Writing for Vaudeville (B)
by Brett Page

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Public Domain Books

Chapter XXI - The Musical Elements of the Popular Song

The easiest thing in the world is to write a song; the most difficult, to write a song that will be popular. I do not mean a “popular” song, but a song everybody will whistle–for few songs written for the populace really become songs of the people. The difference between poverty and opulence in the business of song-writing is–whistling.

What is the difference, then, between the man who can “write songs" and the one who can write songs everybody will whistle? Wherein lies the magic? Here is the difference, unexplained it is true, but at least clearly stated:

There are hundreds of men and women all over the land who can rhyme with facility. Anyone of them can take almost any idea you suggest off hand, and on the instant sing you a song that plays up that idea. These persons are the modern incarnations of the old time minstrels who wandered over the land and sang extemporaneous ditties in praise of their host for their dinners. But, remarkable as the gift is, many of these modern minstrels cannot for the life of them put into their songs that something which makes their hearers whistle it long after they leave. The whistle maker is the one who can rhyme with perhaps no more ease than these others, but into his song he is able to instil the magic–sometimes.

But what is this magic that makes of song-writing a mystery that even the genius cannot unerringly solve each time he tries? Not for one moment would I have you believe that I can solve the mystery for you. If I could, I should not be writing this chapter–I should be writing a song that could not fail of the greatest sale in history. Still, with the kind assistance of the gentlemen in the profession–as the prestidigitator used to say in the old town hall when he began his entertainment–I may be able to lift the outer veils of the unknown, and you may be able I to face the problem with clearer-seeing eyes.

I called for help first from Irving Berlin, without doubt the most successful popular song writer this country has ever known; then the assistance of phenomenally successful writers of such diverse genius as Charles K. Harris, L. Wolfe Gilbert, Ballard MacDonald, Joe McCarthy, Stanley Murphy, and Anatol Friedland, was asked and freely given. It is from their observations, as well as from my own, that the following elements of the art of whistle-making have been gathered.

Although we are interested only in the lyrics of the popular song, we must first consider the music, for the lyric writer is very often required to write words to music that has already been written. Therefore he must know the musical elements of his problem.

I. Music and Words are Inseparable

Think of any popular song-hit, and while you are recollecting just “how it goes,” stand back from yourself and watch your mental processes. The words of the title first pop into your mind, do they not? Then do not you find yourself whistling that part of the music fitted to those words? Conversely, if the music comes into your mind first, the words seem to sing themselves. Now see if the bars of music you remember and whistle first are not the notes fitted to the title.

If these observations are correct, we have not only proof of the inseparable quality of the words and the music of a popular song, but also evidence to which you can personally testify regarding the foundations of lyric-writing.

But first let us hear what Berlin has to say about the inseparable quality of words and music: “The song writer who writes both words and music, has the advantage over the lyric writer who must fit his words to somebody else’s music and the composer who must make his music fit someone else’s words. Latitude–the mother of novelty–is denied them, and in consequence both lyrics and melody suffer. Since I write both words and music, I can compose them together and make them fit. I sacrifice one for the other. If I have a melody I want to use, I plug away at the lyrics until I make them fit the best parts of my music, and vice versa. “For instance: ’In My Harem’ first came to me from the humorous possibility that the Greeks, who at that time were fighting with the Turks, might be the cause of a lot of harems running loose in Turkey. I tried to fit that phrase to a melody, but I couldn’t. At last I got a melody; something that sounded catchy; a simple ’dum-te-de-dum.’ I had it,

                      In my harem,
                      In my harem.

“With ’Ragtime Violin’ I had the phrase and no music. I got a few bars to fit, then the melody made a six-syllable and then a five-syllable passage necessary. I had it:

                 Fiddle up!  Fiddle up!
                     On your violin.

“The lyric of a song must sing the music and the music sing the words.”

Charles K. Harris, who wrote the great popular success, “After the Ball,” so far back in the early days of the popular song that some consider this song the foundation of the present business, has followed it up with innumerable successes. Mr. Harris has this to, say on the same point:

“I believe it is impossible to collaborate with anyone in writing a popular song. I don’t believe one man can write the words and another the music. A man can’t put his heart in another’s lyrics or music. To set a musical note for each word of a song is not all–the note must fit the word.” But, while Mr. Harris’s words should be considered as the expression of an authority, there is also considerable evidence that points the other way. Just to mention a few of the many partnerships which have resulted in numerous successes, there are Williams and Van Alstyne, who followed “Under the Shade of the Old Apple Tree” with a series of hits; Ballard MacDonald and Harry Carroll, who made “On the Trail of the Lonesome Pine” merely the first of a remarkably successful brotherhood; Harry Von Tilzer with his ever varying collaborators, and L. Wolfe Gilbert, who wrote “Robert E. Lee,” “Hitchy Koo," and other hits, with Louis Muir, and then collaborated with Anatol Friedland and others in producing still other successes. These few examples out of many which might be quoted, show that two persons can collaborate in writing song-hits, but, in the main, as Mr. Berlin and Mr. Harris say, there are decided advantages when words and music can be done together by one writer.

