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).
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).
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.
Practical Production Analysis: Helping Students Produce Competitive Songs
Misty opens by describing her particular students as ‘in the box’ producers – that is to say, they create the entire sound recording in a Digital Audio Workstation. The problem she’s trying to solve is this: the students’ recordings are just not ready yet [for the commercial marketplace]. So today, she will be sharing her approach to helping students to make their song recordings competitive, in the genre they want to produce in.
The approach starts with the assumption that students ‘have their chops down’ – that is, they can write melodies & lyrics, understand harmony, and can program beats. With this out of the way, the students are asked to work on these four areas: