Combinatoriality in “Loser” by Beck
On December 27, 2007
When sitting down to write a song, I think harmony and melody are often at the forefront of one’s mind. Musicians love to talk about harmony (the vertical component) and melody (the horizontal component) as two sides of the same coin. That “coin,” of course, is the domain of pitch.
But yet in much popular music, pitch seems to play less of a central role in the structure of a song than the role pitch plays in classical music. Take for example rap music. In a lot of rap music, there is typically no discernable vocal melody since the vocalist is speaking more than singing, and the underlying harmony is often static throughout the entire song. So our interest in the music, therefore, must be activated by another domain.
Beck’s breakthrough hit “Loser” provides what I think is a good example of how variety in a domain other than pitch can sustain our interest during the course of a song. In “Loser,” Beck uses just a small assortment of repetitive samples. But throughout the tune, the combination of these samples is constantly changing – the instrumentation is always reshuffled in new and different ways.
Let’s take a look at the first verse from “Loser.” This first verse can be broken down into four equally-sized subsections. While Beck raps over the drum track (which is a constant), a changing collection of three instruments – sitar, slide guitar, and bass – prolongs our interest over this verse. Take a listen:
Beck: "Loser" (Verse 1a: sitar)
Beck: "Loser" (Verse 1b: sitar & bass)
Beck: "Loser" (Verse 1c: sitar, bass, & slide)
Beck: "Loser" (Verse 1d: slide)
In the second verse, we hear even more unique textures. The first and second subsections of the second verse show two more different combinations (just bass and then bass & slide). The last subsection of this second verse brings in the tremolo guitar sample to create yet another new sonic environment. Here are some clips:
Beck: "Loser" (Verse 2a: bass)
Beck: "Loser" (Verse 2b: bass & slide)
Beck: "Loser" (Verse 2c: tremolo)
The point here is not just that the arrangement is changing, but that the arrangement is changing into a completely new instrumentation that has not been heard before in the song. In other words, every new subsection, which seems to last about 11.3 seconds, gives us a new texture – a new timbral environment to explore. “Loser” may seem repetitive to some people, but while this repetitive quality may be evident from a harmonic perspective, the textures are kept fresh despite the apparently limited number of contrasting samples.
After the second chorus, “Loser” has a sort of breakdown section, which seems to function as a blank third verse or bridge. Here again, the instrumentation provides new combinations for the listener. And even though there are a few seconds where we just have slide guitar and drums (similar to the end of the first verse) near the beginning of this bridge, the way that the chorus vocals are now appearing over this accompaniment instead of the rap verse helps continue the pattern of constant variety. Here’s a snippet of almost the entire bridge verse:
Beck: "Loser" (Bridge Verse)
The term “combinatoriality” has a specific meaning in music theory that is tied to twelve-tone composition. I think, however, that there is no better term than combinatorial to describe the way in which the instruments in “Loser” are constantly presented in different and unique combinations. Mathematicians express the formula for the number of combinations as:
2n – 1
where “n” is the number of items to be combined. So in the case of “Loser,” where we have at the beginning just three changing instruments (sitar, slide, and bass), the number of possible different combinations is 7 (i.e., 23 – 1). It’s fascinating that Beck explores six combinations (only leaving out the slide/sitar combination) before introducing the tremolo guitar subsection that precedes the second chorus. I made a little chart of all the different combinations during the verses to more clearly show how these unique textures are organized in the song:
So to summarize: A lot of music in which there is static harmony (rap, metal, funk, etc.) often relies, obviously, on textural changes (potentially in concert with changes in other domains) to prevent boredom. Too much variety and textural change, however, can create a sense of discontinuity within a single song. Therefore, a limited number of instruments can provide a cohesive and recognizable sound to a song.
The challenge is thus how to vary the combinations of a limited set of instruments in an interesting way. I think that recognizing this combinatorial aspect and planning for it can be a very effective technique in songwriting. In other words, it’s worth focusing on not only making changes every so often, but also potentially ensuring that these changes are not duplicating prior changes that have already been made. Of course, the chorus (at least in “Loser”) always comes back with the same arrangment, but perhaps this one moment of expected unity is what helps make the chorus stand out and be the catchy part, particularly since the chorus acts here as the culmination of these instrumental combinations.