Cher - Believe

The Cher Effect Diverted Our Attention Away From Why “Believe” Works

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Every singer-songwriter likely knows what the “Cher effect” is. It’s the extreme autotune effect that Cher’s producers Mark Taylor and Brian Rawling used in her 1998 hit “Believe.” In order to protect the secret of how the effect was achieved, they initially claimed that it was created by a vocoder — a kind of voice synthesizer.

Because the song gets so much attention for that effect, it’s easy to ignore the strengths of the song itself. Its melody is catchy, the lyrics are meant to play on the emotions of the listeners, especially the lyric that partners up with the chorus hook: “Do you believe in life after love?”

There’s also a nice blend of major and minor chords that comprise the progressions. There’s really a lot that’s great about the song. But as I say, because we’re so busy acknowledging its importance in the world of music production that we might forget this important fact: clever production rarely saves a bad song. “Believe” had to be a good song in the first place.

Because sound recording and production is so easy to do now (we can write, record and release a song on the same day), you might be tempted to run all those steps together, where as you write a song, you’re already thinking about what production effects you might add to make the song more interesting.

Back in 1998 when “Believe” was recorded, the song existed first, and the effects were added at the recording stage. That’s why “Believe” works as a song: the songwriting stage happened first, and it’s unlikely anyone involved in the writing of it had much of an idea what the final recorded version would sound like.

In my opinion, “Believe” would work as a jazz ballad, as a country song, even a cappella (unaccompanied by any instruments at all). The verse starts low, with occasional leaps upward at emotional moments in the lyric (“And I can’t break through”, for example). The chorus melody makes a bigger deal of the upward leap: it becomes a major sixth. And the bridge takes that leap further, where it becomes an octave.

I think the best lesson songwriters can take from “believe” isn’t the use of autotune — it’s the necessity for a song to be a great song in the first place, before it ever gets to the recording-production stage.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

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