Distinct is one of many possible ways to start to describe Ben Folds. Ben Folds is a composer, singer, and songwriter. He started his musical career in 1995 as the lead singer and pianist of a band of an alternative rock group named Ben Folds Five. The group was together for about five years before a temporary split. During this split Folds persuaded a solo career and has since toured all over the world. On the more instrument oriented side of things, Folds has toured with symphonies all around the US and is currently an advisor for the National Symphony Orchestra at the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C.
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This essay will explore the question: How has the evolution of music from the twentieth century to the present influenced the harmony, rhythm of the piano accompaniment, and style of Ben Folds compositional career? The format will include a brief summary of the evolution of music with specific points on harmony, rhythm, and style. Furthermore, the analysis of his music from these large categories will be broken down into smaller elements and analyzed against each other and against what the common idea of that subject was at the time the piece was written. The conclusion will be a summary of the results and an overall look over how Folds conformed to the norms of composition in the specific time of composition.
The main sources used for this essay were the scores and recordings of the three pieces. Each of the scores were analyzed by myself. All of the information of his pieces comes from the annotations I made on the analyzed scores. The evolution of music and musical history was scored from a secondary source, a website, and was only used for context of that era.
Ben Folds Five
The first album this group released was in 1997 titled Whatever and Ever Amen. This contained their first hit “Brick”. This song would launch the band into a good portion of mainstream media. They consisted of Folds (lead singer, songwriter, piano/keyboard), Robert Sledge(bass guitar, backup vocals), and Darren Jessee(percussion, backing vocals, songwriter). Within the first decade of being together they released albums and singles. The band’s first hit “Brick” launched their sound into mainstream media. The band broke up in 2000 and reunited in 2011 for a fourth album in 2012. Folds described the band as “punk rock for sissies” because they were a piano rock band in the middle of the grunge era.
As a solo artist Ben Folds hasn’t slowed down. He has released albums, been featured on television. He composed a three movement piano concerto. After the composition was completed he went on tour around the US showcasing it with some of the more famous symphonies along with playing some of his originals.
Evolution of Western music from 1990 to the Present
Towards the end of the 19th century and into the 20th century marked the end of Romanticism ended in the beginning of the 20th century and marked the modern period beginning. The modern Period has a timeline from 1900s to the 1960s; it created new styles of music and ways of thinking about music. Impressionism would describe this style. Impressionists, as in painters and artists, influenced the musical choices of well known composers such as Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel. Throughout this transitional period composers began to ditch the old classical style of composing and reached for new subjects. These new subjects would include atonality, “the amorphous rhythmic patterns, the whole tone scale, the concept of free relationship of adjacent harmonies”, and so much more. This new era would bring a fresh set of eyes to the musical world, flipping it upside down.
“Harmony, in music, the sound of two or more notes heard simultaneously”. Western music defines harmony in a very specific way: rules that chords need to follow inorder to be consonant or dissonant with each other. It is a highly developed system of chords compared to two or more notes being played together. Western harmony tends to demonstrate a liking to very specific chords, these chords are the fourth, fifth, and octave intervals. These intervals are very pleasing to one’s ear and therefore are used most frequently throughout most musical cultures.
The 20th century began avant-garde conceptions of harmony. Composers don’t follow the rules from previous musical periods and kind of make up new ones as they go. This could be thought of as a beginning of a new movement of harmony. The 20th century composers are moving to a new era of harmonic compositions.
“Rhythm, in music, the placement of sounds in time”. Rhythm can stand alone without melody, harmony, anything but itself. Rhythm, as stated by Plato is “an order of movement”. Common rhythmic elements include rubato, rhythmic musical motif, and musical variation. Balanced phrases is another element that is common and present. The time component of rhythmic music involves tempo, time measure, metre, and period. Both sections create the major component on composing beautiful rhythm.
The rhythmic structure of harmony is connected to harmony entirely. In the past, harmony would limit rhythmic ideas and the melodic elements. From this, the majority of European music ad some sections of Asia have distinct “four-square melodic tendencies”. ON the other hand, places such as India created music that would contain a drone as the harmony, a melodic vocal or instrumental performer with a metre. This concludes with a percussionist playing a drum beat in a different metre than the melodic line. The drone being the singular harmonic component allows for the rhythm to have more complexity.
Overall rhythm has changed throughout all of musical history to create what the 20th century has been thought of as rhythm. The 20th century composers create music with constantly changing time signatures yet combine all the signature rhythmic elements from all other previous musical eras.
Style can be thought of in different ways to different people. Style is influenced by the phrasing of the melodic and harmonic lines. The ornamentation and articulation of the rhythm throughout the piece. Homophony and word painting, as well as other elements create a variety of textures and styles of music even if they are from the same era or century.
