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Don't (Always) Ignore The Charts: Three Things Songwriters can Learn From Pop

'Pop' is a pretty dirty word in music. It always has been really, but recently the rise of mass-marketed, 'manufactured', and (more often than not) lip-syncing pop acts (think One Direction, JLS, and the rest of the Chart Brigade) has disillusioned many a music fan to the point of despair. Bands often go to ridiculous lengths to avoid being labelled as 'poppy'; I vividly recall taking a song I'd spent weeks crafting to one band practise years ago only for the (then) drummer to refuse to play it on the grounds that it sounded like 'sh*tty pop'.

Personally, I think this is an attitude we need rid of. Yes, there is a ton of crap on the radio- I, for one, could not stand to listen to Rizzle Kicks' 'Down with the Trumpets' is you paid me, and why Radio One loved them so much is completely beyond me- but there is also a ton of clever and inspiring songcraft in there too. This may disgust some, and feel free to decry my music taste if you wish, but the likes of Taylor Swift, Rihanna, Ke$ha and even One Direction sometimes (I am so sorry) use some techniques that I feel lots of budding songwriters and bands could use and gain from.


The first one is structure. Everyone knows how a song should go, right? Intro/Verse/Chorus/Verse/Chorus/Middle 8/Chorus/Outro, yes? But this is one thing that always always ALWAYS gets overlooked. Every band seems to be able to write a killer verse, maybe even a catchy chorus, but the middle section always gets neglected. It's as if once the verse and chorus are written the middle is added as an afterthought, just tacked on.

A great producer (don't ask me who, I read it somewhere) once said 'a great song is made by the transition from the middle 8 to the final chorus' (or words to that effect). In other words, when the song builds up (and up and up) and finally releases into the final, frenetic outburst of energy, the audience should have the hair standing up on the back of their necks- they should feel the tension and release and whisper 'yessss' under their breath as they feel it.

Pop acts are fantastically good at this one. Take Taylor Swift's new single 'I Knew You Were Trouble', which has been bouncing around my noggin for days. The pretty standard Swift verse builds and makes way for a sort of ultra-lite dubstep-style half time chorus. This then repeats, but instead of the middle section being just another verse (as lazy songwriters, including myself, often do) it enters a short, very stripped down section where the vocal grows increasingly desperate and climbs and climbs until... BANG. Back into the chorus. And that is how it SHOULD be done (although maybe with a little more artistic integrity). So point number one: DON'T FORGET THE MIDDLE SECTION.


Second point: arrangement. Bands so often clutter their tracks with unnecessary thick guitars playing chunky chords and a bunch of synths playing more chords and the bass following the same chord progression (pop-punkers, I'm looking at you). Stop.

Listening to the charts, as I do every day from half 8 til 4 on the radio in the humble bakery which is my workplace, one thing that has struck me is the simplicity of the arrangements. Uncluttered and free of unnecessary parts hogging space in the mix, they have room to breathe.

One artist in particular who does this is Rihanna. Despite her growing lyrical inability (I swear her songs just repeat one line over and over nowadays) the melodies are always the most important and striking thing in the mix and again (you may disagree with me here) that is how it SHOULD be.

So before you go mad writing every part in your song to play the same four notes at the same time, strip the song right back to the lead melody and the chords and think about how to get that melody to stand out and keep people's attention in the context of the song. Point number two: KEEP IT SIMPLE.


And now for the third and final point: avoiding too much repetition. Now, this might seem a little contradictory considering the nature of pop (and indie) music, but hear me out. Tons and tons of bands work out a 4 or 8 bar loop for each section and just repeat that with each part never really changing besides the odd fill. Now this is fine, but if you really pay attention to the songs blasting from the little box in the corner, there's a lot of subtleties.

Similarly to dance music, something WILL change every 8 bars in a pop song. Nothing major: a sly handclap will enter to accompany the snare in the second half of the verse, the lead melody will alter a little bit, a tambourine will enter... something to change and build the song towards its climax. Similarly in a lot of choruses the melody and chords will change to a slightly different sequence after the initial 8 bars. Middle parts will often be 8 or 16 bars long... you get the idea.

A great example of this is 'Drive By' by Train. 8 bars after the vocals start, a handclap and a shaker enter, 8 bars later the chorus starts, 8 bars later the chorus melody changes, 8 bars later the second verse starts... Take note.
This is a great way to avoid boring your audience whilst still maintaining the simplicity which was outlined in point number two. So the final point is KEEP IT (subtly) INTERESTING. 8 bars is the magic number, usually.

So there you go, three things songwriters can learn from sh*tty pop music. The top industry songwriters are clever critters, they really are. Songwriting is a learning curve, and part of that curve is listening to a load of different styles of music- including chart pop, so don't dismiss it and paint it all with the same brush. Some of it could be valuable, you know.

Oh, and for anyone who's got time to check it out, I co-write songs, sing and play guitar in my band If You Like To Dance, an indie/pop-punk/electro/dance sort of thing.

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Chris Gibson

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