For you musicians, here’s a question: When you record your performance, do you pay attention to what you’re actually playing, or focus on the way it’s “supposed to sound” according to the performance you have set up in your mind?
Another question: When you listen to your recorded performance, do you actually hear what’s coming from the speakers and judge that performance, or do you “perform” the part again in your head, as the playback is rolling, and focus on that performance you have set up in your head again?
This is pretty much what I asked Robert Woody, a guy that knows how musicians’ minds work. He decided to make an entire article about it on Psychology Today’s website, as well as his personal blog.
Taylor Swift’s song “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together”, written by Taylor Swift, Max Martin & Shellback, and produced by Scott Borchetta, Max Martin & Shellback, provides some interesting production ideas that aspiring (and current) producers can learn from.
One of the most interesting production ideas in the song is the use of changing dynamics to indicate different parts of the song. Of course songs should be dynamic, and good songs push and pull the dynamics to draw the listener in & create interest in the song.
“We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” does this by changing the instrumentation and what the instrumentation is doing throughout the song. There are no less than eighteen different parts to this song, broken down by instrumentation and dynamics.
Intro – The tune starts with a single acoustic guitar, digitally warped with a few notes reversed & an interesting stereo knock on the guitar’s body to catch the listener’s attention.
Verse 1 – Adds a kick drum. Still simplistic instrumentation to highlight the vocals that are telling the story.
Verse 1, Part 2 – Halfway through the verse, some additional sound is added to the kick. No new instrumentation, but the kick simply has a different sound. Probably by adding another sound to what was originally triggered, or maybe a change in the EQ of the kick drum.
Pre-Chorus – The part with the “Oooohs”. Add a bass playing straight 1/8th notes and hi-hat rhythm, that swells into
Chorus 1 – Add background vocals, a huge snare, and additional guitar parts. The bass part changes from 1/8th notes to longer notes, with lots of space in between, basically the opposite of what you heard in the verse, which slightly swells to
Chorus, Part 2 – Similar to the previous verse, the chorus gets added to in the second half, with additional melodic instrumentation. This part of the chorus also includes a two-bar change in the rhythm of the song for “You go talk to your friends..”. Back to the original rhythm when you get to “But we are never…”. Probably my favorite part of the song.
Turn Around – After the chorus, there’s a short turn-around of two measures that serves to take the song back to a lower dynamic level for verse 2.
Verse 2 – Starts at the level the second half of verse one started, so it’s not just a repeat of verse 1, by adding the bass (again playing 1/8th notes). This verse is only half the length of the first, so we continue on the the
Pre-Chorus 2 – The “Ooooh” part again, where there’s a hi-hat again, with some addition of delay on some of the vocal tracks, along with additional background vocals, which rises to
Chorus 2 – Similar to chorus 1, but adds additional lead vocal ad libs, which swells (larger than last time) to the interesting
Chorus 2, Part 2 – Two-bar rhythm change, plus some additional lead vocal ab libs. See Chorus 1, Part 2 above.
Turn Around 2 – Actually the pre-chorus in dynamics and instrumentation, but there’s no downturn in intensity until it swells to the
Bridge – Takes out everything but the vocals, bass, and kick to start with. The acoustic guitar riff comes in with the high frequencies rolled off & phased/filtered, and gets louder/less equalized, and less phasey, until it gets to the
Fall Off – Not really a “part” of a song, but the entire instrumentation falls off so it’s just the spoken “like, ever”. To put a fine point on the concept, which reverse cymbal rises into the climax
Chorus 3 – All instrumentation, additional BGVs, lead vocal ad libs. The climax of the song
Chorus 3/Outro – Adds more instrumentation, but nothing heavy-handed. Adds an almost club/dance snare track leading in tot his final chorus, along with a rhythmic keyboard part.
Last line in Chorus – Climax is over, intensity decreases to just kick, vocals, BGVs, bass, and guitars, which ends the song with
The Very Last Line – “Getting back together”, with no instrumentation.
The Song Doesn’t Need to Continually Build to an End Climax
A lot of songs produced nowadays reach a climax close to the end of the song, then fall off and end pretty much like it started (see my previous posting for “We Are Young” for an example). “Titanium” doesn’t do that.
This song works, and is different, because the song continually builds and falls, from verse to chorus and back.
