Plain English with Derek Thompson - The Science of How Music Hits Have Changed in the Last 60 Years

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Today, the science of how music hits have changed in the last 60 years.

Starting with an old favorite Losing.

My Religion By REM was released in 1991 off the album out of time.


As you can tell from the first few seconds of the song, it sounds very little.

Like, most of today’s biggest hits and this episode is all about why music sounds the way it does in this Century.

So why even begin with Losing My Religion?

Well, the answer comes down to that year, it was released 1991.


It might be the most important year in the history of pop music in America or at least more humbly, I would argue.

It was the most Important inflection point, in the history of pop music in America.

And some of you have heard me, tell the story before.

It’s one of my favorite stories from my last book.


Hitmakers, it goes like this.

In the 1950s, billboard started publishing the Hot 100 list, which is the most popular songs in the country and the billboard 200, which does the same thing for the most popular albums for many decades.


These lists were alive by billboard didn’t have many ways to Truly measure what albums were being sold in stores or played on the radio and instead, they relied on an honor System, they would ask record stores and DJs to self-report the most popular musicians.


The moment, the problem is that both parties had reasons to lie.

The labels would often pressure radio stations to play hand-picked hits.

This tactic was made famous by the so-called Paola scandals, and the record stores had their own bias.


It was a bias toward sure.

So in vinyl records were scarce and a record store had sold out of, let’s say a CDC.

If they had a bunch of Bruce Springsteen or REM in stock then it was rational for them to tell billboard oh yeah you won’t believe how many people love this new record by Bruce like they wanted to get rid of their inventory.


So for many years billboard was not telling us the truth about American Music.

It was holding up a funny mirror warped by label preferences and the finitude.

Of record store in inventories.

And one of the biggest implications of this structurally dishonest system was at the charts, were often over counting songs from the genres, the labels preferred like rock and roll, which meant they were undercounting genres that they were more indifferent toward like country or rap hip-hop.


But the year Losing My Religion came out in 1991.

This changed Nielsen released soundscan which used Point of Sales data from cash.

Stirs in stores.

So the record stores couldn’t lie anymore and billboards switched from trusting radio stations, self-reports to monitoring are play through a third party.


So suddenly the charts have become, a more honest, reflection of the songs Americans were actually listening to.

So, when the methodology changed, how did the charts change?

Well, before 1991 a country music, album had never debuted leading the billboard 200 but almost immediately.


After this change, REM fell down the charts and Garth Brooks rope in the wind spent eight weeks as the most popular album in the country.

The next year, 1992 rock showed that it wasn’t entirely dead.

Never mind by Nirvana.


One of the most popular famous talt rock albums of all time.

Hit number one and it stayed there for two weeks.

But the handoff from Rock to country was already underway Garth Brooks in 1992 held the top spot on the billboard 200.

For 17 weeks, eight times longer than Nirvana.


And the best-selling album of 92 was headlined by this earworm, which is not exactly the most stylistically Innovative active songwriting and production.

I just don’t think he’d understand.


That’s achy-breaky.

Heart by Billy, Ray, Cyrus off the album, some gave all, as you can hear In that clip.

It’s sort of a twangy mix of southern rock and Nashville.

But achy, breaky heart was groundbreaking for its time in the early 1990s because it wasn’t just an instant smash hit.


Some gave all was the first time in American history, that a country album was the most Bought album of the Year.

We’re not done the most significant Legacy of 1991 was not the rise of country.

It was this.


And as you’re about to hear, this is a stylistic change.

That is not exactly the dulcet tones of REM, that’s Appetite for Destruction by the rap group.


NWA in the summer of 1991.

NWA made history by releasing the first rap album to ever hit.

Number one on Billboard.

And in many ways, this is the most influential Legacy of the Billboard Chart changes.


This was the glimpse of things to come because for the next 30 Years rap and hip-hop would take off and become by far the most popular genre of music for the next few decades.

So that’s the end of the Billboards.

Tori and ever since learning about it.

I have always been fascinated by this way of thinking, understanding the historical and technological forces that shape the music that we listen to and love.


And today’s guest is Chris De La, Riva a musician, a writer a data analyst with audio mac, who has produced some incredible essays on the subtle and not so subtle ways, that music hits have changed in the last 20 years waves, that go far beyond the Rise of rap and hip hop to the way songs are written.



How choruses sound, how Keys have changed.

And why some careful music listeners have gone from saying huh.

All these songs have the same chord progression to, huh?

All these songs have the same rhythm.


