I often get pushback from artists when having initial discussions about music production and songwriting. One of the things I hear frequently is the notion that studying your craft would somehow compromise an artists “originality”. The truth is, most artists I run across would stand to benefit from a little less “originality”! Paying attention to the traditions and time-honored values that those who have come before is important. We can learn a lot about songwriting and music production, by studying the processes of successful artists and producers. We can even learn something about ourselves as artists. In fact, I still leave scheduled blocks of time on my calendar for doing just that. Learning music production is a lifelong process. There are a ton of online resources out there for learning, or refining your craft.
What is a music producer?
There can be some confusion around the term “music producer”. It is true that the meaning can be different depending on context. In the worlds of hip-hop and rap, a producer is generally referring to a beat-maker, or someone who produces an instrumental track.
For the purposes of this article, we are referring more to the traditional definition of the term. A music producer oversees the entire project from beginning to end, and helps guide creative decisions throughout the process. This person may or may not also function as the recording and mix engineer. Personally, in today’s streamlined studio world, I find myself engineering most of the projects I produce more often than not. Ideally, for me, I would prefer to have a recording engineer if possible. It is hard to pay close attention to the technical aspects of a quality recording, while also giving helpful creative direction.
It is also worth noting that there can be confusion around the roles of the recording engineer vs. the music producer. In my experience, quite a few, if not most artists tend to blend these two roles together in their minds. In simple terms, an engineer is solely responsible for the technical aspects of the recording. They do not have an opinion on the creative side. Again, however, in today’s studio world, these two roles can often merge.
Benefits of analysis when learning music production
In most any discipline, whether creative, or not, there is value in reverse engineering the product. In this case, a song! We learn valuable lessons about process, intention, and creativity when we look very closely at the inner workings of a well-oiled machine. Taking the song as a whole, then breaking it down into it’s smallest pieces allows us to gain insight into the minds of the team that produced it. These little bits of insight act as breadcrumbs that can provide guidance on our own personal creative journeys. In this article, I am going to focus solely on the process of music production analysis. I will explore breaking down actual songs in future articles!
Elements of production
There are three main elements of music production, all of which should serve the ultimate goal. We need to communicate the artists emotional intention to the audience. If the song fails at this goal, then all is for naught! The three elements are:
- Artist Identity
- Song Structure
- Recording and Mix Values
I will attempt to breakdown each element in the following sections.
Elements of Identity
Without a clear identity, it becomes hard to convey to our listeners what we are trying to say as artists. Think of a major recording artist, say The Rolling Stones, AC/DC, or a more current superstar like Taylor Swift, or Cardi B. There is no question in anyones mind what their identity is. In fact, there are entire teams of individuals whose sole purpose is to curate these identities, and keep the brand on point. I am listing below some of the finer points of an holistic “artist identity”.
- Emotions being conveyed
- Musical style or genre
- Musical influences
- Vocal style and timbre
- Instrumental style
- Musical technique (advanced or basic, trained or untrained, innovative or in an established tradition)
- Use of melody, harmony, rhythm, groove
- Emotional content
- Subject matter
- Level of intimacy
- Characters and/or settings
- Narrator’s point of view (first person, third person, etc.)
- Use of language (slang, colloquialisms, dialect, etc.)
- Message (overt or subliminal)
- Willingness to tap personal emotional journey for their art
- Artistic journey
- Visual image
- Political point of view or world vision
- Personal philosophy, way of life, or moral compass
When considering an artist’s identity, you can check through this list, and use it to generate a simple paragraph that will describe the artist in a highly focused fashion. When starting on a project with a new artist, I will ask them to fill out a questionnaire with these points. It helps give me a solid sense of who they are, where they come from, where they want to go, and what they want to say to their audience. With this valuable, and essential information, it is much easier to get on the same page with the artist creatively.
When talking about the structure of the song, we can break it down into five main components:
- Song Form
- Key Signature
There can often be confusion regarding some of the terms that are used to describe the structure of a song. For example, it is typical for some to refer to the form of the song as the arrangement. For our purposes (and truthfully, the correct usage) the term “song form” describes the various structural parts of the song… eg the verse, chorus, bridge, etc. The term “arrangement” describes that various instrumental pieces that fill out the form. For example, a section of horns in the bridge would be part of the arrangement.
Most popular records of the modern era have tended to be songs using the verse-chorus form. This song form has been around for a long time, but didn’t totally dominate popular records until the 1960s.
A number of circumstances contributed to the rise of the verse-chorus form- the folk boom of the ’50s and ’60s, the popularity of the “singable chorus”, and the fact that recording artists were starting to write most of their own material- taking over songwriting duties from professional writers. The name is actually a little misleading, as the form typically has many other components.
Typical Verse-Chorus Song Form Sections
The verse is a section that repeats musically, but with different lyrics. It will usually be from four to eight lines, but can be shorter or longer. The verse is often where the story is told, where the exposition takes place. There is a saying- “The chorus is the forest, the verse is the trees”. In other words, zoom in on the details in the verse, and zoom out to see the big picture in the chorus!
The chorus is a section that repeats both musically and lyrically. Multiple choruses are often separated by verses and other sections, but will sometimes repeat unseparated, especially at the end of a song. The chorus often expresses the main idea or theme of the song, and often contains the main hook and/or title. Choruses often contrast with the verse musically and lyrically, and provide a kind of “pay off” or reward to the listener for hanging in there through the verse. In hip-hop they may just call this section the hook.
