Regular readers will know that I have been live-blogging the Eurovision Song Contest final since 2011. Every year I sit down in front of the TV, metronome and guitar in hand, and write live musical analysis of the songs in real time, then attempt to predict the winner before the voting starts. Here’s the full archive 2011-2019 (spoiler – I only managed a home run in 2015, with all the top 3 correct, in the right order). My approach (in all musicology) has always been to try to analyse and understand the underlying songs/tracks on a musical level, and move past all the camp theatricality and geopolitics. I take the view that all popular music is ‘good’ by someone’s standard, and that it’s as interesting to analyse songs from a mainstream TV event like the ESC as it is to look at more obscure/highbrow material. Those who carry the scales of musicology should be blindfolded.
In 2020, the planned contest in Rotterdam was canceled due to worldwide restrictions, but in a strange turn of events, Netflix asked me to undertake some academic research into the musical characteristics of the songs over the past decade. The research was commissioned in part as a celebration of the contest, and also to promote the release of the 2020 movie Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga starring Will Ferrell and Rachel McAdams. Working with my friend and colleague Simon Troup (Digital Music Art UK), we analysed the 259 finalists from 2010-2019, immersing ourselves in the corpus over an intense 15-day listening period, and extracting high-level data (key, BPM, style, lyric theme etc) to see what we could learn about voter preferences and song evolution.
We’ll be publishing a pre-publication version of the research paper very soon, and the full academic paper sometime in 2021 after peer review, so this blog post is a preview of some of the early findings, with some song excerpts, and commentary on the songs from the 2020 contest that never was, and also some analysis of the songs from the movie.
Songs for Europe: a music and lyric analysis of 259 finalists from the Eurovision Song Contest 2010-2019
A research project in progress 2020-2022
Two musicologists have published the early findings of academic research analysing the 259 songs that have appeared in the Eurovision Song Contest finals 2010-2019. They used a combination of computer analysis, music transcription, immersive listening, and lyric interpretation to identify every song’s lyric theme, style, and musical attributes, and then analysed the data to explore the characteristics of the songs that attract the most votes in the contest.
There are six broad ‘archetypes’: Euro-pop, Ethno-pop, Ballad, Anthem, Schlager and Chanson.
There are six broad lyric subjects: Love, Unity, Self-Assertion, Partying, History and Music, with love songs accounting for 69% of the whole, and 83% of the top 3.
The most popular styles are Euro-pop, Ballad, Ethno-pop and Anthem, accounting for 79% of the total. The older styles (Schlager and Chanson) account for less than 5% of finalists.
The classic Eurovision cliché of a key-change in the final choruses is alive and well, appearing in almost 20% of the finalists, but not among any of the winners.
Eurovision appears to enjoy sadder songs in recent years – “winter” love songs have been more popular since 2018.
The most successful finalists are Azerbaijan and Sweden, who qualified 9 times out of 10 (UK, Germany, Spain, Italy and France aka the ‘Big Five’ are guaranteed a place in the final).
65% of all songs were in a minor key; of these, more than half used the Aeolian mode aka natural minor scale.
The mean average tempo is around 104 BPM, although the actual tempos tend to group around 70BPM (Ballads) and 125 BPM (Euro-pop).
Eurovision winners are slowing down; the average tempo of the top 3 scoring songs dropped from 148 BPM (2010) to 76BPM (2019), helped by some successful Ballads in 2017 and 2019.
Many popular styles of music outside Eurovision (metal, hip-hop, rap, punk, trap, country, techno) are almost completely absent from the contest, although they have an influence on the production of the archetype styles. Eurovision song styles appear to have ‘evolved’, in the cultural Darwinism sense, independently from mainstream global pop music. The researchers speculate that this is due to the particular cultural and structural factors at play in the Contest, in contrast to the more unregulated market forces that decide the popularity of mainstream hits.
