Music as Wallpaper, and Lessons Learned

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Google Driverless CarThere is a new video out there that’s probably going to get millions of views today around the world. It uses the following progression:

C  G/C  F/C  C (played twice, then…) Dm  F. That entire sequence is repeated seven times.

You’ve possibly heard it yourself, but you likely don’t remember it at all. In fact, if you hear it sometime today without seeing the video, you’ll probably say that it sounds familiar, but you can’t think of where you’ve heard it.

The music I’m talking about is a perfect example of what you might call “wallpaper music”, and it accompanies Google’s new video introducing their driverless car. Even if you’ve not heard the little ditty yet, you’ll possibly listen to it now and say, “Well, that sounds exactly like the kind of music Google would use for their ads.”

Wallpaper music is meant to create a mood by staying in the background, just as wallpaper works well if it remains unobtrusive. But what do you do to make music act like wallpaper? When you listen to Google’s music, you’d never say, “Hey, that could be a hit song!” No, it’s nice, but it’s also curiously featureless, even boring. Here are the main features of good “wallpaper music”:

  1. Use a simple, straightforward chord progression.
  2. Keep the instrumentation simple and unobtrusive.
  3. Use a tempo that is similar to a human heartbeat, where every beat, or every second beat, is approximately 120 bpm -126 bpm.
  4. Keep the musical fragment short and repeat it often.
  5. Keep the melody simple, or even don’t use one at all.

The Google music accompanying the video does all five of those things. And you’ll notice that once the music starts to repeat, you tend to dismiss it. Which is exactly what Google wants you to do: they want you to pay attention to the subject matter of the video itself, not the music.

But you’ll notice that even though you tend to ignore the music, the mood that it conveys stays. So all in all, Google has developed a piece of music that is featureless, boring, unchallenging and easily dismissed.

Perfect for the project.

But there’s a cautionary tale for songwriters in this: Are you inadvertently writing wallpaper music? Google’s music is a living example of what can happen to your music if it doesn’t challenge the listener, or doesn’t offer anything new.

Google’s music happens to offer all five of the requisite characteristics of good wallpaper music, but that’s a recipe for disaster for songwriters. It’s not uncommon for good pop music to feature one or possibly two of the characteristics, but other than that, something needs to jump out and challenge the listener.

So while your songs might use a simple, straightforward chord progression with a simple instrumentation and melody, something else needs to step up in order to grab attention. And it doesn’t need to be much. For example, Leonard Cohen’s music is almost always constructed using simple progressions, simple instrumentations, and simple melodies. But the lyrics jump out at the listener, challenging the imagination and forcing the audience to think.

So the lesson learned from wallpaper music is this: Every song you write needs to present something to the listener that steps away from the predictable and obvious, something that keeps the music in the foreground, not in the background.

The danger with challenging the listener is that you run the risk of losing audience as they may not love what you’re doing. But if you’re looking to build an audience that really loves your stuff, you’ll never build that audience by playing it safe.

If everyone loves your music, you’re probably doing something wrong.


Gary Ewer is the author of “Beating Songwriter’s Block: Jump-Start Your Words and Music”, available through, Barnes & Noble, and Hal Leonard Books. He has also written “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” 6-eBook Bundle. Read more..

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  1. Pingback: FEATURED ARTICLE: Music as Wallpaper, and Lessons Learned | Creative Music | Inspiring Musical Creativity

  2. nice post. so basically, keep at least one or two things within the realm of simple or familiar to listeners for every element of experiment, complexity, or unexpectedness? that the idea?

    • Yes. In other words, there’s nothing wrong (in fact, much that is right) about providing the listener with predictable elements within a song, and offer innovative qualities in one or two other areas. The best songs are the ones that are a mixture of predictable and unpredictable, with the balance quite a bit toward predictable.


  3. So true of the average Song Forum Sight, but dare to comment and you will often get abusive comments verging on the ridiculous.

    I thought at one time they were looking for advice , but sadly it’s pats on the back, they form little clicks and constantly give compliments to songs that in general are boring and very armature, most pay silly amounts rushing to recording and end up with a good recording of a bad song.

    Yes I have been there myself , these days I sleep on everything i do re writing and re writing
    till something clicks .

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