The more you read about The Beatles and how they put their songs together (from about “Rubber Soul” onward, at least), the more you get the sense that each component of the song was planned, calculated and thought about.
Their first album, “Please Please Me,” was recorded quickly, mainly all on one day. But as they gained prowess as songwriters specifically, and musicians in general, they layered their songs with many exacting ideas that required careful recording and re-recording.
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By the time the Sergeant Pepper album appeared, not much of the interesting stuff was played as a four-piece band in the studio. Most of their songs were carefully assembled from multiple tracks that were recorded separately. You get the impression that they were sitting together as a band playing these songs, but according to Ringo Starr, “We were still doing the basic tracks like we always did, and then it would take weeks for the overdubs…”
The thing is, once the final version was assembled, it needed to sound as though it had all been done live. That’s because music in the pop music genres has a casual, improvised feel. That improvisational style is part of what we like about popular genres: it sounds spontaneous.
And when you think about it, you become aware that the songs that really hit it big are the ones that sound spontaneous and — in a way — improvised on the spot.
You might think that this is more a lesson for performers and producers, because they’re the ones who determine what the final version of the music sounds like. But I think songwriters should also be thinking of spontaneity as a crucial component of musical composition.
When you write a song (and assuming you don’t have control over what the final version sounds like), what can you do to make what you’ve written sound spontaneous? Here are at least three ideas:
- Include musical surprises in the structure of your music. Surprising contrasts of loud/soft, perhaps fast/slow, quick changing of instruments that get focus… these are all things that contribute to musical spontaneity.
- Change up the formal design of your song. You may have written something in one of the many verse-chorus formats, but try starting with the chorus, or with an instrumental solo.
- Give important solos to instruments you think your fan base wouldn’t expect. It’s unlikely, for example, that The Beatles’s fan base would have been expecting a harpsichord solo (recorded on the piano at half speed so that normal playback sounded like a harpsichord at double speed) as an instrumental bridge for “In My Life”.
Something sounds spontaneous if it sounds like it might have come from “out of nowhere”, and that’s why musical surprises often get interpreted by the listener as spontaneity.
The benefit of musical surprises in your writing is that it helps to prevent predictability. In everything you write, you need to assure your audience that something new, innovative and surprising goes beyond being a possibility. It needs to be a probability.
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