One of my favorite things is to hear a band for the first time without knowing a single thing about them, not even their name. It’s like having someone put a blindfold on me, lead me somewhere, then pull it off. I have to figure out where I am sonically, how I got there, what’s around the corners and behind the closed doors. It’s part detective work, part speculation, part historical research, part forensic analysis. The warm distortion on the drums in the intro sounds like analog tape; this song might be from the 60s or 70s. The fast, downstroke strumming and grit on the guitars is influenced by punk, but when the vocalist comes in, her full, smooth voice and abstract lyrics give it a more modern feel. The breathy synths that enter on the chorus sound like a tongue-in-cheek reference to New Wave, placing the song in the contemporary indie-pop realm. But I’m only a minute-forty-five into a four-minute song. Anything could happen. A scratchy, atonal viola solo could tilt the whole thing further away from the mainstream. Maybe when I go to look up the band, I’ll discover they’re from the 80s, in which case the synthesizer thing and the intentionally dirty production would be revealed as forward-thinking. As much information as I pick up along the way, I won’t really know anything until I’ve heard everything.
I’m a songwriter, performer and singer. For the past ten years I’ve also been a music analyst at Pandora Radio – since before there even was a Pandora Radio. In that time, I’ve listened to tens of thousands of songs very closely, identifying what they’re made of, examining how they work, parsing the stylistic and compositional elements that make them what they are. Along the way I’ve had some time to think about how songs work, what can make a song unique or stand out from the crowd, what songs can do to and for us, what makes a good song good, what does it even mean to say that a song is good?
I’ll state outright that there are no “right” answers to any of these questions. And just because I have ideas about these things doesn’t mean I can sit down and write the perfect song. Perfect for whom or for what purpose? Selling a million copies? Making people dance? Making people cry? Creating a romantic evening? Putting a baby to sleep? Helping someone feel less alone? Providing the ultimate workout soundtrack? Motivating a crowd to pump their fists at a football game? Inspiring another songwriter to sit down and write his or her own song?
I personally grew up steeped in classic rock, then went on to study jazz and avant-garde music. Each of these styles incorporate elements of improvisation, they are rooted in politically conscious movements, and their “purpose” is generally more expressive or intellectual than practical or utilitarian. While not all the music I make sounds stylistically like classic rock, jazz or avant-garde, the function of my songs is generally related to those same core principals. This is the power of taste, biases, background.
Being exposed to so much music as an analyst – music with many different functions – has broadened the scope of possibilities I perceive. And this is the true power of songs. If we stay open and keep listening, we’ll never run out of new challenges, new directions, new possibilities, new ways that songs can affect and improve our lives. That’s likely what brought you here in the first place, listening to Pandora, reading deeper on the blog. As listeners, how we navigate our choices reflect what we desire to get from music, how we wish to use it.
And as a songwriter, each aesthetic choice I make – from tempo to instrumentation to vocal performance to genre, etc… – represents my creative, emotional, intellectual, and social values. The best I can hope to do is be honest and convincing in my efforts, and to keep listening.