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How Contemporary Songs Are Different; Part 2: Melody

I gave a talk at our Songwriting Day event in 2016 about the ways in which contemporary songs differ from songs of previous generations. The evolution of songwriting always fascinates me and, in a series of posts, I’m attempting to elucidate this evolution a little bit.

In the first post I looked at some of the external forces in play – technology always affects art (read here). This post is about some more specifically craft-based areas of songwriting that make songs sound modern.

To illustrate, I’ll use three songs that are currently in the Billboard Top 10 – Ed Sheeran’s ‘Shape Of You’, The Chainsmokers’ ‘Closer’, and ‘Starboy’ by The Weeknd with Daft Punk (listen below)

Although superficially quite different, these songs share certain characteristics:

* A 4 chord pattern that repeats throughout the songs (‘Starboy’ plays a tiny bit loose with this, but not much).

* A busy rhythmic underpinning (the ‘Shape Of You’ rhythm is light but very active).

* All three songs build on their relatively simple patterns as they go along. By the end, the musical parts have been layered and reinforced.

* Massive use of inner rhymes of all sorts – from true rhymes to very distant ones.

But by far the most significant factor is that in all cases – and in this way these three songs are representative of most contemporary pop songs – the melody almost never stops. It’s practically continuous through the songs, at times barely leaving room for breath.

Compared with modern songs, in almost all 20th century songs the rhythms of the melodies were relatively ‘boxy’. There are some significant exceptions to this, but generally speaking the melodies wound out in 4 bar phrases, usually consisting of 2 or so bars of words and melody followed by a pause, where the melody breathed a little, until the beginning of the next phrase.

That breath is pretty much gone (even in a lot of Country music!). Listen to these songs, listen to others that represent current songwriting. Not all of their melodies are as continuous as the ones cited here (though some are more so), but virtually none of them have the kind of pauses that are typical in melodies of 20th century songs.

In fact, a song with those kind of melodic rests will these days almost always sound ‘old school’ or ‘retro’. I’m not talking about the quality of the song, just about what its ’sonic vintage’ is.

Historically, speaking very broadly, this happened as a result of the power, freedom, and expressiveness of rhythm and rhyme that Rap introduced (partly empowered by having very limited melodic content), which gradually blended with more melodic writing.

Rap hasn’t gone away, nor has straight up ‘melodic’ writing. But their synthesis plays a big part in where we are now – a lot of melody with a lot of variation in rhythm and rhyme (and, often, not as much in note variety and complexity, or harmony).

This is not to say that songwriting has improved – who writes better songs than Irving Berlin wrote almost a hundred years ago? Nor has it deteriorated. But that’s not the point. It continues to evolve.

As Stevie Wonder sang, “Everything must change…”. That includes songwriting.

Let me know your thoughts in the Comments section below:




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8 responses to “How Contemporary Songs Are Different; Part 2: Melody”

  • Tony – you are right on the money with this. Its happening in Pop and also in Country. The groove chugs along with the same chords repeating
    but the big difference in the verse and the chorus is the melodies and the phrasings. Ed Sheerans song only has a couple of production things that make it sound more like a chorus but essentially its the same groove all along.

  • Excellent series, Tony! Thanks for this.

  • Daniel A Weiss

    Hey Tony,

    I think your observations are spot on, but I personally find this style of writing insufferably boring. I’m done listening 16 bars in. That repetition thing over the drum loop.., please lord, let this phase in pop music history end. I like Sheeran a lot, when he’s not doing that.

    Some will say that I’ve turned into my father but would argue that,citing
    the extreme popularity of the music from the Broadway show, Hamilton. Lin Manuel (and Alex Lacamoire in no small part) literately created a synthesis of rap and pop, incorporating compelling lyrics, ferocious grooves, and accessible but not simplistic chord patterns. I hope writers will find it and things like it inspiring. I feel strongly that the pop genre really needs to aim the bar higher and return to being more harmonically satisfying, beyond the clever rhymes and machine-played grooves.
    And now I’ll duck!


  • Charity James

    Great breakdown, Tony! Interesting book on the phenom is The Song Machine. Talks about why everything sounds like a nursery rhyme or a high school cheer.

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