The Song as a Miniature Musical Form

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Violin and MusicMany of you know that I have a particular interest in the seemingly disparate worlds of songwriting and Classical music. I’m intrigued by the fact that compositional technique that works when composing Classical music is pretty close to the technique that works in pop song composition. As I’ve mentioned before in this blog, the major differences between Classical and pop music are differences relating to performance style, not compositional technique.

The short way of saying this is: the way the world’s greatest songwriters (Dylan, Springsteen, Cohen, etc.) compose is closer to the way Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms wrote than you might believe or think possible.

Backing rhythms for each genre are usually, of course, poles apart. And chord preference (though not as much as you might think) can be somewhat different.

But much of the remainder of the writing tasks: creating melodies, generating momentum, even the ways writers create their instrumentations, etc., are remarkably similar, even if the instruments themselves are completely different.

And that similarity is the reason why it’s quite easy to take a Classical work and convert it into a modern pop song with just a simple adjustment in the performance style and instrumentation.

In most of the ways that really matter, pop songs are a miniature form of what Classical musicians were creating a couple of centuries ago.

So how far can you take this? Exactly how similar are Classical and pop music? Take a look at the following list of compositional “rules” that have guided large-scale Classical composition for the past few hundred years. And you’ll see that in many ways, pop song writers are still trying to do the same thing. Just… in miniature, and only a little differently.

  1. Most Classical melodies benefit from a “high point”, after which the musical phrase ends usually lower in pitch. (Classical example: Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring (J.S. Bach). Pop song example: “Lay Lady Lay” (Bob Dylan)
  2. Most Classical chord progressions are a musical journey that start on the I-chord, venture away, and then back to that chord. (Both Classical and pop songs display this as a typical harmonic feature.)
  3. Most Classical works use building/subtracting instrumentation as a typical method for building/subtracting energy and momentum. (Classical example: Bolero (Maurice Ravel). Pop song example: “Solsbury Hill” (Peter Gabriel).
  4. Classical music typically contrasts two or more musical ideas or themes, using one, then the other(s), and often developing musical ideas that combine each. (Classical example: Symphony #5 (Beethoven). Pop song example: “Close to the Edge” (Yes). NOTE: Not a “pop song” in the usual usage of that term, but definitely in the pop genre.
  5. Classical music usually builds energy as it goes, and does it in different ways. One way is to start quietly, build energy, then back away, then build again (possibly several times) to the end (Classical example: 1812 Overture (Tchaikovsky), pop song example: “The Last Resort” (The Eagles). Another way is to start rather strongly, then back away, then build to the end. (Classical example: Hallelujah Chorus (G.F. Handel). Pop song example: “Raise Your Glass” (Pink)

There are actually countless hundreds or more of examples where pop music structure resembles typical Classical composition. If you want to spread your musical wings and see where you can go with pop music, start listening to Classical. It will amaze you how inspired you can become!

Written by Gary Ewer, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website
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