JB comment: This semester, I’m very pleased to be teaching one of Berklee’s ‘survey’ classes – History of Rock. As part of the ‘prehistory’ session we look at commercial songwriting in the early part of the 20th century, and during my prep for the class, a helpful musicologist colleague directed me to a 1920 interview with Irving Berlin, in which he provides his ‘Nine Rules’. Although these rules have been quoted and summarized in several books about Berlin’s life, the full text of the original interview was not available online. However, the original magazine from 1920 has been digitized by Google, so I spent some time today manually transcribing it for posterity.
The full article is around 3000 words in length, so for those who just want to read the Nine Rules, I’ve pasted them up front in this blog post, after which you can read the whole piece, with the Rules at the end. In blog form, we have the added benefit of Spotify embeds, so you can hear and download the song he describes “My Wife’s Gone to the Country” (the song and the sheet music are now helpfully out of copyright).
The big question, of course, for any songwriter or musicologist reading this is: do Berlin’s Nine Rules still apply today? I’m sure he would have been pleased to know that 100 years after he gave that interview, songwriters of the 2020s were considering his rules while listening to the popular songs of the day.
Irving Berlin Gives Nine Rules for Writing Popular Songs
First – The melody must musically be within the range of the average voice of the average public singer. The over-voice professional singer is the song writer’s salesman, the average-voice public his customers. The salesman-singer cannot do justice to a song containing notes too high, too low, or otherwise difficult to sing; and the customer will not buy it.
Second – The title, which must be simple and easily remembered, must be “planted” effectively in the song. It must be emphasized, accented again and again, throughout verses and chorus. The public buys songs, not because it knows the song, but because it knows and likes the title idea. Therefore sacrifice lines you are proud of, even sacrifice rhyme and reason if necessary, in order to accentuate the title line effectively.
Third – A popular song should be sexless, that is, the ideas and the wording must be of a kind that can be logically voiced by either a male or a female singer. Strive for the happy medium in thought and words so that both sexes will want to buy and sing it.
Fourth – The song should contain heart interest, even if it is a comic song. Remember, there is an element of heart-longing in the most wildly syncopated “Ah’m goin’ back to Dixie” darky “rag” ever written.
Fifth – The song must be original in idea, words, and music, Success is not achieved, as so many song writers mistakenly believe, by trying to imitate the general idea of the great song hit of the moment.
Sixth – Your lyric must have to do with ideas, emotions, or objects known to everyone. Stick to nature – not nature in a visionary, abstract way, but nature as demonstrated in homely, concrete, everyday manifestations.
Seventh – The lyric must be euphonious – written in easily singable words and phrases in which there are many open vowels.
Eighth – Your song must be perfectly simple. Simplicity is achieved only after much hard work, but you must attain it.
Ninth – The song writer must look upon his work as a business, that is, to make a success of it he must work and work, and then WORK.
On December 5th 2019, Berklee staged its annual Singers’ Showcase, and the theme this year was A Night at the Opera—The Music of Queen. As a lifelong fan, I was honored to be asked to write the program notes for the evening’s performance.
Each song entry features a reference to the original Queen recording, and the official video embedded, plus a description of the approach the students took for the Berklee version. Selected excerpts from the show itself will appear online sometime in the future, but for now you can get a great behind-the-scenes flavour of the quality of the performance by watching Marshall Lilly’s terrific drumcam footage.
TFW you’re driving and you hear a new song on the radio that makes you pull over to hear it better? I’ve had it three times. The first time was Eminem’s “Stan” in 2000. I just had to know how it ended. The second was in 2013, when I thought Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky” was a 1970s disco classic I’d somehow missed. And the third was Billie Eilish’s “Bad Guy,” partly because the production was so original, but mostly because the vocal was so, well, disturbing.