A repeated line, usually contained in the verses, which is often the title of the song. Some folks feel that a song that contains a refrain is it’s own form altogether, but for our purposes we will include it in the verse-chorus form.
The bridge is a section that provides a transition. It is usually different musically and lyrically than other sections of the song, bringing a breath of fresh air, and standing out to deliver what it has to say. The bridge most often happens only once in the song, and is often where we learn a pivotal piece of the story.
The prechorus is situated before the chorus, and often provides a lift that delivers listeners into the chorus and gives it even more of a pay off. While the lyrics of the chorus tend to stay the same each time, the prechorus has more flexibility and can either stay the same, change slightly, or change entirely.
In most popular records, the intro (short for introduction) is an instrumental section that precedes the first verse or chorus. It often will include an instrumental hook or some other element to entice the listener to stick around. The intro can also include vocal elements.
The interlude is a section (usually instrumental) between vocal sections. Often the same or similar to the intro, in rock or funk genres, musicians will sometimes refer to this section as the “riff” (think “Walk This Way”). A point of possible confusion, in the studio, sometimes both the Intro and the Interlude will be abbreviated “INT” on chord charts or as ProTools markers in a session.
The solo is an instrumental section different than the Intro or Interlude where an instrumentalist takes over and gives the record a break from the singing. It can be the same harmony as another section, but the section is often abbreviated (if the verse is eight bars, the solo may only be four bars). The solo can also be an entirely unique section musically, and function similar to a bridge, without lyrics.
The outro is a section at the end of the song, usually instrumental, but sometimes vocal. Sometimes the same as the intro and the interlude, but called an “outro” due to its function.
Also known sometimes as the “breakdown” section, this is where the drums or the bass and drums, or some other rhythmic instrument takes over for a section. Breaks are especially popular in funk and dance records, but also have been used to good effect in records as un-funky as Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Looking Out My Back Door,” where muted acoustic guitar strings provide 2-bar rhythmic breaks.
The key of a song is the note or chord the music is centered around, the tonic. For instance, if you were playing in the key of C, the C major chord would be the tonic, or I chord.
The key signature has a major impact on the emotional message of a song. A song in a minor key tends to sound sad, tense, or melancholic, while a song in a major key can sound happy, uplifting, exuberant. Some of the modal scales can provide grey areas… providing ambivalence, or creating tension, or dissonance.
The tempo of a song also strongly influences the emotion being communicated. Fast songs may feel aggressive, exciting, or inspiring, while down-tempo songs can be relaxing, chill, meditative.
Groove and tempo can often be confused. To me, the groove refers to where the player sits within the bounds of the tempo. Is the drummer on top of the beat, driving the song aggressively? Or laying back behind the beat a little, delivering a more relaxed, easy-going feel. Syncopation and swing are also terms that apply here. All of these things also help to communicate our intention to the audience. If you were recording a melancholy song, in a minor key and a slower tempo, but one of the players was aggressively in front of the beat, it probably would be clashing with the overall feel, and delivering a confusing message to the listener.
Again, the arrangement refers to the actual orchestration of instruments within the framework of the song form. Think of a musical score, where each instrument (or instrumental section) has its own staff within the score.
Recording and Mix Values
I am not going to go deep into mix theory here, that is a whole other article. And a long one, to boot! What I will say is the recording and mix values are a huge part of music production, and vastly influence what we communicate to our audience.
I am not necessarily even saying that production values have to always be of the highest order. Some of my favorite recordings are raw, unpolished, aggressive, even “lo-fi”. But those qualities were exactly what communicated the intent. Think of some of the early Stooges albums like “Raw Power”. The name says it all, and the production values reflected that!
Contrast that to records from the same era, like just about anything from Pink Floyd, which were impeccable recordings, some of the most immaculate and detailed I have ever heard. But, that style of music production would have ruined “Raw Power”! It just would not have fit. So, the point is, that production values have to accurately reflect the artists identity, and intention. Going with the most expensive, and pristine signal path, is not always the right answer.
Another concept I want to touch on is the “rule of three”. This is essentially the concept that the human ear can only process three things at a time. For our purposes, we group these things into the following:
- Wildcard (Or Lead)
The Rhythm section makes up one part of the rule of three. It can contain drums and/or beats, bass, and other rhythmic components such as rhythm guitar, a chordal (non-lead) piano or keyboard. Essentially anything that is driving the rhythmic part of the song.
The vocal section is obvious, and contains your lead vocals, background harmonies, etc.
The “wild card” section can contain anything not in the first two groups, such as a lead guitar or synth, a horn section playing a counterpoint to the main melody, or perhaps even a call and response style vocal part.
When we are making production decisions, it is good to keep in mind the “Rule of Three”. It can help guide you to a song that is not overcrowded, or too busy for the listener.
To Sum It Up
As you can see, a lot goes into the music production, even before a note is ever recorded! But this kind of careful consideration throughout the process should deliver you a product that is laser-focused on delivering the emotional intent of the artist to their audience. Even during the writing process it is important to think about your identity and intention as you go. This helps you to produce songs consistent with your personal narrative, and it also allows you to color outside the lines intelligently when appropriate!
I was going to include a system for charting out a comprehensive music production analysis of a song in this article, but since this has become quite long enough, I am going to make that Part II! Stay tuned, it will be coming soon!