Why does Dylan keep changing his songs part 3

by Tony Attwood

Folk music, which for many, many centuries never written down, was constantly changed either because the performer forgot exactly how the song went, or because he/she changed the song deliberately.  This deliberate change could be because the performer couldn’t manage the original version, or because she/he wanted to add an update or local reference.  Or because a new idea occurred.  So different versions of the same song appeared in different parts of the country.

To overcome this to some degree musical notation was invented – and across the centuries became more and more sophisticated.  In earlier times the speed at which a piece was to be played might be indicated on the musical score by the vague word “Allegro” or “Andante” (performance indications always being written in Italian in the era of classical-romantic compositions) but once the wind-up metronome was invented in 1815 a more accurate representation of the composer’s wishes for the speed of the piece could be given.

The implication of this increasing exactitude in terms of how the composer wanted the piece to be played was that the music should NOT be changed.   Rather like the author of a book expects the published version to include all the chapters in the order she/he lays down, not at random, or with bits taken out (although Readers’ Digest used to do this).  The author, like the composer, dictates how the work of art should be received.  It is the same of course in all the arts.

Matters became even more fixed when mechanical recording devices (the phonograph, the gramophone, the tape recorder…) became available – and thus at last a definitive version of the music could become fixed for all time.

But it is important to realise just how recent this notion of a fixed, definitive version of music is.  In the 18th century JS Bach gave no indication on the page as to how (for example) the 48 Preludes and Fugues were to be played.  All we have is the notes.  There are no speed and no volume indications (the latter because initially the pieces were played on the clavier not the piano, and thus volume changes were impossible.

So because of what the instruments could do, the evolution of recording techniques, and the response of composers who wanted (as time went by) to indicate exactly how they expected the music to be performed) we moved from compositions as a base from which possibilities could be explored, to a fixed grid which said, “My piece should be performed like this.”

The arrival of the gramophone in the late 19th century allowed all music to become fixed in terms of how it should be performed.  However, we really should remember that saying “it should be played like this” is no more of a correct response to a composer’s creation, than taking a piece and changing the instrumentation, the speed, and indeed the entire way in which is it performed.

Of course, if the music has a clear meaning, either through the sound created, or the lyrics added to a song, or indeed both, then changing the music can change the meaning.  But quite often changes to instrumentation and speed simply give us a different version, and one can then argue about which version works best.   After all, music doesn’t have to have a meaning and most instrumental music has no discernable meaning at all.

However when we are talking of songs, the issue of the meaning of the lyrics arises.  Because the music most of us in the west hear as babies is associated with happiness and sung in a major key we associate music in a major key as happy, and music in a minor key is perceived as sad – there is no inherent reason why music written in a minor key should be felt to be sad – but that is just the tradition we have evolved.  Listen to a song with the lyrics “Oh how much I love you” performed in a minor key and the immediate implication is that the love affair is over and the singer is desperate.

So if a composer wants to write a happy song the composer will normally write in a major key.  If a performer wants then to make the piece ambiguous and strange the simplest thing she or he can do is turn it into a piece in the minor key.   However, most people will find the result really odd.

Thus the number of changes one can make is limited, where the meaning of the song is overt.   However, where the meaning of the song is more difficult to ascertain, perhaps because of the abstract notion of the lyrics, more and more changes can be affected.

These changes can be to instrumentation, the introduction, an instrumental break, the ending, the melody, the rhythm…. and they can be added for musical effect, or to change the meaning of the song.

But the key point is that even with the most inventive of composers and musicians, the most obvious changes will be discovered first.  And the danger is that after a while one starts looking for change for the sake of change, and although great new arrangements can be discovered, sometimes they sound exactly what they are: change for the sake of it.

But sometimes it really can work.  Perhaps because of the music, or perhaps of the occasion, changes to the music just works so wonderfully…

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