Slave to the rhythm – cracking the secret to the song code

Peter Farnan, songwriter and founding member of Boom, Crash, Opera, asks if the century-long shift towards tech-enhanced sound production in popular music has minimised the importance of words, melodies and chords. 

After you have stripped away the flourishes of performance and production a good song works because of deep, underlying conventions of lyric, melody and accompaniment.

A regularly touted aphorism of music industry types is ‘it’s all about the song’. Traditionally the ‘song’ meant the melody, lyrics and maybe the chords; not the performance and production enhancements added by making a recording. Early in my career managers, producers and A and R (record company) people would listen to the barest demo presentation of a song – say a vocal and one accompanying instrument – and proclaim a song ‘hit’ or ‘miss’ (or at least ‘has potential’) as if they had exclusive access to an arcane code. The band would then fly to London or LA and spend months and loads of money fashioning a recording. Snare drum sounds, mixes and catering would be endlessly fussed over. When the end product, glossy and laboured over, wasn’t a hit the reason was ‘the song wasn’t there – it’s all about the song’.

Before the radio/recording industrial complex killed off the family singalong, a hit song was a piece of sheet music. This was the essential text. The song’s essence resided in the configuration of notes and words on a page. It’s execution (ie performance) merely lifted this essence off the page and cast it into the atmosphere. Anyone with a modicum of skill could do it in their front parlour. It was the same song whether it was crooned by your mother, screamed by your sister, belted by your father or murdered by your neighbour. If you could whistle a tune walking down the street then the spirit, locked in the dots and slashes was, genie-like, summoned.

A good song is like a virus – if we hear it we might ‘catch it’.

Then the sound of recordings became important: the slap-back echo on Sam Philip’s Sun recordings of Elvis, Carl Perkins et al, the foggy density of Phil Spector’s creations, the studio trickery of mid and late period Beatles recordings, the pulsing electro riffs of Georgio Moroder and Donna Summer, producer Trevor Horn’s precision slavery to the rhythm, Massive Attack’s deep, crackly grooves, the electro-folk noodlings of Bon Iver.

The record was no longer an artefact of a performance, an aural realisation of a pre-existing text. It became the text itself: a sound performance, or sound object. When you hear the crung that heralds A Hard Days Night, the opening drum groove to Billie Jean or the stuttering beats and glacial beauty of Bjorks’ Hidden Place you are having a visceral experience that is not about melody, lyrics chords, dots or slashes. Performances, mediated and merged with technology, become sensual; about texture and how sound impresses itself on your senses.

Has the shift towards sonic and textural pre-eminence minimised the importance of words, melodies and chords? In a club at 2.00 am, and with the right stimulants, a groove and some accompanying texture can keep you engaged. But stripped of its social function and milieu (afore mentioned club and drugs) club music sometimes sounds like the background to an experience. (Although many artists explore background, making it so compelling and immersive that it becomes the experience – the work of Phillip Glass springs to mind).

Nevertheless when you hear the siren-call intro to a song like Billie Jean you are primed – because of the compelling and implicit logic of convention – to expect the entry of a voice. You expect that something or somebody will come forward, announce their presence and tell you a story. They might state some banalities or lead you into a labyrinth, where they complicate matters, summarise them, and raise more questions than answers. They might penetrate your brain and become your own inner voice. They might whisper something in your mind’s ear that you always knew or they may reveal something you never dreamed of. You might ‘get it’ or you might be none the wiser; engaged or indifferent. Someone might have walked over your grave, stood on your toe or merely passed you in the street. Nevertheless you will have encountered ‘someone’, in the form of the insinuating insistence of sung, melodicised lyrics.

Even the most prosaic words, when sung, can become unshackled from their dreary day-to-day specificity.

Songs, in their many varied forms, styles, genres and forms, are still very much with us; a conventional type of expression where the human voice is foregrounded, where we relate to a (usually) singular voice which unfolds a lyrical/musical narrative of sorts; exposition (verse) with a reiterated refrain (chorus) to orient ourselves by. The true North of the refrain/chorus is seemingly the same each time it comes around, but in good songs, it never feels the same. It gathers significance with each iteration. It is updated, refreshed, complicated and re-contextualised by each unfolding verse, bridge and diversion.

When language and melody are effectively fused they reinforce each other, deriving, imbuing, sharing and accruing significance. Melody by itself can convey non-specific meaning – lovely/ugly/horny/funny/sad – but a sung melody with words gains the specificity of meaning that language embodies; ‘all the people at this party, they’ve got a lot of style’.

At the same time even the most prosaic words, when sung, can become unshackled from their dreary day-to-day specificity. They can take flight, and, like a dream, become obscured but more replete with significance; ‘How does it feel to be on your own?’.

Ask anybody to sing the chorus to American Pie and, if they know the song, out it will pop.

When someone speaks to us we don’t analyse syntax and grammar. We unconsciously know the code. Similarly we don’t analyse the syntax and grammar of a song when we hear it. Songs are configured via a code we all implicitly know. The code signifies where we are in the song: verse, chorus, exposition, headline, somewhere else. Ask anybody to sing the chorus to American Pie and, if they know the song, out it will pop. When a song is effectively configured the listener feels the code acting on them like changes in the ambient temperature.

Many great and gifted songwriters sequence the code instinctively. Instinct is sometimes just a feeling that masks our acquired cultural competence. Slow down the process, analyse it, and we can better understand some of these ‘instinctive moves’. As songmakers we can recognise and focus when we’re laying out detail, when we’re summarising, when we’re soaring, when we’re cruising. We can identify where the heat of interest is in the music and the words, where the viral idea lurks and how to code it, re-sequence it, amplify it, underline it.

A good song is like a virus – if we hear it we might ‘catch it’. The song form itself is a virus. It has persisted for a long time, using us as hosts. It is mutating all the time but it is ruled by deep, underlying conventions; melody, words and accompaniment combined in an effective and memorable way. And it hasn’t gone away just yet.

Peter Farnan is hosting a Daily Review Masterclass ‘Songwriting for Success’ at the Australian Institute of Music on Saturday, September 10 from 1pm to 5pm. Click here for details

His latest project, featuring artists Paul Kelly, Deborah Conway, Tim Rogers, Rebecca Barnard and Paul Capsis, is called Pesky Bones Volume One. You can find out more about it here.

You can hear the Paul Kelly/Rebecca Barnard duet, Now That Our Babies Have Grown, from Volume One here.

READ MORE BY PETER FARNAN

Newsletter Signup