Saturday, 31 October 2015

10 popular songs that deserve study.

All the following songs have at least one outstanding feature in their design. The focus is on mostly on instrumental techniques but leaving out words altogether in popular music is imprudent so two categories, word painting and the use of unconventional texts, are included.

A brief historical introduction will account for many of the techniques used in the table. After the invention of the electric guitar certain methods of sound manipulation became widely used, to mention a few we have the flanger, reverberation, filters, wa-wa and fuzz.  With advancements in tape recording further modifications were made to the sounds, long delays and echo; reversed sounds and the use of natural sources also became part and parcel of sound production. The use of tape brought about new instruments like the mellotron which expanded the popular sound canvas.
The process of sound modification accelerated with digital recording methods and techniques already available through recording on tape became considerably easier to control. The purity of sound available through digital recordings and the ability to microscopically select sections of music from a context led to a revolution in the form of sampled sounds.

The danger with rapid technological change is that many useful processes can be overused and then neglected.  This is particularly true for popular music where one well crafted effect might make the difference between success and failure.

The category "large scale" may seem contrived but the ability to use musical material over extended periods of time creates several technical problems, and understanding how to resolve musical problems is always a source of interest for aspiring composers.

There is no shortage of popular songs that have the potential to inform contemporary composers, there are many alternative songs that would have performed just as well.  I hope at least that some readers might agree that the choices are well made.


Carla Bley / Robert Wyatt
I'm a Mineralist

Hybrid: serious contemporary/popular
(minimalism and vocoder use)


Irregular time signatures

Sail to the Moon

Reversed tape effects
Strawberry Fields Forever

(in this instance in rhythmic cells)

Led Zepplin

Complex time signatures

Dream Theatre
The Dance of Eternity

Adapting ethnic rhythms

Paul Simon
The Obvious Child

Large scale composition

Duel with the Devil
(particularly from the 18th minute onwards).

Word painting
Joni Mitchell
Both Sides Now
(year 2000 version)

Unconventional use of text
King Crimson
Elephant talk