I had a blast with this episode and I hope you do too if you’re liking what you hear on this podcast or the rest of our episodes, please give us 5 stars on Apple music or Spotify and leave a comment or a positive review and always goes a long way and we appreciate it.


I’m Derek Thompson.

This is plain English.


Chrisdell Arriva, welcome to the podcast.

Thanks for having me Derek.

So, in the last few years, you have been a fount of fascinating work on how pop music is changing and how the sound of hits is changing.


And I want to pick up where I left off in the open and ask you about. 1991.

How would you describe the significance of 1991 and the sea change in The Sound of Music since then?



So a 1991 is interesting because at the end of the day it was just an accounting change from billboard.

We went from surveying record stores to actually looking at point of sale data.

And what we saw from that was first, that America’s tastes were very different than we thought hip-hop and Tree, especially were much more popular than had previously, been known.


And secondly, our tastes were much stickier, what I mean by that is things started staying at the top of the Billboard Hot 100 for longer periods of time.

For example, between 1960 and 1980.


The longest, there was a number one was first for nine weeks that was first established in 1960.

Hey, Jude match that 1968. 1977 at went up to 10 weeks, Olivia Newton-John’s, physical match that 10-week.

So over 20 years, you have the record, move up a single week.


Then in 1992 Boys, to Men gets it to 13 weeks with end of the road and then over the next three years, it goes 14 weeks.

And then 16 weeks, the 16-week record wasn’t broken and it was matched by desk besito.

And then it was broken by Old Town Road, a couple decades later.


But we saw very quickly that our East were very sticky.

We wanted to keep hearing the same thing over again over and over again.


It’s like, the old billboard guard had like, throttled, the accurate reflection of American taste.

It wanted everyone to think that we liked, you know, maybe, hair, bands, or rock music.


A little bit more than we actually did.

It wanted us to think that we liked hip-hop and Country a little bit less than we actually did it.

One of us to think that our tastes were changing week to week in month-to-month little bit more than they actually are.

And suddenly, I just think it’s a interesting.

Yes, if this billboard methodological, Change really overturned.


What we think of as American taste in music, what are the really interesting things that it did?

One of the most important things to did?

Is it launched an era of hip-hop?

How would you in your own words?

Describe the significance of the rise of hip-hop in this way.


So, hip-hop is sort of the I don’t want to think about this teleologically, but it’s going to sort of sound like that.

It’s the end of a long journey of American popular.

Our music shifting from an obsession with Melody to an obsession with rhythm.


Paul, Simon talks about this in an interview where the interviewer asked, some of your current work is so much more concerned.

With rhythm of the melody is that you’re feeling that Melody is no longer important.

And Simon says, we’re long out of the age of Melody, long out of there and we probably won’t be going back into it and in a way he is, right?


Because hip-hop is obsessed.

It’s obsessed with rhythm.

And this is a trend that again, like I said, it started decades before we’re first.

You have Ragtime music that’s much more rhythmic than you get to rock and roll.

There’s a great quote from the Chuck Berry song, rock and roll music, where he says, just let me hear some of that rock and roll music.


It’s got a BackBeat, you can’t lose it.

And that’s sort of a summary of what’s going to happen as the decades.

Go on, you go James Brown with funk very, very rhythmic music.

Disco again very rhythmic.

And then again like I said, sort of the culmination of this is some of the most Most rhythmic music we’ve ever had, which is hip-hop and its various incarnations.


And that’s not to say this is worse than more melodically.

Focus music.

It’s just to say it’s different.

No, I mean, in many cases, for many people, it might simply be better one way that I think about this, because we had talked offline about what’s the best way to represent this shift from Melody to Rhythm like, you know, Paul Simon.


By the time he said this, he was an aging, white guy, you and I are white, dudes, talking in front of I don’t want to make it sound like we’re like we’re saying that you know, music today doesn’t have a Melody but one way I think one thing that I think really captures what you’re talking about is that in the 20th century, the most common musical memes were melodic means you have this chord progression of CG, a minor F that served as the backbone of like every hit or every other hit for 50 years.


I mean, maybe the best example, Devon, pull up.

Up the famous Axis of Awesome.

Four Chord song.

Do you recognize this?

You that is.

Don’t Stop Believing by Journey rights are very original demo.

Stop it, check it out.

My life is brilliant.


My love is pure.

I saw her name gel of that on shorts.

Just two songs that are similar there forever, you’ll be forever.

Sade no more, no more.


It cannot wait.

I’m okay.

