Production Over Songwriting?

The question today is:  Has production become more important than songwriting in today’s music?  It’s not a new question, but it’s important to revisit from time to time. I actually saw a discussion of this on Reddit and it got me to thinking about it again.

Let’s first separate production from arrangement.  Arrangement involves the musical part of the song;  who plays what where and for how long, whereas the production is the more technical aspect;  volume, effects, mastering and everything in between.

Continue reading “Production Over Songwriting?”

Good Things Come In Threes

There’s an expression that people often speak of when bad things happen;  bad things come in threes.  Whether that’s true or not, I suppose people tend to look for and count “bad things” when they happen in order to prove it to themselves.

I am also finding more and more evidence that when it comes to songs, good things also come in threes.  Let me explain.

I wrote in another article years ago called Self-Indulgence about repetition; how some songwriters repeat things too often, and others not enough.  At the time I didn’t come to any particular conclusion other than the fact that I often would repeat things three times and that seemed to be enough.  The elements that I referred to were things like melodic phrases, or lyrics that repeated, often in a chorus, but also in other parts of the song.

Lately I’ve been paying attention to how many times certain things are repeated in popular songs, especially melodic phrases since most of us tend to be drawn to the music first.  When I was playing a song with a young guitar student last week, Coldplay’s “Paradise”, it occurred to me that this song had that very type of repetition:

Dreamed of para- para- paradise
Para- para- paradise
Para- para- paradise
Every time she closed her eyes

The “para-para-paradise” is repeated three times in this chorus before it changes in the last line.

I recently posted in my I Like Songs blog about a song that was a recent Academy Award nominee, “Happy” by Pharrell Williams.  I think it’s a great song and should have won, but what do I know?  🙂

Because I’m happy
Clap along if you feel like a room without a roof
Because I’m happy
Clap along if you feel like happiness is the truth
Because I’m happy
Clap along if you know what happiness is to you
Because I’m happy
Clap along if you feel like that’s what you wanna do

Ah, but Irene, you’ll say, the line is repeated FOUR times.  Yes, but.  The melody isn’t quite the same in each repetition, is it?  You have to listen to the song to see what I mean if you don’t know it.

Repetition is an interesting phenomenon.  You’ll notice it with very young children, the desire to have something repeated, especially something that makes them laugh.  Human beings are wired to want to experience something that gives us pleasure over and over again.  And there’s a psychological reason for that!  It’s called “Mere-Exposure Effect”.

Wikipedia describes the effect this way: “The mere-exposure effect is a psychological phenomenon by which people tend to develop a preference for things merely because they are familiar with them. In social psychology, this effect is sometimes called the familiarity principle. The effect has been demonstrated with many kinds of things, including words, Chinese characters, paintings, pictures of faces, geometric figures, and sounds.”  The emphasis is mine.

Pop music is notoriously repetitive…the choruses in pop are meant to be memorable and originally titles (or the “hook”, if you will) were specifically placed in the chorus so you would remember the name of the song in order to either request it on the radio, or buy the record.  Yes, manipulative, right?  But people wanted to hear those songs again and again, and the mere-exposure affect partly explains why.  We like what we know.

But how much is too much?

Today I saw an article about another remix of the Academy award-winning song “Let It Go” and the article began with “You’re probably sick of ‘Let It Go’ remixes, but…”.  We’ve all had the nausea-inducing effect of hearing a song or something in a song, once too often.  Even Taylor Swift chooses the songs she’s going to include on her next album by weeding out the ones she gets tired of first.

The Perfect Three Effect, which I am now going to call it just because I can, refers to how many times in a row something can safely be repeated without tiring the listener.  This includes lyrical and/or musical phrases.  If you look at your own songs, can you find any that include this phenomenon?  Sometimes these things come out of us without much thinking, and that’s the way it should be when you’re first sitting down to write.  But when you go back to re-write a song, that’s when you have to scrutinize it for elements that have to be fixed.  Watching out for how many times you repeat something, is an important part of that process.


And The Nominees Are…

I’m always curious about the songs that end up in movies.  Are they already in existence and just end up being a perfect fit for the movie, or are they written specifically for the movie?

My guess would be either or.  I’m sure a director might be drawn to a song before a movie is completed in some cases…and in others I would imagine there are some politics involved, where they have to use a particular artist, band or songwriter for their movie.

Let’s understand first that “Best Song” is different from “Best Score”.  The score is the music that is underneath the dialogue or helps to drive the emotion or drama of a movie in various scenes.

The very first Oscar for best song was awarded in 1934.  “The Continental” written by Con Conrad with lyrics by Herb Magidson was sung by Ginger Rogers in the movie “The Gay Divorcee”.  Wow, that movie title would have a whole new context these days 🙂

Here is a video clip from the movie:

Of course, the movie was a musical.  But these days, musicals aren’t as common in film form unless they are filmed versions of Broadway musicals or Disney films.

The best song nominations are very often at the end of a movie, during the credits.  Which makes me wonder if a lot of people actually stay long enough to hear them.  Maybe the intention is to keep people in their seats during the credits, or to prevent you from turning the movie off, in the case of a DVD or streamed movie.   I wonder if that actually works?  There are certainly people who like to watch the credits, or who take that time to soak the movie in, but a lot of people don’t bother.

This years nominations are all quite different.  “Let It Go”, from the Disney movie “Frozen” is your typical Disney pop ballad, sung by Idina Menzel and written by Kristen Anderson-Lopez and her husband Robert Lopez, who have written songs for Disney before in the movies Finding Nemo and Winnie The Pooh.  In this case, of course, Disney commissioned the song specifically for the movie.  I was curious about it because I wrote a song with that very name about 20 years ago.  I guess without the context of the movie, it’s hard to judge the song on its own merit, but it is not a stand out for me.  I can see, however, that it might appeal to the little girls that the movie is mainly targeting.