Different styles create different genres of the 20th and 21st century. Country music, usually entails acoustic guitars and folk instruments. R&B (Rhythm and Blues) originated in the 1940s and 1950s and characteristically consisted of piano, a couple guitars, bass, drums, and saxophones. It has a mellow and jazz like sound.
Pop music or popular music originated in the 1950s and has the largest characteristic of being generated for a greater audience. As this is the case pop music shares stylist elements and features with multiple genres all around to incorporate all styles of music. Pop music has the tendency to flow with existing treads instead of creating more progressive music. It contains simple musical structures such as thirty two bar and verse-chorus form. Both focus on simple and catchy melodies with a chorus that is all around different from the verse. The beats and chord progressions also tend to be simple and contain the basic open chords (I, ii, V) with some exceptions of course.
Rock music started in the 1950s as a part of pop music but in the 60s the two genres separated and became more of a contrast than the similar. It has features of the electric guitar, bass, strong beats (2 and 4), and usually simple chord structures (I, IV, and V).
The most common progression in Western popular music is the three-chord progression. A three chord progression usually contains the I, IV, and V. These chords are chosen to fit the modern melody which could be played on any note of the scale. Figure 1: This figure shows common chord progressions in Western Music with multiple keys. Starting with the most recent composition, “Phone in a pool” throughout almost the entire piece Folds uses the same four chords, Dm – G – C – F(D minor, G major, C major, F major). As seen in Figure 2 these chords are used repeatedly in the song in that order. These common chords deal with the same or similar ones from the rock era of the 1950s using “power chords”. This order is a circle of fourths- this will be explained in greater detail in the later section about the circle. This order is repeated fourths from the tonic of Dm; this is a simple progression, common of the 21st century. As for the middle piece, “Still” in the verse section of the song the chords between “A-B” duplicate in the second verse from “D-E” as shown in Figure 3. During these sections the chords are similar to the ones used in the modern piece- using the tonic, subdominant, and dominant- but there are additions of the minor second (ii) and the sixth (VI). This gives more texture to the song. In Folds earliest of the three pieces, “One Angry Dwarf” the chord progressions gets even more complex but still very symmetrical throughout each repeated section. Figure 4 shows the first and second verses from this song with the chord progressions. There are differences in some parts but the chords themselves are still the same. This piece relates to the others because of its symmetrical patterns but all of the pieces vary in difficulty getting progressively more simple the later into the 21st century they go.
Circle of Fifths
The circle of fifths was created long before the 20th century but has not fallen out of practice. Figure 5 shows the circle of fifths and describes some of the various uses for it. Many modern day musicians compose their own tunes by using this tool. It creates a free flowing ideas that can then be paired easily as shown by the circle with the corresponding chords. Working from the lastest piece from Folds, there seems to be very specific correlation between using the circle and the progression lead in the majority of the piece. This can be shown in Figure 6 which shows verse one and the bridge section. Both of these sections show a pattern. The bridge also goes halfway around the circle starting with B and the progression works its way up to G and then skips to F. This is then repeated starting in m.89 into m.90. As for “Still”, Figure 7 shows a section that shows a more complex way to use the entire circle. The chords move from the major and minor keys that are next to each other on the circle. It starts with F major and moves to the relative minor of the fourth (g minor). A relative minor is the lowercase letter in the inner circle of the circle of fifths, meaning the relative minor of F major is d minor. Continuing on, m.33-39 shows a pattern of F major, d minor, C major, and back to g minor. This then repeats which on the circle makes a nice triangle around F, d, and C. Moving on to the newest piece, there is a different story. Throughout the majority of the piece the chords are the same. They are not in the circle of fifths but the circle of fourths. The circle of fourths is part of the original circle as if the circle is rotated to the right the keys change by fifths and if it’s rotated to the left the keys change by fourths. As shown in Figure 8, from the beginning of the song the chords move to the next fourth- d minor to G major to C major to F major. Overall, the three pieces use the circle of fifths in one use or another. The main difference between Folds and the evolution in with the newest piece “Phone in a Pool” as it doesn’t use the main focus of the circle which makes Folds a different modern composer.
