1 Sam Hui: An Introduction

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The Musical Characteristics of Sam Hui Dr Jason Chen

(learning and teaching material for teachers’ reference)


1 Sam Hui: An Introduction

2 Musical Styles: Canto Pop & Canto Rock 2.1 Canto Pop

2.2 Canto Rock

2.3 Process Creativity

3 Music Analysis: The Art of Song-writing

3.1 “The Private Eyes” 《半斤八兩》

3.2 “From the Heart of a Loafer”《浪子心聲》

3.3 “Tower Ballad” 《鐵塔凌雲》

3.4 “Impression” 《印象》

3.5 “Japanese Doll” 《日本娃娃》

3.6 “Riding in the Same Boat” 《同舟共濟》

4 Score Analysis: The Art of Arranging 5 Conclusion

6 References



1 Sam Hui: An Introduction

In the 1960s, the immersion of Sam Hui’s music marked a new era of Canto Pop.

Sam Hui’s music career started from singing the cover version in his early stage to later his own compositions. The use of instrumentation in his music was heavily influenced by the western popular music culture. Drum sets, electric guitar, bass guitar and keyboards were used in recording sessions. Beyond all doubt, the history of western popular music and Canto Pop, respectively, revealed that the Beatles’ music was the first to start the globalization of western popular music while “Sam Hui was the first artist, singer and musician to start the localization of band sound in Hong Kong.” (Wong, 2007)

In this article, several songs of Sam Hui are analyzed to allow students and teachers to gain a better understanding about the characteristics of his popular music.

The selection of his songs for analysis is based upon the historical timeline of popular music in Hong Kong. The analysis focuses on five basic music elements: pitch, rhythm, timbre, texture and form. As the interpretation of these five basic music elements varies in different periods and musical styles, in this study, pitch refers to melodic contour, rhythm refers to groove, instrumentation refers to combo section, timbre refers to overall sound, and form refers to introduction, verse, chorus, interlude and coda.

Basically, Sam Hui’s music can be divided into two dominant musical styles, Canto Pop and Canto Rock styles. In this article, six songs are selected and analyzed to demonstrate the harmonic structures, forms and musical styles of his music in different periods of time.


2 Musical Styles: Canto Pop & Canto Rock

2.1 Canto Pop

According to Ho (2003), Canto Pop “has developed since the early 1970s with a demand from Hong Kong audiences for popular music in their own dialect, Cantonese.

Cantonese is one of the most widely known and influential Chinese dialects. It is spoken in the southern provinces of Guangdong and Guangxi, as well as throughout South East Asian countries such as Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand”.

Under the influence of the western popular music, Canto Pop began to develop in the 1970s. In 1973 and 1974, two pioneered Canto Pop songs “A Marriage of Laughter and Tears” 《啼笑姻緣》 and “Tower Ballad” 《鐵塔凌雲》 were composed by Joseph Koo and Sam Hui respectively.

Canto Pop songs such as “Tower Ballad” 《鐵塔凌雲》, “From the Heart of a Loafer” 《浪子心聲》), “Impression” 《印象》 are very good examples to demonstrate the originality of localized popular music to be sung in Cantonese and composed by local composers. These songs are usually sung in a natural singing tone and accompanied by acoustic guitar with combo section. The chord progression is simple and easy to recognize such as I, vi, ii, IV and V. The content of the lyrics can be political, social or depiction of love stories.

Under the influence of the Beatles, and Simon and Garfunkel, the compositional techniques used in Canto Pop basically focused on melody construction, chord progressions, guitar accompaniment and AABA form. Besides, Sam Hui incorporated some hot social issues in his compositions that were widely known by the public



through mass media at that time such as TV, radio and newspapers. Sam Hui’s music was an integration of western popular music and local content.