So their point obviously, is that all of these hits from the 1960s 1970s 1980s.

They were riding on the same Melody, right?

The melody was the meme, but in the 21st century, the most notable musical memes are rhythmic rather than melodic.


So, Vox did this fantastic analysis of triplet flow triplet flow as a meme in rap and I think A couple songs can really illustrate this Devin play a cut of cardi b bodek yellow.

Now compare that to Panda by designer Devon hit that then on the March 11.


I mean you can hear this dr.

Tatata tatata, tatata, tatata tatata even Snoop Dogg, it caught on to this and made fun of it in a podcast interview.

Devon, can you play this last foot?

The the good to get to put this particular?

So this might be a way of capturing Dynamic, your point.


To it’s not that Melody is dead.

Like that would be absurd to say it’s that the the locus of musical memes has shifted somewhat from melody in the 20th century to rhythm in the 21st.



And it would be absurd if we were trying to say that that melody was dead when someone like Adele is still massively popular.


I mean, that music is melodic and it’s also not to say that her music doesn’t have a rhythmic component the same way that hip-hop still has Erotic components i-it’s, just that as you’re saying, the memes are the things that have come to Define.

These genres are either more melodically or more rhythmically focused.


Another great example of this is as you were saying, there are certain chord progressions back in the day that basically every band would have their take on.

There are certain samples.

Usually rhythmic samples that tons of hip-hop artists where we’ll use people often say the most sampled hip-hop song, the most sampled Pieces of all time.


Is this thing called.

Amen Brother.

By the Winston’s, there’s a very famous drum brake and funky drummer.

By James Brown tons, and tons of hip-hop artists have had their own take on that.

And again, it’s using as you to use you, what you’re saying?

A rhythmic meme that’s sort of used again.


And again, as opposed to melodic or harmonic means another thing that happened and I chanti one as you mentioned, the biggest hits spent more time on the charts, the 10.

Songs that have spent the most time on the Hot 100.

We’re all released after 1991 and that’s and that’s incredible.


Does that mean that the 10 best songs in the issue music were all released after 1991?

No of course not.

It’s just the way that the charts reflect our tastes mean that the that our preference for familiarity is more accurately captured by the charts.

What do you think is happening there?


yeah, and that’s something that’s interesting where There’s a discontinuity in the data and it makes it look like Behavior has changed radically.

But in reality, it probably didn’t.

There’s this old story about the guy who apparently started a like, pop radio and he said he was, I’m probably get the story a little bit wrong and most of it’s probably apocryphal but he was dating some girl who worked at a restaurant and they would be working all day.


Customers would come be coming in playing the most popular songs on the jukeboxes and then all the customers would leave.

While they were cleaning up, he thought it was funny that the waitresses would just start playing the same exact music on the jukebox as they wanted to keep hearing the same songs over and over again.


And it’s not like, suddenly in 1991, we just became addicted to the same songs as that, this was just a more accurate reflection of what people’s tastes are actually like, and as we’ve moved to the streaming era, there’s another discontinuity because in 1991 was still based on sales.


It was how many copies of The Macarena were being sold.

But now, the charts are based on how many times are those songs being spun.


And what we see from that is still, there are some changes in how the charts are working but still we are hyper addicted to songs.


People can keep listening to these songs over and over again and they just they stay at the top of the charts for long long periods of time.

It goes back to there’s a there’s a musicologist named David here on who I believe is at the Ohio State University or at least was last time I looked into this particular quote and he said, 90% of the time, we are listening to music.


We are listening to a song that we’ve already heard.

I mean repetition is built into its sewn into the very DNA of music.

You have to repeat a rhythm in order to get a verse for chorus chorus or are repeated within songs songs repeated within playlist playlist.


Repeated, when we go on drives it It’s fractal repetition all the way down so it makes sense that in a world of you know a vinyl and if CDs we were buying the album once but we were wearing it out listening to it a thousand times.


Now with Spotify, we have the ability to publicly record every single spin so there’s no more private spins.

When I click on whatever desk by Cito for the 10,000th time, those 10,000 spin Zord Esposito, or those 10,000, turns are all.


Recorded when you look at the song on your Spotify and see a 1.3 billion plays of this song, it’s All transparent.

Yeah, definitely.

And that’s part of me.

Oh, you know, you always wish that we had this data going back, is like when the Beatles I Want to Hold Your Hand was a number one back in the 60s, was it was it?


That people were buying that record a lot and then never really listening to it that much or where they actually spinning at that much, given the longevity of The Beatles.

