The Commuter Challenge

2 March 2012

The March 2012 Challenge

by CC @ 18:11

Write and record an original song of any style and any length, but using no more than three chords. Submit a Ramonesesque three-chord masterpiece, create your own two-chord “Dreams” or “Horse With No Name”, or come up with a new one-chord wonder like “O Superman” or “We Will Rock You”.

Permitted options that might make this challenge easier: You may get help with the composition and/or production of the song from as many people as you want, and they may help you to any extent that you like. Instrumentals are allowed (as are songs with lyrics/voice, of course). You are allowed to use common formats/chord progressions (the twelve-bar blues, for example) for the basis of your original composition. Or, if you prefer to take a different route, you are also allowed to go as avant-garde as you like, just as long as it includes no more than three different chords.

Also, if you use different forms of a chord, they all count as the same chord; D, D minor, D7, and Dm7sus4 all count as the same chord. Please note that D and D# count as two separate chords. You have met the requirements of the challenge if someone can play along with your song using no more than three different ‘base note and fifth’ combinations.

The Results

Brian Raiter

Brian Raiter: Underwater Study (sheet music)

Ryan Finholm

Ryan Finholm: All Kinds of Sorrow


  1. My two chords (or chord families, really) are C and F. I think. Honestly, I can’t tell if I fulfilled the requirements of this challenge or not. The central motif is a sequence of four chords: CMaj7, CMaj6, FMaj7 (2nd inversion), and FMaj6 (2nd inversion), so I think that part is safe. And the bracketing motif that appears at the beginning and end follows the CMaj/FMaj sequence (only with different inversions). But if that sequence were taken out of context, one would naturally identify Amin and Bmin chords as well.

    At the beginning of the month I mentioned to Ryan that I felt that I didn’t know enough music theory to know what properly constituted a chord. He told me I was probably overthinking it. To me this felt like telling someone tasked with reading Baudelaire not to overthink it just because they don’t speak French. But I took his advice anyway and plowed ahead. If I did indeed fail to meet the requirements, then at least I can blame society. I mean Ryan.

    The central 12-note motif is one that I had idly created years ago, during a time when I had easy access to a piano. I pulled it out and used it first as the basis for a minimialist sequence of short variations, and then as a ground for building up a simple melodic line. (The musical process of gradual accretion I stole from Steve Reich, who uses it in several of his pieces. I created it by first composing one of the middle points, then filled that out into the final destination, and then worked outward from those two points to fill in all the other steps.)

    The introductory section (and the closing section) is a clear rip-off homage to the opening of Debussy’s Engulfed Cathedral. I changed the name of my submission from Study to Underwater Study to acknowledge this.

    I used a program called Lilypond to compose. Lilypond is mainly used to create sheet music, but can also produce MIDI files. I would get an idea for a variation, type it in, and then listen to it. I think it helped that I always had sheet music for what I was listening to. (I learned how to read music before I could play it. Not that I can play all that well.) A few times during the month I visited the pianos at the public library to fiddle around and try out various ideas, which I would then write down and take home. I think you can sort of hear the differences in the two approaches. The variations (measures 8-17), mostly strict patterns based on the central motif, were done in Lilypond, while the introductory motif and the accreted melody were mostly created by noodling on the piano keyboard.

    The MIDI piano sounds on my computer sounded pretty awful, compared to the real thing, but I certainly didn’t have time to learn to play my own piece by the time I had finished writing it. Fortunately for me, these days there are several companies that sell virtual piano software, programs that actually emulate the physics of a piano. I downloaded a trial copy of one that runs on Linux (PianoTeq), and it produced my submission.

    by Brian — 1 April 2012 @ 13:51

  2. Work travel (and a big dollop of procrastination) resulted in me doing a little bit of work on the Challenge during the weekend of March 24-25 and then scrambling to finish the song on Saturday, March 31. I had the whole song mapped out in my head, and absolutely all day March 31 to do nothing but finish the recording, so I didn’t anticipate any huge problems that way.

    There was a huge problem. I finished all of the music tracks first, and when I tried to start adding the vocal tracks, they didn’t match. Not at all. I genuinely do not understand how that happened. There was some weird disconnect in my brain, and while in my head the words/melody fit the music, in reality they were hopelessly irreconcilable. It’s too bad, because I thought the original lyrics were pretty clever (they were a paranoid exhortation for the listener to avoid submitting anything to the Commuter Challenge).

    Around 5pm I realized that I had to completely re-write the words and melody, and then record the vocals, before midnight. Seven hours seems like plenty of time to do something like that, but I found it extremely difficult, and I ended up using all of that time trying to come up with something passable. Since there were no guidelines for the lyrics, it was hard for me to focus on a direction for the song. Eventually I decided to link it to the current title at, with the thought that I could enter my song in the SongFight too if I felt like it. The title of the week was “All Kinds of Sorrow”, so I scribbled out some simple heartsick crap around that theme and then plinked around on my guitar until I found a melody that seemed to fit. I clumsily pasted the lyrics onto the song and emailed Brian the mp3 just before midnight. I am not at all happy with the lyrics and melody, and I will probably rewrite it later.

    Song details: The three chords are A, D, and G, all major chords, and a pretty basic combination. The bass and drums are both Garageband samples (essentially a drum machine). I’m performing the guitar and accordion tracks, and almost all of those are actually me playing for the length of the song and not just repeated loops of one or two good takes. And I did all the singing (don’t worry, I’m not going to quit my day job). I think there’s a little organ sample in there too, which I regret, and that sample will not survive the re-write. Nor will the disco outro. I’m not sure what I was thinking with the disco drums at the end, I imagine I just wanted the song to be longer, and the only part of the song that I thought was remotely successful was the “One, one two” bit, so I figured, ‘why not drive that into the ground?’

    The SongFight submission would have been due the morning after the CC submission was due, but when I awoke on April 1st and listened to the song again I was too unhappy with the final product to enter it in the SongFight. Thank you anyway, SongFight, for giving me a title to write lyrics around. As unhappy as I am with the final product, I have no qualms about submitting it here because I know that nobody will ever hear it here, because nobody ever looks at this website except Brian and I. Hi Brian. I like your submission a lot, and I think it’s cool that you provided the sheet music. Andrei likes it too, and he often requests me to re-play it for him. I’ll email him the mp3 so he can put it on his iPod.

    by RyanF — 11 April 2012 @ 12:27

  3. Hi, Ryan. I’m pleasantly surprised to learn that you played an actual accordion for your submission; I had assumed it was another Garageband-supplied sample. Either way, it made for a nice addition to the song.

    Oh, and tell Andrei that after you shared with me his impression (that it sounded like the soundtrack to a figure-skating performance), the next time I listened to it I completely heard it that way too. It totally fits, particularly with the episodic pattern in the first couple of minutes where it does one thing for five seconds, then does something else for five seconds, etc.

    by Brian — 11 April 2012 @ 13:12