Who makes the rules for music?

Written for Collapse Board

“…there must be room for some sort of experimentation in how music is written? Of course there is, but those who subvert the rules must understand them in the first place – why they’re there, how they work, and only the people who have a complete mastery of music can bend or break those rules” – Princess Stomper

“Who set these apparently rigid rules for what’s a great song and what isn’t? Where are they? Who wrote them?” – Darragh Murray

As with any of these things, they evolved naturally. Most of what we think of as pop and rock music is descended from blues and jazz, and mutated somewhere along the way into the common 32-bar form and verse-chorus form. In either case, the crucial elements are the verses and the chorus.

Pop songs typically begin with an introduction – a unique section that leads the listener into the song. The verse is the poetic stanza that follows. Some songs include a pre-chorus or transitional bridge, which often uses subdominant transitional harmonies. These can add variety when the verse and chorus have the same harmonic structure. You then get your chorus – the bit that repeats at least once musically and lyrically – and this is the most identifiable part of the song, where you normally get the main hook.

Connecting the chorus to the next part of the song is, of course, the bridge. It’s something different from the verse and the chorus and unlike those doesn’t need any lyrics. The bridge can either precede or replace the next verse. (If the latter, you then get the chorus again). The bridge is intended to surprise the listener, who is expecting the chorus, and the chorus will often be repeated to stress its finality when it is at last heard.

The middle eight is an eight-bar sequence that can appear mid-way through a song after the second chorus. The structure of that song might be intro-verse-chorus-verse-chorus-middle eight-chorus-chorus-outro. Alternatively (or additionally) you might get a solo of the guitar or sax variety, and any song indulgent enough to include one will plonk one anywhere it bloody well likes. Lastly, the outro might include vocal ad-libbing, which is where pop divas play Look How Much I Can Sing. Umbrella has the pattern intro-verse-chorus-verse-chorus-middle 8-chorus-outro:

The 32-bar form is a variant on the typical pop structure, and is otherwise known as AABA because it’s made up of four eight-bar sections which form an AABA pattern. Somewhere Over The Rainbow is a prime example of AABA with an outro.

As pop music evolved, songwriters started to modify and extend the various sections and generally bugger about with the formula, but only a little bit. The result is known as Compound AABA. It’s still very recogniseable and familiar in that it’s still verse-chorus-etc in a pattern recreated by thousands of songs – the difference is in the number of repetitions of verses and choruses. For example, Every Breath You Take features a 32-bar section, a contrasting bridge and then a repeat of the 32-bar section, making a pattern of AABACAABA.

The other main ruleset for pop songwriting is the verse-chorus form, which makes it sound like the others – and it is, broadly – but the difference here is that unlike AABA (32-bar) form, the verse very much takes a back seat to the chorus, so it doesn’t have to be dressed up fancy with bridges and fiddly bits to make it stand out (e.g. Penny Lane, Be My Baby).

So, if those are the rules, who enforces them? Who’s to say that songs that follow those rules are better songs than those that don’t?

The short answer: we do. A large part of our appreciation of music comes down to the relationship between what we expect to hear and what we do hear. The trick is to play something familiar enough for the listener to feel comfortable, but then subvert that with something slightly unexpected, in order to create a pleasant surprise. To achieve this, we need to combine two elements – “catchy hooks”, and song structure. The BBC’s guide to songwriting notes that “an unstructured song will be messy, difficult to listen to and impossible to remember.”

Regarding hooks, Keith Duffy – professor of rhetoric and composition at Penn State Schuylkill – describes it thus:

“MRIs show that a catchy song makes the auditory part of the brain ‘itch,’ and the only way the itch can be scratched is by listening to the song.”

Penn State’s professor of music theory and composition, Paul Barsom, emphasises the role of familiarity in combination with repetition.

“Unfamiliar music doesn’t connect well. It’s harder to own, especially on first listen. […] If you have a hook (a short catchy phrase or passage) in the song, and if that hook is repeated often, that could do it. You might only remember five seconds of the song – but sometimes that’s enough.”

Now all you need is constant radio rotation and you have that “earworm” effect.

“You could hear a song 25 times a day. If it has a short refrain that everyone can remember, it will stick, even if it’s terrible.”

Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty (The KLF) harnessed this in their UK Number One hit, Doctorin’ The Tardis. Following the success of their novelty hit, they published a book – The Manual (How to Have a Number One the Easy Way) in 1988 – promising neither fortune nor legacy but “guaranteeing” a Number One chart position by following their strict formula:

Firstly, it has to have a dance groove that will run all the way through the record and that the current 7″ buying generation will find irresistible. Secondly, it must be no longer than three minutes and 30 seconds (just under 3’20 is preferable). If they are any longer Radio One daytime DJs will start fading early or talking over the end, when the chorus is finally being hammered home – the most important part of any record. Thirdly, it must consist of an intro, a verse, a chorus, second verse, a second chorus, a breakdown section, back into a double length chorus and outro. Fourthly, lyrics. You will need some, but not many.

Creators of music who desperately search originality usually end up with music that has none because no room for their spirit has been left to get through. The complete history of the blues is based on one chord structure, hundreds of thousands of songs using the same three basic chords in the same pattern. Through this seemingly rigid formula has come some of the twentieth century’s greatest music. In our case we used parts from three very famous songs, Gary Glitter’s ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll’, ‘The Doctor Who Theme’ and The Sweet’s ‘Blockbuster’ and pasted them together, neither of us playing a note on the record. We know that the finished record contains as much of us in it as if we had spent three months locked away somewhere trying to create our master-work. The people who bought the record and who probably do not give a blot about the inner souls of Rockman Rock or King Boy D knew they were getting a record of supreme originality. The fact is, ‘Billie Jean’ would be nothing without that lynx-on-the-prowl bass line; but he wasn’t the first to use it. It had been featured in numerous dance tracks by various artists before him.

“As I have no formal music training I have no idea if [these] rules (in an academic sense) exist, so I’m happily oblivious as to whether I’m breaking them, and that’s how I like it,” explains Paul Taylor from experimental noise crew Gusto Extermination Fluid. “Too much knowledge can impose restrictions on your thought process as you start thinking I can’t do that because … or I must now do this because …”

Despite making minimalist blasts of noise – using very little in the way of actual notes – sound nearly as infectious as that KLF monstrosity, Taylor insists that structure is introduced through “savage editing” rather than being planned into the composition process.

“If it sounds right, it probably is. The main thing is to ensure that things do not get boring and to keep the listener, well, listening. Build the atmosphere, chuck in odd sounds just to catch people unawares or to satisfy my own silly whims. That’s not to say there is anything wrong with repetition. I love repetition in music, it’s just not a phase I’m in at the moment. But I think a key point is contrast. Light and dark. Loud and quiet. It’s been said before, without light you don’t know how dark it is. I like my tunes to happen, to evolve, without too much conscious input. And evolve they do, usually too far, so I can’t over-emphasise the need for editing. Absolutely brutal editing. Even if it means chucking out your favourite bits. If they don’t fit the atmosphere they have to go. Mood is everything. Ah, yes, I just thought of the only real rule: write music for yourself. If it touches other people, then it means you’re not alone on this planet.”


JG Thirlwell – the Venture Bros soundtrack composer who has been releasing records for 30 years under his rock guise, Foetus – agrees with Taylor’s instinctive approach.

“I am aware of song structure and very interested in compositional form. When I’m writing in the rock/pop context I don’t dissect it too much, but intuitively know where to go.”

Thirlwell trained as a cellist, but didn’t really connect with conventional classical scores, and instead regards the studio as his instrument of choice. He spent his teens poring over the theories of John Cage and other maverick composers, and developed his unique sound from blending avant garde classical styles with post-punk experimentalism.

“I do find the verse chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus out thing played out, although it exists because it works well. But there are many other ways to go. If you look at a song like Strawberry Fields Forever, the verse/chorus/hook are all blended. It’s more an ABA structure, and it moves with the arrangement and orchestration. Bohemian Rhapsody is a well loved pop song and it moves all over the place. MGMT’s Flash Delirium came from that school. A lot of pop now is looped based, sometimes repeating a hook for three minutes without modulation.”

Which brings us squarely back to the beginning. It was the quasi-strophic form of MGMT’s ‘Electric Feel’ that I had objected to before – its sheer repetition – which had led me to believe that the lack of variety was because MGMT just weren’t very good at writing songs. Hearing them do the opposite now isn’t going to make me start munching on my hat any time soon, but I might give it a cursory nibble.

The question is, with so little repetition, will I still remember the song tomorrow?




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