I’m just going to assume that they were playing a record a lot too.

Too, but we really don’t know and it’s something that streaming now that our charts reflects streaming.

It’s a more accurate representation of ultimately decades ago, what the charts were after which is what is the most popular record right now.


Yeah, I remember when I was writing my book hitmakers, I talked to someone who said it’s possible that the most heard song of all time is Brahms Lullaby data like, because if you are a mom who sings that song to your children as my mother sang it to me.


Well 365 days times I think I got a lullaby until I was like eight years old.

I mean, you are now talking about thousands and thousands and Thousands of days listening to this song and then repeating it in your own head.

Maybe as you’re falling asleep.


I want to connect what we’re talking about here.

The idea that technology changes music habits to the idea that technology also changes what songs sound like you’ve observed that average song Length has gone down rather significantly in the last few years.


With the rise of streaming and average intro, length has gone down to tell us what’s Happening Here.

So, starting in, well, I’ll go back a little bit further.

Starting in the early 60s songs were relatively short and they were somewhat constrained or not.


Somewhat, they were constrained, at least on a single by how much sound of vinyl 45 could hold.

Because if you try to pack more sound on their the grooves, got to get smaller.

There’s really a physical limit to how much sound you can get on there and have it still sound good as vinyl technology.


Improves over the decades we see hit singles get Longer and longer and it sort of plateau is at some point in the 1980s and it stays pretty steady.

But then throughout the 2000s, we start seeing swung length, shrank and in the 2010s, it sort of plummets.


I think over the last decade, the average length of a number-one hit has declined by about 10%.

And the reason for, this is largely streaming, it’s mostly a fight where is back in the day.

There was a physical constraint.

Now there’s a financial incentive.


You need someone to listen to your song.

Over 30 seconds if you want to get paid and musicians like to get paid.

So the goal is to make sure someone gets to that 30-second Mark, and given that there’s so much content out there.

Right now, podcast television shows you’ve got to get to your point quickly.


And that’s why we’ve also in my opinion.

Seen song, introductions shrink to people want to get to the point.

We want to hook them fast, and actually introductions have shrunk at a much faster rate than the overall Song Length.

So shorter intros are not just a function.


Is it just me or do more songs today.

Begin with the chorus almost immediately?

You think about an older genre like classic rock.

Those songs had a 30-second 62nd, 92nd introductions, and you know guitar solos and then the verse comes in, then the song is like several minutes old.


By the time you hear the first chorus, I feel like it’s the opposite today.

Am I way off base?

I can’t say for certain if the chorus is the first section that appears but the economist actually wrote an article, a couple of years back, sort of, that had a similar tone to the one, I just worked on them.


What about introductions?

Where choruses are also appearing more quickly and songs.

So yes, what you’re saying is largely correct.

There’s certainly a reason why there’s a saying in the music industry.

Don’t bore us get to the chorus.

You want to catch.


People catch people’s attention as quickly as you can.

And Quickly you know the chorus the thing that’s going to be repeated over and over again is going to be the thing that sticks with you.

So if we hit you with that quickly, hopefully you’re going to stick around at least for 30 seconds.

Yeah, you know, it’s funny.

I just pulled up The Economist piece right now.


So what it looks like is and let me try to do the terrible podcast, Radio thing of describing a graph on a podcast.

Basically, in the 1960s, there were a ton of songs that began with the chorus.

She Loves You by The Beatles Hard, Day’s Night gives you gets you right into their.


You’ve Lost That Lovin.

Feeling by the Righteous Brothers in the 1960s, beginning with the chorus seemed pretty common, but again, but as you mentioned, as the technology improved songs got longer and the 1980s 1990s, it looks like very few songs are beginning with the chorus.


The Power of Love, because of the chorus, Because You Love Me by Celine, Dion.

I guess she enjoys beginning with choruses, be of more songs like together.

Again, by Janet Jackson Hotel California by the Eagles, which have really, really long, Ang intro before they get to the chorus.


And then again you see in the last 15 years songs, like dynamite we don’t talk about Bruno bad habit by Steve Lacey, which just came out in the last year.

These songs are basically beginning with the chorus.

So it does seem like we are going back to the 1960s and just the same way you described, right?


That you had a shorter songs, faster passed the course. 1960s technology allows for more languorous music in the 70s 80s 90s and now we’re right back.

