From our standpoint here in 2021, it may be hard to hear the difference between a song written and recorded today, and one that was done, say, three years ago. Ten years ago? You start to hear some differences.
And if you go back a few decades, to the 80s for example, there are lots of differences that you can hear right away. And pop songs from the early 60s bear little resemblance at all, at least superficially, to something being written and recorded today.
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So if that’s the case, why is it that people like me, who instruct others on songwriting technique, often dig back into the vault to find songs that are 20, 30, 40 or more years old, and use those songs as models for how good songs should be written today? Is there any relevance to today’s music at all? What can we learn?
What Makes Songs Sound Dated?
If you take an 80’s song — like “Hungry Eyes” (John DeNicola/ Franke Previte), a top-ten hit for Eric Carmen in 1988 — some aspects of the recording will sound dated right away. The computer-digital keyboard-heavy instrumentation gives the decade away immediately. The quality of the singing voice and the way it was recorded, the style and sound of the sax solo… these are all aspects of music that change quickly and regularly with time.
But what about the structural bones of the song. Does that stand the test of time?
The short answer is yes. There are aspects of the actual music that are determined by principles of songwriting, and are not so influenced by stylistic choices of the day.
For example, the verse sitting predominantly in and around the key of D minor, and then changing to F major for the chorus, is a time-honoured and very common occurrence for songs in the pop genre.
The fact that the chorus is pitched higher than the verse, the inclusion of a minor key bridge after the second chorus, the predominantly tonally strong chords, particularly in the chorus, the use of approximate and then exact repetition in all sections of the song– these are all based on solid principles of songwriting that have existed in pop music since the 1950s, and still exist today.
So yes, instrumentation and other production-level decisions are all influenced by audience taste and expectations of a given year, and those decisions change on a yearly (and sometimes more frequent) basis.
But much of the way an older song is designed once you dig down beneath those production values is still found in today’s songs.
So the most important thing you can do as a songwriter is to not limit your studying of songs to just today’s music. You can and should be studying music from all eras, and try to ignore the production styles of those old songs.
If you can read and write musical notation, one of the best ways to look at a song without being influenced by its dated production is to write a lead sheet — a melody, with the chords above it and the lyrics below.
Once you have that simplified version, you can concentrate on the musical structure without being distracted by whatever was done that makes it sound old: instrumentation, recording techniques, etc.
And once you’ve done that, you’ve got literally thousands of songs you can parse and study in a bid to become a much better songwriter today.
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