How data-driven is the pop songwriting process?


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The Independent Culture

Just as in other parts of the entertainment industry, following trends is important to economic success, not only for executives but also for artists. Let me clarify what I mean by trends. It is more than the genre discussions that most of us find ourselves having from time to time: is dubstep still relevant? Did hip-hop jump the shark? Is disco back? Is country too pop these days? Will there ever be a new Nirvana?

Songwriters and producers want to know even more: what's the average song length? Intro length? Structure? Start with chorus? Is there a pre-chorus? Most common instrument? Most common secondary genre? Are male vocals or female vocals doing better? What frequency range is most emphasised? Digital drums or analog? Acoustic versus electric guitar? Noticeable effects? Average BPM? Swing in the tempo? Most popular key? Major or minor key? Popular lyrical directions? Snare hits on beat two or beat three? Which songwriters are crafting most hits? What genre is out of the top 20? What genre is rising in the past six months? And there's so much more ...

I've had access to this data before and wrote a pop song or two based on it. Quite honestly, the songs I write with data objectives haven't been as good as the ones I write for fun. One would think that all this data would make it easy. It's not. You have to be able to balance trends while still committing to something. It's more important to know when to use the data and when to ignore it. And, of course, the song still has to be good, attention-grabbing, familiar yet distinctive, and memorable. On top of that, it has to appeal to the artist on his or her own merits and fit in with his or her image and audience.

If there's anything people should know about pop songwriting it's that these days the biggest hits are team efforts. The days of Brian Wilson crafting a top 10 hit are rare, at least for now. You'll have one person craft the beat, another craft the chorus and foundation, and another craft the verses. Then the lead producer will work with the team to bring it all together into something that meets the artist's and the label's visions. (This is when things such as guitar solos are nixed for length, tempos are adjusted, secondary genres are determined or changed, etc.) Then the mixing engineer and the mastering engineer will bring their expertise as to how to make something sound more modern or more retro based on the technical trends (frequency analysis, song dynamics, depth, etc).

So yes, data can and does play a big role. But there's still an art to pop. Otherwise, we could just have machines craft the hits.

David Plantz, creative director, media consultant, music writer/producer

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