Yeah, it’s definitely an interesting Trend and the thing that I find almost Most Fascinating about this is if you were to just look at the data with no context, you know, it looks, it’s parabolic, it starts low goes high and then comes back down low and you might think that there is some intimate connection between the music of the 60s and the music of today. but it’s really very different things driving those Trends, and which I think is part of a much larger Trend that we’re sort of dancing around here, where artists are often reacting to External circumstances artists are trying to solve problems.


This is something David Byrne from the Talking Heads, mentions at the beginning of his book, how music works and I actually might quote a passage from that, if that’s okay good.

Yeah, it’s great.

So he says I had an extremely slow.

Dawning insight about creation that Insight is that context?


Largely determines?

What is written painted?

Sculpted sung, or perform that doesn’t sound like much of an Insight but it’s actually the opposite of conventional wisdom which maintains that Creation emerges out of some interior motion from an upwelling of passion or feeling and that the creative urge will Brook.


No accommodation that it’s simply must find an outlet to be heard read or seen.

This is the Romantic notion of how creative work comes to be.

But I think the path of creation is almost 180 percent from this model.

I believe that we unconsciously and instinctively make work to fit pre-existing formats and I realize, I misspoke there have been 180 degrees from this model but burn gives great examples.


One thing he points to is music from the Middle Ages that sort of have these you talking about long languorous.


You’re imagining somebody singing in a church.

And so, a lot of people think like, oh, they just didn’t understand how to make more, complex, harmonies, or more complex, Melodies.


And he says, no, they were actually solving there are making the perfect music for those spaces.

Those spaces have huge amounts of resources, Ver because they’re so big.

So if you were singing very quick Melodies with complicated harmonies, it would sound terrible because the what you would song a few seconds before which still be hanging in the air and throughout Burns book.


He sort of talks about lots of different musical movements from Jazz to hip-hop and how artists were reacting to certain technology or the certain spaces that music was being created.

And we’re seeing that with how song Length has.

Changed over the decades.


I love that it’s it’s a very darwinian theory of culture.

Not only in imagining a theory for how culture evolved step by step.

But Darwin’s survival of the fittest wasn’t about fittest.


As in most strong, it was about most fit to the local environment.

So amongst song is most fit to the cathedral built in 1300 a Beethoven or Mozart Opera.

Most fit to that audience.

Meanwhile a faster song that gets straight to the chorus is much more fit to a streaming environment.


So I take that interpretation is, it’s been pretty intelligent, also fairly darwinian.

I also have the thought sometimes of like, you know, where we the Atlantic published a piece about Kanye West, who’s had quite a journey in the last 10 years since we published the cover story, but it was called American Mozart.


I believe, and I remember when I saw that headline, just having like a little Daydream of like this, such a lovely felt like what would Mozart be doing now or conversely, you know, what would we oughtta be doing?

You know, in the mind of Rihanna be doing and you know, 17th century 18th century Austria.


I mean, clearly, these people Puccini Beethoven had an extraordinary talent for Melody.

I mean, they were amazing hit makers of their time, po Opera Houses around the world and concert Halls on the world, wanted to perform their work, but it’s weird to think, you know what What that mind pulled forward, 300 years, might produce the other sort of less sophisticated aspect of this thought is, like, we’re all those dudes with classic rock voices.


And hairband voices today, like those guys screaming and upper registers, like, they, sing their High tenor, like, are they just shit out of out of luck?

If they’re not even trying, or they and like, in some bar in Tennessee like doing you know, poison cover band stuff.

I don’t even know.


I mean, it’s probably a little bit of all that my one.

Friend has a joke that if Beethoven were around today he’d be making movies.

Movie scores.

He’s Max Richter Hans Zimmer.

Yeah, exactly.


No nothing Liam’s.

One thing that I think about a lot.

As I hear a song, I’m saying I’m sitting at my desk working and I’m like I’m not really into that, but it’s a super popular song sighs.


I’m like, maybe I’m just not hearing it in the right context, it’s like if you’re listening to club music when you’re sitting using Microsoft Excel shocker and it might not hate you the right way.

But if you’re out at a bar and you here, That same song again, it might make a lot more sense like context.


I agree with a lot of burns point.

I mean, you know, I don’t think he’s completely throwing away the notion that people don’t have any inspiration but context is very, very important when we try to understand what’s popular and I’m I know from your work with hitmakers.


You’re probably intimately familiar with this, this idea.

I want to get to your next awesome observation because it really surprised me when I, when I saw your piece on this and this is the trend on the increase in writers per song.


So last summer, I think the right way to set this up is Last Summer.

The artist, a Diane Warren posted to Twitter on August 1st 2020.

The question quote.