Rhythmic Ostinatos in Piano Accompaniment
A musical motif or ostinato is defined as a repeated phrase that shows up frequently throughout a piece of music. It could be rhythmic, melodic, harmonic, from anywhere in the piece. For these pieces the otif will occur in the piano accompaniment and could correspond to a section of the melody. In “Phone in a Pool”, it is very easy to spot motifs from the song. Figure 9 shows the three different motifs used throughout the song. Each has a distinct way of playing the idea-which will be discussed in a later section- which creates the new idea. Although the rhythm is the same with constant eighth note chords the ornamentations and rhythmic styling creates new ways to express a different idea. As far as “Still” goes, the motifs are a bit harder to find as they are not as apparent in the piano accompaniment. The easy part is finding a motif in the first verse. Figure 10 shows the motif from letter A to B which is the entire first verse. It can be seen that the chords are the same and the rhythm of held chords in the piano part is the same. The motif gets tweaked a bit in the second verse to accommodate the melody changing. Figure 11 shows the second verse from letter D to E. Measure 67 starts the modified version of the motif. It can be seen that the first verse (Figure 9), the piano part, contains blocks chords in the treble clef and doubling of notes in the bass clef. Moving to verse two, the treble clef of the piano carries the melody and acts as a doubler for the melody. The bass clef is then left to fill out the chord and give simple rhythmic additions from the melody. This small difference changes the motif but the original idea is still in place as the chords are still being played with all the same notes as in verse one but there are additional ideas happening and the notes don’t happen at the same time. Choruses are notorious for being repetitive. In “One Angry Dwarf” this is very true. The rhythmic pattern set by the piano is sustained throughout the chorus for the second time for the most part. As songs get farther along composers tend to add more notes, difficulty, rhythmic features such as Folds does. This can be seen in Figure 12 which shows the slight difference in the rhythm in measures 43 and 46 from measures 19 and 22. Folds tends to gravitate towards the common in how he cares to show his musical ostinatos as his career progresses.
For the 20th century having irregular rhythms wasn’t as uncommon as it could be in the Medieval era. 20th century composers were the era of avantgarde music and trying new things. Because of this music contained a lot of triplet, swung, polyrhythms, off beats, and syncopation. Folds is not the type of composer to shy away from something like that in any era hence his compositions contain plenty of irregular rhythms. Starting with “One Angry Dwarf” Folds doesn’t hold back. Measure 8 is the end of the introduction into the first verse and the piano plays syncopation in both clefs-this is shown in Figure 13. Figure 14 shows measures 17-24-part of the chorus- which shows his use of off beats throughout the chorus. “Still” has less irregular rhythms because this song was written in the time where artists were moving toward less of the experimental age of new music and composed more music that stayed with the pulse of the piece. There is a bit of off beat work in the accompaniment which can be seen in Figure 15. Off beats are a very easy way to sneak in irregular rhythms and are of the more common ways. Folds tends to stick with writing for the meter in this particular song. The meter being ¾ creates a very powerful first beat and two beats after to keep the tempo. Since Folds takes this meter into consideration when writing this piece the off beats are the best and most integrated way to have an irregularity of some kind. Though he could have created a polyrhythm which would work very well with the three against two concept and the chosen meter. Switching to “Phone in a Pool”has hidden syncopation within the piano rhythms. Figure 16 shows measures 10-12 with specific images of the emphasize on syncopation in the treble line. The syncopation is started by the accent pattern in the rhythm which is a stylist element that will be discussed later. The emphasize of that pattern in the bass line is the main focus as it actually has off beats. The syncopation is only audible because it is visible through the accents written on the page, without those the measure would be straight boring eighth notes. Folds continues to use irregular rhythm in all of his pieces of music but confinds to the smaller usage when hiding the rhythmic details in compositional tricks.
Phrasing can be thought of in multiple lights, one is more involved in vocal music than instrumental and the other is common for both. They are analytical, usually based on the written score; the other is aural, based on the language being heard which could either be from an instrumental soloist or vocalist. Within the 20th century music, phrasing took different forms within the multiple styles of music that were performed in that century. Because “Phone in a pool’” was created in the later portion of the 21st century thus far, it complies with simple and symmetrical phrasing similar to that of the classical era. There are balanced phrases and the phrases tend to contain either 4, 8, or 16 measure phrases. In this case, the phrases tend to be 4 measures long and there are 4 total phrases throughout a verse. Figure 17 shows the first verse with the phrase markings in purple showing where each of the sub phrases starts in the entire verse along with the measure numbers to show the balanced phrasing. Moving on to “Still”. The phrasing is still balanced, like most pieces of the 20th century but there are different ways Folds styles the piece. Using the verses again, Figure 18 shows the phrase markings and measures for clarification in the styling. It can be seen that verse one has two overarching phrases that are identical to one another. Within each overarching phrase are two sub phrases that are 4 measures each creating the longer 8 measure phrase. The total amount of measures for the verse is then 16 bars. For both of these pieces, the balanced phrasing helped make a more easy going and flowy texture to the piece along with creating a good feeling within the listener because of the evenness of the phrases. The last piece, “One Angry Dwarf” has less balanced phrases and welcomes the idea of unbalanced phrases. Figure 19 shows the phrasing and how the unbalanced phrasing works out throughout that portion of the song. Compared to the other songs, this is the most abnormal which makes sense because of the musical style of the pieces. “One Angry Dwarf” is a rock style piece while the other two pieces are more contemporary and popular music. Even though rock tends to have even, balanced phrases this piece can take some aspects of other genres into its composition.
