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2 Reasons Why Hit Songs Are Different Than They Used To Be

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?

Please let me know your thoughts in the Comments section below:

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19 responses to “2 Reasons Why Hit Songs Are Different Than They Used To Be”

  • Lisa Lowell

    CAUTION: RANT COMING:

    This is a big issue to tackle, pretty astute Tony. After listening hard with form in mind for a long time and being a musician and needing to know the “forms,” I’ve gone through phases where I’ve experienced classic forms as redundant too! Played with “collaging” or thinking texturally or thrown up compositional anomalies longer than 6 minutes with my good ole 4-track TEAC. Remember Eno, and all those guys making airport music years ago? It’s all good! And most of us didn’t realize that our trad pop songs were advertisements for themselves when we were teens hugging a transistor radio now did we? We just loved them!

    But then there is this musical wallpaper, this ugly ugly sounding psycho-sexual,aggressive, witless LOUD that creeps like a soul-crushing serpent into public places aplenty. Everytime I go to buy a pair of leggings I get treated to really tasteless, low budgie “producers music” that bears no originality, does not subscribe to any brand of truth, beauty or form, and has no substance to speak of, short of nihilistic grief. And most glaringly: no melody.

    There is a surfeit of that in indie music too. It’s an endless trail of imitative melisma that gets watered down into a sea of wannabee notes. And it whines a lot. Well, stands to reason that if the Ahmet Ertegun’s and the Clives are diminishing in importance,along with big brother labels, there are no standards by which good or bad art in music can be defined, or suggestively defined.

    I’d say a lot of good and young musicians and artists are getting lost in the sauce, and now we have a state of a lotta amorphous yuck going on, that thankfully I’m only subjected to in stores and in public spots. Between that and the demented ice cream truck that is about a billion decibels on my block, I occasionally moan and bitch right out loud about it and the store managers and people around me laugh and agree.

    Not to mention shows like the Voice that take talent and exploit it, and those people can sing, but they are not artists, and rarely evolve really, just think hmmmmmmm this is show biz, and I won the lottery…and then they take direction for the beaucoup buck machine. This approach, slick like Disney, puts a handful of the more ambitious in the limelight, but who do they sound like and how many of them have real soul, like Amy Winehouse.. or Jeff Buckley? Or real storytelling ability? Or a story to tell? Which to me is the essense of song expression.

    Technology will always profoundly color how music is made and sold. But it unfortunately has made for a lot of GLOBAL schmutz in the hands of people who have nary a diatonic bone, and too many knobs to tweak.

    Don’t get me wrong, I ain’t no snob. I dig bad lyrics, and think everyone should PLAY and SING music. Just not a dominance of mediocrity in the unavoidable airwaves please!!! Okay, I’m about to faint on the soap box here. Thanks for the platform. And bless you for all you do.

    Love, Lisa Lowell

  • The thing that I think I have noticed in recent pop songwriting is the song where every section is a hook unto itself, and there may not be a lot of narrative or logical connection between the sections as long as there is some kind of dynamic or musical flow.
    A few that spring to mind are Bailando (Enrique Iglesias), Uptown Funk (Bruno Mars et al.), Cake (DNCE). It is hard to identify any part of those songs that is not a hook, or at least hooky. And that quality of continual hookiness seems to have overtaken the need to make sense.

  • So that’s why the Devil seems to have all the worst music nowadays.

  • Hayward

    Hooky pancake : As a French lyricist ( among other things in my writing activities), I’m very impressed by the intelligent analysis that you displayed here, you smart people. I’ve given up on the “making sense ” or emotions, when my students showed me how to unload free muzak in a click, (and the clicks for nothin’ …). That was it ! At the same time, they made me listen to amazing artists from God knows where- on a map-, and I was very har-py to discover these exotic singers , expressing and sending raw emotions and stange sounds on the web , not giving a f.. art about the Business orientations . And all these new stars who were created from co-producing a record with one dollar share .!!!…That’s how our big Belgium star “STROMAE” started and he likes to start a new carrer in a different country as soon as he ‘s thru with the old one…Plus he shows how the MAESTRO STROMAE makes his own sauce : lessons in songwriting on FB . I love them and I could be his mother but boy, does he HOOK YOU with a repetitive chain of alliterations , and his mean beat just glues you to the end of the song, unable to skip for another station …and it makes sense also : in the tradition of the sad sack singing for a couple of cents under your window…
    Well , as a vet, from the seventies, I can tell you that YES, we lived an amazing creative period in songwriting, but the very good singers, when they are ambitious and stubborn and earnest, they can still make it big ..in that ocean of singing birds … as long as someone is still able to stand up and SING, well, fine !!!!When everything just STOPS singing, then we are in trouble …