How can there be 24 writers on a song with a little, like, eyes rolling back into the head emoji?


And it was a reference to a lien Superstar.

The song off the new Beyonce album Renaissance and you looked into this.

You used that question as an inspiration to look into wait, how can there be 24 writers on a song?


The average number of writers in a song in the 1960s, 1970s 1980s was too, but something happened after 1991.

The average number of riders per song.

Tripled, what happened?


So this is I it seemed like her question was coming from.


A disingenuous perspective.

Diane Warren’s.

Very successful.

She has tons.

She’s written tons of number one hits.

And the answer she got on Twitter was people were like, well, their samples in the songs.

And if you sample or interpolate, the element of another song legally, you have to credit the writers of those songs and if now, since we’re decades after sampling has become popular, if you sample, a song, that’s been sampled, you very quickly, get a lot of writers on that that song.


So I went and looked into this and I realized that even if you remove the sample and interpolation credits from Alien Superstar, you’re still left with 17 songwriters which is still a lot of songwriters so I wanted to explore still.


How do you go from 2 to 24 is a big jump to 217 is still a huge jump and samples and interpolations post 1991.

When hip-hop came came a when hip-hop became more popular and that’s a genre that really relies on those that explains part of the rise but there are other pieces of the rise that I think are more important.


First of all, over the decades copyright terms have gotten longer currently for a songwriting copyright.

It’s the life of the author or songwriter plus 70 years.

When copyright was first established in the United States.

Well, at the beginning of the I’d States.


It was 14 years and then you could extend it another 14 over the centuries, it had been extended a couple times.

It was 28 years and you could extend another 28 that’s still 56 years.

Life of the author plus 70 years is an absurd lengths of time.

I did the math once and After, if Taylor Swift lives, the life of an average, the lifespan of an average American woman looks like, 77 her descendants will still control the copyright to you belong with me in like the 21 30s because of that.


You have to be really careful about accidentally making something that sounds like an older song because somebody could come in sue you and then they’re going to get a credit on that to avoid those lawsuits, you will I often see artists just preemptively credit songwriters for previous work.


That sounds similar even if it was an inspiration because they don’t want to go to court.

We saw this last year, two years ago with Olivia, Rodrigo song.

Good for you to members of Paramore were added as songwriters on that song because they said it bore similarity to the paramour song Misery Business.


Personally, I think it’s a stretch to say.

They deserved a songwriting credit.

I mean there are similarities but it’s actually disagree.

I love Olivia Rodrigo.

But I heard that song and I was like, Olivia, Rodrigo just interpolated misery business like I love both those songs and it’s a great interpolation but I listened to it and it was immediately like I think I’ve heard this one before, but the point is taken that in.


You’ve got you get not only more samples and more samples of samples, you have a more litigious culture which means a lot of people are adding songwriting credits, just defensively.

Is what else is happening?

Is there like a more expansive definition of songwriting?


That is also creating a scenario where more people are able to piggyback on the songwriting credit.


And I think this is the most important part the way.

A lot of people make money on songs over time as you get a songwriting credit, you’re going to cook collect a royalty.

If you just play on a song that’s not necessarily the case if you just produce a song that’s not necessarily the case.


So every wants to get a piece of that pie.

So again part of it is connected to This litigiousness to financial incentives but just as you said the definition of what songwriting is has changed.

And this is one of the I think the largest changes in popular music over the last 60 or so years.


If you go back to the days of lennon-mccartney, any of the songwriting Duo, as you can think of Bernie taupin Elton John Burt, Bacharach and Hal David.

You had them writing a song, they hand it off to a producer.

Uh sir in the producers going to decide how we’re going to record the song.


What’s the instrumentation going to be?

Do we need to create any orchestration that doesn’t exist really anymore because recordings and recording software is so ubiquitous I can sit in my bedroom right now and record a professional quality song.


So the songwriting and production processes are no longer divorced from one another Max Martin who’s the most Successful songwriter and producer of the last 20 years said, when he was accepting, the polar music prize, writing and producing.

I don’t really know what’s what anymore, the old sort of the old sort of way of here’s a song and you record it and produce it, it doesn’t really work like that anymore.


Its kind of married together.

We don’t even think of the abstract idea of a song and the fixed idea of a recording as separate anymore.

Whereas, for decades, we did songs were A song didn’t belong to a single person, it belonged to the writer but tons and tons of artists would cover that song we would often see.


Within the same year, multiple artists recording a hit song, There Was An in the late 1950s, there was a number one hit called the three Bells.

