Radiohead, “Bones”: Hearing and notating syncopation

many thanks to my colleague, David Heetderks, for introducing me to this excerpt last year.

Syncopation is always a tricky thing for me to teach. I want students to perform it well, I want them to read it well, and I want them to be able to notate it. Notation always take the longest because syncopation looks so much more complex than it feels. This semester, I am going to attempt a new exercise for introducing notation of syncopation: a guided rhythmic transcription of Radiohead’s “Bones.”

This tune, like most of pop music, adds what I call a “zing” to a syllable or note by starting it a little early–sometimes a subdivision early, other times a beat early. This zing causes the pitch to start on a weak beat instead of a more normative strong beat. The notation ends up looking more complex than the song sounds or feels.

So, we will start this activity by notating some basic zings to little 3-note tunes that I write.  Then we will move into Radiohead’s “Bones” from their album The Bends. On our handout, I will provide a square [boring] rhythm that might be on a lead sheet. We will then listen and identify which syllables are zinged and work on notating the performed rhythm.

We will follow-up on this work with one of their written assignments, the introduction to Ella Fitzgerald’s rendition of “Night and Day.”  I will ask them to devise the square [boring] rhythm for next Monday’s class (11/12) with the zinged notes circled.  Then, for the following Wednesday (11/14), they will turn in the performed rhythm.  Monday’s class will also include a discussion of swung rhythms and a clarification that most jazz transcribers would not notate this intro in 12/8 (which is what I’ll be asking my students to do).

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POST CLASS UPDATE

This was a pretty good exercise. It broke down a process for notating rhythms shifted “to the left” (the attack occurs earlier than expected). For students inexperience with reading a lot of syncopations, it was valuable. Another asset of the assignment was the way it made students really focus on details and nuances in the rhythms.  I didn’t need three warm-up exercises–two were sufficient.  Some classes got through one line, others got through all the lines.

We had a good learning/teaching moment when I realized that I mis-processed the rhythm on the last line (the -ing of crawling occurs on the beat). This opened up a brief discussion about why the -ing felt syncopated: it’s a weak syllable but occurs on a strong beat.

Here’s how things went:

  • Previously in class, I worked in a chain of 2-3 suspensions (between alto and soprano) and a listening-with-score exercise of the secondary themes from Beethoven’s Quartet Op. 18, No. 4, mvt. 1
  • We did the first two warmup exercises, detailing the process: circle the note that starts earlier than expected, break the previous note into subdivisions, use a tie to move the “zing-ed” note’s attack earlier, check over the measure to make sure it contains the correct number of beats.
  • We listened to “Bones” three times, trying to locate as many of the zinged notes as possible.  A good teaching aspect of this piece is the two bars of rest separating each line of the text–it gave students time while the recording was playing to process some of what they had heard.
  • I took suggestions of which line to do as a class.  We did as many lines as we could together (rarely in order) until there were 3 minutes left in class.
  • We flipped the handout over and listened to “Bones” while reading my transcription.
  • I previewed the next written assignment for them (“Night and Day.”

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