The singing style of Canto Pop was developed in the 1960s. Sam Hui stressed that the style of singing these songs should be in natural tone and “less is more” (Ng, 2007, p.89). “In the 60s and 70s, I listened to the pop rock band such as Simon and Garfunkel and Don Mclean. Their singing style was really natural. The way they sang was just like telling a story in the song. Sam Hui adopted this singing style in his music and his audiences loved this.” (Ng, 2007, p.91)

The natural singing style became the trademark of Sam Hui’s music and later the style of singing Canto Pop. Sam Hui also emphasized that the intonation of Cantonese words had to be accurate and had to match with the pitches, as in the case of singing Cantonese operatic songs. This requirement later became one of the guiding principles for the singers, composers, lyricists and record producers in the 1980s.

2.2 Canto Rock

In the 1960s, the Canto Rock had a strong impact on the popular music scene in Hong Kong. Together with the influence of the Beatles, local youngsters started to form their own bands and compose their own rock 'n' roll music. Bands such as Teddy Robin and the Playboys, Sam Hui and the Lotus were some of the most prominent bands during this period.

The localization of the band sound then evolved into a new way of producing records in the music industry. This is called process creativity. Process creativity is defined as a production cycle of songwriting, lyrics writing, arranging, recording and


performing. In this production cycle, composers, lyricists, arrangers, musicians and record producers can make changes, amendments, enhancement to the recorded song in the album until the song becomes a final creative product.

2.3 Process creativity

This creative process was further explained by the popular music researcher and classified as process creativity (Toynbee, 2000). From the 60s to 70s, Sam Hui wrote numerous songs in rock 'n' roll style by using the process creativity such as “Games Gamblers Play” 《鬼馬雙星》, “The Private Eyes” 《半斤八兩》, “The Last Message”

《天才與白痴》, etc. During the creating process of Sam Hui’s music, the composer, musicians and producers could contribute their expertise to the album and the concept was usually initiated by the artists or the executive producers. This collaborative effort was essential and beneficial to the refinement of the creative product. This process also became a very interesting phenomenon throughout the development of popular music history.

Canto Rock music is composed and arranged in this process creativity manner whereas all the band members not only play their own part, but also listen to others’

parts. During the recording sessions, the drum set and the bass create the basic rhythm and the guitar fits in the groove. The keyboard player might play the chord progressions and the singer would improvise the melody according to the chord change. In this way, the recording session is an interactive creating process among musicians.



3 Music Analysis: The Art of Songwriting

Starting from the 70s and spanning the next few decades, Sam Hui had written a great number of works which reflected the social conditions of the time. Hong Kong underwent an economic depression in the early 70s. The lower working class was living in meager conditions at that time. Sam Hui’s song “Money, Money, Money” 《錢錢錢》

reflected the mentality of the general public of wishing to get rich. “Song of Water Use Restrictions” 《制水歌》 reminded people of the time when water supply was restricted to only four hours on every four days. By the end of the 70s, the cost of housing rental, food and other basic necessities rose rapidly but the income of the general public was still relatively low. Sam Hui’s song “The Private Eyes” 《半斤八兩》 once again voiced out the dissatisfaction about this situation from the general public.


3.1 “The Private Eyes” (《半斤八兩》)

This song demonstrates the influence of the Beatles’ rock 'n' roll music in the 1970s. Simple chord progression was used and the guitar groove signified the rhythmic drive of the song. In verse A, the harmonic progression is basically I, VI, iv and V in E



minor. In verse B, the chorus part is modulated to G major with I, vi, IV and V chord progression. In rock 'n' roll music, the typical harmonic progression of I, vi, IV and V is widely used in songwriting and arranging.

Sam Hui’s compositions are extremely diversified in content. The themes of his songs include social issues, philosophy of life, love and affection. The lyrics are written with a mixture of colloquial and literary styles which appeal to both refined and popular tastes such as “Tower Ballad” 《鐵塔凌雲》, “From the Heart of a Loafer” 《浪子心 聲》 and “Impression” 《印象》.


3.2 “From the Heart of a Loafer”(《浪子心聲》)



This song is one of the most popular songs in folk style composed by Sam Hui in the 1970s. Verse A is based on a structure of two 4-bar phrases. Bars 5 to 8 are almost an exact repetition of bars 1 to 4. Verse B is the chorus part of the song which carries the main idea of the lyrics. It mainly focuses on some philosophical questions such as

“What is life?” and “What is destiny?” Though it is only a 4-bar phrase, it denotes precisely the main idea of the song. Basically, the song is in ABA form.


3.3 “Tower Ballad” (《鐵塔凌雲》)

Verse A was written in question and answer structure in which bars 1 to 4 is a question phrase and bars 5 to 8 is an answer phrase. This kind of structure is also found



in Joseph Koo’s music. The question and answer structure has become one of the style traits in Canto Pop. From bars 9 to 11, it further extends this question and answer structure into a 3-bar phrase in bars 12 to 14. Finally, bars 15 to 20, it concludes verse A.

In verse B, it was written in pentatonic scale in E major using the five chord tones such as E , F, G, B and C to construct the musical phrases.


3.4 “Impression” (《印象》)

A simple melodic motive is used to construct this song. In verse A, the first two bar phrase (bars 1 to 2) is the melodic motive. The melodic motive is further extended in bars 3 to 4 as an imitation. In verse B, the eighth note pattern is further developed from this melodic motive of the first two-bar phrase as the chorus section of the song. These



kinds of compositional techniques are commonly found in the Classical composers such as Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms and Schubert.

In the early 80s, Hong Kong’s economy started to boom and people’s living conditions had been improved. Songs related to dining, clothing and having fun emerged. The song “Japanese Doll” 《日本娃娃》 reflected the improvement of living standard of the general public in the 80s. In 1985, “Japanese Doll” 《日本娃娃》 was composed when the Japanese trend swept through Hong Kong.


3.5 “Japanese Doll” (《日本娃娃》)



Sam wrote this song as a reaction to the influence of Japanese popular music to Canto Pop. Verse A is basically written in ii-V-I progression. The ii-V-I progression is widely used in Jazz and popular music. In Classical music, this harmonic progression is usually used as a cadence in a musical phrase. In popular music, the ii-V-I harmonic progression can be transposed into different keys without any preparation or common chord tones. In verse B, the standard harmonic progression I-vi-IV-V is used and ends in ii-V-I as the perfect cadence.

Entering into the 90s, an emigration trend rose to the peak due to the upcoming of the handover of Hong Kong’s sovereignty to China in 1997. Sam wrote “Riding in the Same Boat” (《同舟共濟》) to encourage Hong Kong people to face the political change positively, to have faith in Hong Kong and to stay and build our home here.


3.6 “Riding in the Same Boat” (《同舟共濟》)

This song was written to celebrate the handover of Hong Kong to China in 1997.

In verse A, the harmonic progression is in a descending bass pattern from D, A/C , Bm,



G, Em, D, C, Bm, Asus and A. The descending bass progression was commonly used in the Baroque period. The harmonic progression is I – V6 – vi – IV – ii – viib – V (with 4-3 suspension) in D major. Sam Hui modified this pattern with a vii chord to create a flattened 7th sound in the music.


4 Score Analysis: The Art of Arranging

The studies of Canto Pop should not only include the art of songwriting, but also the art of arranging. In popular music, music arrangement plays an important role in small and large ensemble writing. Arrangers strive to create music with their own musical personality. There are certain recognizable styles in Sam Hui’s music that become models for arrangers. In this section, six arrangements are chosen to demonstrate the main stylistic characteristics of Sam Hui’s music from the 70s to 90s.

“The Private Eyes” (《半斤八兩》)



The introduction of the song “The Private Eyes” (《半斤八兩》) demonstrates the Canto Rock style in the 1970s. The influences of the Beatles and Elvis Presley are articulated in rhythm section with electric guitar, electric bass and electric organ in unison as a call and the drum set with drum fill-ins as a response in the first four bars of the song. The call and response within the rhythm section was one of the style traits in 1970’s Canto Rock music.

“From the Heart of a Loafer”(《浪子心聲》)

The song “From the Heart of a Loafer”(《浪子心聲》) demonstrated the pop ballad style in the 1970s. It was the first time that Sam Hui invited the renowned local composer, Joseph Koo, to write the string arrangement for the song. In bar 4, the scale running passage of the string part is used. The triplet idea reminds the orchestral writing in Classical period, in particular with the rocket style in Mannheim orchestra. This arrangement shows how the arranger used string section as an additional arrangement to the combo section in Canto Pop.


