Secret Sauce for a Sweet Song

Humanity’s love for music is strange. Who would have thought that a bunch of well timed audio frequencies would be such a hit? We enjoy music very much, but there doesn’t seem to be any reason why we should. Why should a string of notes make us feel happy? Or why should a great beat make us feel energised?

There are millions of genres of music out there, more than you could ever cover in your lifetime. Some of them are pretty popular – pop, hip hop, and EDM. Some less so, such as folk punk or Hamburger SchuleBut there’s always a song out there for anyone. The idea of a good song, as you can imagine, is extremely subjective, and will depend on many things. It is often highlighted to me how bad my taste in music is. For example I really enjoy this song by little-known Frank Turner but nobody else can see its merits, beyond using it for a white noise machine. On the flip side I would like to admit that even though this is almost as bad as admitting to a love for Satan, I do not see the appeal of Adele. She’s great at singing, but I’ve never felt the need to listen any of her songs twice. This has got me thinking about what goes into music, and how the same piece of music may appeal to different people.

I think that music, for all its variety and complexity, can be broken into at least three components: its lyrics, its melody, and its beat. You can imagine these three things like a Red-Green-Blue colour triangle – some songs will have more of on one or the other, just like some colours will have more of green or green or blue. And just as there are millions of colours, the combination of lyrics, melody and beat gives us the millions of flavours of music that we all may or may not enjoy.

Lyric Heavy Songs – The Story in the Words

Songs nowadays have unfortunately decided that words aren’t as important as a good beat or melody, so a random bunch of syllables is enough for their vocals. I’m looking at you, Silento. The lyrics of a song have unbounded potential to tell a story, make you smile, make you cry, or even make you laugh. My favourite lyrics are from the classic Over the Rainbow, famously performed by Judy Garland for the Wizard of Oz. Consider the first verse:

Somewhere over the rainbow, way up high
There’s a land that I’ve heard of once in a lullaby.
Somewhere over the rainbow, skies are blue
And the dreams that you dare to dream,
Really do come true.

It’s only forty words but it says so much. Is she singing about hope for things to come? Or is she longing for a time long past? There is no right answer, but as with any art the point isn’t about being right. It’s about what it invokes in you, whether that be hope or despair.

Some songs are in fact just virtually all lyrics. Rap often gets a bad reputation, possibly because the rap we hear on air is a terrible representative for the genre. Good rap artists are no lesser than poets: I recommend watching this video from Vox that explains the amount of detail good artists put into their lyrics. Most of rap doesn’t have a melody, and the beat they rap over is generic – but their beauty lies in the words they craft, sometimes months in advance, sometimes (in freestyle) on the spot.

The Melody – Ear Worms you can’t get rid off

Catchy songs spread like a cold. You catch a melody from a coworker and the next thing you know you can’t leave the bed without singing or humming it. Writing a catchy melody is an art in itself – this is known as writing a pop song. But when you do it well, your song will spread, like a deadly virus, to all corners of the Earth. And your listeners don’t even have to understand the words – see Oppa Gangam Style.

The melody isn’t just about the hook though – it plays an important role in giving the song its emotional weight, along with the lyrics. Unfortunately, because we may only be tuning into the melody and not to the words, we might miss the point entirely. Consider the song Hey Ya from Outkast . A fun catchy song that anyone will recognise in a couple seconds. Nevermind though that the lyrics is about a man becoming sad about his relationship. They even lament the fact we’re not paying attention with the line, “You all don’t hear me, you just wanna dance.” What a burn.

Some songs have melodies so good, that you don’t really care that what the lyrics are saying. David Bowie’s Life on Mars is one of my personal favourites: the melody is the perfect blend of longing and triumph, and the chord progression if you ever take the time to look it up is wildly innovative. But for the life of me I don’t know what he’s singing about at all. If you have any hints, please drop me a message.

Just Beat It

The beat and rhythm is the heartbeat of the song that gives it life. Sometimes it’s so good you can’t help but get up and dance even though you don’t really know how. Other times it gives you a headache and makes you want to blow your eardrums out. A good beat must do several things. It must set the pace – will it be slow like a ballad, or fast like heavy metal? But it must also complement the lyrics and melody of the song. It’s hard to imagine how a thump here and there can match words or musical notes until you compare beats across different genres. Take a look at a generic pop song – S Club 7’s Bring It All Back anyone?  If you listen in the first few lines where the emphasis of the beat is, you’ll find that it’s always on the first and third beat, with four beats in a bar. For example, emphasis happens on the bolded words:

Don’t stop, Never give up, Hold your head high and reach the top. Let the world see what you have got, bring it all back to you.

This emphasis on the 1st and 3rd beat is really common in pop songs – the 2nd and 4th beats are sort of like ‘fillers’ in between the pulses. But when it comes to jazz, blues, and its derivates rock and roll, Rhythm and Blues, and rock, the format is inverted – the 2nd and 4th beat becomes the emphasis. Listen to The Clash classic Should I Stay or Should I Go and you can clearly hear the emphasis on the 2nd and 4th beat. The same pattern appears over and over again throughout music, in Queen, Lorde, and virtually any jazz standard ever.

The Sum Greater than its Parts

I’ve talked at length about the three components of every song, and how the amount of each varies across different genres, and will appeal to different people. I compared it to the colour triangle and the three primary colours. But just like colour, its value as art isn’t in the ratios of the red, green and blue. When you arrange it in a certain way, what emotions can you draw, what images can you paint? Music is exactly that – it makes you feel something, whether its because the lyrics speak out to you, the tune strikes a chord in you, or you can’t help but tap along to it. Or maybe it’s an absolute crap song but you met the love of your life with it playing in the background and every time you think back to it you can’t help but smile. In the end a good song is about what it means to you, and really that’s the only bar that should count.

I leave you with a song that I think does its best to nail all three of lyrics, melody, and beat. The Duck Song perfectly synergises the three parts into a musical masterpiece. The lyrics tell a heartwarming story, the tune is whimsical and perfect for its style, and its beat reminds me of how I think a duck would walk. Truly, the epitome of our musical culture.



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