Wrong Notes and Left Turns

In my previous post I was writing about some of my frustrations with branding and forming a strong musical identity. I was discussing how I dislike sticking to one style, and how the variety of my music makes it hard for me to apply a meaningful genre label to myself.

Continuing on this same "branding-and-promotion" track of mind, I've found myself doing a lot of thinking lately about other qualities of my music that make it distinctive, but possibly less accessible.

One thing that immediately occurs to me—as a songwriter friend of mine endearingly once put it—is that I have tendency to throw "left turns" into my songs. My melodies are often peppered with "wrong" notes, or notes that seem to subtly violate expected progressions/form slightly dissonant intervals with underlying chords.

Examples in My Music

The "ay-yi-yi-yi-yi" refrain in "I'm Not Cool Anymore" abruptly and unexpectedly shifts the mood of the song (at 0:15 and 0:33 in the first verse):

The verse melody in "Creation" turns suddenly minor towards the end of the phrase (0:13, 0:32), and does so again at the end of the chorus (1:20):

"Coat of Arms" also has an unexpected tonal shift at the end of each verse (1:10, 2:00).

I love these things, and really I don't think I tend to hear many such "turns" as dissonant or even particularly unexpected. Certainly as a listener, when I hear "surprising" moments like these on the radio, that's when my ears really perk up.

Examples in Other Music

Sergei Prokofiev, the 20th century classical composer, was characteristically known for writing "wrong notes" into his melodies, and this is perhaps why I've long felt we share kindred souls when I listen to his music. The short third movement of his first symphony offers a great example of a melody that sounds distinctly traditional, but veers into unexpected melodic places just often enough that you're never quite able to anticipate where it's heading. In the modern day, Danny Elfman has a penchant for these sort of melodic turns as well (see the main title theme from the original Spiderman).

The Beatles, of course, used left turns all over the place (the minor turn at the chorus in Fool on the Hill comes immediately to mind, or the titular refrain of In My Life). It probably comes as no surprise that I really love the Beatles.

Despite my own personal love for the well placed "wrong note," in my years of demoing work for others, I've often gotten comments like "you're ending on that note?" or "is that how it's supposed to sound?", so clearly some of these "left turns" aren't appreciated by everybody.

Generally though, my impression is that these sort of moments are pretty well liked. Still, sometimes I can't help questioning myself a bit. I can find myself wondering if I’ve gone so far down the rabbit hole of developing hyper-individualized musical tastes that I’ve lost track of what others are likely to hear and enjoy.

That's certainly one of the challenges of becoming a songwriter or any kind of craftsman: as you develop in sophistication, your tastes invariably change, and it's not uncommon for those tastes to start to deviate pretty far from the mainstream. It's definitely an ongoing source of worry for me, since above all else, I see songwriting as a battle against alienation: if it's not connecting with people, it's not working.