What is absolutely essential to the writing of songs which will make the nation whistle, may be stated in this principle:

The words and music of a song must fit each other so perfectly that the thought of one is inseparable from the other.

And now before we turn to the essential elements of the words, to which I shall devote the next chapter, permit me to name a few of the elements of popular music that may be helpful to many modern minstrels to know. In fact, these are all the suggestions on the writing of popular music that I have been able to glean from many years of curious inquiry. I believe they represent practically, if not quite, all the hints that can be given on this subject. [1]

[1] Because of the obvious impossibility of adequately discussing syncopation and kindred purely technical elements, ragtime has not been particularly pointed out. The elements here given are those that apply to ragtime as well as to nearly every other sort of popular song.

2. One Octave is the Popular Song Range

The popular song is introduced to the public by vaudeville performers, cabaret singers, and demonstrators, whose voices have not a wide range. Even some of the most successful vaudeville stars have not extraordinary voices. Usually the vaudeville performer cannot compass a range of much more than an octave. The cabaret singer who has command of more than seven notes is rare, and the demonstrator in the department store and the five-and ten-cent store usually has a voice little better than the person who purchases. Therefore the composer of a song is restricted to the range of one octave. Sometimes, it is true, a song is written in “one-one,” or even “one-two” (one or two notes more than an octave), but even such “rangey” songs make use of these notes only in the verses and confine the chorus to a single octave. But in the end, the necessity for the composer’s writing his song within one octave to make an effective offering for his introducing singers, works out to his advantage. The average voice of an octave range is that possessed by those who buy popular songs to sing at home.

Now here is a helpful hint and another bit of evidence from the music angle, to emphasize the necessity for the perfect fitting of words and music. Let me state it as Berlin did, in an article written for the Green Book Magazine:

3. Melodies Should Go Up on Open Vowels

“Melodies should go up on open vowels in the lyrics–A, I or O. E is half open and U is closed. Going up on a closed vowel makes enunciation difficult.”

Experience is the only thing warranted to convince beyond doubt, so test this rule on your own piano. Then take down the most popular songs you have in your collection and measure them by it.

4. Put “Punch” in Music Wherever Possible

As we shall see later, another definition of the popular song-hit might be, “A song with a punch in the lyrics and a punch in the music.” Berlin expressed the application to the problem of melody by the following:

“In the ’International Rag,’ for example, I got my punch by means of my melody. I used the triplet, the freak, from out of my bag of tricks:

                   Raggedy melody,
                   Full of originality.

5. Punch is Sometimes Secured by Trick of Repetition

Anatol Friedland, who composed the music of “My Persian Rose,” and L. Wolfe Gilbert’s “My Little Dream Girl,” in discussing this question, said:

“Ten notes may be the secret of a popular song success. If I can make my listeners remember ten notes of a song that’s all I ask. Whenever they hear these ten notes played they’ll say, ’That’s. . .,’ and straightway they’ll begin to whistle it. This is the music punch, and it depends on merit alone. Now here’s one angle of the musical punch trick:

“To make a punch more punchy still, we repeat it at least once, and sometimes oftener, in a song. You may start your chorus with it, repeat it in the middle, or repeat it at the end. Rarely is it repeated in the verse. High-brow composers call it the theme. For the popular song composer, it’s the punch. Clever repetition that makes the strain return with delightful satisfaction, is one of the tricks of the trade–as well as of the art of popular music.”

6. A Musical Theme Might be Practically the Entire Song

If what Friedland says is so, and you may turn to your well-thumbed pile of music for confirmation, the theme or the punch of popular music may prove the entire song. I mean, that in its final sales analysis, the magic bars are what count. To carry this logical examination still further, it is possible for a popular song to be little more than theme. As a musical theme is the underlying melody out of which the variations are formed, it is possible to repeat the theme so often that the entire song is little more than clever repetitions.

One of the most common methods is to underlay a melody with what E. M. Wickes, [1] one of the keenest popular song critics of today, calls the “internal vamp.” This is the keeping of a melody so closely within its possible octave that the variations play around a very few notes. Try on your piano this combination–D, E flat, and E natural, or F natural, with varying tempos, and you will recognize many beginnings of different famous songs they represent. Either the verse of these songs starts off with this combination, or the chorus takes these notes for its beginning. “Sweet Adeline" and “On the Banks of the Wabash” are but two of the many famous songs built on this foundation. Of course, there are other combinations. These few combinations taken together might be considered as the popular idea of “easy music.”