True, the final pre-chorus/chorus part is even MORE climactic than the others, but the song hits like a Mack truck at 1:16. This effect is emphasized by the keyed compression on the synth track, giving the synthesizer a pulsating rhythm opposite of the kick. This climax happens again at 2:32 and 3:33. There’s no need to continually build throughout the song here, the rising and falling of the track provide an enormous amount of movement for the song.
Give the Song a Break and Give the Song Somewhere to Climax To
Related to the previous concept, you have to come down from the climax of the song at some point. If that climax comes early in the song (as it does here), you have to do something to give the listener’s ears a break. At 1:32, the song returns to the same “level” as it was in verse one. It just falls off, and you’re right back into another verse. It happens again at 2:48, but this time leads right into the bridge. The next fall off, at 3:49, is a hard stop that fades into reverb.
This tune would not work if the intensity level had remained continuous after it reached the first climax at 1:16. The listener needs a break! That much intensity for that long would provide no contrasting dynamics, and the result is that the song would sound “flat” for the rest of the tune.
Similarly, don’t feel the need to go for the knockout punch in the first thirty seconds of the song either. This song doesn’t reach any real climax until 1:16, but that also means that it spends from 0:46 to 1:16 building up to that climax. That’s thirty seconds of build. That’s a long time, in popular music terms, spent leading the listener to that climax. It’s not an automatic increase from the verse, it’s a process of increasing the intensity from low to high.
There’s No Need to Have Continuous Percussion
To help build the climax, Guetta relies on the judicious use of percussion instrumentation in “Titanium”. He doesn’t feel the need to continually use any single piece of percussion, and sometimes drops the percussion altogether (0:46 to 1:01, for example) to help create different levels of intensity and emotion. Same at 2:02 and 2:47. I dare say this song is percusisonless for maybe 25% of the song, and very little percussion for maybe 33% of the tune.
Do NOT feel like you always must have a percussion element keeping the beat in the song.
It’s simply not true, and removing elements of the percussion aids in creating different levels of dynamics and raising or lowering them by adding or subtracting them.
Produced by David Guetta, Giorgio Tuinfort, and Afrojack
“Titanium” is a song written by Sia Furler, David Guetta, Giorgio Tuinfort, and Nick Van De Wall. Sia Furler started her career as a jazz singer, but has gained more fame as a pop and dance vocalist, releasing five albums (not including a recent “best of” album). Giorgio Tuinfort has also had success working on previous songs such as “Nothing But the Beat” and “Who’s That Chick?” with David Guetta (and Rhianna for “Who’s That Chick?”), as well as singles with Akon and Usher. Nick Van De Wall (A.K.A. Afrojack) is a Dutch DJ that has worked with the likes of Shermanology, Steve Aoki, Quintino, and The Partysquad, as well as multiple singles with Guetta. Guetta himself is an accomplished DJ and music producer, whose 2011 album release Nothing But the Beat has received many honors and awards. Guetta may be best-known for his work with The Black Eyed Peas on their 2009 hit single “I Gotta Feeling”.
You Don’t Have To Use The Same Instrumentation Throughout the Song
Notice the very beginning of the song. There’s a guitar in the beginning. That guitar continues through the first verse. However, it stops when we get to the pre-hook at 0:46. Another instrument takes over the job, so the function of the rhythmic melodic instrument is still in play, but there’s no need to have that same guitar playing the same part throughout the song. The guitar DOES reappear in the 2nd verse, but again, only for that section. We never hear from it again.
Do NOT feel like you must have the same instrumentation included throughout the song.
A common techniques employed by producers is to set up certain instruments as identifiers of the parts of the song. Here, the guitar tells you you’re in a verse (or the intro, but that only happens once). Experiment with different instruments in different parts of the song, like you hear here. Notice that there’s a different pulsing synth sound used for the pre-hook/hook part compared to the chorus too.
Reverb Control as Special Effect
Want to make a simple instrumental part stand out in a crowd? Add reverb, but don’t add it all the time. Play around with when it’s active and not active. Take the very beginning of this song, for example. The guitar plays a fairly simple part. Eighth notes with a bit of delay (Andy Summers would be proud!). To add some interest, Guetta plays around with adding reverb on some phrases the guitar plays, but not others. Imagine that amount of reverb on the entire guitar track – it’d be all you hear by the end. What Guetta does is turn the sends from the guitar track to the reverb on & off (a good reason to set up your reverb as an auxiliary track instead of inserted on the track) and mutes/unmutes the reverb tracks well, so that the reverb builds when the sends are on. As soon as the sends are turned off, there’s no more new reverb, and when he mutes the aux track, the existing reverb gets cut too.
