Pop Songs: What Checking the Fossil Record Can Do For Us

Written by Gary Ewer, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website.
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Benedict You might wonder why someone like me, with an interest in how today’s pop songs work, finds the music of Brahms or Beethoven (1800s) relevant to today’s music. Or even further back: the music of Bach or Handel (1700s). Or yet further: 13th century motets, and yes, even Gregorian Chant (almost 2000 years ago). In a way, I’m just doing what scientists do: checking the fossil record.

Music has changed immensely in the past couple of millennia, and it begs the question: do we actually do anything the same way anymore? Can we really improve our songwriting skills by examining Gregorian Chant?

Chant melodies were the music of the early Christian church, and if you’re probably familiar with it, even just as the stereotypical representation of “old music.” If you need a refresher on what it sounded like, try clicking here, and then click on the play box near the top right side of the window.

The music was organized a little differently in those days, being written long before what we know of as major or minor keys even came into existence. But in a very important way, it represents, if you will, the early fossil record of what music was going to become. Yes, the music of Little Richard, the Beatles, Elton John, Led Zeppelin and Rihanna, along with the thousands upon thousands of pop song stars of the 20th and 21st centuries, can point back to Gregorian Chant as the starting point, a form of early ancestor, the common ancestor for many different styles of music that followed.

So that’s fine. We can all trace a line back to Gregorian Chant. But is it relevant today? Does it matter?

I think it does matter, for a very important reason. There is one similarity between early chant melodies and modern pop: both were/are forms of music that were/are communicated almost entirely by the oral tradition. That means that even though songs today can be written down, the primary method of disseminating the music is by singing it to others. You’ve heard Ke$ha’s latest hit because she’s singing it to you. And because she’s singing it, and you’re liking it, you’ll tell others, and they’ll download it and listen to it. In Gregorian Chant days, the primary method of getting the music out there was to sing it in church.

The primary method of transmitting the music has changed (no one was file sharing in the early Christian church) but the idea is the same: you need to write music that will stick in the listener’s mind enough that they’ll remember it, because memory is the tool that is disseminating the music.

So how do you write music that ensures that people will remember it? Just do what Gregorian Chants do:

  1. Use mainly stepwise motion, with occasional leaps.
  2. Keep your melody within a certain range so that other people can sing it: most songs are an octave or less.
  3. Make sure your melody has contour, with more melodic energy near the middle.
  4. Set your lyrics so that the rhythms you choose make the words make sense.

Those characteristics, interestingly, are part of what successful modern day pop music does. And where it comes from is revealed by looking at the fossil record.
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One Comment

  1. Pingback: How Gregorian Chant Reminds Us Of a Vital Principle for Setting Lyrics | The Essential Secrets of Songwriting

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