“The definition of genius is taking the complex and making it simple.”
― Albert Einstein
As with any other art form, in music we are constantly refining and inventing new means of expression. We break or simply neglect rules, we let our emotions do the talking, and we search for the next hot thing that once again reminds us of the beauty of discovering a new sound that rattles the walls. So what are some of the latest trends in songwriting these days?
We’re going to take you on a little journey through some contemporary songwriting techniques. We are going to give a brief history of how they came to be and why they are being so widely used today.
New Ways to Approach Hooks
It is impossible to ignore a popular, fresh and alternative way of tackling the chorus. This specific approach has been around for quite some time and has now reached it’s peak potential. Virtually any artist who’s keeping their ears open to what’s hot right now uses it. We are talking about hooks and the way they interact with the overall production.
The EDM (Electronic Dance Music) hype train has arrived and its influence on the current music industry cannot be underestimated. Even the controversy about the scene does far more good than harm. Here’s a technique that has been common for electronic dance music since its inception and which has paved its own way into modern indie, hip hop and pop sounds.
Instead of having a full blown chorus, more and more artists tend to use a simple hook or punch line repeated several times. This makes a lot of sense, considering the shift that music acts are taking towards dancier grooves. The chorus now has a solid competitor, and it is the drop. Most people are sceptical about the term but contemporary music has become all about drops.
“Most people are sceptical about the term but contemporary music has become all about drops.”
Drop is a term commonly used in dance music and stands for the main portion of the song which is usually all about a dancy and heavy back beat. In today’s music the drop is often used instead of a chorus section and the actual chorus is placed before the drop.
What are the reasons for that? Is it the desire to simplify things? Is it the lack of vocabulary in the songwriter’s arsenal? Clearly not! Perhaps it is where the modern sound is going?
Let’s take a step back and refresh our memory with how that technique originally saw the light of the disco ball and try recreating a logical path to explain why things are now as they are.
It all started with the birth of House Music in Chicago in the early 1980s. This type of music relied heavily on sampling techniques. Often times songs were forged by combining multiple samples chopped and manipulated in every possible way. The backbone for the vocals served up a steady four-to-the-floor beat, which is an integral part of this early dance music.
Drop your line and set your hook
Here’s our first example of such a track, “Keep Warm” by Jinny. Pay attention to the repetitive and sparse vocals that rely on minor alterations and addition of melismas for extra variation:
Such an approach really focuses on the power of a single phrase and the way you can expand a limited amount of content through embellishment. Notice that there is not much processing or electronic manipulation of the vocals yet: simple repetition and variation and that’s it.
The first drop hits on [0:44]. Make sure to listen to the whole song to get an idea of how it builds.
Now listen to “Harder Better Faster” by the French electronic duo Daft Punk, who revolutionized pop music and popularized a new way to process vocals with the vocoder synthesizer:
This song is built around one simple phrase altered and repeated in numerous ways, giving birth to one of the most memorable hooks ever created. Einstein would be proud (see quote above), but you can think this way as well. The additional vocal processing, as compared with “Keep Warm” adds a new twist.
The hook comes in at [0:52]. Check out the whole song to experience how it all goes together.
From Drop to Pop
So now we have varied repetition of vocal phrases and additional FX processing. What else goes into our golden formula for creating the perfect song? Additional lyrical content will give our song more structure. And so we have our usual verse, pre-chorus, post-chorus and bridge at hand to complete our song.
Here’s a perfect example of approaching hooks in a new way: K. Flay killing it on this track with Australian sensation Golden Features. “Telescope” utilizes all the elements of a standard song i.e. verse, chorus and a huge drop with the hypnotic “You’re in my telescope” flowing above the beat. The first drop hits at [0:52], but make sure to listen to whole song to get an idea of how it develops.
Another amazing tune that shows how this technique is executed is “Metaphysical” by Autograf featuring Janelle Kroll on the vocals. Again, very sparse vocals on the drop which in turn allows the arrangement and instrumentation to open up.
The first drop hits at [1:34], but make sure to listen to the whole song to get an idea of how it develops.
Here’s one more great contemporary example that puts it all together. Yes, that would be none other than “Sorry” by Justin Bieber. This record features everything we have discussed before, plus a little more. Instead of going to a chorus, you get a very danceable drop with a single phrases repeated on top and a little processed vocal melody to fill out the space.