“Tower Ballad” (《鐵塔凌雲》)

Another good arrangement example of pop ballad is “Tower Ballad” 《鐵塔凌雲》.

This example demonstrates the use of bass line which aligned closely with the bass drum of the drum set in bar 6 as a standard pop ballad style in the 1970s.

*DS – Drum Set, Ac.Gtr. – Acoustic Guitar, E.B. – Electric Bass, Rhodes – Electric Piano, Organ – Electronic Organ



“Impression” (《印象》)

Following the success of the string arrangement in the song “From the Heart of a Loafer” 《浪子心聲》, Sam Hui further extended the string arrangement in the song

“Impression” 《印象》. In bar 4, the strings are used in a quartet style including the first and second violin playing in thirds with non-harmonic notes. Viola and cello are playing long notes to support the harmony.



“Japanese Doll” 《日本娃娃》

In the 1980s, Sam Hui’s music went through a dramatic change in terms of musical style. In bar 5, the use of Latin jazz is demonstrated in the percussion part. The conga plays in samba style. The electric bass aligns closely with the Latin groove in playing root, 5th and octave. Xylophone plays in fourth with a descending diminished scale to resemble Japanese music. The combination of Latin groove and the use of diminished scale in the xylophone contribute a lot to the popularity of this song in the 80s.



“Riding in the Same Boat” 《同舟共濟》

“Riding in the Same Boat” 《同舟共濟》 starts with snare drum in marching style.

This rhythmic drive demonstrates the handover of sovereignty to China in 1997. It seems that piccolo and high strings are used to encourage Hong Kong people that they should face the political change positively. Synthesizer is used to highlight the string ensemble in the arrangement. This kind of doubling was quite popular in the 1990s to overdub the string part with synthesizer to create thicker texture and timbre.


5 Conclusion

As a songwriter, arranger, producer and singer, Sam Hui received the Hall of Fame Award by Composers and Authors Society of Hong Kong in 2005. Sam Hui established

the art of songwriting and the art of arranging in the 1970s with the emergence of composer, Joseph Koo and lyricist, James Wong. These three major figures became the pioneers of Canto Pop in Hong Kong.

Sam Hui has made two major contributions to the Canto Pop music scene in Hong Kong. Firstly, he changed the Hong Kong music scene in the early 1970s when Mandarin pop songs from Shanghai and Taiwan, as well as the Anglo-American pop songs had been the main stream with very few well-known singers performing Cantonese songs. He elevated the standard of Canto Pop which then has become the main stream of Hong Kong’s popular music culture and has influenced many other singers who follow his path later.

Secondly, his music reflects the history of Hong Kong culture from 1970s to 2000’s. Sam’s compositions are extremely diversified in contents. His songs cover social issues, philosophy of life, love and affection. The lyrics are written with a mixture of colloquial and literary style which appealed to both refined and popular tastes of Hong Kong.

Sam Hui was the King of Canto Pop in Hong Kong. Everyone should have felt his passion for music. Everyone should pay tribute to his contributions to the local music scene and appreciate his affections towards Hong Kong people.



6 References

Ho, W. C. (2003). Between globalisation and localisation: a study of Hong Kong popular music. Popular music 22(2), 143-157.

Ng, C. H. (2007). This time and this moment – Sam Hui. Hong Kong: Enrich Publishing.

The Composers and Authors Society of Hong Kong Ltd. (2005). CASH Hall of Fame Award 2005 – Mr. Sam Hui. Hong Kong: CASH.

Toynbee, J. (2000). Making Popular Music. London: Arnold.

Wong, C. C. (2007). Hong Kong’s Pop Soundscapes. Hong Kong: Home Affairs Bureau, Hong Kong.

Note: Special thanks to my editorial assistant, Mr. Jerry Lau, for transcribing and notating Sam Hui’s musical examples in the learning and teaching package.




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