Audience at a rock concert

Today’s Top Songs: What Am I Missing?

I always avoid doing the “old man rant” on this blog, but this may stray into that category… forgive me!

One of the biggest problems I have with top-rated Billboard Hot 100 songs these days is that the chords are usually pretty simple and, frankly, uninspiring. Don’t get me wrong, a simple progression that works is always better than a more complex one that doesn’t actually work.

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I was playing through the top songs on the Billboard Hot 100 this morning, and I didn’t hear one progression that, from a harmonic design point of view, offered much more than four basic chords that repeated from beginning to end. I’m sure those songs must be out there, but they aren’t at the top of the charts.

Maybe it’s just my dinosaur-aged ears, but for me, once I’ve heard a progression played through four times, my mind is ready for something else.

And once I get the feeling that those four chords I’m hearing are all the chords I’m going to hear, you’d think that my attention would turn to the melody. And that’s a good thing, you would think. But actually, none of the melodies of the top songs on the Billboard Hot 100 have remained in my mind once I’ve stopped listening. It almost seems that I’ve been dulled to the point where nothing I’m hearing is making a lasting impact on me.

I’m quite aware that I’m not the target audience for the songwriters, producers and performers. That target audience is younger — by a lot! — than me. But just listening to these songs… What am I missing?

My fear as a teacher, writer, and conductor of music, is that new songwriters might start to think that that’s what we should all be writing: find a short progression that works, repeat the hell out of it, get the sounds right, add a shapeless, wandering melody, and there’s your new song.

It’s hard to define what good music is, because it’s different for everyone. But one thing all songs have in common is that they’re all musical journeys that have a beginning, middle and end. They take us somewhere interesting, and when they end three or four minutes later, it feels right to end them.

But with songs that simply repeat chords dozens of times, with melodies that sound a bit aimless, it seems that a song ends because — well, it’s just overstayed its welcome, and it’s time to stop.

I’m not sure what I’m saying here, but if you’re an up-and-coming songwriter, I would encourage you to broaden your listening beyond what you might hear on the Billboard Hot 100, and know that there are many people out there who want and need something much more than four predictable chords and a melody that wanders up and down.

These days when I’m looking for good new songs, I either go on other musicians’ recommendations, or check indie charts, or try to find out what my own songwriting heros are listening to. I’m bound to hear some great music.

How do you find music that actually stimulates your creative brain? Please feel free to add your comment below. Give me something good to listen to!

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter

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  1. With the introduction of rap in the 1990s, melody disappeared. What we had left was rhythmic chants.

    Although a bit of “melody” has come back, these melodies of today are also, essentially, chants.

    A few tones in a simple musical phrase, and that phrase is repeated endlessly with little or no variation.

    Like rap, it is meant to be a feeling, a drive. A chug. Not a pretty melody.

    Butall music changes and what is old becomes new. Perhaps melody will be “rediscovered” and will seem fresh and exciting to those who eally have never experienced it.

  2. Gary,
    This comment is spot on and I feel so strongly about it that it compelled me to put it in writing. In short, modern songwriters seem lazy but I don’t know whether they are dictating what people should hear or whether young audiences don’t want anything complex? It’s the classic chicken and egg question….It seems today, music is built on limited chords, mindless lyrics, an aimless melody but, above all, a thumping beat to dance to with strong production to make it seem interesting. Songwriters are no longer needed for the top 100 – just beat producers. I blame a number of styles that have come in which have made music of the 60’s and 70’s seem ‘old’ but in fact I think modern music just makes me crave for the musicianship and strong writing ability of those days. Could ‘Stairway to Heaven’ make it these days? What about ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ or ‘A Day in the Life’? Or even ‘A Whiter Shade of Pale’? I doubt any would as today’s audience typically switches off at around 7 seconds and with no chorus in sight or no obvious dance beat….they have moved on. So, what are serious songwriters writing for today if not money? No one wants their songs to be listened by only 10 people….so, I can understand why many songwriters sell their soul and produce mindless 4-chord rubbish. Sad, but true.

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