Sunday, June 27, 2010

What An Astonishing Collection of Readers I Have!

I don't have a lot of readers, but I'm always impressed how smart they are--and how diverse they are in their knowledge. I mentioned a few weeks ago that there was something about listening to the Carpenters that still astonishes me. What makes her voice so amazing? My wife says it was because she was an alto, and there aren't many altos in popular music--and it was an extraordinarily rich alto voice at that. One of my readers sent this more technical explanation to me:

Dear Clayton:

Like you, I've always loved the Carpenters. I'm a professional, classically trained singer, and perhaps I can provide some insight into Karen's voice and their success.

At a time when most popular music was exclusively in the strophic form (verse, chorus, verse, chorus, break, chorus, finis) and consisted of primarily three chords with an occasional minor 6th throw in, the Carpenters were virtually symphonic music by comparison. Their music is longer (rather than 2.5 minute radio play blandness) far more harmonically and melodically complex than most pop music, even today. What was also unusual about them is that they were actual, sight reading, musicians. Most popular musicians, even today, are musically illiterate. While most have good "ears" (they can sing on pitch and/or improvise well), they have little or no formal music training and cannot read and write music. Harmony, in their music, tends to be rudimentary, formulaic and two dimensional. In Karen and Richard, complete musicality was present, not only sharp technical ability, but virtuoso improvisational ability.

The Carpenters were real musicians and they actually rehearsed and demanded perfection at a time when most pop musicians were happy with "good enough." In the studio, they were known as "one hit wonders," for their ability to get a track just right with only one run through. Of course, a large part of this was their own innate talent and ability backed by intensive rehearsal before they ever walked into a studio. They were also known for always striving for excellence in live performance and for demanding the same from their accompanying musicians.

And Karen's voice! What beauty was lost to the world there. She had a resonant, warm and fluid alto combined with perfect pitch. Her vowels were always round and full, and her consonants present and precise, but not overpowering. Because of their musicianship, Richard, and the rest of their band, could transpose any piece to any key necessary to put the music in Karen's tessitura, the heart of her range where her voice was most warm and expressive. Much of pop music, particularly back then, was in sharp keys such as E, A, D or G in deference to the guitar, which sounds most pleasing, and is easiest for musically illiterate guitarists to play, in sharp keys. The guitar is one of the easiest instruments to learn to play (particularly self-taught as most guitarists continue to be), but one of the most difficult to play well. As a result, most guitarists were and are musically illiterate, and knowing a limited number of chords, can play effectively in sharp keys only. The piano, and most other instruments, however, are most comfortable in flat keys. But beyond these technical issues, Karen obviously believed in each song, understood the emotional depth of each piece and of the possibility of infusing beauty into each moment, each note. She was an example of the kind of musicality and beauty that are seldom found in human beings.

Her legacy still provides beauty even now, and I often find myself listening to her and remembering those days of youth, of passion and struggle, and I weep for a world diminished by her absence.


Mike McDaniel


  1. Most interesting indeed! I do not have musical training, but Mike McDaniel's info was fascinating. Karen Carpenter's early death was a huge loss to music.

  2. not to be petty over semantics but i think mike meant to say "one TAKE wonders." as "one hit wonders" tend to have one song on the radio and subsequently disappear from the public eye. fun tidbit of studio trivia: it's common that the take that makes the record is amongst the first couple of takes, as the later takes tend to lose luster due to artist fatigue and over-technicality.