Wednesday, August 4, 2010

The Musical Science of Contemporary Pop

Do you ever wonder why (as a listener) you tend to not like a certain artist, but you somehow find yourself bobbing your head to their tunes on the radio?  Well I am going to explain to you the (theoretically) subliminal strategy behind what makes you seem to think that song is so catchy.

Of course there are a million reasons why a pop song might catch your ear even if you don't like the artist.  Even though you might hate to admit it, sometimes the vocal melody is actually that well written, maybe an instrumental performance by the studio musician is really outstanding, or maybe the lyrics are just so insightful.  Sadly, most of the time none of these things are true.  Most of the reason a song is successful is because of studio tricks.  And no, I don't mean auto-tune, beat mapping, or other various software plug-ins.  Lets be honest, even the least savvy listeners nowadays are keen on how these are utilized in the studio.  However what I do mean is the strategic use of instrument addition and subtraction that is so incredibly overused that at the bottom of the post I will show you 2 examples of massively popular songs within the past year that use literally the exact same layering technique, even in the same order.

Contemporary and radio pop, in my opinion, is framed around the idea that you, the listener, are not actually listening.  The producer and artist are shaping a song that in the most general sense is built to make you bob your head and have what a musician would call:  "A Pulse."  This "Pulse" is always the goal when creating a Top 40, radio friendly song, and usually takes the drivers seat as opposed to lyrical or instrumental composition in this genre.

To create this pulse in a dynamic way producers use a technique of adding and subtracting a subset of instruments throughout a song in order to slowly build a pulse multiple times in one song.  Usually a song will start with something that keeps a very steady rhythm (usually 1/4th beats on a kick or snare drum) from there additional instruments are added, usually one or two at a time to build the pulse of the song to it's release (which is usually always the chorus)  To re-build the pulse, the song will usually start the second verse with the stripped feel of the first but with a different instrument keeping time (thus the dynamic factor)  In most cases a general listener doesn't pick up on this technique being used and may just recognize the release as "Their favorite part" or "When the song picks up."  Which if you take note, the release is the chorus which is also the most repeated part of the song.  By adding and subtracting instruments in certain portions of the song including the chorus, the producer can make it more appealing because the chorus has an added dynamic factor that the rest of the song does not.  An informal term for this would be making the chorus "pop."  The fact that the listener doesn't pick up on the molding of the pulse and the release at the chorus almost makes it effect distracting to the listener.  In most cases drawing away from questionable/silly lyrics or put simply:  a poorly written song.

Perhaps the most unfortunate is that this feel is almost impossible to create live without a huge band or a backing track, which is in most cases is why many pop stars don't sound "full" live, or frankly, "bad."

The examples below better illustrate this technique.  Specifically highlighting the layering in the chorus, which is the exact same between these two songs in specific.

First I will show you "Tik Tok" by Ke$ha then "California Gurls" by Katy Perry .  Each song does standard layering up until the chorus in a similar fashion, but the choruses are almost identical.  Listen to the instrument layering and relayering between the two songs.  Not only do they use the same techniques, but the songs are extremely similar in general.  So the next time you catch yourself bobbing your head for no apparent reason, listen for this technique.  Oh, and if you are an at home producer, this might be a process that might work for you as far as professional "umph."  Although, if you aren't producing songs for Britney Spears, it might be something to rethink.

             Ke$ha:  "Tik Tok"             Katy Perry:  "California Gurls"