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Developing Musical Ideas Within Pop Songs

In pop songwriting, it’s all about developing a catchy musical idea (the hook), and then writing bits that support that idea (the verse, pre-chorus, bridge, etc.). The idea of “developing a musical idea” isn’t something that songwriters usually think about.

And there is a good reason for that: pop songs are short. There’s really not a lot of “developing” of ideas that goes on. As long as by about the one-minute mark you’ve gotten to some sort of hooky bit, something that everyone will love, will want to hum along with, and will want to hear again, you’ve done what pop songs are supposed to do.

Hooks and RiffsThe best pop songs out there are built on strong hooks that audiences love, remember, and want to sing along to. “Hooks and Riffs: How They Grab Attention, Make Songs Memorable, and Build Your Fan Base” is a must-read for any songwriter who wants to write enticing hooks that build an audience base.

Usually, the notion of developing musical ideas is more applicable to classical music, where pieces are longer. Not that much longer, mind you. Sure, a typical late-Mozart symphony, like the famous Symphony No. 40 in G minor, is anywhere from 26 to 28 minutes in length, depending on your tempos. But each movement is 6 or 7 minutes in length — not that much longer than today’s pop songs.

But the structure is rather different. Movements from symphonies don’t use a verse-chorus format. They usually are laid out in a “first theme-second theme” design, where differences between those themes are a virtue. Once the composer has allowed the audience to hear those themes, there is usually a clever sort of intermingling of ideas that takes place.

That intermingling, where one theme might be woven in with the other, where different key areas are explored, where the composer experiments with the similarities and dissimilarities of those themes, is what is generally understood to be musical development, and is a hallmark of classical music.

If you want to hear this demonstrated, click below and listen to the two themes of the first movement of Mozart’s Symphony No. 40, and then the so-called Development Section, where you hear both themes being played with:

First theme —  Second theme  — Development Section

For a classical symphony to work well, and for that developing of musical ideas to be meaningful and interesting, we need the following two things:

  1. a first theme that’s attractive and memorable (a hook, you might say).
  2. a second theme that contrasts nicely with the first theme. The second theme usually displays a different character: mellow, if the first theme is more aggressive.

Unlike pop songs, it’s the first theme that’s the important one. The second theme is a bit subordinate to the first one, whereas in pop songs, the “second theme” (the chorus) is the flag-waving melody.

The fact that the two themes in a classical symphony usually differ in mood or character is what makes developing them together in the Development section so interesting. We get to hear how the two themes relate, we sometimes hear the composer present the second theme in the same character as the first one — that kind of thing.

Musical Development and the Pop Song

So what about pop music? If we don’t see this kind of musical development — this kind of musical structure — in a pop song, what takes its place? What makes a pop song enticing?

The main musical idea that keeps bringing people back to a pop song is the theme itself — the chorus theme, otherwise (usually) known as the hook.

We love pop songs for the strength of that hook. The better the hook, the more we like it, the more we want to sing along, and the more we want to keep returning to it.

For that reason, pop songs are generally shorter, because the hook is what it’s all about, and all other “musical ideas” (the verse melody, the bridge, any solos, etc.) exist usually to support the chorus.

Think of it this way: the chorus hook is the gift: a crystal vase. The verse is the wrapping paper. And the bridge is the extra little thing that you weren’t expecting: a crystal candlestick you unwrap and set beside the vase. Now the vase looks even more amazing.

Beyond that, there’s really not a lot of developing that typically goes on in pop songs.

It makes the hook tremendously important in the pop song world. Audiences will judge your song, not on how you developed musical ideas, but on how attractive the hook is.

It means that spending a good deal of time on that hook, polishing it, strengthening it, and making it something that can stand out on its own, is always time well spent.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

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