  • Ken

    Your observations and points are well taken, Tony. Maybe country still follows traditional form more than most genres. It’s not only natural for all art forms to evolve–in this case music becoming more non-linear and less predictable–it’s healthy and more interesting, regardless of what some songwriting experts want you to pay to believe.

    It reminds me of how television shows, premium channels in particular, migrated to handheld cameras and did away with laugh tracks and expected rhythms for punchlines.

    Sometimes we write songs with pre-choruses, bridges, choruses that rise in range, traditional lyric rules, an expected number of bars or phrasing; sometimes we dispense with all of it. There are countless examples of great songs that did not adhere to formula at a time when everything was supposed to. So, how does this inform today’s songwriter beyond commentary and observation? I’m not sure but it’s interesting. All I know is you write because you want to and need to. And if it resonates with others, whatever the form, so much the better.

  • Joyce Rogers

    The one universal truth… things will change. Moving through those changes; politically, religiously, artistically, physically… is a monumental challenge without losing yourself, if all faculties are together in the first place.

  • rich meitin

    For me, it’s always a question of “Does the chosen song form or modification serve the story/message/emotion better?”As you note, we have broadened out from simple Verse/Chorus form to “Whatever/Chorus” form. OK, then. Is that better for the given song’s story or message? Or is it just confusing or novel? Does it garble the emotion or help express it better?

    I think there are primal, near-biological reasons that over the centuries we have settled on just a few song forms that humans use over and over and over. V/C. AAA. AABA. Blues (really, a type of AAA). These forms are super-powerful at specific, different types of emotional expression and different types of story lines. On the whole, I agree that it’s great that we are now willing to accept more complexity and ambiguity. That presents opportunities for richness and variety, etc. BUT – if you depart from the most powerful and established song forms and their usual variations, you do so at a risk, and it’s important to do so with clear intention and to try to accomplish something that the usual forms cannot accomplish for your purpose.

    It’s a lot like deciding to make a 3 hour movie instead of a 2 hour one, or deciding to make a 5 act play instead of a 3 act one. There are primal REASONS people like 2 hour films and 3 act plays. You’d better have a reason for departing from the structures that have served us so well emotionally, or you might not get the reaction you want!

    Have any songs emerged from this more experimental recent stage that you’d put in the Great American Songbook? That you can point to as perhaps in the same category as Gershwin, Porter, Stevie Wonder, Lennon/McCartney? Which ones? Or is it more about the appeal of novelty?

    Rich

  • I agree, life itself is far less structured than it used to be. Pop song structures usually reflect the way we feel something happens to us. I am sad to think that song structure, and with it a lot of valued technique, is melting away but we are assailed with “content,” and all of it vies for our attention as you’ve said. My current writing is in Gospel and Funk, where repetition is so important that it literally limits the amount of information in the lyric. This is a challenge I enjoy. Gospel and Funk are genres where you need to be very, very emotional and very, very clear. I hope we can all find the right places where we can express ourselves and find satisfaction writing songs.

  • Eric Beall

    Very insightful stuff here. When I started as a songwriter 25 years ago, I always wanted to try to change up the basic structure– and every time, I always wound up going back to the traditional A/B/C form. Nothing else every seemed to work or feel right. But all of that has changed now, and I think for the reasons you’ve outlined. In listening to a song like “Gold” by Kiiara, you can even hear how many hook lines are now chopped up to the point that they’re indecipherable– and it seems to work just fine. Really interesting to see how it’s evolving. Thanks for putting it all in context!

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