Another nominated song is “Ordinary Love” by U2 from the movie “Long Walk To Freedom”.  This is Nelson Mandela’s story, and although I didn’t see the movie, I do know his story well.  When I listened to the song, I more or less expected to relate to the lyrics because of that, but I have to say I was confused by them to some degree.  I do like some of the imagery in lines like “The sea throws rock together, but time leaves us polished stones”, but the chorus lines “we can’t fall any further if we can’t feel ordinary love” probably has some sort of mystical meaning to the writers, that go right over my head.   I just don’t think the song is a stand out.

The movie “Juno” which came out in 2007 had a couple of songs in it by the Moldy Peaches.  I know there are Moldy Peaches fans out there because a couple of my guitar students requested one of the songs that was used in the movie “Anyone Else But You”.  The group described themselves at the time as “anti-folk”, “lo-fi” and “garage-rock”.  For me, they were “sophomoric”, but that’s just a matter of personal preference, I guess :-).  This year, “The Moon Song” from the movie “Her”, strikes me exactly the same way.  ‘Nuff said.

My favourite song on this year’s list of nominees, is the song “Happy” from “Despicable Me 2” by Pharrell Williams.  Reflecting its title, of course, it’s a very upbeat and catchy song.  It is, by no means, lyrically deep.  But then again, I was drawn to Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky”, so I don’t have to hear deep lyrics to find happiness.

Online there is huge support for “Let It Go” and although that isn’t necessarily a reflection of what the Academy is going to choose, I think it’s a strong possibility that it will win.   There are, honestly, some years that I find the field of nominees lacking.  But then again, I suppose in some years there isn’t a whole lot to choose from.

I’ll be watching…


Five “Secrets” To A Great Chorus

I actually read an article elsewhere on the web which had a similar theme to this, so I decided to write my own.  No plagiarism here :-), just some of my ideas on what makes a great chorus.

1. The Lyrical Sum of the Song

Lyrically, the chorus of a song is its focal point, its summation, a kind of wrap-up of what the song is about.  In pop and country/pop especially, the chorus is everything.  You’ll notice that many songs in these genres have choruses that are longer than the verses, and sometimes they are inserted at the beginning of the song just to let you know that this is what the song is all about!

The chorus should be the very centre of the song.  Make it stand out musically and lyrically (contrast) to the rest of the song.  Think about it as being the sun, with the verses representing the planets spinning around it.  Hmmm…I must be a songwriter…

2.  The Chorus is the Part They Remember!

When you’re writing a chorus, you’ll want to pay special attention to its memorability.  Often, the chorus contains the title of the song, and in many cases the title is repeated a number of times.  Often, the title is at the very beginning or end of a chorus which certainly helps people to remember it.  And if there’s a melodic hook, the chorus is where you’ll often find it.  How many times has someone had to sing a song to you all the way to the chorus before you suddenly recognize it?  Think about that!

3. Repetition, Repetition, Repetition

I talk about repetition a lot in this blog because it’s a critical point.  The number of times you repeat a melodic phrase or a lyrical one can make or break a song.  If it’s too much, it gets boring, if it’s not enough, it’s meandering.  And how many times you repeat a chorus is also important.  Having the chorus after the verses is obvious, but how many times should you repeat it at the end?  The chorus is one of those places where you can effectively use repetition to drive the point of the song home.  Let me repeat:  the chorus is one of those places where you can…you get my drift 🙂

4.  But The Chorus Doesn’t Have To Repeat Itself!

If you’ve never heard of it, get to know the term “progressive chorus”.  For the most part, a progressive chorus is one that reflects the verse before it…for instance if you are going from past to present to future in your verse lyrics, the chorus might also reflect this tense change with different wording:  “was”, to “is”, to “will be”.  And sometimes to carry a song lyric along, the chorus needs to “update”, if you will, according to whatever is happening in your lyric.  This can be a very effective tool in writing a great song lyric.

5.  Sometimes There Is No Chorus

Not every song requires a chorus.  In fact, a lot of song have simply what is considered a “refrain”;  a line or a phrase that gets repeated at the end of each verse.  A good example of that is “The Times They Are A Changin'” – an old Bob Dylan song.  And guess what?  The refrain is the title of the song!  That’s because it is repeated, and because it is the whole point of the song, so it does the job of a chorus without actually being one.  If you’re more of a folk songwriter, you already know this.  Folk is one of the oldest song forms, with only verses:  A, A, A, A.

And those are my five “secrets”.  Not secrets at all, of course, but they might make you think more about how to construct a chorus in future.

A little background when it comes to choruses for those of you young punks :-).  Up until only a few years ago, songs were discovered mainly on the radio.  In some cases the DJ would either introduce the song and/or artist before or after it was played.   But sometimes you would catch a song in the middle and not hear the introduction, or songs played back-to-back so they weren’t identified.  If you really liked a song, it became particularly frustrating if you didn’t know its name or the artist’s name.  Songwriters paid a lot of attention to this, which is why popular songs often had a lot of repetition especially in the chorus, or at the very least, something very memorable that could be identified by listeners when they were going to a record shop to try and find a song, like a powerful melodic hook.

The digital era has made it a lot easier to identify songs as you’re hearing them, but the old idea of a hook and a powerful chorus is still relevant.  If your plan is to pitch your songs, or at the very least, write memorable ones, then spend a lot of time working on the chorus, if there is one.

One last point:  you probably already know that the dictionary also defines a chorus as a “group” of singers.  So why not think of your song chorus in terms of what it sounds like when a group is singing together, and the verses as the soloists?  Just another way to think of it 🙂



No, it’s not a title for an article, it’s just the title of one of the songs on my CD Shades of Grey: