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
Produced by Benny Blanco, Benny Blanco, Robocop
Official Music Video (Explicit)
“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!