It got to number one by a band called the Browns during that same week, a different version.

Got to number 23 by another artist named dick flood this seems bizarre Are these days, you imagine lizzo has a number one hit, and then Ariana Grande records, the same exact song.


And also the part, which is weird to our perspective because we can listen to recordings anywhere, basically the song and the recording have become the same thing and because of that on the recording side, songwriting and production of the same thing.


So the reason you part of the reason you see more songwriters is people who are producing people who are creating rhythms doing things that would typically Just be credited.

As production are also getting credited as songwriters to, there’s tons of overlap between producers and songwriters in a way that didn’t exist 60 years ago.


The last Trend I want to talk to you about is the decline of key changes.

So I was born in 1986 and maybe my favorite song from 1986 is Living on a Prayer, which has a very, very famous key.


Change dead. then if we could sink that up, And also the very next year, one of the most iconic pop songs for the key change was released by Whitney Houston.


I want to dance with somebody.

Now it seems like the key change is basically gone.

Beyonce’s Love on Top, very famously has like seven or eight key changes but really there just aren’t songs with key changes anymore.


And you pointed this out in a recent article and I thought it was such a fascinating observation, what’s going on there?

Yeah, so again a lot of this is connected to digital production, I can record a song in my bedroom on Logic Pro or Pro Tools in the way these cysts.


These digital audio workstations are laid out is you see all your tracks vertically?

And because of that, there is an incentive to write songs vertically, which doesn’t lend itself to making music with key changes, Jo Bennett, who can you just pop?


What is, what is vertical?

Songwriting mean in this case?

Yeah, so we can if we think of two types of songwriting, vertical, songwriting, and horizontal songwriting, horizontally, songwriting, and these are, these are not terms that are widely used, but it’s a good way to.

It’s a good mental model to imagine.


This horizontal, songwriting is think you’re writing the song section by section.

I’m going to write a verse.

I’m gonna write a Horace already second verse.

I’m going to write a bridge so on and so forth.

If you imagine sitting in a room by yourself playing the guitar, that’s probably how you’re going to think about the song, you’re going to think section by section.


Whereas if I’m using a digital audio workstation, I might make a loop, you know, a 4 bar Loop and I’m going to have that play throughout my entire song.

So the way I’m going to create Intrigue is by stacking and unstacking elements vertically.

Maybe during the verse, I had some other a LOL addict Well, synthesizers during the chorus, I add more and then during the bridge, I pull one or two of those away.


The way that the digital audio workstation.

Lays out music physically?

It makes it.

So you sort of your incentivize to stack elements like that you don’t have to immediately think.

Okay, I’m going Verse Chorus first.

So Chris just to help me understand vertical songwriting.


Can we T up a song that is just a A classic example of vertical, songwriting.

Just throw one out, throw out a hit.

That’s a classic example.

Probably like Break Your Heart by Taio Cruz from about 10 15 years ago as a great example.


Okay, Devin can you cue up break your heart and then walk me through what you’re talking about in terms of vertical, songwriting As the song plays you’re really going to hear just the same chord progression throughout the whole song.


But what you’re going to notice is that as we go Section to section the producers and tile, crews are really just going to add and remove synthesizers to try to draw you in.

So I think the pre-chorus is coming here, you’re an aisle.


Staccato thing there.


Drum beats changed a little bit here.

You still hear that arpeggiating synthesizer in the back that you’re going to hear throughout most of the song.

But they’ve layered and more and more synthesizers, again, just adding and removing elements vertically.

It’s almost like, okay.


I think I think we can wind down.

Tell create, that was fantastic.

I listened to that song A Thousand Times with my kickball team in 2009 trivial way too much.

About that particular year.

Would I think of this like what I’m imagining your metaphor of vertical songwriting is kind of like a sandwich.


It’s like I I can see like looking at the computer screen.

It’s like, okay, here’s my BLT and The BLT is going to get us through the verse.

But then I’m going to layer in some avocado for the pre-chorus, I’m going to layer in the avocado and then we hit the chorus.

I might take out the avocado and I’m putting in something else.


I don’t know where I’m running out of Sandwich, metaphors, turkey.

And so you have the same basic vertical sandwich.

So, by taking away and adding certain textures and instruments, In synthesizers, you’re queuing the audience to sort of expect different things from that part of the song.


And so you can think of it as just sort of stacking rather than writing it linearly.


That’s like that’s a good way to put it.

It’s not to say that decades ago it’s like since the beginning of time when you get to a chorus you know you’re probably going to hear some different elements or different instrumentation.


