Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Dream Theater’s Compositional Style

I have loved Dream Theater's music for a long time, over 10 years now. I've watched an amazing band explore new territory, and mature musically far beyond most. Many people I've talked to find the band revolting. They either can't stand the vocalist's style (which was difficult for me at first), comparing it with 80's hair bands. Or, because some songs are heavy and have fast solos, they instantly put it into the mindless shred category. Most will recognize their talent, but add the qualifier that its just not "my style".

I can respect this, but I think that if you can get past the vocal style, there is a lot every musician can learn from the band. Its not the crazy time signatures, or how fast they can play, but their compositional style. I thought I'd collect a few of my thoughts here on what currently is impressing me about this.

1) First, they use repetition and restatement creatively. In a lot of ways, Dream Theater's music demonstrates many of the qualities of good classic music. This means that a given song might only have a few themes, but throughout the song these themes are not just repeated mindlessly (like so much other music would with just 1 or 2 themes), but develop them. This can mean different instruments will play the theme each time it is repeated, or the theme is changed slightly, or there will be radically exposition on the theme. Sometimes a vocal theme from early in the song will make up a lot of the exposition in the instrumental section.

2) Second, they incorporate a lot of themes into one song. In contemporary worship, all too often songs only have 2 themes, with a possible third as a bridge. The better recording artists will often have a creative intro for some songs, and might even have a pre-chorus. However, Dream Theater songs rarely have less than 5 different themes.

For example, a normal song probably has something like:

Intro > Verse > Chorus > Verse > Chorus > Bridge > Chorus

That's 3-4 themes (depending on the intro).

However, with that structure, Dream Theater would do something more like this:

Intro > Transition Riff > Verse > Pre-Chorus > Chorus > Transition Riff > Verse > Pre-Chorus > Chorus > Bridge > Riff 2 > Riff 3 > Chorus

The point is that they repeat riffs, but they have a lot of other creative riffs added. This brings an inexplicable depth to a song. There is enough repetition that the song is memorable, and the themes are related enough that the song flows. This is the hardest part. Coming up with a series of 5-6 riffs that connect in an obvious way can be very tough.

3) They don't get overburdened by a typical "full" sound. This is especially pointed towards worship music again. I just can't get over how so many worship bands think that they need 1-2 people on acoustic trying to do all the jobs of the entire band (rhythm, bass, soup, lead, etc.). A lot of Dream Theater songs are actually very simple. Some riffs are only one chord, but the melody and riff are strong enough to carry the riff. I've heard several professional worship bands that sorta get this. Now, undoubtedly there are appropriate times when you want such a huge sound that it just smacks people in their faces, but this must only be used for effect. So many worship teams have 1-2 people over-playing on their acoustics, + 1-2 on electric, piano, etc. This results in a very messy, overlapping sound that is just ugly.

This really means separating out the rolls and keeping it that way. Percussion takes care of the rhythm, "soup" instruments provide the necessary filler, and melody instruments drive alongside the bass. Keeping these rolls tasteful and distinct really gives a riff character.

4) They have very interesting chord progressions. So many songs just rely on the basic I IV V chords, and only use open voicings. This is beyond cliché, for me personally it is to the point of sickening. First, you don't need to fill empty space with chords, you can simply have a riff that builds off the chord in an interesting way. Second, Dream Theater often only uses simple chords, but uses very tasteful filler chords like secondary dominants. Very simple theory, but they know just the right spots to throw a sweet substitution in.

5) Dynamics. This simply cannot be overstressed. Dream Theater songs build, fall off, and weave through a storyline. So many other songs follow very simple patterns, or just maintain throughout. This is boring, and very unmusical. Music is supposed to tell a story, and it does that through dynamics, who plays what where, the intensity, the fullness, etc.

6) Riff length. This falls under a couple of the above, but it has always fascinated me how Dream Theater almost never repeats a simple 4 measure progression as part of a riff. Many of there riffs are 8 measures long, and if the riff repeats, there will usually be substantial variation on the last few measures of the repeat. This again requires a lot of work and creativity, but it pays off in having very original material, and again, the music tells a story.

Anyway, I could probably rant all day about this, but I'll stop for now. I might add more later though.

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