From John Seabrook’s The Song Machine (2015):
By the mid-2000s the track-and-hook approach to songwriting—in which a track maker/producer, who is responsible for the beats, the chord progression, and the instrumentation, collaborates with a hook writer/topliner, who writes the melodies—had become the standard method by which popular songs are written. The method was invented by reggae producers in Jamaica, who made one “riddim” (rhythm) track and invited ten or more aspiring singers to record a song over it. From Jamaica the technique spread to New York and was employed in early hip-hop. The Swedes at Cheiron industrialized it. Today, track-and-hook has become the pillar and post of popular song. (p. 200)
In track-and-hook, the production comes first, and then melody and words are added. Often producers are not looking for a single melody to carry the song, but rather just enough melody to flesh out the production. That’s why producers generally speak of a song’s “melodies” rather than its melody.
In a track-and-hook song, the hook comes as soon as possible. Then the song “vamps”—progresses in three- or four-chord patterns with little or no variation. Because it is repetitive, the vamp requires more hooks: intro, verse, pre-chorus, chorus, and outro hooks. (p. 201)
John Schaefer interviewed Seabrook about his book on WNYC's Soundcheck and listening to it might be helpful in making the concepts from the book more concrete:
CHR (Contemporary Hits Radio) hit makers can make all the sounds they need with musical software and samples—no instruments required. This is democratizing, but it also feels a little like cheating. By employing technologically advanced equipment and digital-compression techniques, these hit makers create sounds that are more sonically engaging and powerful than even the most skilled instrumentalists can produce. And it’s so easy! […] Whole subcultures of musical professionals—engineers, arrangers, session musicians—are disappearing, unable to compete with the software that automates their work.
First, producers are musicians and instrumentalists. The "technology" they use (i.e., the studio broadly defined) is their instrument. Second, what they do is not easy. If that were the case, wouldn't more people be successful at it? In my view, this approach to making music owes much its existence to the hip-hop producer. In Rhymin' and Stealin' (2013), Justin Williams writes that the “overt use of preexisting material to new ends” is fundamental to hip-hop culture and aesthetics. Failure to grasp this precept of hip-hop culture precludes the ability to discern the musicianship of the hip-hop DJ and its predecessors like the CHR producers profiled in The Song Machine. I can understand someone saying that CHR is not hip-hop, but that's not the point. The point is that CHR producers use a hip-hop approach to making music. Let's leave the last word to Joseph Schloss who argued in Making Beats (2004/2014): “if you believe that musicians should make their own sounds, then hip-hop is not music, but, by the same token, if you believe that artists should make their own paint, then painting is not art. The conclusion, in both cases, is based on a preexisting and arbitrary assumption.”
What might The Song Machine process look like? I think the New York Times did an excellent job with their profile on Jack Ü's collaboration with Justin Bieber.
Note: I edited this video down somewhat to limit Bieber's screen time. For the purposes of this assignment I wanted my students to focus more on what the producers (Diplo and Skrillex) did (no offense Biebs). The article by Jon Pareles is also worth checking out.
Skills Called Upon: Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) skills, most notably creating and manipulating MIDI and Audio tracks. I could write an entire post alone on what that entails (and maybe I will...). To date, this is the best way I've come up with to facilitate the learning of DAW skills.
Instruction to Students: This assignment will be done collaboratively in small groups of 2 or 3 people. Using the track-and-hook method of music creation, your group will create a hit song, or at least go through the process of trying to make one. This process requires a lot of trial and error and works in sequential stages.
1. Form production teams of 2 or 3
2. Give yourselves producer names and/or your team a name
3. Discuss your musical strengths. What can you do? Do you play an instrument? Do you sing? Do you write poetry? Can you press buttons (figuratively and literally :)? What do you want to be able to do? (Note: There's no sense it discussing what you can't do).