They it’s just a bit more subtle with how the digital audio workstation is, is laid out.

Another thing, you you might notice when you’re hearing, that is all of the melodic phrases in the verse were very, very short melodic phrases.

You can almost see them building them around these short, little Loops.


Whereas, if you take another song that I think was probably around the same time like Hey There Delilah, that’s built around like one very long melodic phrase that you would associate with you know, music from decades before.

And that’s something was probably composed again to use this terminology horizontally where the lead songwriter The Plain White T’s is thinking Verse Chorus, rather than I have a loop.


And now, I’m going to build intrigued by adding and removing certain elements to the production.

I am not a musical genius, so this question might not be particularly intelligent, but is there a way in which 21st century pop music genius?


In an age of vertical?

Songwriting is almost as visual as it is audio because we here described when I imagine what you’re describing, I can imagine like a really smart producer, almost producing visually saying we need.


We need a downbeat here, we need staccato.

Syllables for the chorus in order to syncopated against the arpeggiating synth and that kind of intelligence seems almost more visual than audio to me even though ironically, of course, we’re talking about pop music.


It’s That the first guy.

So I recorded music and this is something I’ve seen in myself is I used to typically write again just sitting in this chair that I’m sitting in now with a guitar record, a little voice memo and then go produce later.

But then when I got the software on my computer, I noticed I was doing exactly what I’m trying to describe and it’s hard if you’ve never done it before is building little loops and then writing over those Loops, this more vertical approach and it is a very visual process in the want.


The first guy I ever recorded with I remember I was just like staring at the screen.

I was like that looks like it’s off.

It looks like we came in a beater lie there and he was like you don’t don’t make music with your eyes.

He’s like even if it is a bit early, if it sounds good to you, then forget about it but of it is a much more visual.


There is a larger visual component that just couldn’t have existed 40 years ago when we didn’t have these beautiful visual displays.

So it’s a very it’s a very keen observation.

So putting it all together.

You have these changes since 1991 that have made hit songs shorter.


The trip to the chorus is faster.

There is a shift in emphasis toward Rhythm over.

Melody, people play these songs more, they’re more likely to hit number one, multiple times in a year, stay on the charts for a longer period of time.

They have more songwriters and they are less likely to have key changes.


Is there some big picture Trend in the evolving shape of pop music in the 21st century that you want to talk about that?

We have not hit in the last few minutes.

Um I think another one, one other interesting thing with key the key chain, musical Keys, is that it’s not just that there are less key chains, but the keys that song writers choose to work in are different for decades, the keys of C and G.


We’re like the most popular keys and that’s because if you pick up a Guitar, it’s the easiest play.

Yes, the easiest to play.

No, no one is picking up a guitar and they don’t know how to play it that much and they’re playing an F sharp when we’re making most of our music.

Computers were more key agnostic, it’s easy to change keys.


If you’re building everything with a midi synthesizer and what I see what you see between 1990 and 2020 is that it’s more of a uniform distribution for key selection.

Whereas previously, there was a strong favoring towards certain keys.

And that’s in this one, I’ve when I’ve talked about, like the decline of key changes, I try to situate it.


In this larger discussion that a lot of things related to Keys have to change.

Key selection has changed. in this piece about, The actual selection of keys.

I think it’s brushed under the rug a little bit more, but I find it just as interesting and it’s due to the same the same sort of Technology that’s inspired the decline.


In key changes.

We’ll look, you have answered a very important mystery for me, which is why do I have to when I play or learn a new hit song, for my wife and a piano?

I always have to.

I have to transpose these complicated keys back into C major because that’s the only key that I can actually play with any kind of facility on our little keyboard.


There we have it that’s the reason it’s because computerized songwriting gives people this.

This key agnostic attitude toward music.

That’s fascinating, I never I had no idea that we’d seen that kind of evolution.

Yeah, I mean obviously if you’re if you’re very dexterous on the keyboard you’re going to be pretty much agnostic, two keys but you know a lot of people were writing songs on piano are not Beethoven you know they know how to play the piano little.


I know how to write a melody and C is the key of C is very easy to work with.

In that case, as a Coldplay fan, you definitely don’t have to tell me that facility with a piano is not necessarily important for becoming one of the bigger bands in the world, and before you even have an opportunity to make fun of me for my fandom and Coldplay.


Chris, thank you very, very much.

I really appreciate all of your intelligence and data breakdowns.

Yeah, thanks for having me, Derek.

This is a lot of fun.

Thank you for listening.

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