I Hope I’m Not Alone

David Frank '75
David Frank '75

The other night, I lay in bed sleepless, thinking about the events of the day. I had called my music publisher in search of a copy of a song Mic Murphy and I had done called “Why You Wanna Hurt Me” with our band The System. It was a B-side of a single from our 1989 album Rhythm and Romance. In the process, the curator of the music library at Sony/ATV/EMI publishing, said that he had been listening to “Juicy Fruit,” a song on which I had done quite a bit of synthesizer arranging and then played on. The “Juicy Fruit” track later became the basis of “Juicy” by the Notorious BIG.

That got me thinking about musical devices. In “Juicy Fruit,” I had come up with an out-of-tempo arpeggio-like ascending pattern that—now that I think of it—was thematically related to the subject matter of the original song. Slowing the tempo of the DSX sequencer down and starting very slowly, I played the pattern without quantization and gradually sped up as I approached the top of the keyboard. Then I repeated the pattern in a higher octave a number of times thinking we would fade it out each time while recording to tape. Then I sped the tempo up. We didn’t use delay effects.

I started thinking about the chord scale texture within the arpeggiated pattern and how it related to the chords in “Juicy Fruit.” Then my mind wandered to the last chord of Chopin’s “Prelude in F Major,” sometimes called the “Butterfly.” and how Chopin chose an F dominant 7 for last chord. To my ear, it’s like an 1824 precursor to endings heard in blues and rock songs. I fast-forwarded to Earth Wind and Fire’s “That’s the Way of the World.” The chord changes of the song’s chorus feature some amazing voice leading moving from the I chord (D) to V7/IV (D7) to the sub V7/IV (Ab7) resolving to IV (G maj7), and then to a bVII7 (C7). Those sounds—although harmonically different—became the inspiration for songs like “You Are in My System” and “Don’t Disturb This Groove” by our band.

I thought about some of the great Stevie Wonder songs and how he stretched the harmonic language of pop music in songs like “Sir Duke,” his tribute to Duke Ellington. That led my thoughts inevitably to the personal harmonic world of Duke’s entire catalog, with the bridge of “Sophisticated Lady” among it’s wonders. In that song, Duke modulates to a new key a half-step below the tonic for the bridge and then suddenly goes back up to the original key for the final A section. And then there are the voicings Tal Farlow used in his solo guitar interpretation of “Autumn in New York.”

The way the guitar, keyboard, horn and bass lock together in Michael Jackson’s “Shake Your Body Down to the Ground” danced on my brain. That brought me to today’s r&b songs such as “Lotus Flower Bomb” by Wale or Eric Benet’s “Miss Jones,” and the imaginative tracks of Trey Songz. Strains of “Love You Like a Love Song” by Selena Gomez with its circle-of-fifths progression—a first cousin to the “Berklee 101” favorite “Autumn Leaves” rang in my head.

As my mind wandered around, thinking of other musical perfections and anomalies that I celebrate, I suddenly felt alone. Am I the only one left who thinks about this stuff? In a musical landscape filled with time-stretched ascending portamento buildups and drops that impact with sub bass, are the subtleties and the possibilities of intricate beauty and meaning in harmonic motion being left behind in favor of simplistic manipulation of kinda-cool features of software programs?

Don’t get me wrong, I am definitely in favor of computer-related technical virtuosity, rhythmic urgency, and feel. I believe in using technical possibilities even if they involve no skill or playing technique. If it sounds good who cares? I have spent many an hour trying to get the perfect sweep or noise crash to go into or out of a chorus or verse. Alternatively, I have sometimes found what I wanted in an instant in a library or with a turn of a knob or slight mouse movement. I know that pure excitement has its place and that some songs or musical entities are meant to be just that.

Take Justin Bieber’s “As Long as you Love Me.” Here veteran producer Rodney Jenkins pulls out all the stops in this tension-filled buildup, with pitch and rhythmic rise-and-fall devices in a masterful way. Then there is Zedd, who in his first widely promoted outing “Spectrum” often combined the harmonic interest of jazz related chord progressions and dubstep-like dramatic buildup drop and stop values.

I offer respect to Daft Punk for recent hits with the help of Pharrell Williams, Nile Rodgers, and Robin Thicke; their “Derrezed” from the TRON soundtrack album rattled rhythm central in my inner ear in a good way. Dillon Francis’s “I.D.G.A.F.O.S.” combines excitement and skillfully programmed complexity with major-scale, skipping-down-the-street happiness. His “Masta Blasta” also deserves mention for its programming virtuosity and subtlety with results that create a sense of hard-core recklessness. And how about some super minor-key drama pressure in Nero’s song “Guilt?”

But am I alone in my appreciation of an emotionally stirring melodic and chordal sequences or a simple yet profound harmonic musical device? If you feel as I do, it’s time to write more music. We can move it all forward with just one hit song that has the elements we love. Others will almost certainly follow.

Playing technique, harmonic knowledge and fluency combined with a thorough understanding and facility on your software instruments and Digital Audio Workstation will win the day. I hope I’m not alone.

David Frank is a keyboardist, producer, songwriter, and a founding member of pioneering synth duo The System with Mic Murphy. The group had several charting songs, including “You Are in my System” and the No. 1 hit “Don’t Disturb this Groove.” Its latest album, System Overload, was released in 2013. Frank has also written, produced, and played on recordings by Christina Aguilera (“Genie in a Bottle”), Chaka Khan (“I Feel For You”), Phil Collins (“Sussudio”), and Michael McDonald, among others.