At age four, Milo wrote a song! It was inspired by an episode of Thomas the Tank Engine, where Stephen is lost in the old mine, and Sir Topham Hatt organizes a search party. The verses are a little confusing and are different every time he sings them, but the chorus is remarkably catchy.
The most appalling song that appears on Mad Men is over the closing credits of the fifth season episode “Mystery Date.” It is not Carole King and Gerry Goffin’s finest work.
It’s easy to cluck your tongue at 1962. They were so primitive back then! Surely we’re doing better now. Right? Well…
Earlier this spring, I subbed for Adam Bell‘s Music Technology 101 class at Montclair State. His sections were populated more exclusively with classical conservatory kids than mine, so for my one-shot lesson, I figured I’d talk them through some items from my illicit collection of multitrack stems, and give them a sense of the history of the recorded art form.
First up was “A Day In The Life” by the Beatles.
Marvin Gaye is one of the great singers and songwriters of all time, with a status deservedly approaching secular sainthood. Robin Thicke is a sleazy dirtbag who made a giant pile of money by knocking off one of Marvin’s songs to produce a rapey earworm, accompanied by a porn video. Naturally, I side with Team Marvin, and am delighted that Thicke and Pharrell lost the lawsuit.
While my fellow musicians are gleefully crowing, other observers are worried that this case sets a bad precedent. Michaelangelo Matos is among them.
I encourage vocal fans of this verdict to demonstrate their solidarity by deleting and/or destroying every piece of music they own featuring an unlicensed sample or bearing a notable resemblance to an earlier piece of music. But they won’t, and they shouldn’t, because that would entail deleting just about everything. Even if you loathe Thicke, this is no cause for celebration, because the size of the Gaye estate’s bounty is only going to encourage more lawsuits like this one.
Bennett, J. (2011). Collaborative songwriting – the ontology of negotiated creativity in popular music studio practice. Journal on the Art of Record Production, (5), online.
My professional life at the moment mostly consists of teaching classical and jazz musicians how to write pop songs. While every American is intuitively familiar with the norms of pop music, few of us think about them explicitly, even trained musicians. It’s worth considering them, though. While individual pop songs might be musically uninteresting, in the aggregate they’re a rich source of information about the way our culture evolves. Bennett describes popular song as an “unsubsidized populist art form,” like Hollywood movies and video games. The marketplace exerts strong Darwinian pressures on songwriters and producers, polishing pop conventions like pebbles being tumbled in a river.
DJ Earworm is the foremost practitioner of the art of the mashup. I don’t think there’s a more interesting musician in the world right now. I was on public radio with him once! His main claim to fame is the United State of Pop series, where he combines the top 25 US pop songs of a given year into a single, seamlessly coherent track. I’ve scattered several of them throughout this post. He has started doing more seasonal mashups as well; here’s one from this past summer:
It’s rare that an artist talks you through their production process in depth, so I was delighted to discover that DJ Earworm wrote an entire book about mashup production. He wrote it in 2007 and focused it on Sony Acid, so from a technical standpoint, it might not be super useful to you. But as with the KLF’s pop songwriting tutorial, the creative method he espouses transcends technology and time period, and it would be of value to any musician. Some choice passages follow.
Together with Adam Bell, I’m planning some in-depth writing about the phenomenon of pop musicians (like me) teaching in formal, classically-oriented institutional settings. This post is a loosely organized collection of relevant thoughts.
What even is “pop music?”
As far as the music academy is concerned, all music except classical or folk is “popular.” People who make bluegrass or death metal or underground hip-hop might be surprised to learn that their wildly unpopular music is referred to this way. In the past few decades, jazz has moved out of the “popular” column and into the “art” column. I myself have made a small amount of actual pop music, but for the past few years have mostly been involved in the production of artsy electronica.
How classical musicians learn: an absurd oversimplification
Classical musicians learn The Western Canon by performing and analyzing scores. The defining instrument of this music is the piano. All vocalists and instrumentalists are expected to be able to think in pianistic terms. Students are part of a pyramid-shaped hierarchical structure with long-dead composers at the top, followed by long-dead music theorists, followed by living music theorists and conductors and academics, and so on down to the individual section player. There is a contingent of living composers whose role in the hierarchy is confused at the moment. Most student composers are expected to operate within a tightly bounded tradition, whether that’s common-practice tonality or one of the various schools of modernism. The analysis of large-scale structure happens only at the very advanced level, if ever. Recordings are something of an afterthought.
Teaching Observation of Ethan Hein – MUTC-101: Introduction to Music Technology
As the students began to trickle into the music technology lab and power up their iMacs, discussions immediately hatched about an upcoming assignment. A young woman turned on her speakers and played a work in progress made with the program Logic. “That’s cool!” responded one of her classmates as he listened intently. The piece commenced with a heavy guitar riff and shared sonic similarities with the “nu-metal” style of the early 2000s, comprised by the traditional trio of rock instruments: guitar, bass, and drumset. “Can we all listen to your song again? All the way through and more loudly?” asked Professor Hein. If there was a distinct moment when class had officially begun, this was it, and this was the first of many indications that the education occurring in this room under the guidance of Professor Hein is a continuing conversation that his students are engaged in and enjoying.
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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: