This is a follow-up to my first article on songwriting theory. To be honest I wasn’t really going to write another of these as there are far better qualified people than me in these matters but it seems I got a few readers and requests so after some thinking I figured I’d follow up (at least once).
Last time we looked at the bare bones of making melodies based around a simple chord progression and then building variations of that basic melody so we had the basic parts of a piece. The next stumbling block is of course turning 88 seconds of loop into a good piece. That for many is a total killer and they spend years making loops that seem great but purposeless.
Aye well therein lies the rub and as life is sneaky and so is the solution too. Being who I am I ain’t gonna rabbit on about ABABBA; verse, verse, chorus, bridge, chorus, etc. like everyone else. Sounds like another language. Why does music work? Feel. It moves you so let’s look at that stuff and the structure stuff will make more sense later.
Seeing we have 88 seconds of music let’s look at a very clever song called “88 Lines About 44 Women” by The Nails.
(if you can find the 12″ version it sounds much better but all the same stuff)
What you may think is “really, there is no music in here, how can I learn anything about music from this?” Well really listen, this is a great song. Within a few moments you will find yourself following the images and wondering about these women. Who are they, what do they look like, how is he so lucky to know so many of them? Gotcha! This is why this works so well.
Let’s try another; Alan Jackson “The Talkin’ Song Repair Blues”
Again within moments you are into the story and you just done gotta be knowin’ what’s gonna happen. The music in here is more of everything but that isn’t the point. Note the trick common to both of these songs? Now I’m going to put this on a line of it’s own as all too often this forgotten in music making:
Yes these great songs have stories that you just want to be part of. The start of the story makes you want to hear how it turns out and then at the end you want to do it all again. That there is how to write a hit.
The verses build the story and flesh out the scene. The chorus provides the central repeatable thing (with 88 Lines there isn’t a chorus as such but the humming does the job), the instant takeaway if you will. Chorus is the central idea of the song but not necessarily the moral. Country has a great habit of having a later verse which provides the turnaround where the protagonist gets his own back. These work so well as it engages the listener to think that the crappy things in their lives may just have a way of reversing and working out.
That last bit sounds more like psychology. It is and if you want to be any sort of artist then you need to have a bit of that in your work or your doodles will have no relevance. The Beatles “Love Love Me Do” may not have the same depth as The Clash “Rock the Casbah” but there is something so fundamental to humans that saying I want to be loved by you just works.
Many musicians these days feel that simply having a killer drum loop will make for a stormin’ track. Um yeah sure it may bang now but how about tomorrow? Just taking dance music; why is it that Disco has tracks that are still currency today but Rave and Techno have none? Story v.s. lack of. Sure the story of KISS “I Was Made For Lovin’ You” isn’t exactly literary finesse but it has an emotional (and pelvic) resonance that is compelling.
Story is King
Every story has to have an arc or it is pointless. Think of the end of X-Files where it was all Smoking Man stuff; it killed the show as there was never going to be a resolution so the atmosphere got heavier and heavier till it all became un-enjoyable and the show died. There was only atmosphere, the episodes raised more questions (tension) than they answered (resolution). NCIS knows better and remains a fun show to watch. You know exactly what the characters are going to do and they do it. It’s a formula but the resolutions are fun. Love Boat was the same, the show was rot and we all knew it but the neat tension & resolution play made life feel that bit better for us. Your music should do that in some way.
Structure now starts to make sense:
- Intro: set the scene, in a pop song this is a few bars of the groove. In our song we’ll use some Tijuana brass mixed with a solid Detroit bass and drum combo (like Bob Seger not Derek May).
- Verse 1: starts to tell the story, “the night is cold and I’m feeling all alone in this empty house in Cleveland” whilst fleshing out the scene.
- Verse 2: gives more details of the event, maybe some history, “we used to be so happy living in Mexico and drinkin’ Cuervo”. Verse 2 leads us neatly to the…
- Chorus: main idea, “you’ve got a heart of stone, and left me here alone”
- Verse 3: moves to a resolution, but here were are being melancholy so we will just reveal what happened “when you found me with that waitress called Bonita” (too much Cuervo will do that to ya) so now when we hear…
- Chorus: “you’ve got a heart of stone, and left me here alone” we feel different
- Bridge: can be vocal but is generally instrumental so kick the guitarist and horn men to front for a blast.
- Chorus to fade
You may need to add some extra bars of passing moments here and there but I just wrote every R.E.O. Speedwagon, Joshua Kadison, Chicago, Celine Dion song ever made.
If you have stuck with me this far you may be thinking “this all fine but I write gloop-core pirate-step main-room small-beat wibble-drub so this cheesy Rock stuff means nothing for me”. Well I’m delighted for you that you can work in such a complex sub-sub-sub-sub genre but remember that your listeners share the same DNA as Kenny Chesney fans (and may even be KC fans when they are at home). The rules can be bent but they can’t be broken or the punters won’t dig your art.
Here let’s look at a song that is a bit different and is (or should I say was) definitely hip; Rock Steady Crew “Up Rock”
(I wouldn’t have needed Cuervo to be caught with Babylove back in 1983)
This is a manifesto song. Spice Girls did one as did Adam Ant, Wham!, The Monkees… This one is relevant even now as it is the underpinnings of just about every dance song since. That is a heavy set of shoulder pads to carry. Let’s look:
- Intro: buzzy electro bassline and a stab says lively and electro
- Verse 1: says we are into this breakbeat thing, we are the lifestyle
- Chorus: wow they jumped a verse and that was barely a verse but we are “uprockin the bodyrock!” and I wanna do that too. The simple electro music makes me wanna spin on my head.
- Chorus 2: throws down the challenge, “can you do what we do”, nope you can’t do this as good as us
- Bridge: is a Rap, how good is that. “I’m better than you will ever be” & and “I’m so street” makes me want to try. I have to get a space suit and learn to spin on my head.
- Choruses to fade with ad libs (oh and toss in the first verse because it might make more sense now) and we just made one of the most important statements in modern Pop music ever. Think not? Well you are still dancing to their drum aren’t you!
“Up Rock” is still a song (barely). Most of us can’t sing so we write instrumental music. The rules still apply: story is the reason and your sounds, notes, arrangement the voices needed to tell that story. Maybe I will write another article covering one of my own pieces.