Study Guide

Samson Technique

  • Music

    A lot of pop musicians write their songs using just three or maybe four basic chords. But Regina Spektor is no ordinary pop artist; a classically trained pianist, she favors a unique sound that's distinctly more complicated than most stuff to be found on pop radio.

    Her first piano as a kid in the former Soviet Union was an upright Petrof. In the piano world, Petrofs are unsung heroes. First crafted by Antonín Petrof in Vienna, Petrof pianos are made in The Czech Republic and are the Steinways (http://www.steinway.com/steinway/) of Eastern Europe, but cost a fraction of the price. Basically it's like buying a fully-loaded Mercedes-Benz for the price of a Honda Civic. Good deal. Not only are Petrofs incredible pianos to learn on, with the weight of the keys, and their polished sound; they're also used around the world in concert halls and orchestras, so it makes sense that Regina is so comfortable onstage with any kind of concert piano. Also, the works of the great classical composers just don't sound right on a plastic keyboard or some cheap model, so we're glad Regina learned her notes on a Petrof.

    From the beginning, Regina was classically trained in the works of the great masters, which left a heavy imprint on her musical style. Years of practicing and refining scales, chords, music theory, sight reading, and, of course, learning some of the most technically difficult pieces ever written by the likes of Chopin, Schubert, Debussy, and Liszt will certainly leave an impression. Spektor's songs, therefore, tend to be rich in cadence, tricky fingering and rhythms, and are often written for difficult keys. (Just to give you a contrast, consider "Lean on Me" by Bill Withers, a song you've probably heard dozens of times. The entire song consists of about four chords entirely in the key of C Major; the song is stunningly easy to play.)

    "Samson," on the other hand, is in B Major, arguably one of the toughest keys to hit. With five sharps to contend with (the black keys on a piano), B Major is a key rich in melodic texture and complexity and is perfectly appropriate for this song, which is at its core a rocky love story. If you check out some of the YouTube tutorials on how to play "Samson," you'll see just how difficult it is. One guy literally spends eight minutes teaching music theory before even attempting to dive into the notes. Another guy tries to explain how to play the song by saying, "OK, put your fingers here and here"—but it gets messy pretty quickly since you really need to be a trained musician to even comprehend the chords.

    B Major is also interesting because it sounds a little bit like a minor key. The main difference between major and minor keys is the mood they give you when you listen. Compare "Lean on me", again, (C Major) to "Colorblind" by the Counting Crows (A minor).

    They both have no sharps or flats but the two keys couldn't sound more different. Major keys are bright and uplifting while minor keys are sad and depressing. "Samson" has the dark richness of a minor key with the light cadences of a major key; the choice of B Major (coupled, of course, with Spektor's amazing voice) makes the song truly beautiful.

  • Calling Card

    In case you haven't heard of Regina Spektor yet—and we say yet because she's a star on the rise and we think that if you haven't already heard of her, you soon will—we're going to give you just a bit of background. She's a Russian-born American Jew whose family immigrated to New York City when she was nine, during the period of Perestroika to escape persecution from the Soviets. She trained classically in the piano, extensively studied the Jewish Scriptures, listened to all kinds of music from the Beatles to Radiohead, and is very well-read in literature and poetry, so her songs are always rich in meaning and allusions.

    She has said in many interviews that the songs she writes aren't autobiographical, but rather tell the stories and lives of others, since she believes that theirs are more interesting than her own: "I think that it's more exciting to use my imagination or explore other people's lives rather than sit there and write about my own rather limited life," she said. "It's much more gratifying to me."

    In an unintentionally hilarious YouTube interview (the woman who interviews her just might be on drugs and tries without much success to imitate Regina's distinctive speaking style) Spektor says, "I work a lot, I read a lot, take in a lot of art, work some more, then I come home and stay up all kinds of late hours and write songs." She refuses to say that any of her albums have a "point" or a common theme, calling them a "bunch of randomness." She was discovered by a guy who heard her playing around New York and told his producer friend "there's this girl who bangs on a chair with a stick and plays the piano with her left hand" and the rest is history (or herstory).

    When asked what advice she would give to people who want to "break into the music biz," Regina laughs and says, "don't write songs if all you want to do is be successful… the industry rises and falls like empires." She compares her song-writing process to an earthworm pooping out dirt as it goes along. Her completed songs, to her, are the "by-product" of her existence; "baby Frankensteins" that, once they're written, need to be shared with other people because music is meant to be heard.

    Regina Spektor is the type of woman who can pull off the sweet-as-sugar disposition without ever seeming ditzy. Her singing and speaking voice is breathy, lilting, and soft, but when you actually listen to what she's saying, you can see that her words and thoughts spring from a tirelessly introspective and intelligent artistic soul. She's not well known on the airwaves just yet but her fan base is huge and intensely loyal. She's charming, funny, quirky, and endearing in interviews and in concert, and manages to make every performance feel intimate and personal, no matter how large the venue. She may not be a household name yet, but we at Shmoop think you'll be hearing a lot more of Regina soon.
  • Songwriting

    Regina Spektor is a songwriter, but many of her fans call her a poet, and for good reason. She constantly finds creative ways to rhyme seemingly un-rhymable words, uses syncopated beats (think ragtime or hip hop), sings in French, Russian, and English, and constantly drops references to other music, literature, history, and pop culture. She's like the bard of Bohemia, and owns this title with dignity.

    In "Samson" she employs a sort of half-hearted external rhyme scheme in which the ends of her lines sometimes rhyme together ("light"/"alright", "bed"/"head"/"red"/"bread") and sometimes they form more of a slant rhyme (where the stressed consonants in certain words rhyme with each other), as in "heads"/"met", "down"/"one"/"once"; "downfall"/"dull", etc.

    She's more concerned with the way each word that she chooses actually sounds than fitting them into a specific meter (beat).

    Spektor's lyrics are also cyclical. She starts and ends with "you are my sweetest downfall / I loved you first," and then continues with "beneath…" but changes what follows the "beneath" each time: "beneath the sheets of paper," "beneath the stars." This repetitive structure is poetry at its finest and reminds us of a spiral where the revolving ideas keep repeating, but shrink and grow each time and change with the lines. Need another example? Check out W.B. Yeats's "The Second Coming" "turning and turning in the widening gyre."

    There are three verses that begin with "you are my sweetest downfall" and three verses that begin with "Samson," showing that the song's narrator is worrying like crazy about what happened between her and her lover; she repeats her anxieties like a broken record. She's obviously conflicted and trying to work through her own guilt and pain by singing the same basic themes over and over with slightly different variations on the words as she goes. Haven't you ever done that after a breakup? And Samson was most likely stricken with the same sense of terror and rejection: "She said she loved me too. She did that. Or wait, did she? Or was I just imagining that? I really hurt her, I didn't mean to. I don't remember. But she must love me, right? Or was it all just pretend? But we spent the night together last night… Hey, where did my hair go?" It's the same thing that T.S. Eliot goes through in "Prufrock", and the same thing countless love struck young adults go through daily. It's been said that when you fall in love, you become a poet, and this just might be a good example of that theory.

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