One of the most prevalent music production techniques used in this track is the use of side-chained (A.K.A. keyed) compression. If you’re unfamiliar with the term, you’re very familiar with the sound. It happens in this song multiple times, on the sweep at 0:42 to 0:46, and again at 1:58 to 2:02, the synth at 1:16 to 1:32, and again at 2:32 to 2:46. Notice what happens here. As the kick hits, it causes the sweep/synth to decrease in volume.
What’s happening is called side-chain compression because a compressor (what turns down the volume) is placed on the sweep/synth, but the kick is what is actually controlling the turning down of the volume.
The kick track has been side-chained to the sweep and synth tracks, so that every time the kick hits, it turns the volume of the sweep or synth. Between kick hits, the volume of the sweep/synth is turned back up. It adds rhythmic elements to the track since the kick is rhythmic. It makes the synth track feel as if it pulses with the beat.
One of the cooler uses of this technique is to trigger this side-chain compression with a percussive track that’s not routed to the main outputs.
For an example of this, listen to 2:44 to 2:48. If you single out those two bars, notice that there’s no kick track. However, the synth is still pulsing like it was when you could hear the kick. Guetta mutes the kick track for those two bars, so you don’t hear them, but they’re still triggering the synth to turn down and up again in volume. For a fairly extensive lesson in using this technique (sometimes in more subtle ways than others), listen to Portisehead’s album Dummy.
Katy Perry’s single “Wide Awake” shows what it’s like when someone wake up from a dream and realizes that their worst nightmares have come true. In this case, the dream-like state was, as history is doomed to repeat, a bad relationship (ostensibly with Russell Brand in this regard).
Use of Melody
What makes this song interesting, from a production and songwriting standpoint, is there is only a single chord progression used throughout the entire song. The typical use of chord structure and differing progressions to differentiate the verses from the choruses and choruses from the bridge do not exist here. Instead, melody and instrumentation are used to break the song up into different sections. Want an exercise to become a better songwriter? Take a basic chord progression and create as many different melodies as you can with that single progression. “Wide Awake” shows us that melody and lyrical content are extremely important, and creative use of each is necessary to successful music production.
As for the chord progression, the song is in the key of G minor. Kind of. Home base for the song is G minor, at least. The chord progression is Gm – B♭ – F – C, or i – III – VII – IV. The triads that originally appear in G natural minor are i – ii° – III – iv – v – VI – VII. All this jibes except for the IV chord in the progression. According to our naturally-occurring triads, that C chord is supposed to be a minor chord, but is, in fact, a major chord!
The Katy Perry – Mozart Connection
Now, we all know that minor keys are representative of sadness, loneliness, demure feelings, etc. G minor has an especially-revered position as being considered by Mozart, the best key signature for expressing sadness. In fact, many of Mozart’s minor key works were written in the key of G minor (including symphonies number 25 & 40, two of his most famous symphonies).
Turning a Minor Chord into a Major Chord
So, what happens when you change out the C minor chord that’s originally in the list of G minor triads for a C major triad? You turn the G minor key into a mode!
Let’s take a closer look. The out-of-place chord is the IV, or C major in this case. The original key of G minor has the C as minor, or a iv chord. C minor is comprised of C – E♭– G. The C major chord used is C – E– G. So, the next step is to see what happens when you replace an E♭with an E♮. The new key consists of the notes G – A – B♭– C – D – E – F, or G Dorian mode.
Dorian mode has a long history of melancholy and sadness. Take a listen to Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” and The Bealtes’ “Elanor Rigby” for a primer.
Also note that the E♮ that appears in the scale only appears in that singe IV chord too. Otherwise they’d have to change the other chords around, which probably wouldn’t make much musical sense.
Other Tunes With the Same Progression
This chord progression for “Wide Awake” is used in several other extremely famous melancholy and glum tunes.
In this series, we take the world’s most popular songs, hit by hit, and deconstruct them, bit by bit, to learn what makes them popular, memorable, and interesting. We look at the compositional techniques used in the song, such as chord progressions, tempo, and meter, as well as the instrumentation used to make this song a hit. We also discuss what makes the song such a memorable “earworm”.
Written by Adam Levine, Shellback, Benjamin Levin, Ammar Malik, Dan Omelio, and Cameron Thomaz
“Payphone” employs many production devices that seek to grab the listener’s attention and keep it there in order to tell the story. Let’s take a look at some of them and see what we can learn from Payphone by Maroon 5 featuring Wiz Khalifa:
Begin With the Vocals
From the very first second (literally 0:00 on the YouTube counter), notice that the song begins with just the vocals, no instrumentation. People have a natural tendency to listen to other peoples’ voices. Think about it from a evolutionary standpoint. Our ancestors that were predisposed to paying attention to what other cave people had to say were the ones that learned that there was a sabre-tooth-tiger around the corner and didn’t get eaten. You and I are naturally wired to listen to the human voice above all else, and, when that’s the only thing going on, your attention is focused on the message being conveyed.
Additionally, the song begins with the chorus. Those of us whom have taken popular music songwriting courses in college have been told to get to the chorus ASAP. Well, they do it here. Those are the words the songwriter wants people to remember, so once the listener’s attention is grabbed, make the most of it and give them the single thing you want them to remember.
Speaking of the chorus, and why it’s so memorable, people also focus on personalization. Words like “I”, “you”, “us”, “me”, “your” get people involved in the story. Want a crash course in using this technique effectively? Listen to most anything the Beatles ever did, especially their earlier albums. A quick perusal over my iTunes gives me “I’ll Follow the Sun”, “I’m Happy Just to Dance With You”, ”Tell Me What You See”, and “P.S. I Love You”. People want to hear stories they can put themselves in, and making songs personal keeps peoples’ attention.
The introductory chorus includes very simple instrumentation, just enough to give the listener a feel for where the song is going, chord-wise. Just in case the listener’s stopped paying attention by the end of that first chorus, they grab your attention AGAIN by including a moment of complete silence around 0:18. Silent (along with vocals-only) sections are a wonderful way to break up parts of a song and capture attention, and are included in lots of popular music songs. People notice change, and changing from sound to no sound forces attention back to the song at hand.
The first verse is also not very climactic, taking out the bass added at the end of the intro chorus and bringing in an almost marching-band snare and kick drum. Not complicated, just a very sharp snare and punchy kick.
Using Background Vocals
The drama is turned up a notch in the pre-chorus by adding background vocals (0:33, starting with “all of our bridges burned down”). Again, parts of songs that are repeated are the most important ones, and this pre-chorus is part of what needs to be remembers and sung along to. The sound of multiple people singing triggers the listener’s own desire to sing along.
There’s another vocal-only section at 0:52, and now the listener has the aural cue to pay attention when they only hear the vocals with no instrumentation. Back to the chorus/hook/song title. They knew they had to make is count here, so they bring in the whole band and multiple vocal tracks. The percussion that’s awash in reverb on the 4 of each measure introduces gives the listener the cue to where the downbeat of one is.
The chorus ends at 1:28 and is cued by that special-effect sucking sound, whatever that’s officially called, which is also used in this song to tell the listener there’s a change happening in the song. There’s no turn around, no time for the listener to stop paying attention after the chorus and forget about the song, but they launch right in to verse two. The song doesn’t go back to the level it was at in the first verse, but adds the bass and acoustic guitar to what we had in the first verse.
The second pre-chorus adds some vocal ornamentation in the background vocals (1:52 and 2:10, for examples). This gives the listener a cue that this is a different and more expanded chorus than what they’ve had before. It also keeps interest and lets the people singing along have fun with the ornamentation as well (as they try to mimic what they hear). Also seeks to turn up the drama another notch, on our way to the climax).
Changing Up the Bridge
The Wiz Khalifa verse at 2:38 acts as a bridge for the song, providing a break in the song that’s different than the verses and choruses. This song also treats this section by changing the entire texture of the instrumentation, opting for an 808-style kick, snaps instead of a snare, and a woppy synth instead of piano.
The climax hits around 3:13, once again with no break in between song sections, and being introduced by a two-measure lay-out of the drums.
The end of the song is abrupt, which I’m sure radio DJs don’t care for, but works well for the song because the last line of the entire song is the first line of the chorus (“I’m at a payphone”), which also happened to be the name of the song. Genius use of music production techniques!