4. Do you own any musical stuff? (computer, phone, guitar, a voice, etc.)
5. Musically, what are you into, and what are you most interested in making?
Stage 1: Track
make: beat + vamp (simple chord progression/bass line)
What comes first the beat or the vamp? This tends to depend on the strengths of the producers and what they play.
As a starting point, consider trying the following beat-first strategies:
1. play the circle with groove pizza (free & easy)...
After the beat(s) is/are made, add the vamp(s):
- go for short and simple
- repetitive is good
- you can even copy a chord progression verbatim from another song. Look it up on a guitar tab page
Don't Write a Melody! (Yet)
Repeat this process X number of times for variety's sake. I typically require production teams to create as many Stage 1 tracks as there are people in the group. Making more tracks in this stage really helps with the next stage.
Stage 2: Hook
Note: for this "machine" to work, everyone needs to complete the stages at the same time.
In the second stage, each group must "shop-out" their tracks created in Stage 1 to the other groups to find hook-writers, AND they must in turn audition other groups’ tracks and select ONE that they will write hooks for. In short, production teams swap their tracks with each other.
We now morph into hook-writers/top-liners. We write/record hooks on top of each others' tracks
Strategies for writing hooks:
1. record everything. Don't miss a happy accident!
2. engage in sound doodling with voices or instruments
3. pay no mind to lyrics at this point, they're just placeholders (e.g. da doo run run)
4. the more hooks, the better
struggling to improvise? try constrain-to-create strategies:
- specify and limit pitches, durations, rhythms, range, etc. for a hook
- make improvising hooks into a game of back-and-forth, one or two notes at at time, etc.
- make a sound-alike hook, that is, something that sounds similar to an existing melody and then alter it to make it different
feeling awkward about singing random ideas amongst a group of peers? if we all do this together, like a workout class, it doesn't seem so bad.
after the hooks have been recorded, they should be cleaned up enough such that they're presentable to another team. this simply means that upon listening to the combined track + hook, the hook-writer's ideas are presented as intended. no explanation should be required; another party receiving the tracks should be able to play them and get the musical gist immediately.
once this is done, the newly recorded hook ideas are given to the original producers of the backing track
Stage 3: Produce
i. after receiving their tracks back with the new hooks added, the first job of the production teams is to listen through the hooks given to them and decide which ones they will further produce.
Questions to consider:
which hooks 'grab' your ears? is there an earworm to be found (an instantly catchy hook that stands out from the rest)?
after this initial listening, the production teams need to settle on a few hooks and get rid of the rest
Further Questions to consider:
Can the hooks be improved by editing? Remember, shorter is often better (long hooks aren't a thing!)
ii. timbre tinkering - the fun part!
keep in mind that pop songs often feature predictable structures, but unpredictable timbres. prepare to spend a lot of time tinkering with the timbre of a hook.
not sure how to go about messing around with effects? try playing FX Roulette
there are no set rules here, but a standard intro—verse—pre-chorus—chorus— or even a more stripped down verse—chorus structure makes for a solid start. Seabrook writes that if there is a bridge in a song it is often written later once the producers are confident they've got a hit on their hands.
once the structure of the song is set, the lyrics can be slotted into the appropriate places. Seabrook writes that Max Martin is less concerned about the meaning of the lyrics than how they flow and sound.
at this point, there' still much that could be done, such as more recording, editing, and mixing, but how deep one delves into these processes depends on how much time can be dedicated to this assignment.
In the real world of contemporary radio hits production, assessment comes down to answering the question, is this song a hit? true = success; false = failure.
This is likely to be a problematic system for a lot of learners! A few things to consider:
For starters, be aware that the whole process is rich with formative assessment, and this is very much in keeping with with authentic real-world practice. All of those side conversations about the qualities of production from stage-to-stage are representative of what professional producers do. Although we have a crude formula to emulate the song machine, the reality is that there is no rubric for a hit. There is much art to this science.
What I do: I have my students keep a learning (b)log and make song exploder episodes to break down their processes (see my blog for posts on both).
I want to know what they know they know!