There’s a term that gets used a lot especially in the world of classical music composition: development. We often describe pieces of music as not just progressing, but as developing. When we use that term development, we’re talking about new ideas being built on earlier ideas within the same piece of music.
When I was an instructor at Dalhousie University, I had the pleasure of sitting on juries that assessed new works by the composition students. That term development came up a lot in our assessments. In short, we were assessing a student’s ability to write a piece of music that successfully built new ideas on old ones from earlier in the same piece.
A classical composition might be 5 minutes long, but it could be a half hour in length, or even more. Development plays a big role in the length of a musical work. Essentially, music is however long it takes to “come full circle”, as it were. That’s because musical ideas develop (i.e., they morph into and create new ideas) until the end, when the piece is done, and we feel some sense of completion.
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That sense of completion is hard to define. For some pieces, new ideas get spun from old ones, visiting new keys until you arrive back in the original key, hearing something similar to what started. In other pieces, like Ravel’s “Bolero“, it’s the orchestration that changes while the melodies stay the same, and you hear the enormous, climactic ending, and you just know that the journey is done.
And how do classical composers develop ideas? It’s usually a combination of:
- Developing new ideas that share rhythms and melodies with old ideas.
- Moving old ideas into new keys.
- Changing the orchestration of an old idea so that it has a semblance of something new.
- Creating new ideas that remind us of old ideas.
And the important point here is this: in most classical music, the length of the music is (within reason) whatever it takes to complete the musical journey — to finish developing your ideas. That might happen within 5 minutes, or it might be much longer.
What About Development in Pop Music Genres?
In the popular music genres, the length of a piece of music — a song, in most cases — is a much more important consideration. It usually needs to be less than 4 minutes, and practically always less than 5.
That presents pop songwriters with a specific problem that doesn’t exist to the same degree in the classical world: It’s hard to develop musical ideas in 3-and-a-half minutes. That word development doesn’t just involve creating new ideas — it also means that the new idea itself needs time to establish itself and perhaps develop into something new itself. So 3-4 minutes is tricky.
So what do pop songwriters do to compensate for the fact that there’s not enough time to develop something? Since musical development is all meant to keep us focused on the music, pop songwriters add a new feature to the music: the hook.
Like developing musical ideas, a hook also works to keep us focused on the music. It is short, catchy, rhythmically interesting, and incorporates a fascinating melodic shape. Whether that’s a catchy riff, like The Stones’ “Satisfaction,” or a great chorus tune like “Y.M.C.A.”, or “Single Ladies,” the hook keeps us interested and singing along.
Because a hook is doing the work that musical development used to do, you’d think it would work in the same sort of way, developing and promoting new ideas. But in fact, a good hook has almost opposite characteristics to what good classical music development does. The fact is that a hook is usually presented in a song, and then experiences very little development or change.
The hook’s main job is to sit there and wave a big flag. As a pop songwriter, you don’t usually need to worry about your audience getting tired of the hook. In a 3-and-a-half minute song, there’s not usually enough time to get bored with it.
Pop Songs Can (and Should) Still Develop Ideas
So even though the hook becomes one of the most important features of good pop songs, don’t assume that as a songwriter, you don’t need to be concerned with developing ideas. That can and should still happen, though necessarily to a smaller degree.
What kinds of things can you do to develop musical ideas in your own songs? Here’s a short list:
- Think about how the chorus melody relates to the verse melody. If your verse uses mainly downward-moving melodic ideas, try creating a chorus that does the opposite: pieces together upward-moving ones.
- Think about how instrumentation changes as your song progresses. First establish a good sound for your chorus, and then think about how to strip that down a bit for your verse. The back and forth from bare to full instrumentation is an important part of the production value of your song.
- Think about how the backing rhythms and melodic riffs match or complement your melodies’ rhythms and shapes. The Guess Who’s “American Woman” features a guitar riff at the beginning that uses a quick, staccato-like shape. Compare that to the way the words “American woman…” is sung, and you’ll get an idea of what I mean.
These are all examples of how pop songs can take baby-steps toward the notion of musical development. They’re important to the structure of the song. But because songs are usually so short, listeners need something else to grab their attention. That’s where a good hook stands up and gets ready to go to work.
The more your song uses developmental ideas such as the 3 listed above, the less vital the hook is, and there are many songs which don’t place a hook front & centre.
If you find that your song lacks focus or drive, it’s time to put your full attention on the creation of a powerful hook, and not worry too much about whether or not ideas are being fully developed.
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