The Three Pillars of a Perfect Pop Song
“True perfection has to be imperfect” sang the British rock band Oasis, and they were right. Anything that is flawless loses its humanity. It becomes a factory product, identical to the others, and is not memorable.
In a world of shiny, polished pop music, how can you hope to make your song memorable? How can you write a perfect pop song that retains a glimpse of flawed humanity? To assist, we have created a handy guide to the three pillars of a perfect pop song.
Mastering the Melody
Without melody, no one will be humming your magnus opus or getting your earworm stuck in their brain. Melody is the element that makes people want to sing and distinguishes the notes in your voice from random sound.
Melodies comprise of a series of steps and leaps within a musical scale. These sequences of steps and leaps are then repeated, so they burn a pattern onto the brain of the listener. The key to a perfect pop song is getting this balance of repetition, along with contrast, correct.
Too much repetition and the song will be too much of the same thing. Too much contrast and the piece will sound like you have compressed an album of tracks into three minutes.
Of course, no melody is complete without a killer set of lyrics. In songwriting, as much attention needs to be given as to anything else. The language, tone and delivery can all have a marked impact of how people perceive your piece.
Feel the Rhythm
Rhythm is arguably the most important composition element. It is the only one of the three pillars that can exist on its own.
Since the 1970s and the dawn of disco and hip hop, rhythm has become a more used tool as an element of popular songwriting. However, for many singer songwriters, it is still a seriously underused tool in their arsenal.
Stripping back to basics, most guitar or piano singer songwriters will start with chords or a melody, then make these the focus of the piece. Yet, rhythm can grab the attention, drawing people into your song. Listen to the track ‘Three Little Birds’ by Bob Marley and imagine it without the offbeat rhythms. Would this song be as effective, or popular, without it?
Sting is a great example of a songwriter who turns traditional songwriting on its head using rhythm. Listen to any of his work with the Police, and the focus is on the rhythmic interplay between the instruments. Although the lyrics and harmony are both exceptional, they are by no means the element that makes the music unique. That is down to the use of rhythm.
When you next sit down to compose, try switching up the rhythms a little. Play on the offbeat, or create a rhythm using the lilt of natural speech. You will soon find yourself composing something new and exciting.
Live in Harmony
Harmony is fundamental to the concept of western music, and thus, songwriting. While other world music types may use rhythm and melody (Indian Raga, Indonesian Gamelan) the idea of the chord and its family are rooted in the western classical tradition. Using it cleverly and successfully is the key to writing a good pop song.
This does not mean you have to reinvent the wheel. In fact, anything you do try will have most likely been tried before. But you should still experiment, as it will take your writing in new directions.
Try writing a song using a standard set of chords. Then drop one into the sequence that really does not belong (named the David Bowie trick) and see what you come up with. You could try looking up some jazz chords and lacing them into a piece, to get a Beatles style tinge to your sequence.
Balancing the Three
When finishing off a song, divide the time spent working on each area a percentage based on the time and effort you have given to it. If you find that one area is way down, it may help to go back and give this part a little more work.
Also bear in mind that some genres will always give more time to certain musical elements. A jazz style piece will be heavy on harmony and rhythm, while a hip-hop piece may use rhythm and the bare minimum of the other two.
Everyone has their own method of songwriting, with their own start point and process. However, too much of the same thing results in too much repetition and not enough contrast. Try a new approach, started by concentrating on another of the elements rather than your usual starting point.