The story goes that the Duke Ellington/Irving Mills jazz standard “It Don’t Mean A Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing” was inspired by one of Duke’s ailing musicians who first came up with that phrase. And to many musicians to this day, that statement means something with no further explanation. To others, it is a lifelong effort to understand and analyze what “swing” is. Music is subjective and, like other art expressions, is a category with no rules in how to either create it or interpret it.
The closest definition of “swing” according to Webster would probably be “to cause to sway to and fro.” But that doesn’t really nail it. No definition could, because in this scribe’s humble opinion, it either “has it” or it doesn’t. What internal system do I use to make that judgment for myself? My ears and heart. Remember – there are no rules.
I would argue that the ears and heart (or soul) are the Supreme Court of what makes a valid musical statement. Everyone then has their own judicial system when it comes to the subjective appeal of music. Therefore, any point I attempt to state further is going to be one man’s opinion. But I’m the one writing.
One part of my job is to produce musical “brands” for entities that enable them to be identified by a series of musical notes. I work with other composers and arrangers to create a musical sentence or paragraph that, by itself must make a statement to be expressed by the music and strong enough to stand on its own with no picture. No rules exist for making this process successful other than we know it’s right when we hear it. We take the case to our individual Supreme Courts of Ears and Soul for a ruling.
Having been tasked with doing analysis of a client’s current “brand,” it is sometimes difficult for me to hear what that brand is. It’s kind of like a musical version of “Where’s Waldo?” Yes, I can hear a recurring series of notes that, with repetition of being played could then associate that music with that program, television station or company. But to my ear, it doesn’t make it a brand.
A combination of words doesn’t necessarily create a sentence. I will argue that the same applies to a musical brand. Not only do the series of musical notes or melody need to make sense by themselves, the music that it is preceded and proceeded by should support that statement. Some examples I’ve been tasked to critique sorely miss the mark – either by musically restating a weak melody just to add the value of repetition in, or will miss an opportunity of support in what goes before and after.
The argument could be intellectually made in any example I reference that would illustrate this point, that there is a “brand” present. But, my internal sonic supreme court would quickly overrule that argument. The opinion would simply be written as “it ain’t got that swing.”
Bottom line if you’re needing someone to create a musical brand for you? Close your eyes; listen to some different options; and see which one paints the strongest picture. You’ll know it when you hear it. Case closed.
– Randy Hart, Creative Services Director for Aircast Custom Music