the general syntax, diction, phrasing, and any special characteristic of the model. Saying what we want to say, giving expression to our own concepts, observations, ideas, and beliefs, we imitate the manner and style, the structure and syntax, and the formality and texture of the model. Our own version is what is sometimes called a pastiche. In many European schools, students regularly learn the art of writing by composing pastiches or short pieces of composition in the style of another . . .

Reading, copying, and imitating are not an end in themselves, of course. They are means toward the development of our own style and our own mode of expression. By becoming thoughtful, practicing copyists, we can more easily achieve the goal of good writing. Instead of waiting to discover the methods of effective and powerful writing in a time-consuming trial-and-error way, we can become familiar with the work of the masters and benefit from their achievements.  We can more quickly reach an effective level of com- position that will give us power to communicate.

Copy and Compose, Weathers and Winchester, p. 1, 3, 4-5

Weathers and Winchester then provide models of different style of prose sentences.  For example . . .

#1 — The Loose Sentence

I remember one splendid morning, all blue and silver, in the summer holidays when I reluctantly tore myself away from the task of doing nothing in particular, and put on a hat of some sort and picked up a walking-stick, and put six very bright-coloured chalks in my pocket. 

G. K. Chesterton, A Piece of Chalk 

After describing the workings of this sentence structure, readers are instructed to . . .

Copy Chesterton's sentence; then compose a similar loose sentence, enlarging upon the initial, main thought by the addition of other details. Extend the sentence as long as you dare, sustaining interest as long as possible.

Copy and Compose, Weathers and Winchester, p. 8

The book proceeds with models of over sixty types of sentences (the periodic sentence, the inverted sentence, the master sentence, and so forth) and then, later in the book, various species of paragraphs (the topic sentence first paragraph, the paragraph of narrative details, the paragraph of contrasts, etc.).  

As Clark Terry suggests, starting from imitation can help us access what is truly original within us.

Copy and Compose is out of print, which is a shame.  The book's ideas, however, are there for the trying.  The approach is well established in all creative forms and for very good reasons, some of which we will explore as we continue.


Thank you for reading. 

Bridges Part 6 — Stevie Wonder's "Creepin'"

The past few posts have been about song bridges, middle eights, possible analogs in film and fiction, and how one might add a bridge to a song, a piece of writing, a film, and so forth.

In this post, I’d like to talk about one of my all-time favorite bridges, the middle-eight section of Stevie Wonder’s song “Creepin’” from his introspective album, Fulfillingness’ First Finale.

 In the earlier posts I noted some standard traits of a bridge.

  • The lyrics reconsider the song’s assumptions and/or looking at things from a new perspective. 
     
  • This reconsideration is accompanied by a shift to new musical terrain.  The song has to get away from where it has been in order to for the reconsideration to take place.

  • As a result of this questioning and travel through new musical terrain, a song gains a deeper understanding of what it has always been.

 With these ideas in mind . . .

 

The song opens with its signature riff, a modal progression on the electric piano, highlighted by accompanying synth lines.  The riff establishes the somnambulant mood of the verses.

I can hear you sighin'
Sayin' you'll stay beside me
Why must it be
That you always creep...
Into my dreams?
etc.
 

Note the striking character of the musical dissonance, which is not discordant but weird, surreal.  It places us on a thickly shadowed path, where the few slivers of light that split through the branches are just enough to help us find our way, a few footsteps at a time.  The dissonance creates a sense of mystery and erotic expectation that pulls us through the darkness as we brush against its lush textures. The subtle dialogue between Minnie Riperton’s background vocal and Stevie Wonder’s lead stirs this atmosphere.

And then, at 1:22 (and again at 2:50) we come to the middle eight, and the musical landscape blossoms from modal darkness into a rush of color— the song’s newfound major key.  Having emerged from the verses, we find ourselves lifted up into light.

When I'm sleep at night baby
I feel those moments of ecstasy
 When you sleep at night baby

We are returned back to the verses with the question that haunts the song:

I wonder do I creep into your dreams
Or could it be I sleep alone in my fantasy? 

Note how necessary the bright contrast of the middle eight is to the song as a whole.  The mystery of the verses is deepened by the rush of the middle eight.  Together, these contrasting yet complementing musical moods combine convey the contrasting yet complementing emotional moods —torment and pleasure— of infatuation.

