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:

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There’s joy in repetition

Susan McClary “Rap, Minimalism and Structures of Time in Late Twentieth-Century Culture.” in Audio Culture, Daniel Warner, ed, Continuum International Publishing Group, 2004, pp 289 – 298.

This essay is the best piece of music writing I’ve read in quite a while. McClary articulates my personal ideology of music perfectly. Also, she quotes Prince!

Here are some long excerpts.

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Teaching the studio as instrument

Matthew D. Thibeault. Wisdom for Music Education From the Recording Studio. General Music Today, 20 October 2011.

Stuart Wise, Janinka Greenwood and Niki Davis. Teachers’ Use of Digital Technology in Secondary Music Education: Illustrations of Changing Classrooms. British Journal of Music Education, Volume 28, Issue 2, July 2011, pp 117 -­ 134.

Digital recording studios in schools are becoming more common as the price of the required hardware and software falls. Matthew Thibeault urges music teachers to think of the studio not just as a collection of gear that can be used to document the “real” performance, but as a musical instrument in its own right, carrying with it an entire philosophy of music-making. Digital studio techniques have collapsed composition, recording and editing into a single act. Since most of the music we encounter in the world is recorded, and most of that digitally, any music program needs to include the recording, sequencing and editing process as part of the core curriculum.

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The post-fidelity era

Guberman, Daniel. Post-Fidelity: A New Age of Music Consumption and Technological Innovation. Journal of Popular Music Studies, Volume 23, Issue 4, pp 431–454

Guberman divides the history of recorded music into two distinct sections: the fidelity era, stretching from Thomas Edison through the invention of the compact disk, and the post-fidelity era, beginning with the iPod. He argues that, since about 2001, the listening public has come to value convenience, variety, personalization and curation over sound quality.

An emblematic image of the late fidelity era: the Maxell advertisement showing a wealthy young man in his home, sitting deep in an easy chair with a martini, getting physically blown away by giant, powerful speakers.

The emblematic image of the post-fidelity era: silhoutted people of both genders and diverse backgrounds, dancing with iPods.

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That ill tight sound

Chapman, Dale. “That Ill, Tight Sound”: Telepresence and Biopolitics in Post-Timbaland Rap Production. Journal of the Society for American Music (2008) Volume 2, Number 2, pp. 155–175.

Chapman examines the impact that Timbaland has had on popular music production, and what his significance is to the broader culture. While Timbaland himself is no longer the tastemaker he was at his peak ten or fifteen years ago, his sonic palette has become commonplace throughout the global pop landscape.

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Beatboxing and mashups are the new folk music

Thompson, Tok. Beatboxing, Mashups, and Cyborg Identity: Folk Music for the Twenty-First Century. Western Folklore, Spring 2011, 71-193.

Thompson’s provocative thesis is that folk music of the present is either produced entirely digitally, or is performed with the specific intent of imitating electronic sounds. Furthermore, the oral tradition intrinsic to folk music is now substantially taking place via the internet.

Thompson begins with a discussion of beatboxing, which began on the streetcorners of US cities, but has spread to every corner of the internet-using world, primarily via YouTube. Beatboxing may seem far afield from digital audio, since no form of music could be more “organic” or body-centered. But beatboxing began as a substitute for drum machines and samplers, and to this day, beatboxers strive to sound as much as possible like turntables, samplers and digital editing software.

Beatboxing enjoyed a brief and narrow popularity with hip-hop listeners in the 1980s, but since then it has vanished from the commercial landscape. For the most part, it is a form practiced and taught for creative gratification only. This satisfies Thompson’s requirement that a folk form be non-commrcial. While we traditionally associate folk music with specific regions, YouTube creates its own communities of shared musical vocabulary that transcend countries and continents. The best and most virtuosic beatboxer I’ve heard in many years was a young South Korean, visiting New York to busk the subways.

Again with the virtuoso Korean subway beatboxer

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