Songwriting – From Black Sabbath to Manufactured Popular Beat Combos

31 January 2012. Filed under category Music - General.

I recently watched a Channel 4 documentary called “What Makes a Masterpiece?”.  There were two parts that I saw: 1. Stories and Film; and 2. Music.  The gist is this: humans are predictable and so businesses now exist that can analyse a movie or song and tell you whether it is going to be successful; and potentially change it so it will be more appealing ….It is a sobering thought.  The program was hosted by the gayest man on Earth, Matthew Cain.  However, once you get past his persona (he is a little hard to swallow initially, ooh er) there is some great information within….


Channel 4's "What Makes a Masterpiece"

The story and movie part centred around learning how to tell a story that maximises the emotional engagement of the audience.  It reminded me of an interesting conversation I had about two years ago with a colleague who was writing a screenplay.  There were courses and books you could read on the subject and one of the best examples of screenplay development out there today are the Pixar films that literally take a team of writers specialising in different aspects of a story to put the whole thing together.  I think it turns you cynical when you consider that many movies today are developed to purposefully include particular elements that will somewhat artificially grab the attention of the audience.  My natural distrust of this could start to put me off movies!

However, one satisfying experiment performed in the documentary compared a modern blockbuster, presumably developed using these new techniques, to a “classic” film, namely The Bourne Supremacy v Jaws.  In terms of people’s overall reaction Jaws won hands down as being the “better” film.  Which shows that you can learn a bunch of techniques but there still has to be something “special” in a film to hook the viewer.  Jaws is a particularly good example because it is essentially about a malevolent plastic shark.  The premise is ridiculous but yet the storytelling is so well done that you don’t notice.

The music episode of “What Makes a Masterpiece?” explored the possibility of using software to determine whether a pop song would be successful.  This was achieved by looking at historical data for successful singles and scanning the music of these for patterns.  It was found that certain chord progressions turn up time and time again in pop hits.  These are alleged to engage the listener emotionally.  The software shows “clusters” of successful songs with common attributes and then you can compare  a new song to see whether it falls near a cluster.  All very analytical although I am not surprised that this is possible.  Most heavy metal is not so streamlined as the pop industry seems to be, although inevitably there probably are patterns between great songs that people like.


Our Lord Tony Iommi

It made me think about my own approach to songwriting, basically to make an effort not to follow a formula and if that seems to be happening, to shake it up a bit.  Another trick is “disposable riff philosophy”; which involves not being stingy about the use of great riffs even for minor parts of a song.  You could be hit by a bus tomorrow so there is no point saving riffs for use later.  Throw it all in.  Having said that, I know I do fall into common structures, for example I am often obsessed with putting an “outro” riff into a song, rather than just repeating a chorus to a fade out or something like that which is a common trick.  Then I realised that Black Sabbath did the same thing….all the time….40 years ago.

I just finished reading Tony Iommi’s autobiography and he explained his early approach to songwriting was to do a heavy bit and then throw in something more mellow in the middle  to give the listener a break and make the next heavy part more dramatic.  I catch myself doing that more and more now as I have discovered actual dynamics in sound (shock, horror).  Music does not have to be full noise, all the time.  Tony also used to write songs with distinctive sections that sometimes don’t repeat.  I like this approach too as it appeals to the ADD in me.

It is a strange subject to consider: marrying the art of songwriting with the psychology of the natural fascination of music; and trying to consciously generate something that will manipulate people to like it.  I think what is important as an “artist” (I always hate that word) is that you try and do something different but not just for the sake of it.  It has to sound good too.  But, ultimately, we should make music to make us happy.

Monsterworks has been criticised in reviews for being too diverse but that is just because we like diverse types of music.  It would be wrong (and pretentious) to do a song or album that had diverse styles just for the hell of it.  I don’t sit down to write a particular style of song, I just start from the beginning and go from there.  It could go anywhere.

Also of paramount importance is that you must convince yourself that the current thing you are doing is better than the last, and the next thing will be even better.  Black Sabbath is an interesting case in point because, arguably, some of the forgotten late 1980s material is more complex and perhaps musically better than the early plodding stuff…..but the early plodding stuff carries a nostalgia and it truly was groundbreaking.  Hence I will always be argued out of the room saying that the Ozzy years weren’t as good.  Especially because I don’t actually believe that.









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