Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Counterpoint According to Stevie Wonder

This was another essay I wrote in response to a suggestion of a friend that I tackle different aspects of Western music c. Stevie Wonder's "Living For the City" was one of the formative inspirations for me when I started hearing pop and rock music for the first time. It's an unforgettable song and one of the wonderful ironies of my educated life was that it took me a couple of years studying music theory and harmony and counterpoint before I actually began to understand, musically speaking, what Stevie Wonder was doing in his song. Emotionally and intellectually I had no real problem grasping what Stevie was singing about even at the age of thirteen. I consider that a credit to the greatness of his musicianship and the ideas in his song.

So all that is to say this essay below is an unabashed mash note to his music.


Counterpoint is simply the art of writing two melodies that can be presented at the same time in a single piece of music. These melodies may have nothing to do with each other or they might share traits. If you can have one person singing one tune and another person singing another tune at the same time and it sounds natural you’ve mastered counterpoint. Everything else is just a matter of degree. And if you can present and represent the same melody in different ways at the same time you’ve also figured out something about counterpoint. I submit, therefore, that in the annals of popular music there is at least one musician who has mastered a great deal of what classical composers and theoreticians call counterpoint.

Stevie Wonder.

We can call him Stevland Morse if we want, since that was his given name, but that would not make us better advocates of the “love-mentalism” he wrote about. It would also do nothing to explicate or appreciate his musical genius. Whether we call him Stevland Morse or Stevie Wonder we’re talking about the same man and the same songs. After studying traditional theory and counterpoint and 20th century art music I have come back to loving Stevie Wonder’s music more than before I knew anything about invertible counterpoint and sonata form. I don’t care if the man “knows” what he’s doing; the man knows what he’s doing.

People stumble over that truism, especially if they don’t compose. Just because you don’t know what you want by its theoretical name doesn’t mean you don’t know what you want. Babies don’t need to know words to know when they’re hungry. Of course I know where that analogy breaks down. Don’t take it as a belittling one. It’s my attempt to show that a person with natural musical gifts doesn’t have to have the formal vocabulary to know what it is he or she wants; music is a function of hearing both in fact and, more importantly, in the mind (Wonder even touches on this with the album title Music of My Mind). Knowing the theory just makes it easier for you to explain what you’re hearing in terms session musicians can understand and that makes it easier for them to play what you want them to play.

Now Wonder worked on and delayed the release of Songs in the Key of Life for about two years. What should we suppose he was doing all that time? Was he smoking a lot of pot or something? We know, at any rate, he had a daughter or “Isn’t She Lovely?” wouldn’t be on the album. Wonder was probably working his tail off during those two years trying to get the songs to sound just right. Wonder’s genius wasn’t (and isn’t) that he doesn’t “know” what he’s doing where theory is concerned. I defy you to listen to “Contusion” and say he didn’t plan that piece out in virtually every detail. The real marvel is that Wonder could work on an album for two years and get the end result sounding as if he’d written it all on a busy weekend. To give spontaneous, vibrant performances of songs you’ve worked on that long … now that’s genius, especially when the songs are as great as those on Songs in the Key of Life.

In case people are wondering, no, I’m not saying Stevie Wonder is greater than Bach or any other classical composer. Such a comparison is unfair to begin with, just as it’s unfair to compare Mozart to Bach as if one must be found wanting. Nor am I saying that Wonder’s handling of counterpoint is even close to exhaustive. What I’m saying is this: just as calling the man Stevland or Stevie doesn’t mean you’re talking about two different men talking about counterpoint as a concept doesn’t change whether you’re talking about Bach or Stevie Wonder. Nobody gets good at counterpoint without first honing a melodic gift, and that Stevie has in spades. Once you develop your melodic gift it’s a matter of time before you can sing one great tune over or under another. There may be a difference in degree but I’m convinced that difference is not in intrinsic quality. Even if he only uses a handful of contrapuntal devices compared to Bach or Brahms Stevie Wonder is still an immensely gifted musician and one of the greatest songwriters of our time. Whether or not his command of counterpoint is natural or acquired is moot; it is, in any case, a manifest attribute of his musical genius.

There are two broad kinds of counterpoint. There’s imitation and then there’s countermelody or countersubject. Now imitation comes in all sorts of forms but the simplest is imitation at pitch or at the octave. The best “textbook” example of imitation is canon where you have a melody in one voice that is taken up by another voice at the same pitch. And the best “textbook” example of canonic imitation in Stevie Wonder is “Superstition” (Talking Book, 1973). Listen to the brass arrangement throughout the song, especially to how it changes at the end. You’ll hear the sax take the melody and then the trumpet follows four beats after it. Notice that the brass melodies are played in unison for most of the song until the end and then the unison lines are broken up and played against each other. A better, more straightforward example of canonic imitation in a pop song couldn’t be found. A similar example can be found in the middle of the song “Don’t You Worry `Bout a Thing” (Innervisions, 1973). Wonder starts singing a form of the tune he sings in the verse and harmonizes with himself by singing the same melody moments later.

