Monday, March 4, 2013

Mash-up vs. Medley

I think we misunderstand the definition of a mash-up and a medley. These two musical forms are a cappella’s bread and butter (mmm…butter), but what exactly do they mean? What separates a mash-up from a medley, and where did they first appear?
What is a medley?
The term “medley” refers to a collection of songs, performed together as one complete musical composition or work.
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when medleys first appeared. My best educational guess (and it is a guess…) would be the musical form of Beethoven’s Ninth symphony. In the fourth movement, each of the three previous themes are played, and then quickly rejected in lieu of a fourth and final melody. (The famous "Ode To Joy.") The overture to Broadway musicals is a good example of an early medley, as each overture seeks to play the familiar songs of the show, one right after the other.
Here’s what makes a medley great (in my humble opinion):
1) Creativity of connection.
I’m sure if you are a singer, you have probably performed the famous choral medley of Les Miserables (arranged by Ed Lojeski). The connection between each song is clear- all selections are from the show. Another simple connection is by artist- “Four or five songs sung by Adele” is a popular one.
When I hear a medley, I’d like to believe the songs have a deeper connection than artist or genre. I once heard a medley of songs that had to do with the term “Mother Earth.” (It was at this previous year’s Sojam, performed by "Mix.")
Another time, I heard a medley of seemingly unrelated songs connected by a story. The entire medley was connected by the tune “Happy Birthday,” and each selection began with a different age, progressing from 5 to 100, as if the subject of the medley was growing older with each passing song.
The point is, the strength of a creative medley rests on the connection between songs. A medley of songs by [artist], a medley of songs by [genre], or a medley of songs about [topic] just doesn’t satisfy me anymore, considering how many medleys I’ve heard in my lifetime.
2) Transition
One reason I hate writing medleys is the problem of transitions. How do you go from one song to the next and make it as interesting or smooth as possible? Do you stop completely? Do you write two measures of original music that change tempo and/or key? Do you sing two songs together, fading out from one and fading into the other?
A clean set of transitions shows off the arranger’s musical prowess. I often judge a medley based on how smooth it is, and how easily it transitions into the next song.
3) Climax
A good medley shouldn’t just contain a bunch of seemingly related songs. You need to think of a medley as a whole musical composition. It needs to start with a bang, end with a bang, and go through various phases in between. The next time you compose a medley, structure the medley like you would an a cappella set: You wouldn’t put your weakest song last, you wouldn’t sing two very similar songs back to back, and you wouldn’t ignore the overall arc of the show.
What is a mash-up?
Okay. Let’s get this out of the way first: GLEE did not invent the term “Mash-up.” I will give it some credit…it definitely popularized the phrase and introduced it to the scholastic masses in a whole new way, but musical artists, including a cappella groups have been singing mash-ups for years before GLEE was on the air.
The term mash-up implies combining one or more songs simultaneously to create a completely new musical composition. The key difference here is the word simultaneous.
Mash-ups have appeared as early as contemporary classical music. The birth of electronic music made it possible for musicians to take pre-recorded sounds and combine them into a new musical composition. In fact, musicians like the famous Frank Zappa were using multiple sound sources in his compositions before the genre of techno became popular. Another popular mash-up (before GLEE) was a song from Linkin Park and Jay-Z called “Numb/Encore.”
When you compose an a cappella mash-up, you need to consider these factors to stay true to the form and produce a quality composition:
1) Is it really a mash-up?
Let’s say you are doing a mash-up of (what’s the most random combination of songs possible…) “Surfin’ Bird” and “Locked out of Heaven.” (Ahh…randomness…)
Does each song get equal representation within the entire composition? Is there a moment when both songs are performed at the same time? Is your arranger showing off his/her musical prowess by combining these songs in a new interesting way?
If the answer is NO to any or most of these questions, you are NOT singing a mash-up.
It’s more than likely possible you are doing a musical quotation. For example, let’s say you’ve chosen “Locked out of Heaven” by Bruno Mars. About halfway through the song, you suddenly, and inexplicably, break into “Surfin Bird.” Then, as suddenly as it came, it’s gone, and you are back to Bruno Mars.
This is NOT a mash-up. This is a song with an extra musical quotation. I’m not saying this is bad…by all means, let your creativity freak flag fly…but calling it a mash-up is incorrect. A mash-up would be if you introduced one song, introduced the other, and then combined them for a totally new musical experience. Or, you switched between them as fast as if they were on two different radio stations, and then combined them at the end. Or throughout the entire Bruno Mars song, “Surfin’ Bird” made dramatic and prevalent appearances, fading in and out.
2) Are you doing the actual work?
To compose a masterful mash-up, the arranger must find the musical link between two or more seemingly unrelated songs. Sometimes, this task can be too easy.
For example, take the BOCA 2006 track “Crazy Train” by the UNC Clef Hangers. They start with Ozzy Osbourne’s Crazy Train and smoothly merge into the Lil’ Jon remix, and then back into Ozzy.
Would I call this a mash-up? No. (I’m not saying this is a fantastic recording…because it’s one of my all time favorite BOCA tracks.)If you combine two songs that share so much of the same familiar material, half of the mash-up work is done for you. A mash-up combines two seemingly unrelated songs into a new musical composition.
Sure, these songs need to have some familiar musical material, like a similar chord progression, or melodic content. But using the same backing tracks for the original and a remix does not make a mash-up.
3) Is it actually a medley?
The most common misconception is that a mash-up is like a medley, but only has two songs instead of three or more. This is untrue. A mash-up does exactly what the name says- it mashes up two songs. Think of these songs as two large pieces of meat. Put them in a grinder (mmm…ground meat) and something new comes out, a new meat product where it is almost impossible to tell where each separate element begins and ends. This is a true mash-up.
Singing only two songs back to back is not a mash-up. Quoting a completely different song in the middle of a longer song is not a mash-up. Singing the original and then the remix of a song is not a mash-up.
The criteria for a mash-up and a medley should not be how many songs are included, but how specifically they are used. Can a mash-up occur within a medley? Sure. Can a medley occur within a mash-up? Ummm…I’ve never heard it, but I suppose so.
While there is no definitive rule on what constitutes a standard medley or mash-up, we can recognize some differences between the two, and appreciate when someone uses the terms correctly. Make absolutely sure which one you are singing before you mislabel the song.
Marc Silverberg
Follow the Quest for the A cappella Major


  1. Well put (and wholeheartedly agreed to). This will help me better define it to my little group of singers.

  2. Excellent explanation! I wonder, can anyone speak to the differences between a mash-up and a quodlibet?