It’s been clear in recent years that popular songwriting has been going through another significant sea change.
Even a quick listen to the most popular songs of the past year or so shows that many songs are becoming more fragmented and less traditional in structure. They’re still hooky, catchy, memorable – that’s all just as important. But the listener doesn’t seem to need as much old-school structure as they used to.
I’ve noticed this looser approach coming towards the center – mainstream pop – from two sides: Indie music and Rap.
Many hit songs still follow traditional forms; but some don’t. I’ve been listening, and thinking about what I’m listening to. I have two preliminary thoughts about these changes.
1) Pop music is catching up with with other forms of modern popular art.
Think about movies and TV shows – we now accept narratives stretched to the breaking point as, if not the norm, then something that doesn’t phase us in the least. Flashbacks, flash-forwards, even backwards… identity changes, etc. There is storytelling in some of the most mainstream films and TV shows that would have been considered avant-garde or impossible to follow not too long ago.
Not to mention fine art – painting, sculpture, et al – photography, performance art, and many other forms of expression. All have used fragmentation, collage, and other splintering devices as part of their toolbox for a long time – in some cases more than a century.
Popular music has been pretty slow to catch up with all this. We’ve always liked our pop songs traditionally structured, and change has always come gradually. The sounds change, the grooves change, the styles change… but the song structure doesn’t, much – or, when it does, it does so very slowly.
But change is accelerating now. I don’t think it’s just a passing trend. So… why?
I think one reason is that practically everyone has listened to tens of thousands of songs (just like we’ve watched thousands of movies and TV shows – see above).
Listening to music used to be kind of a big deal, special. Now it’s ubiquitous, omnipresent. You can’t escape. This creates a world of listeners who, usually without knowing it, are very savvy to the ‘genres’. They get what’s happening, and what’s coming, pretty quickly, usually without realizing it. They may like to be, but they don’t have to be, spoon-fed: “OK, here’s the Pre-Chorus… we’re building now… here it comes… the Chorus: WHAM!”
The above kind of song, done well, is still great and still everywhere. But I would say that a lot of listeners don’t need all that help anymore. Maybe they don’t even want it. And not just the ‘sophisticated’ listeners (in fact sometimes they’re most custom-bound).
Choruses aren’t going anywhere soon (listen below). Hit songs will still be hook-laden… but increasingly not always structured in the way we’ve been used to.
2) In a word: Google. In another: Shazam.
Songwriting immortal Irving Berlin said: “Make sure you repeat the Title a as often as possible so people know what to ask for when they go to buy it.” In that sentence Berlin distilled a century of songwriting truth. If people didn’t hear the Chorus and Title enough to remember it, it made it hard for them to find it, and purchase it.
This is simply not the case anymore. This is also a big part of why so many contemporary songs have Titles that aren’t in the song, or are barely there. They don’t need to be.
If you hear some part of a song you like, some sounds you like, you can either Shazam it, or you can Google literally any phrase in the lyric, and find the song – easily.
You can still repeat the Title a lot if it suits the song and it’s fun and sounds good… but you don’t have to, to sell it.
That’s a big deal. Just as the invention of the microphone and sound systems changed singing (and all music) inexorably and inevitably, so too will these technologies continue to change songwriting.
I’ve just scratched the surface here. What are your thoughts?
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