150 - Chunking

Hello and welcome to the The Spark & The Art creativity podcast. Thank you for subscribing to our weekly podcast, where we alternate between interviews with creative folks from all different career levels and insight and inspiration episodes. All with the intention you’ll get what you need to get your creative projects started and, more importantly, finished.

I’m your host Tucker and this week is a talk about chunking. 

I've been listening to the book This is Your Brain on Music - Dr. Daniel J. Levitin. It's about the science behind what happens to your brain when you listen to music and what makes it such a powerful thing in the lives of humans. I'm going to have to listen to it again and perhaps take notes because I wasn't quite ready for the amount of brain anatomy and neuroscience in the book. 

In short there isn't just one place where music lives in the brain. It's a whole brain experience. He mentions lots of musicians and songs during the book and one in particular stood out to me for some reason. The author describes the experiments he did in the past to test how music affected the brain and would use examples like Led Zeppelin and Sting and The Police and the Beatles and other super groups. Then he mentioned (because the tests took place in the '90s) Paula Adbul's Straight up. 

This one threw me a little and I had to pause the book and go listen to it. To really understand it I listened to it on repeat for my entire 1/2 hour commute to and from the office. So that's close to 20 times. And I listened critically with my songwriter understanding and listened in particular to the structure. 

Now, I’m gonna talk about chunking then we'll get back to the song. 

Chunking is term for breaking info into groups to make them more manageable in the brain. I use this concept in my UX work for breaking info in a website or app or form into smaller sections so a user can more easily understand the task we are asking them to do. 

An example I use, and was also used in the book, is phone numbers. Remembering 7 numbers is about the limit of what a person can hold comfortably in their brain. But if we break it into chunks the three number prefix and the 4 numbers that are specific to the person you are calling. This was all I had to remember when I was growing up but then they started running out of phone numbers and had to start using the full 10 numbers including the area code. Growing up I only needed to know the area code if I was dialling long distance. But now there are three area codes in my province of Alberta alone. 

Chunks allow us to break up the number because while a phone number may be 10 digits it's three chunks. 403 is the area code 867 is the prefix and 5309 is the part specific to the person I'm calling. So now I only need to remember 3 pieces of info instead of 10. 

Songs have chunks too.

  • Verse is where the story is told. 
  • The prechorus is a part just before the chorus that ramps up the listener to let them know the chorus is about to drop. 
  • Chorus is where the thesis statement of the song lives and everyone sings along.
  • The bridge, or middle 8, is a section that supports the song but sounds slightly different and can change the direction of the story

Even non-musician listeners can Identify the chorus and verse without issue. They may not know the name but they can tell when it's about to happen "Ooooh, I love this part coming up."

So now I'm going to take my first stab at musical fair use in podcasts and play the song Straight Up by Paula Abdul and talk over it so you can hear the chunks of the song and explain some other things that are happening in the song that make it a radio-ready pop-song. Folk songs and jazz songs will have their own structure and chunks. 

  • scratchy scratch to get your attention similar to the 'Hey There' of Peter Gabriel’s Sledgehammer or the “Gotta Keep’em separated” of the Offsprings Keep ‘em Separated. This is the bit where they show you what you should be listening to the little melodic hook that you’ll hum later. Notice that the drums basically don’t change at all through the entire song. It’s the fun guitar flourishes and synth stuff that keep you interested. 
  • Verse this is where she tells the story of the song
  • This is the pre chorus a little ramp to let you know the chorus is coming. 
  • The chorus is here. Everybody dance and sing. 
  • Verse two - story continues more little call and response vocals to add interest.
  • Prechorus - you ready?! The chorus is coming we’re building aaaand ….
  • Chorus - Shake your head with your eyes closed, throw your hands in the air and sing as loud as you can to your friends on the dance floor. 
  • This is the bridge sounds a bit different and gives a bit more of the story 
  • Fun gibberish for the non-singers to join in on and then we break everything down so we have a place to climb back from
  • Prechorus but this time we are breaking your expectations by adding an extra line so you don’t get bored. 
  • Now your ready for the chorus aren’t you? Nope a little synth thing to throw you off. 
  • Nope just the chorus but broken down. You can still sing along but we’re still building up. 
  • Still playing the little doot doot doot from the intro of the song drum beat is still the same gotta keep something consistent while we mess with your expectations 
  • Chorus! Dance! Everybody sing! We’re not gonna mess with you anymore this is just the chorus and we’re gonna do it 4 times. Three times at full volume then on number four we’re gonna start to fade out and you’ll only get a taste of 5 so that you’ll want to hear the song some more. 

Now you can take your new knowledge and listen to other popsongs and hear the chunks. 

If you are interested in learning guitar don't worry about learning the whole song from beginning to end. Learn the chunks. 

Learn the Chorus first this is what everyone sings and knows anyway. Then learn a verse once you know the chords you just need to learn the lyrics to the other verses. (Chords and Lyrics are now two chunks) You got those down? Move on to the bridge. You can learn 5 or 10 songs and know only the chorus and a couple verses and you'll be the hit of the campfire and you'll learn a bunch of chords. 

How does chunking work in other disciplines?

Painting - Work on Colours, then on framing and composition, then on perspective or whatever order you want.

Photography - framing, depth of field, lighting

Writing - Work on developing a character sheet of the main character you want in your story. Just write the plot outline and work on getting a story structure down. Just write the first chapter of a novel so you can work on setting up plot and character and inciting incident. Write some short stories focusing on the conflict.

You know what?  I'm not entirely sure what the the chunks would be in writing I mean do you want to write short stories, a novel, a screenplay, essays. Each one of those will have their own chunks ACT 1 2 and 3, Climax, Denouement all that good stuff. 

Here's where you get to do some thinking

  • What creative work do you currently do that you want to get better at? 
  • Do you know the chunks your discipline has?
  • Who can you ask that might know the different aspects of the work you want to do that might be able to help you see where you need to improve?
  • Are you ready to take your work to someone to get critiqued knowing you are going specifically to get feedback on what to work on? 

Thanks for listening and remember: you won’t get the art without the work and you won’t do the work without the spark