“Somebody That I Used to Know” is written in the key of D minor. I believe this particular key is used for several reasons:
D minor’s relative major
D minor is related to F major. F major is a fairly easy key for peoples’ ears to understand, with only one flat (B-flat) and its relationship to C major (being the V chord in F major) and closeness in the circle of fifths. C major is the home base for major keys, with no sharp or flat notes (all white keys on a keyboard). The idea here is accessibility for the listener. This is not absolute accessibility, however. Think o fit as taking a familiar painting, and changing the color scheme to give it a darker tone or mood. The familiarity of F major brings about positive, happy vibes, but they’re warped into a minor key, and the clouds roll in.
Use in the chord progression
The use of D minor also plays an important role in the chord progression. Most of the song is a simple i – VII progression. If i is D minor, then VII is C major. C major, the previously-noted home base for music-listeners’ ears!The you-play-this-chord-and-everything’s-okay chord!
This sets up a severe dichotomy. D minor, sad. C major, happy. Back & forth, back & forth. The fact that the tempo is close to 120 BPM (129, I believe), makes it feel like a clock, ticking away the seconds until your life is over because your girlfriend dumped you last week.
With C major as such a starting point for your music ear, to make C major the place you to from D minor, is unsettling, at best. Oh, the misery!
The chorus is not much more complicated, i – VII – VI – VII. Wanna hear some other songs that employ a i – VII – VI – VII progression?
Something we always talk about in my production classes is where the climax of the song is, how we get to the climax, and what happens after the climax. Some songs hit you like a Mack truck from beat one. “We Are Young” does not. One of the things that are so great about this song is the buildup. The song starts out with – say what?? – toms playing the same single-bar pattern over & over?? Imagine a scale from one to ten, with one being the least climactic thing you could do in a song and 10 being over-the-top meters-in-the-red guitars-to-eleven in-your-face production. The beginning of “We Are Young” starts at what, 1.5, maybe?
The introduction of the vocals is followed by the most simplistic piano performance possible – two-measure chords. The song builds with a more complicated drum pattern by using the snare and more piano.
The interesting thing with the piano is that, while the drums are playing a VERY straight 4|4 time, the piano is playing triplet patterns. These are all things that a first-year music student can do the middle of their first year playing, but there’s already a tension being set up in the music, between the eighth-note percussion and triplet piano. All that tension’s got to go somewhere…
Almost a minute into the song, and all we hear is drums, piano, and vocals. And to make it worse, the pre-chorus is in a much slower tempo. This is about the time people go mad wanting SOMETHING to HAPPEN!!!
Well, at 0:48 in the track, it does. The chorus relieves all the previously built-up tension in a wonderful way. It’s almost the song actually STARTS at the chorus. Drums, bass, piano and a whole bunch of vocals, but we’re not at the climax yet.
All instrumentation follows a strict eighth-note feel from here on out. And if you haven’t consciously heard the snare drum, your subconscious sure has. The snare drum drives the song from here until the outro. The snare drum is HUGE. Monstorous.
This is a production technique that serves the purpose of making the song something you can lock on to and keep the beat with. Your subconscious picks up on this and you find yourself waving your arms in the air like you’re the love child of Travis Barker & John Bonham. The snare plays such a large part of the song from here on out, the end of the snare sound contributes to the rhythm too. The snare is way more than just a snare for the remainder of the song.
Even more interestingly, the snare (as a percussion instrument) is in almost complete contrast to the bass synth in the chorus. The snare is hard, with sharp edges, the bass is soft & fuzzy. Contrast builds a song.
The many vocals in the chorus also contrast to the first verse. Another subconscious element of this song is that when one person sings, you listen. When many people sing, you sing along too. The vocals in the last line of the chorus “than the sun” from 1:25 to about 1:30 beg the listener to scream along with them. And they do. Background vocals tell listeners what to sing along with, and people remember what they sing along with.
However, we’re not finished yet. Through the second verse and chorus, we’re still reaching the climax of the entire song. The climax of the song happens at 2:32, when Janelle Monáe’s vocal comes in. Not only is the listener singing along with the chorus (and screaming out the last line like it’s their lifeline), but the bridge invited the listener participation with an entire chorus of “na na na na” vocals to sing along with! You can even go falsetto and sing in the same register the children that make up this chorus sing.
The climax happens at the middle of the song, and then proceeds to decline back to the original intensity.
The song ends very similar to how it starts, with a simple piano and vocal.