[1] Mr. Wickes has been contributing to The Writer’s Monthly a series of valuable papers under the general caption, “Helps for Song Writers.”

And now it is through the consideration of the importance of the variations of the theme that we may come to an understanding of what, for the want of a better phrase, I shall call unexpected punches.

7. Punches not Suggested by the Theme

The impossibility of adequately pointing out by words the specific examples of what I mean in certain songs makes it necessary for me to direct you back to your own piano. Run over a group of your favorites and see how many musical punches you can find that are not due directly to the theme. Pick out the catchy variations in a dozen songs–you may chance on one or two where the biggest punch is not in the theme. Of course you may trace it all back to the theme, but nevertheless it still stands out a distinct punch in the variation. If you can add this punch to your theme-punch, your song success is assured.

8. Use of Themes or Punches of Other Songs

When Sol P. Levy, the composer of “Memories,” the “Dolly Dip Dances,” and a score of better-class melodies, shared my office, one of our sources of amusement was seeking the original themes from which the popular songs were made. As Mr. Levy was arranging songs for nearly all the big publishers, we had plenty of material with which to play our favorite indoor sport. It was a rare song, indeed, whose musical parent we could not ferret out. Nearly all the successful popular songs frankly owned themes that were favorites of other days–some were favorites long “before the war.”

Berlin’s use of “Way down upon the Swanee River"–"played in ragtime"–for a musical punch in “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” was not the first free use of a theme of an old favorite for a punch, but it was one of the first honestly frank uses. The way he took Mendelssohn’s “Spring Song” and worked it into as daring a “rag" as he could achieve, is perhaps the most delightfully impudent, “here-see-what-I-can-do,” spontaneously and honestly successful “lift” ever perpetrated. Berlin has “ragged” some of the most perfect themes of grand opera with wonderful success, but not always so openly. And other composers have done the same thing.

The usual method is to take some theme that is filled with memories and make it over into a theme that is just enough like the familiar theme to be haunting. This is the one secret or trick of the popular song trade that has been productive of more money than perhaps any other.

This lifting of themes is not plagiarism in the strict sense in which a solemn court of art-independence would judge it. Of course it is well within that federal law which makes the copyrightable part of any piece of music as wide open as a barn door, for you know you can with “legal honesty” steal the heart of any song, if you are “clever” enough, and want it. The average popular song writer who makes free use of another composer’s melody, doubtless would defend his act with the argument that he is not writing “serious music,” only melodies for the passing hour and therefore that he ought to be permitted the artistic license of weaving into his songs themes that are a part of the melodic life of the day. [1] But, although some song writers contend for the right of free use, they are usually the first to cry “stop thief” when another composer does the same thing to them. However, dismissing the ethics of this matter, right here there lies a warning, not of art or of law, but for your own success.

[1] An interesting article discussing the harm such tactics have done the popular song business is to be found over the signature of Will Rossiter in the New York Star for March 1, 1913.

Never lift a theme of another popular song. Never use a lifted theme of any song–unless you can improve on it. And even then never try to hide a theme in your melody as your own–follow Mr. Berlin’s method, if you can, and weave it frankly into your music.

Now, to sum up all that has been said on the music of the popular song: While it is an advantage for one man to write both the words and music of a song, it is not absolutely essential; what is essential is that the words and music fit each other so perfectly that the thought of one is inseparable from the other. One octave is the range in which popular music should be written. Melodies should go up on open vowels in the lyrics. A “punch” should be put in the music wherever possible. Punch is sometimes secured by the trick of repetition in the chorus, as well as at the beginning and end. The theme may be and usually is the punch, but in the variations there may be punches not suggested by the theme. Themes, semi-classical, or even operatic, or punches of old favorites may be used–but not those of other popular songs–and then it is best to use them frankly.

To state all this in one concise sentence permit me to hazard the following:

The music-magic of the popular song lies in a catchy theme stated at, or close to, the very beginning, led into clever variations that round back at least once and maybe twice into the original theme, and finishing with the theme–which was a punch of intrinsic merit, made stronger by a repetition that makes it positively haunting.


Chapter XX - Putting Together the One-Act Musical Comedy With Hints on Making the Burlesque Tab  •  Chapter XXI - The Musical Elements of the Popular Song  •  Chapter XXII - The Elements of a Successful Lyric  •  Chapter XXIII - Writing the Popular Song  •  Chapter XXIV - Manuscripts and Markets  •  Chapter XXV - How a Vaudeville Act is Booked  •  Appendix - Nine Famous Vaudeville Acts Complete  •  Glossary