Wanna find out how Taylor Swift writes her melodies?
Tl;dr? Check out the video version of this blog here:
Download “the Swift Line” here.
We’ve all heard of the “formulas of Pop music”, these secret rules songwriters use to hit the charts over and over again.
Songwriting giants like Max Martin or Dr. Luke seem to be writing their songs straight into the billboards, like well-oiled machines that do nothing but produce memorable & catchy hooks all day.
The music industry has seen some big changes recently. Hit songs are written by amateurs with no musical experience. They’re written on trains, recorded in showers and mastered by machines. There is an algorithm that predicts whether a song will be a hit with 60% accuracy.
That that’s even possible should tell you that hit songs have something in common that can be analyzed and understood.
In this video, I wanna take a look at Taylor Swift’s writing style as it’s a great one to study when you’re a beginner. Because if TayTay is good at one thing it’s simplicity. As songwriters, we are always told to write melodies that are simple and straightforward, but what does that mean? How can you tell your song is too complicated? How can you simplify it? And can you go too far in simplifying?
When I listened to Swift’s 1989 for the first time I instantly liked it. There are albums that grow on you, this isn’t one of them. You either like it or you don’t. But as I went through the album, song after song, I was shocked just how formulaic the writing actually is.
Now let me clarify that I don’t condemn Swift for writing formulaic lines, I think she is a very interesting artist in a lot of ways and I like her musical choices. Every megastar out there has their winning cards that they play over and over again. It’s the writers that don’t know what they’re best at that disappear from the Billboards after one or two hits. So don’t see this as criticising Swift, I’m merely interpreting data for you to learn something.
1. ONE-NOTE MELODIES
The first thing I noticed when I listened to 1989 was Swift’s abundant use of one-note melodies. These are melodies that stay on one and the same pitch. In other words, the only distinguishing factor between different one-note melodies is rhythm, the pitch that’s used, the lyrics and the sounds.
On 1989, there are over 230(!) of these 1-note melodies, not counting repetitions of the choruses. Also every song uses at least one of them so it’s fair to say that it’s a big part of Swift’s writing style.
If you would like to look a little bit deeper into the data you can download the 1989 report here. There’s a song which is 95% one-note melody and there’s some other data that might surprise you, but I’ll leave that for you to discover.
When you grab a songwriting book or take lessons one of the things songwriters of the last generation like to say is that if a song doesn’t work on piano, it won’t work with a band. The idea is that the melody and chords ALONE should be able to stand on their own. Arrangement, production and performance are second grade citizens in this world that only amplify the melody and chords.
But here’s the catch: 1989 is a great example of an album that would NOT work in those regards. If you’ve ever played a 1-note melody on the piano you’ll know what I mean. Not only does it sound boring, playing like this also FEELS counter-intuitive.
So here’s the interesting thing: The “new” sound, the sound everyone is looking for is exactly that: it’s counter-intuitive. It isn’t written ON OR FOR the piano. And it’s not as easy as just hitting the same note over and over again – but we’ll get to that.
Swift isn’t the first to use one-note melodies of course. Artists like Katy Perry or Miley Cyrus have used it for years. It’s one of pop music’s oldest episodes and we keep watching the reruns, over and over again without realising it. Or well, not really caring about it.
2. ROOT NOTES
Another thing that really stands out to me on 1989 is that almost all of the one-note melodies use the same note: The root note of the key. And again, it’s not just Taylor Swift: The root note is Pop music’s favourite note and you can hear it in a LOT of hooks. Emotionally, the interval of the root note is one of neutrality: It’s not emotional like the third or cold like the fifth, and really, it’s pretty ambiguous.
And I don’t think that’s a coincidence either: We’ve moved past the highly emotional sound of the 70s and 80s, which were full of thirds and sixes, and slowly, we’ve arrived in an age where saying less is more.
The root note is not just a matter of chance, it embodies our entire Zeitgeist. If you look at modern movies like The Girl On The Train, Birdman, 50 shades of grey or The Social Network, they feel much more grounded and less over-emotional than movies like Ghost, Dirty Dancing, Stephen King’s It or the Terminator. Our modern Zeitgeist is one of understatement, of reading between the lines, of silence, of ambiguity and the root note is the perfect musical representation.
In other words, modern songs and movies give you a whole lot of nothing that you can fill with your own thoughts. It’s what YOU do with the music that becomes important. In this way, we’re almost going through a liberation from the medium, where each one of us becomes their own composer. The most interesting music doesn’t come from a speaker – it plays in your head.
So how did we get here and what the hell does it have to do with Taylor Swift? Well, let’s go back a couple of years. Remember Rebecca Black? Boy, we sure had a good time listening to that once or twice. How come when Taylor Swift uses a 1-note melody it’s hip but when we hear Friday all we can think is how bad it is?
The reason is not the writing technique itself. The problem is that it was used without proper understanding of the Zeitgeist. It basically gave us a whole lot of root note simplicity, but no sparks between the lines, nothing to “figure out on our own”. It’s kind of like watching 50 shades of grey without the sexual tension – so it’s kind of like watching 50 shades of grey. Just a series of ambiguous pictures without the necessary undercurrents that make it all come together. The major leap modern songwriting has made is to give the listener just enough to figure things out for themselves.
Filmmaker Andrew Stanton, who wrote on Finding Nemo and Toy Story calls this the Unifying Theory of 2+2. In his words: Don’t give them 4, give them 2+2.
So the Zeitgeist formula – if there is one – is this: Have a message, both lyrically and musically, but instead of blatantly saying it as is, find a way to give the listeners enough to figure it out on their own.
3. SPARSE ARRANGEMENTS
1989 is a great album to listen to if you want to hear this formula in action. One thing to listen to in particular is how sparse the arrangements are. There is not a single instrument you could take out of the mix – the whole song would crumble. Everything in these songs has its place, even silence.
What you’re hearing is what I call implied tension. It’s these subtle undercurrents I’ve talked about. It’s the 2+2 of modern pop music, the sexual tension, the liberation from the medium. I could fill a whole book about this technique alone and guess what – I have. So if you’d like to learn more about this latest addition to the modern songwriter’s toolbox, click here or search “The Addiction Formula” on Amazon. Thanks for listening and if you’d like to see more videos like this, please like and subscribe. Thank you.