Thematically, the song is about relationship power dynamics. For all the machismo of the “you” character, and that upsetting opening violent abuse image in the first line, Billie herself is the titular “Bad Guy.” She can out-scare and out-dare him. If he wants to “take control,” she’ll go along with it, up to a point, but she holds all the cards: if he steps out of line, there will be mama-disappointing, girlfriend-antagonizing, dad-seducing hell to pay. The production throughout supports this theme, balancing the scary and the ironic as Billie’s vocal performance veers between threat and disinterest.
Today, we will be talking more about the music than we will be talking about the sex – I mean, the lyrics. Usually with a song analysis, I try to figure out how the words and music work together, and highlight particular phrases that stand out in the musical arrangement. But given that Please Me is a ‘slow jam’, we don’t want all this musicology to kill the mood, so we will mostly let Cardi’s x-rated rapping (and Bruno’s vocal paroxysms) speak for themselves. TIDAL is all about the fidelity, so along with master-quality audio we’ve included the full, un-bleeped lyric. Insert your own asterisks according to taste.
Welcome to the 2019 Eurovision live musicology blog, now in its ninth year. This site has provided live (or pre-live) music analysis of the ESC final every year since 2011, previously during the UK live broadcast. Since 2016, the text has been written from Boston USA, 5 hours behind UK time and, this year, 7 hours behind Tel Aviv, where the show takes place.
The Contest can be watched on YouTube, and across many European and US networks and time zones. Parts of the blog post are typed as-live, but I’ve uploaded everything in advance so you can follow along with the show. For any non-Europeans who are unfamiliar with Eurovision, the Wikipedia page gives a great overview.
As before, I have posted predictions of the winners before
the voting begins. 2015 is the only year so far that all three were correct,
and in the correct order, but I’ve gotten close with the top few most of
This year I’m including more of the chord loops, so that keyboard/guitar people can play along. These chords are transcribed at speed, and are sometimes slightly simplified for text purposes (e.g. there aren’t always 2nd/3rd time bars etc).
And, as always, I recommend music creative types (particularly songwriters and producers) read Milton Mermikides’ excellent Deux Points’ article, which gives top tips on how to write those fair-to-middling low-scoring ‘Euro-formula’ songs. As you listen to tonight’s show, look out to references to the Aeolian mode aka natural minor scale (in music generally, the least exotic of all the minor scales; in Eurovision terms, an essential signifier of cultural and emotional authenticity).
As a music theory geek, I love to get inside songs and figure out why we like them. There’s something beautiful about the ability of a mainstream hit to bring people together. And when the songwriter and singer is as extraordinary a talent as Ariana Grande, we can be sure we’re putting the very finest pop product in our ears.
So let’s dive in, intro first, middle bit in the middle, and outro at the end, as has been the way since the dawn of time.
We hear a single reverbed synth sound playing half notes, with occasional 8th note passing notes, and no indication of what’s to come. That’s sparse, even for a trap-pop intro. At this point, we don’t even know if we’re hearing 140BPM (fast pop) or 70BPM (slow ballad).
Popular Music Education. These three words, even though they have been at the center of my professional life for more than 25 years, continue to challenge and intrigue me because each one generates questions. What do we mean by ‘Popular’? Popular with whom, and for how long? Popular in the sense of widely distributed, or in the sense of culturally influential? When we say ‘Music’, which music… and whose music? The consensus reached long ago in conservatoires about the centrality of the European ‘common practice period’ has no easy parallel in PME, and popular music has evolved into so many forms and sub-genres that it is arguably impossible for any teacher or student to have knowledge of it all. And when we talk about ‘Education’, what, exactly, are we teaching? PME in high schools and in higher education deals variously with listening, performing existing music, creating original music, music technology, the commercial music industry, and (often controversially) the history of various canons, styles and traditions. Which of these should we choose to teach? Each answer to these questions breeds further questions. If we decide that our curriculum supports creativity, then our students will probably need to be songwriters, the song being the dominant creative product in most popular music. But how does one build a suitable grading framework for songwriting, when songs represent personal expression? What if the teacher’s definition of a good song is different from the student’s?
The Institute was founded on a musical question, which is:
What would jazz sound like in a culture without patriarchy?
This morning I was viewing the video of remarks from our outstanding keynote speaker Dr Farah Jasmine Griffin (William B. Ransford Professor of English and Comparative Literature and African-American Studies at Columbia University NY). Like a lot of people, when an inspiring speaker mentions artists, music or books that are new to me, I like to explore further – cue a brief trip down a Google ‘rabbit hole’. So here’s the full presentation, with citations below.
Davey will be discussing songwriter identity in the context of optimal distinctiveness theory, and uses this to frame some popular music within the known teen phenomenon of ‘I loved [that band] before they were famous’. He uses the famous example of iMacs that looked like furniture – the novel and the familiar are balanced to create consumer need.
Popular music is perceived to come out of ‘scenes’ – genres, fashions and subcultures – and necessarily has different audiences, who in turn require identity, categorisation and distinctiveness (Zuckerman 2014).
In Davey’s auto-ethnographical research, he has created 4 albums over 8 years; 2 of these gained traction; 2 faded away. He analyses each project according to its distinctiveness, genre, novelty, conformity etc (via the above ODT framework).
We now hear ‘Memory is a Weapon’ (CousteauX, 2017), from Davey’s reboot of his turn-of-the-century band Cousteau. The journalistic feedback and reviews triangulate the product’s perceived distinctiveness. Assimilation (conformity to expectation) is contrasted with Differentiation (challenge to expectation) – for example, the torch singer persona of Cousteau’s work becoming the rogue-ish character of the CousteuX reboot. This is in the lyric mode of address (first person, reflective, confessional). Most of the rest of the album is in the dramatic mode of address (quasi-second person – addressing the audience as if they were present or speaking to somebody else positioning the audience as witness).
The journalistic responses agreed with the intent, reliably highlighting words such as ‘dark’ and ‘brooding’ etc.
I always love to hear Anne speak. Alas, I live-blogged her entire hour-long keynote today, complete with examples, and due to a horrible WordPress browser fail (including no success with autosave reversions) I lost all the text and examples!
So to recreate it from memory, Anne discussed some of the musical characteristics of black popular musics, as articulated by Wilson (1983), and then used these to trace a 50-year timeline of rhythmic accuracy in African-American popular music, particularly focusing on the cusp of digital tools (from early 1980s). Trends were traced, from the quest for super-accurate grooves (e.g. Prince’s Kiss), through the muddying/blurring of the beat (examples include Snoop Dogg, D’Angelo, Destiny’s Child, Tyler The Creator).
The (Dis) Embodied Voice: hearing meaning in vocal timbre
Simon Zagorski-Thomas (London College of Music, UWL)
Keywords: Vocal timbre, ecological perception, embodied cognition, sonic cartoons
ABSTRACT: It can be argued that since the persona of the performer is widely perceived to be the locus of meaning in popular music – as opposed to the more indirect voice of the composer in the western art music tradition – that the timbre of the voice and its control during performance should be the focal point of popular music analysis. This paper uses a framework combining the ecological approach to perception (Gibson, 1979; Clarke, 2005), embodied cognition (Lakoff and Johnson, 1999) and the neural theory of metaphor (Lakoff and Johnson, 2003; Feldman, 2008) to explore how the disembodied sound of the recorded voice in popular music is interpreted as a schematic representation of a human entity and action: a sonic cartoon (Zagorski-Thomas, 2014).
Sample replays and their implications for producers and listeners
Justin Morey, Leeds Beckett University
ABSTRACT: There is evidence that the cost of clearing the recording copyright of a sample (the master clearance) has risen significantly in the last 20 years (see, for example: McLeod and Di Cola, 2013; Morey, 2014), with one result being the increasing use of sample replay services, which create a sound-alike of a sample at a fraction of the price of clearing the original. A further recent development is that producers (hereafter sampling composers) whose records originally used cleared samples have found that on expiry of the term of clearance, record label demands to authorize an extension have become financially prohibitive, leading to a choice either to create a version with the sample replaced by a replay, or have the record disappear completely from streaming services and broadcast media.
