The messed-up math from George Orwell’s 1984 (“2 + 2 = 5”) is pretty much never brought into a conversation to describe a positive situation. Used specifically or generally, it’s shorthand for calling out a cover-up of some sort of gross malfeasance. But as big a fan as I am of Orwell’s depressing dystopic masterpiece, I’m going to turn this equation’s frowny face upside down for a change.
I’m no numbers brainiac (I nearly sliced my wrists when I ended up in a calculus course for a couple of weeks because a college counselor mistakenly said it was required for my degree), but when it comes to music—or any of the arts—I actually think Orwell’s totalitarian math is the magic equation that should rule our creative lives.
Exactly what the hell am I on about? Here’s my theory: If you want your songs (or screenplay or sculptures or whatever) to be remotely compelling—for you and your audience—you gotta use Big Brother math. In other words, unless you’re okay with either accidentally or purposely replicating everything that’s come before, make sure your music adds a couple of out-there, WTF elements to a couple of familiars in order to end up with something that’s more than the sum of its parts. The equation is probably better expressed in remedial algebraic form:
2(wtf) + 2(fam) = radness
The specific WTFs and familiars are up to you, of course—that’s the fun of it all! A fraction of the musical elements you can mix and match are below:
- Tone: Classic or wacko? Wild or comatose? Gurgling or screeching? Clear or garbled?
- Arrangement: ABABCAB vs. AABCDAAB vs. ABCDEAAA or….
- Time signatures: Nothing grooves like 4/4, but nothing slaps people awake like an odd meter.
- Tuning: Standard vs. DADGAD vs. dropped-whatever vs. choose-your-own-adventure….
- Melody: Simple, catchy, and repetitive? Endlessly epic? Nonexistent?
- Harmony: Mainstream thirds and fifths? None whatsoever? (See also “Dissonance.”)
- Feel: Loose or lockstep? Swinging or syncopated?
- Rhythm: Rollicking? Stuttering? Relentlessly punishing? A barely detectable heartbeat?
- Mood: Elated? Doldrums? Furious? Pensive? Reverent?
- Dynamics: Blaring or barely audible? Blaring, then medium, then blaring, then barely audible? Steady as she goes?
- Instrumentation: Power trio, me and my voice, or pots-and-pans percussion plus guitar, a toy piano, and sampled swamp noise?
- Technique: Busy or restrained? Complicated or boneheaded?
- Key: Ride a single one the whole way through? Change for the bridge—or for each section?
- Chords: Cowboy or finger-mangling custom grips?
- Scales: Butt-simple pentatonics? The more adventurous choices among the seven standard modes? Chromatic? Exotic? Atonal?
- Subject matter: Feel-good lyrics about the love of your life? Sociopolitical screed? Who-cares party anthem?
- Vocal delivery: Breathless? Erotic? Anthemic? Demonic?
- ????: ???? vs. ????
Obviously pretty much every song has most of the factors listed above, not just four of them. So Big Brother math is more of a mnemonic device, I guess. Just keep in mind that the magic happens because of the ratio of comfortable familiarity to intriguing newness. Too many WTFs, and you overwhelm your listeners—though I’d argue that’s often better than nonstop predictability. Sometimes it’s a draw, though. I mean, I really couldn’t tell you which terrifies me more—the thought of enduring a black-metal/folk opus spoken in Tolkien’s Elvish tongue, or a yet another twangy bullshit ode to loyal mutts, pickup trucks, dirt roads, Budweiser, and chicks in cutoffs.