The Passing of an Era?

One thing I’ve noticed when playing music from the Great American Songbook – that is, songs written primarily between 1920 and 1950 by greats such as Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, Rogers and Hart, the Gershwins, et. al. – is that, when compared to modern pop tunes, these songs have very sophisticated harmonic progressions as well as melodies.

Today, it seems that a lot of pop tunes have an average of three chords at most. Melodies are not particularly memorable, nor are the lyrics. Gone are the days of the wit and sophistication of Cole Porter, Lorenz Hart and Ira Gershwin. You rarely see that kind of craftsmanship anymore, except from relatively obscure talents such as John Wallowitch and Dave Frishberg.

I think about this because of the recent passing of Hal David, a lyricist who worked with Burt Bacharach.

I consider Bacharach, whose melodies ranged from the simplistic (he wrote the theme song to the 1958 film The Blob with Mack David) to the sublime (instrumentals such as Pacific Coast Highway and Freefall – all of which were included on what was possibly his greatest, and least-known album, titled appropriately enough Burt Bacharach), to be the last of the line of great American songwriters that arguably begins with Stephen Foster and includes great names such as Berlin, Warren, Youmans, Van Heusen, Gershwin – et. many al.

Here is one of my personal favorites – a piece he wrote for his daughter, Nikki (some of you who are of a certain age may recall this being used as the theme music for the old ABC Tuesday Movie of the Week back in the day).

To those of you interested in the use of guide tone lines in orchestration: pay close attention to the string section in this recording.


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About KJ at Guide Tone Lines

KJ McElrath earned his Masters degree in Music Theory and Composition from Central Washington University. Composer of several works for big band, wind ensemble and orchestra, which can be heard at I perform a cabaret act with Athena McElrath as McElrath Cabaret, which you can find at
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One Response to The Passing of an Era?

  1. Adam says:

    I would not say it is the end of the era, you just have to find it.

    Take this song for example 🙂

    Great use of harmonic textures.