Using qualitative data from practitioners involved in sampling, sample replay services, and sample clearance, this paper explores the implications of developments in the industrial management of copyright on the creative practice of sampling composers and the canon of sample-based music available to listeners, and considers issues of the aura and authenticity of an original recording in terms of sampling and sample replays.
Keywords: digital sampling; copyright; creative practice
Collective Creativity: A ‘Service’ Model of Contemporary Commercial Pop Music
Paul Thompson, Leeds Beckett University, UK
Phil Harding, Leeds Beckett University, UK
Keywords: Creativity, Pop Production, Songwriting
ABSTRACT: A commercial pop music production is rarely the result of a single individual and pop music producers and songwriters are often part of a larger creative collective (Hennion, 1990) in creating a musical product. A team leader typically manages this group activity. That team leader requires an appropriate level of cultural, symbolic and economic capital (Bourdieu, 1984) so they can effectively evaluate the contributions of the rest of the team and guide the project towards commercial success (Thompson & Harding, 2017). This study explores the role of the team leader within the creative production workflow of pop songwriting and production since the 1990s and investigates the ways in which pop songwriting and production teams work within a creative system of pop-music making. Building upon previous studies in this area (Harding and Thompson 2017) the ‘Service Model’ flow system is illustrated with distinct linear stages that include the processes of pop songwriting, pop vocal recording, post vocal production and then mixing. However, within each of these production stages the ‘highly nonlinear dynamics’ (Capra and Luisi, 2014) of the creative system (Csikszentmihalyi; 1988, 1999) can be viewed in action as the team work together to make the pop record. Drawing upon a series of interviews and data gathered during a Practice Based Enquiry (PBE) conducted at Westerdals University in Oslo, this paper presents the pop music ‘Service Model’. Importantly, the model underlines the value of the collective (rather than individual) in the commercial pop songwriting and production process.
This is Phil and Paul’s third presentation about this project (related to Phil’s PhD) – and represents bringing the research up to date by talking about contemporary pop production. For background, you can read about last year’s paper and/or pick up Phil’s book PWL from the Factory Floor.
Franco Fabbri, University of Milan and Conservatorio ‘A.Boito’, Parma
Our opening keynote for the conference is the much-loved Franco Fabbri, a much-celebrated musician, educator and musicologist. I was particularly interested to hear this one, because Franco is talking about Forensic Musicology, and with a particular focus on Italian case law.
Here’s my live-blog of his hour-long talk, with YouTube examples where I could find them:
Dr Levy-Carrick opens with some definitions of psychiatric trauma, providing categories/examples. The macro statistic (from one very large mental health study) is that 63% of people have experienced trauma of some sort. There is a discussion of affluence/resource, and the relationship between early trauma and later negative life events or conditions. Those who have experienced trauma have much higher incidence of behavioral health issues later in life – smoking, diabetes, depression etc.
Allostasis – the body’s ability to return to a neutral state (after stress). Citation: McEwen, 2017. Trauma negatively affects allostasis.
Susan opens with a description of the issues the US is currently facing with babies who are born with opioid addiction, including those born to mothers who were receiving methadone treatment during pregnancy. She describes her own experience of comforting newborns using non-pharmacological intervention therapies.
After a brief (and fascinating) biography, Woody shares a list of possible music-related therapies and treatments, and provides his macro hypothesis:
More about Right Turn, an addiction treatment center that uses arts therapies. [JB comment – note that this is an example of a non-profit organization that attracts real health insurance dollars, and designs and evaluates its treatments based on clinical evidence and data. This is a model of funded mental health/addiction therapy that we don’t see in the UK in quite the same way, and indeed may only be possible because of the way US health insurance works – there is a particular cost incentive to investing in preventative treatments of this type].