Ornamentation / Articulation
Strong beats are the beats that are usually accents or articulated in a different way than the other beats in a measure. Depending on where the strong beats are the style of the music usually changes. Rock music has strong beats on 1 and 3 usually accented in the music. “One Angry Dwarf” is the rock style piece of the three meaning beats 1 and 3 should be the more often accented ones. This being the case Figure 20 shows the accent of beats 1 and 3 in the beginning of the song. Starting in the verse the bass line of the piano specifically plays egith notes on beats 1 and 3 and rests on beats 2 and 4, exactly like the rock and roll style. The introduction emphasizes the strong beats by using the base note of the chord in the bass line of the piano on the downbeats. Though that styling is used throughout the measure the composition tends to use chordal tones on strong beats to differ those from the weak ones using the treble clef. Depending on the meter of the piece the strong beats change as well. For “Still”, the 3⁄4 meter means that the strong beat in one and the following two beats keep the dance like feel. Because of this meter the accent pattern would change from the rock music setting, this is shown in Figure 21. This figure shows how the strong beat is emphasized even though there are chords and such being played on all of the beats. In the recording the drum set is heard playing a cymbal on the strong beat but not on the other two but it is not shown in the score making it very easy for the listener to hear the style of the meter but if just given the score, it would be harder to identify particular elements that show this in specific sections. Even though there are not specific accents written in the score, the recording gives more intel on how Folds composed the song to the ¾ meter. The recording also includes the drum set playing a dance beat which clearly tells the listener the style the composer was reaching for. In modern or popular music, there are no true strong beats. The majority of the songs just accent the downbeats and stray away from accenting off beats which makes sense because the artists want the song to be able to be sung easily. Hence having phrases that start on off beats or lyrics like that make it more complex and harder for the audience to sing along to. Folds doesn’t take to this idea of “singable” necessarily with the accompaniment as much as the melody. Figure 22 shows this from measures 21-32 in that the accents, circled in pink, are usually on the off beats which is on purpose to not conform to the normality of popular music. This is also a reason to make the song more stylistically interesting than the mass majority of the songs nowadays.
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Over the last 20 some years, Ben Folds has composed music for multiple genres across different playing fields. Throughout those years times and norms in music have changed and so have his compositional style as it relates to harmony, rhythm, and style. Has he changed significantly to where he is no longer a different artist? These findings would say no. He has used his musical talent along with some parts of musical evolution to create his own unique compositions that stand out in the common era. Through harmony, he moved to a more contemporary writing style using less dissonant chords in more recent pieces and uses more block style chords instead of inversions like in his later pieces. Rhythmically, he has stayed with the times in having motifs throughout a piece but contrasts them slightly as they are repeated throughout a song. He also continues to use irregular beats just in different ways to conform to common times but involve a bit of complex in his work still. Stylistically speaking, he uses the known ways to draw an audience in but also combines other elements to make an interesting piece. He uses accent patterns to compliment the melody yet create an almost countermelody or counter rhythm to add texture to his work. Overall, he has created new music that uses modern techniques but still sneaks in complexity to all of his work.
- benfoldsTV. “Still.” YouTube, YouTube, 13 May 2015, www.youtube.com/watch?v=_IGEluNTC8E.
- Crossley-Holland, P. (2017, August 31). Rhythm. Retrieved March 13, 2019, from https://www.britannica.com/art/rhythm-music
- Daniel, R. T. (2017, July 05). Western music. Retrieved March 09, 2019, from https://www.britannica.com/art/Western-music
- Folds, Ben. “One Angry Dwarf and 200 Solemn Faces.” Ben Folds The Best Imitation of Myself: A Retrospective, Hal Leonard Corporation, 2011, pp. 51–61.
- Folds, Ben. “Still.” Ben Folds The Best Imitation of Myself: A Retrospective, Hal Leonard Corporation, 2011, pp. 134–149.
- hpsnorlaxdirector. “One Angry Dwarf and 200 Solemn Faces- Ben Folds Five.” YouTube, YouTube, 4 May 2009, www.youtube.com/watch?v=SrWSkQMWlAY.
- Rich, A. (2019, May 09). Harmony. Retrieved May 09, 2019, from https://www.britannica.com/art/harmony-music
- The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. (2011, September 12). Accompaniment. Retrieved March 12, 2019, from https://www.britannica.com/art/accompaniment-music
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