Completion by way of contrast—this is what a bridge does for a song.  


 Thank you for reading.

Song Bridges Part 5 — Building A Bridge

 
(The San Francisco Bay Bridge via  historyinphotos.blogspot.com )

(The San Francisco Bay Bridge via historyinphotos.blogspot.com)

The last few posts have been discussing the element of songwriting known as a bridge.  In “Song Bridges” and “Song Bridges Part 2 — Middle Eights,” I explored the function of the bridge, and in “Song Bridges Part 3 — Film” and “Song Bridges Part 4 — Fiction,” I suggested that analogs to this songwriting move can be found in other mediums.  Indeed, I stumbled onto that idea as I wrote my memoir.  I came to a point in one of the later chapters and thought, “It needs a bridge right here!”

 If one were to add a bridge to a song, a story, a memoir, a film, how might one go about it?

 One might begin by asking if the work in question actually needs a bridge.  I once heard Paul Westerberg say, “The best bridge is no bridge at all.”  Indeed.

Sometimes, however, one has finished a song, a story, or a script and can’t shake the feeling that the work is incomplete, though the beginning feels like the beginning and the end feels like the end.  Somehow the work did not reach the depths necessary to evoke the intended emotional response.  In that case, a bridge may be in order.  How might one add one?

  • Let the work’s main idea establish itself before starting a bridge.  (A likely point for a bridge will be after the halfway point.)
     
  • Let the bridge introduce material that challenges the rest of the work.

    — 
    Challenge the work’s established ideas.  (If the song has been about loss, here is where it might reach for hope.  If the film has followed a protagonist's quest for a goal, here is where she might question that goal.)

    — 
    Highlight that challenge by shifting to new formal landscape. (In music, change keys, or meter, or ambience, or instrumentation.  In writing or film, make a dramatic change of scene, tense, timeframe, mood, voice, and so forth.)
     
  • When you are done, ask yourself if it deepens the piece? Or does it simply add material and thus add to your audience’s cognitive workload?

My band mate, Dan Wilson, (whose advice on songwriting is brilliantly captured in a vine series called “words and music in six seconds”) quoted another wise man, producer Rick Rubin, on the subject of bridges.  Rick said words to this effect: "If you want to add a bridge, it has to be the best part of the song."  (Note the resonance of this insight with Paul Westerberg's.)

I like Rick's test.  Though I can’t say the bridge is always the best section in a favorite song or movie or book, I often feel it’s the most necessary.


 Thank you for reading.

 

 

Song Bridges Part 4 — Fiction

The past few posts have looked at bridges, a move that songwriter’s make.  “Song Bridges” introduced the main idea of a bridge and “Song Bridges Part 2 — Middle Eights” described a particular species of bridge.  In “Song Bridges Part 3 — Film,” I noted some analogs in the realm of film.  Today, I’d like to do the same with literature.

To review . . .

  • A bridge comes after the halfway point in the song form, so that the main ideas can be established.
     
  • It strikes a musical and lyrical contrast with what has come before it.  It challenges or tests the song’s established ideas.
     
  • As a result, the song’s meaning expands.

Bridges In Literature

The connection to literature had not occurred to me until I was writing my memoir, So You Wanna Be a Rock & Roll Star.   As I edited the draft, I told myself, “It needs a bridge.”  So I wrote a bridge (I may discuss it in some future post) and was surprised to find that bridges can work in books just as they might in songs.

Here are two instances of bridges in fiction.

Example 1 — “The Swimmer” by John Cheever

This famous short story that was later made into a film starring Burt Lancaster.  (I’ve not seen the film; I’ll be commenting only on Cheever’s original version.)

The story takes place in summertime and opens as the main character, Neddy Merrill, sips drinks poolside at the house of friends.  As he thinks about leaving, he concocts a novel plan for getting home.    

“He seemed to see, with a cartographer’s eye, that string of swimming pools, that quasi-subterranean stream that curved across the country . . . / . . . he was going to swim home. / . . . The only maps and charts he had to go by were remembered or imaginary but these were clear enough.  First there were the Grahams, the Hammers, the Lears, the Howlands, and the Crosscups.  He would cross Ditmar Street to the Bunkers and come, after a short portage, to the Levys, the Welchers, and the public pool in Lancaster.  Then there were the Hallorans, the Sachses, the Biswangers, Shirley Adams, the Gilmartins, and the Clydes.  The day was lovely, and that he lived in a world so generously supplied with water seemed like a clemency, a beneficence.”
 

