How to write a pop song

My students are currently hard at work writing pop songs, many of them for the first time. For their benefit, and for yours, I thought I’d write out a beginner’s guide to contemporary songwriting. First, some points of clarification:

  1. This post only talks about the instrumental portion of the song, known as the track. I don’t deal with vocal parts or lyric writing here.
  2. This is not a guide to writing a great pop song. It’s a guide to writing an adequate one. Your sense of what makes a song good will probably differ from mine, whereas most of us can agree on what makes a song adequate. To make a good song, you’ll probably need to pump out a bunch of bad ones first to get the hang of the process.
  3. This is not a guide to writing a hit pop song. I have no idea how to do that. If you’re aiming for the charts, I refer you to the wise words of the KLF.
  4. You’ll notice that I seem to be talking a lot here about production, and that I never mention actual writing. This is because in 2014, songwriting and production are the same creative act. There is no such thing as a “demo” anymore. The world expects your song to sound finished. Also, most of the creativity in contemporary pop styles lies in rhythm, timbre and arrangement. Complex chord progressions and intricate melodies are neither necessary nor even desirable. It’s all in the beats and grooves.

To make a track, you’ll need a digital audio workstation (DAW) and a loop library. I’ll be using GarageBand, but you can use the same methods in Ableton Live, Logic, Reason, Pro Tools, etc. I produced this track for illustration purposes, and will be referring to it throughout the post:

Continue reading

Killen and Marotta

Participants in Play With Your Music were recently treated to an in-depth interview with two Peter Gabriel collaborators, engineer Kevin Killen and drummer Jerry Marotta. Both are highly accomplished music pros with a staggering breadth of experience between them. You can watch the interview here:

Kevin Killen engineered So and several subsequent Peter Gabriel albums. His other engineering and mixing credits include Suzanne Vega, Gilbert O’Sullivan, Bobby McFerrin, Elvis Costello, Dar Williams, Sophie B. Hawkins, Ricky Martin, Madeleine Peyroux, U2, Allen Toussaint, Duncan Sheik, Bob Dylan, Ennio Morricone, Tori Amos, Rosanne Cash, Shakira, Talking Heads, John Scofield, Anoushka Shankar, Patti Smith, Laurie Anderson, Stevie Nicks, Los Lobos, Kate Bush, Roy Orbison and Bryan Ferry.

Kevin Killen

Jerry Marotta played drums on all of Peter Gabriel’s classic solo albums. He has also performed and recorded with a variety of other artists, including Hall & Oates, the Indigo Girls, Ani DiFranco, Sarah McLachlan, Marshall Crenshaw, Suzanne Vega, John Mayer, Iggy Pop, Tears for Fears, Elvis Costello, Cher, Paul McCartney, Carly Simon, and Ron Sexsmith.

Jerry Marotta

The interview was conducted by NYU professor and Play With Your Music lead designer Alex Ruthmann and UMass Lowell professor Alex Case. Here’s an edited summary. Continue reading

Why is “Let It Go” such a big deal?

Anna posed this question, and I think it’s an excellent one: What is up with “Let It Go” and little girls? Why is this song such a blockbuster among the pre-K set? How did it jump the gap from presentational to participatory music? Is it the movie, or the song itself? In case you never interact with pop culture or little kids, this is the tune in question:

I posted the question on Facebook, and my friends have so many good responses that I’m going to just paste them all in more or less verbatim below.

Continue reading

Announcing the Peter Gabriel edition of Play With Your Music

You may have noticed a lot of writing about Peter Gabriel on the blog lately. This is because I’ve been hard at work with Alex Ruthmann, the NYU MusEDLab, and the crack team at Peer To Peer University on a brand new online class that uses some of Peter’s eighties classics to teach audio production. We’re delighted to announce that the class is finished and ready to launch.

Play With Your Music - Peter Gabriel edition

Here’s Alex’s video introduction:

Continue reading

Recording Peter Gabriel’s Security

This post was originally written for the Play With Your Music blog. Also be sure to check out our interview with engineer Kevin Killen and drummer Jerry Marotta.

Peter Gabriel’s songwriting and recording process in the early 1980s was unusual for its technological sophistication, playfulness and reliance on improvisation. While Peter was considered avant-garde back then, now that music technology is a lot cheaper and more accessible, his practices have become the baseline standard for pop, dance and hip-hop.

Peter Gabriel's Security

The South Bank Show’s long 1983 documentary on the making of Peter Gabriel’s fourth solo album Security follows the production of the album from its earliest conception to its release and critical reception. It’s an invaluable record both of Peter’s creative process and the technology behind it.

Continue reading

Everyone can and should be making music

I have a strongly held belief about musical talent: there is no such thing. Every neurotypical human is born with the ability to learn music, the same way the vast majority of us are born with the ability to learn to walk and talk. We still have to do the learning, though; otherwise the capacity doesn’t develop itself. When we talk about “musical talent,” we’re really talking about the means, motive and opportunity to activate innate musicality. When we talk about “non-musicians,” we’re rarely talking about the Oliver Sacks cases with congenital amusia; usually we mean people who for whatever reason never had the chance to develop musically.

The NYU Chorale

So what if almost everyone is a potential musician? Why should you care? Because participation in music, particularly in groups, is an essential emotional vitamin. We here in America are sorely deficient in this vitamin, and it shows in our stunted emotional growth. Steve Dillon calls music a “powerful weapon against depression.” We need to be nurturing musicality wherever it occurs as a matter of public health.

Continue reading

The Red Hot Chili Peppers unplugged

In case you don’t pay attention to such things, there’s a miniature scandal swirling around the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ performance at the Super Bowl halftime show.

Close examination of the footage reveals that the bass and guitar weren’t plugged in.

Red Hot Chili Peppers unplugged

Flea, the Peppers’ bassist, came forward and admitted that they used a pre-recorded track, and offered various excuses and explanations. I’m surprised to find myself writing about this, since if there’s anything I care about less than the Super Bowl, it’s the Red Hot Chili Peppers. But I was struck by Flea’s prevaricating; the whole thing points up the strangeness of live music in the age of technology.

Continue reading

Analyzing the musical structure of “Sledgehammer” by Peter Gabriel

We’re asking participants in Play With Your Music to create musical structure graphs of their favorite songs. These are diagrams showing the different sections of the song and where its component sounds enter and exit. In order to create these graphs, you have to listen to the song deeply and analytically, probably many times. It’s excellent ear training for the aspiring producer or songwriter. This post will talk you through a structure graph of “Sledgehammer” by Peter Gabriel. Co-produced by Peter and Daniel Lanois, this is an emblematic eighties pop tune.

Here are the video versions of my analysis:

Below is the musical structure graph. Click the image below to see it bigger, and with popup comments.

"Sledgehammer" structure graph

Here’s the perceived space graph:

"Sledgehammer" perceived space

And here’s a chart of the chord progression.

Continue reading

Teaching mixing in a MOOC

This is the third in a series of posts documenting the development of Play With Your Music, a music production MOOC jointly presented by P2PU, NYU and MIT. See also the first and second posts.

So, you’ve learned how to listen closely and analytically. The next step is to get your hands on some multitrack stems and do mixes of your own. Participants in PWYM do a “convergent mix” — you’re given a set of separated instrumental and vocal tracks, and you need to mix them so they match the given finished product. PWYM folks work with stems of “Air Traffic Control” by Clara Berry, using our cool in-browser mixing board. The beauty of the browser mixer is that the fader settings get automatically inserted into the URL, so once you’re done, anyone else can hear your mix by opening that URL in their own browser.

Mixing desk Continue reading