To hear how it works, jump to [1:11].
How to Find the Flow
How do you craft seamless transitions in songs? How do you develop and create interesting phrases? If you’ve ever tried songwriting, chances are that you have experienced quite a hefty chunk of frustration. Sometimes everything comes together in the blink of an eye. Then the next day you spend hours trying to figure out how words and melodies work together.
There’s one thing that hit songs have in common: an uninterrupted progression of ideas where all the elements contribute to each other. These songs flow naturally from one section to another in what feels like a very logical fashion.
Here are a few suggestions to help you improve your songwriting process:
Call and Response
The first and the most important concept is call and response, or tension and release. “White Noise” is a perfect example of this approach. This track by Disclosure and AlunaGeorge could become your blueprint whenever you need inspiration to grow your song.
Pay close attention at at [0:32] to the first 4 bars of the tune once the vocals start :
“I know you’re smart
You spin me round like a knot
You know the pieces, pieces of my heart”
The first two lines share almost identical melodic and rhythmical content while the last line occupies 2 bars and uses contrasting elements to resolve the tension created in the first half. This makes it a full 4 bar phrase with a very natural development; a finished idea leading into the next section of the verse. The second portion of the verse utilizes the same technique.
Interesting lyrics combined with tension-and-release phrases will create a sense that your lines are glued together and, yes, sound logical. What a feeling! This is the only way the song could have gone and you nailed it.
Most verses these days are followed by a pre-chorus, which is also known as the build–especially in dance music genres. Consider the fact that the song has to develop and grow with excitement. Think video game: every next level is different from the previous one and brings new elements into play.
Let’s go back and see how each of our examples so far handle the build. Jump to [0:47] in “White Noise” and notice how the energy in the vocals picks up, moving to a higher register and creating new melodic and rhythmic flow in contrast to the verse.
To hear another example let’s listen again to our old friends, Golden Features and K. Flay on “Telescope”. Jump to [0:38] to listen to the pre-chorus: a complete contrast to the melodic and rhythmic content of the verse.
The same is true for “Metaphysical” by The Autograf ft. Janelle Kroll. Starting from [1:04] you can hear a drastic change in vocals that signifies further development of the song, and hooks you into wanting to hear more.
The artist Lorde is a master of the build. Listen to these two songs and you will notice a clear pattern: every time Lorde gets to the pre-chorus she simply switches to a faster paced rhythm and higher register.
Royals: Go to [0:33] to listen to the pre-chorus.
Tennis Court: Pre-chorus starts at [0:21] on this one.
The best songwriting is a game of contrasts and follows the formula of call and response. If you start slow, follow up with something fast. If you start on a higher pitch, then dropping to a lower pitch in the next section will be your best bet. If your phrases are short and staccato follow with prolonged legato to deliver an exciting listening experience.
It is important to develop sharp analytical skills when listening to music if you want to learn from other songs. Focus your listening experience on the bigger picture and notice how the different parts of a song interact with each other.
Listen, listen, listen
While there isn’t one hard and fast rule that will resolve all possible songwriting struggles, there are certain practices worth paying attention to that spark inspiration.
Listening analytically to as much music as possible is one of those practices. Take advantage of the abundance of genres and take note of their specific tricks. For example, if you’re into indie rock, it might be time to take a look into what goes into hip hop lyrics, which rely heavily on cool and sassy punchlines, and use everyday words in creative ways.
So where is contemporary songwriting going, and what direction will it take next? We are experiencing a very interesting breaking point in almost all areas of life due to the technological boom. We heard new sounds created through electronically manipulating the human voice, and it is obvious that we are going to be more and more reliant on Virtual Studio Technology (VST) to discover new ways to process vocals and use various FX.
Fueled by universal online access to a vast supply of music, genres continue to cross-fertilize one another: witness the migration of the drop from EDM to pop. Dancing audiences are drawn to a logical flow of energy, which is satisfied by the age-old call and response and the increasing integration of transitional sections, such as the build and the drop.
Contemporary songwriters thrive on recognizing new developments and integrating them into their toolbox. Listen carefully, respond to the call, drop everything, and build to the future!
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