("The Swimmer" by John Cheever, from The Stories of John Cheever, pp. 603-604.)

So he begins his indulgent journey, dropping in on friend after friend, pouring himself drinks and swimming across pools as he makes his way.  The landscape breathes with class privilege and perhaps a bit of the cool detachment of Neddy’s social set.  Whether or not this or that couple is happy to see him walk through their bushes and dive into their pool, he seems not to care.  He’s too taken with himself and his endeavor to care.

Halfway through the story, Neddy must cross a highway to continue his swim home. 

“Had you gone for a Sunday afternoon ride that day you might have seen him, close to naked, standing on the shoulders of Route 424, waiting for a chance to cross.  You might have wondered if he was the victim of foul play, had his car broken down, or was merely a fool.  Standing barefoot in the deposits of the highway — beer cans, rags, and blowout patches — exposed to all kinds of ridicule, he seemed pitiful.”

("The Swimmer" by John Cheever, from The Stories of John Cheever, p. 607.) 

He makes his way across and his journey continues through the landscape of poolside privilege.  His arrival home is not the one imagined at the beginning of the story (and in lieu of revealing more, I’ll simply encourage you to read this and other Cheever stories).

Neddy’s crossing of the highway, in my mind, functions as a bridge might in a song.

  • It comes at the halfway point in the story (so the main ideas and textures have been established).
     
  • It reconsiders the ideas about Neddy established in the first half of the story.  As he drops in on friends and swims through their pools, he exudes boundless social and physical confidence.  Trying to cross the highway, he looks vulnerable and weak.
     
  •  It supports this reconsideration by a change of scenery (analogous to how song bridges support lyrical questions about the rest of the song with a new musical setting).  His swims are set in elegant surroundings.  Suddenly we now see beer cans, rags, and other roadside trash.

 As the result of this bridge-like moment in the story, we return to the story with a more complete picture of Neddy, his world, and perhaps a darker sense of what awaits him.

Example 2 — A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan
 

 This wonderful novel (winner of the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award) is a series of stories about a group of friends and acquaintances who work in the music business.  The stories in the chapters accumulate into a highly diffuse narrative punctuated by leaps of time and place—from the 1980s to the 2000s, from San Francisco to LA to New York, and so forth.  The main characters are music-business professionals, though some of the stories begin when these characters are teens. 

Late in the book, the narrative is taken over by the preadolescent daughter of one of the main characters.  She documents the life of her family, including her older brother’s obsession with pauses in rock & roll songs.

Why this feels like a bridge:

  • The chapter comes after the primary questions and landscape has been established.
     
  • The chapter steps away from questions about adult careers and relationships and takes up questions of family life from a child’s perspective. 
     
  • It turns from questions about the music business to questions about music itself.
     
  • It highlights these reconsiderations of the book’s dominant questions with a departure from the book’s dominant form, for this chapter is written entirely in Powerpoint.  Again, this is an analog to a song’s shift in musical landscape during the bridge. 
(One of the Powerpoint slides from chapter 12 of Jennifer Egan's novel  A Visit from the Goon Squad . via  avisitfromthegoonsquad.com

(One of the Powerpoint slides from chapter 12 of Jennifer Egan's novel A Visit from the Goon Squad. via avisitfromthegoonsquad.com

As we emerge from this chapter to the world where adults tussle over careers, relationships, technology, and music, we have a deeper appreciation for what’s at stake.

Jennifer Egan listened to a lot of music as she wrote this book.  I mainly think of A Visit From the Goon Squad as being structured as an album of stories, but it’s not unreasonable to suppose that amid all of her listening, she might also have conceived of the book as one epic song with a bridge.


 Thank you for reading.  The next post will address the Why and How of adding a bridge.

Song Bridges

Bridge is a musical term that refers to a particular section of a song.  The term is used variously.  Today, when musicians speak of a bridge, they are likely referring to a section later in a song, where a dramatic shift in mood occasions a reconsideration or development of the song’s established ideas.  

I want to focus on this usage because it illuminates an important technique employed not only by musicians but also by artists working in other forms. In order to get to that conversation (a few posts from now), I want to nail down the idea of how a bridge works in music.

A Crisis

You can think of a bridge as a song’s midlife crisis, the point at which the song says “I need to think things over, and try new things.” The song must pass through that crisis to find its deepest meaning.

 Imagine a person going through a midlife crisis.

  •  She questions what she’s done with her life, her career choices, her values, her relationships. 
     
  •  Her questioning might demand that she find a change of scenery so she can think things through—a trek through the desert and mountains.  (Okay, just go read Wild by Cheryl Strayed.)  The change in scene helps her process the questions she is asking herself. 
     
  •  When she returns from journey, she finds that she is not another person, but perhaps has a deeper understanding of who she has always been.

 A bridge does something similar.

  • It questions the song’s assumptions and/or discovers a new way of looking at things. 
     
  • It accompanies this questioning by traveling through new musical terrain.  It has to get away from where it has been in order to gain perspective.  Think of standing on an actual bridge and taking in the view.  That's the idea.

  • As a result of this questioning and travel through new musical terrain, a song gains a deeper understanding of what it has always been.

And just as we don’t think of a midlife crisis happening at age fifteen, a bridge must wait for the main ideas and musical landscape to be established.  Only then can a song go away and have its midlife crisis.
 

Example 1, "Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)

The bridge here begins at 2:03.  Notice how the song shifts from sass to something heavier.  You can hear this in the musical setting and also in the lyrics:

Don't treat me to these things of the world
I'm not that kind of girl
Your love is what I prefer, what I deserve

Note how this dual shift (musical and lyrical) expands the meaning of the refrain “If you wanted it you should’ve put a ring on it” when the song returns to the chorus.  Up until the bridge, the refrain has suggested “Too bad for you.”  After the bridge, however, it means “too bad for us.  I wanted you too, but you blew it and now we both have to pay.”

 In this sense, the bridge expands the song’s sense of itself.

Example 2, "Beautiful Day"

The bridge here begins at the 2:15 mark.  Again, notice the dual dimensions of this shift—musical and lyrical.

Musically, the drums disappear and clouds of synthesizers rise over the mix.  The bridge leaves behind the familiar melodic motif of the verses and choruses and establishes something new, over a new chord progression.

Lyrically, the images are seen from a new angle.  The scenes in the verses are local and happen at street level:

The heart is a bloom, shoots up through stony ground
But there's no room, no space to rent in this town
You're out of luck and the reason that you had to care,
The traffic is stuck and you're not moving anywhere.

The bridge lyrics, however, are global and suggest a perspective higher up, a helicopter or perhaps a satellite.

See the world in green and blue
See China right in front of you
See the canyons broken by cloud
See the tuna fleets clearing the sea out
See the bedouin fires at night
See the oil fields at first light
See the bird with a leaf in her mouth
After the flood all the colours came out

Note also the references to images of destruction, the ransacking of the oceans and plundering of the earth.  Time is running out.

 As the song returns to the final choruses, the stakes have thus been raised and “It’s a beautiful day, don’t let it slip away” takes on greater urgency.

Example 3 — "A Day in the Life"

“A Day in the Life” is a good illustration of the fact that bridges are often written because a songwriter says, “it needs something here.”  The rest of the song had been written, but the Beatles felt it needed more.  When they recorded the song, they left a gap for the bridge, which they created after the fact and edited into the body of the song.  The story is related in various places, including Mark Lewisohn’s The Beatles Recording Sessions (pages 96-97).

After a long transition from the main body of the song, the bridge begins at around 2:15.  Again, you can note two shifts, musical and lyrical.

Musically, the song shifts to new terrain—a new key (E major), a new rhythmic feel (double-time), and a different audio environment (the mix now sounds as if we are in a small room as opposed to the vast expanse suggested in the body of the song).  Also, we’ve got a new singer, Paul instead of John.

The lyrical shift moves us from someone caught in reflection —“I read the news today oh boy” — to someone caught in the rat race — “Found my coat and grabbed my hat / Made the bus in seconds flat.”  And whereas the verses evoke the sense of camera slowly panning across distant happenings, the bridge suggests a handheld camera rushing through scenes at close range.

Again, these contrasts, musical and lyrical, return us to the final verse with a deepened sense of the song’s dimensions and meaning.  After the breathless folly depicted in the bridge, the voice addressing us in the final verse feels wiser.


Thank you for reading and listening.  The next post will explore a particular type of bridge known as a middle eight.