As a rule Wonder uses canonic imitation in the middle or end of a song but in other settings he uses imitation at the beginning of songs. I said earlier that there’s more than one kind of imitation. For the beginning of several of his songs Wonder likes to use an imitative procedure called stretto. This is what happens when the second voice starts imitating the first voice before the first voice is done playing or singing the tune. The finest example of this in Wonder’s output is his introduction to “Superwoman” (Music of My Mind, 1972). He plays a simple triad in one register and starts playing the same pattern in a lower octave before the pattern is complete. As he keeps going the pattern is continually repeated between these two registers but at shorter and shorter intervals. This is the essence of stretto, not simply that the imitation starts in the second voice before the first voice is done but that the succeeding entrances are at shorter and shorter intervals. The result is a dramatic compression of the idea that builds towards a climax. In this case the climax is chord that starts the first verse of “Superwoman”.

But while he’s fond of having a melody passed off from one voice to another, just as often Wonder chooses to complement his primary melody with a supporting one. This is what we call a countermelody or countersubject (the latter term is properly applied to the writing of fugues but the principle of the complementary melody is pretty much the same). This is where Wonder’s melodic gifts are most pronounced. He usually saves this technique for the chorus of a song and usually harmonizes the primary melody with a two-voiced supporting chorale with its own tune. My favorite example is the first chorus of “Sir Duke” (Songs in the Key of Life, 1976). While he sings “You can feel it all over people” the saxophones respond with a buoyant pair of lines that rise up and down underneath him.
At times these supporting melodies can assume almost equal footing with Wonder’s vocal. The interweaving brass lines in the pre-chorus of “I Wish” (also on Songs in the Key of Life) are a great example. This is a case where the countermelody is even used in free imitation against itself. More often the melodies work in tandem like the backing vocals that appear under the frenetic guitar/keyboard unison of “Contusion” (Songs in the Key of Life). In “Contusion” especially we see that counterpoint is more than the sum of its parts. A more restrained but equally pleasing example is the relationship between the lead vocal and the supporting chorale in the second and subsequent choruses of “Superwoman”. The expressive richness of Wonder’s singing doesn’t come from his lyrics, which are often shopworn, but from the amazing interaction of the vocal parts with each other, giving the text more depth than it could possibly have on its own.

There is also at least one case in which Wonder uses counterpoint and the material is completely free. Free counterpoint is the hardest kind to write. There may be imitation but this isn’t required and even the idea of a countermelody doesn’t hold because the melodies could be of equal significance. For this reason the dueling harmonica solos on “Too High” (Innervisions, 1973) represent one of Wonder’s greatest contrapuntal experiments. In this case the foundation for the duet rests on the dorian mode. Dorian is a symmetrical scale, the same notes appear in the same order even when the notes are inverted. This means that creating a dramatic line is difficult but it also means that there’s virtually no wrong note. Dorian is also the diatonic mode most amenable to blues and lends a circular, detached mood to the music, perfect for the song’s textual reference to drug use. Wonder chose his harmonic material wisely. Maybe he knew he was using the dorian mode or maybe he tried every key and kind of harmonica he could find until he got the sounds he wanted. Whether he “knew” what he was doing doesn’t detract from the importance of his creative decision.

The romantic ideal, the myth, would have it that musicians like Stevie Wonder are musical shamans who channel spiritual or musical inspiration they can’t possibly analyze. It’s hard for these people to deal with the fact that musicians like Wonder know what they want. Harder still is the thought that such a gifted musician could struggle with his material to find out what sounds best. It’s easier to assume it’s all a mystery and that it all happens at once. If that were true we could all be professional musicians—we’d probably all be homeless, too. Still, there is a little, barely visible kernel of truth to this shaman fantasy. The last three minutes of “Living for the City” (Innervisions, 1973) are as astonishing to me now as when I first heard them and I wonder how he came up with the tune that turned into that amazing chorus. How a composer gets a melody is mysterious and always will be. What needn’t be mysterious is what the composer does with a melody. The botanist doesn’t stop loving flowers for knowing how they grow, even after knowing something of the secret life of plants. The plant is still there for us to enjoy. A song by Stevie Wonder is as beautiful now for its melodic charm and contrapuntal brilliance as it was before we knew what he was doing. Like I said earlier, even if the man doesn’t “know” what he’s doing he still knows what he’s doing.

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