Saturday, November 12, 2016

Tips on how to arrange a song 2/2


Muse and White Stripes are two extremes, but they are also two manifestations of the freedom of arranging our songs any way we want; plus we must not forget that the type of arrangement of a song (especially in pop music) follows even more rules (as we have already seen for the song structure): every year more or less we can notice how radio songs follows similar arrangement, both in terms of sounds and melodies.
This is a wanted effect of psychoacoustics (the science that studies the physiological and psychological effect of sound on man): let's say that there is a pop song that has a certain success; once it is inside the head of the listener, it is much easier for the other similar songs to get catched from the casual listener, because he will feel like he already knows that song (even if it's the first time he hears it). A classic example could be Kesha's Tik Tok and Katy Perry's California Gurls, both aired in the same semester: they sound like two different arrangements of a same song.
This can sound like a casualty, but the truth is that producers want this effect to make the songs even more easy to listen.

Today? what are the tendencies in arrangement in 2016 pop music?
I have noticed a return in the use of old school samples of ethnic instruments like marimba, xylophone, pan's flute or certain ethnic percussions that were very popular in the early '90s and that today sounds quite unusual (therefore fresh), like in Sia's "the Greatest" or in Justin Bieber's "What do you Mean?". Who knows what will be the sounds of the next season?

Dynamics: another facet of arrangement is the management of dynamics inside a song.
A song can be all focused on low dynamics, almost whispered, to sound like a caress to the ears of the listener as in certain jazz songs of Diana Krall, or on the opposite the dynamics can be crushed to the max as in a brutal death metal song, in which the emotional tension is to the maximum.
There are also songs which alternate whispers to screams and loud parts to create a feeling of insecurity, like anything can happen, as in Nirvana's "Drain You".
The most natural way to play with dynamics and make a pop or a rock song euphonic is to consider the song like the waves moving in a shore: alternate moments of riptide to others in which the wave comes forward, without being extreme or unpleasant in any of these parts; the most common way to play with dynamics is usually to have a strong intro, then a verse quieter than the rest of the song, a bridge that creates a build up and a chorus that explodes, then the song implodes back in a quiet verse and starts all over (obviously nothing forbids to do exactly the opposite, what matters is the alternance that gives a sense of variety and emotional flow) and a great example is Foo Fighter's "These Days".

Additional awesomeness: an interesting example of arrangement that starts just with vocals and drums and keeps adding elements until it sounds full towards the end is Michael Jackson's "They don't care about us".

Another interesting element that we can find in some song by the king of pop but also in most of the most popular pop songs ever published is another psychoacoustic trick, which can be heard for example in the classic Black or White: some arrangement element (in this case a rattle that doubles the snare), that lasts for the lenght of the whole song and that doesn't add much to the song itself, used as a drill to get more easily into the head of the listener.
Some producer believe that this element is a typical example of sound put there to catch subconsciously the attention of the listener: it is particular, hidden and repeated for the whole song, and its job is to convoy furthermore the attention of the listener to the song without him even completely realizing the reason.

Someone consider this trick a cheap shot, other consider it fair game, but what is sure is that producers have often played with arrangements also to experiment unusual solutions, like the incredible verse of Led Zeppelin's Stairway to Heaven that can be listened also backwards resulting in a different song, or the ebm/black metal band Aborym with the song "Theta Paranoia", that uses certain synth generated waves to induce a particular state of mind.

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