Pop Song Anatomy 201: Take It As You Go

Building a living song in your living room

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There are an infinite number of approaches to songwriting in the 21st Century. The multitude of recording tools available can be both a boon to the creative process and virtual lead weights if you allow them to dictate your process rather than the other way around.

Every basic song has some common elements, and when you’re putting one together it’s good to start with something fairly traditional and linear. Even as the human race has evolved to include a beautiful diversity of proportions, skin tones and hair textures, we’re all built on the same reliable skeletal frame, and for good reason. Once you’ve gotten it together, you can then start to open things up to more three-dimensional expansion with layering, panning, and other production techniques that might distinguish your tune’s “muscle,” “skin,” and other, more external features. 

The aptly named example for the exercise, "Take It As You Go," by SsasS, demonstrates building a song in this way. All that's needed is some inspiration, ideas, and time.

Healthy Bones

When crafting a song, it's generally best to start with the skeleton of a simple melody; it's what everyone ultimately remembers (if it's good) and it's the most rudimentary element of a song. You might stumble upon it while noodling about on your guitar, tinkling keys on your keyboard, or it may just come into your head and force you to hum it throughout your day. Whatever the medium, if you want to keep it, record it immediately on your mobile phone or whatever portable, lo-fi device you keep handy—audio quality doesn't matter at this point, as long as you can hear the notes and the cadence. Got it? Good. Now put it away.

Build Muscle

Pick it up a few days later and try to cobble together a basic chord arrangement to accompany the melody on guitar or piano, and try to feel a rhythm to it. You may have written the strongest melodic part you have as the "chorus," but try to build a supporting melody for the verse and pre-chorus leading up to it, so that you'll have an "A" part (verse), a "B" part (pre-chorus) and a "C" part (chorus). As these elements evolve, it might make sense to subdivide even further and differentiate sections of your verse ("A" part) by giving it an A melody and a B melody that change over a generally consistent musical bed.

Next, try to fashion a pre-chorus, which usually functions best as something like a bridge, beginning at a non-resolving place like a IV chord and ending with a V chord or some kind of leading tone walk-up or walk-down that helps intensify the payoff when you get to the chorus.

At any point along the way you may have written some lyrics down either to help you remember the rhythmic and phonetic structure of the melody or as a result of it—some words just fit perfectly into syllabic spaces—and that's all good. You may or may not keep them (see Paul McCartney's "Scrambled Eggs"), but if you don't you've at least got some good placeholders that are a bit more sonically evolved than "La-La-La."

Give it a Heartbeat

Open up audio editing software and set a click track at a tempo where your melody and accompaniment feel comfortable (leave some extra measures at the beginning to give yourself a count-in to play later tracks to and/or a short intro section). Find a few drum loops to stitch together and try to build just one verse/chorus or verse/pre-chorus/chorus structure. You can pick a few drum/loop options and experiment with turning them on and off until you have something that feels not too busy but not too thin, and you can always adjust later. Play/hum/sing what you've got (live) over the loops, build your loops into different parts for your different song sections and when you've found the right tempo and general drum track density, save your project.

Now play around with some bass arrangements. There are thousands of bass loops you can find to work with from libraries that came with your looping/recording program or from wonderful resources like freesound.org, including acoustic, electric and synth basses. Try to use existing loops if they work with your tune, or (as was done here) painstakingly re-create a bass part you've already composed on the guitar, bass, or piano. It takes patience, but you can chop samples down to single notes and construct a bass melody by cutting, pasting, and pitch-shifting them as needed— though sometimes the samples can suffer if you shift them more than an octave away from their original pitch. If you have a midi keyboard or other direct-wired instrument set up, you can use whatever soft-synth basses are at your disposal or track live bass. Whatever the process, these might be your final bass parts or you may ultimately replace them with live bass in a full studio environment.

Wire Its Nervous System

Once you've got some bass and drum basics down along with some rhythmic chord structure on the guitar or piano, you can cut and paste whole chunks of your rhythm section, building your song up to a (in the case of our example) verse/pre-chorus/chorus or A-B-C structure. You can start to flesh out bits of the background with loops, rhythms or arpeggios at this stage and see what you've got, and maybe even compose some vocal harmonies in opportune sections (live guitars and vocals were recorded later in a commercial studio, but are provided here to show their compositional elements).

Connective Tissue

By now, the song is probably getting too long and repetitive for the modern listener's challenged attention span, so you're going to need a bridge. A good bridge is exactly that—a connector that takes you briefly away from the familiar repetition through an interesting little detour and then either back to your familiar chorus or into an entirely new section that probably feeds into a quick but different outro. A bridge can be a crucial part to a song (Lennon and McCartney refer to trading off writing the "middle eight" bars), and can really be the place to display a breadth and diversity of melodic and harmonic skill, even if it only lasts ten seconds.

Gimme Some Skin

Your skeleton and basic musculature are now complete, and it's time to smoothe out the surface of your song form with some "skin," using tight, compressed bass, crisp guitars and vocals, and through doubling and tripling tracks to give them vast stereo projection. For "Take it as You Go," at this stage the tracks were transferred to a full commercial studio to record live instruments and vocals with superior microphones. If you have a good enough home setup, you may not need to move to another studio to finish things up, but it's often valuable even if only for the new perspective that comes from listening in a different space. Don't be a performance perfectionist, though—if you're paying top dollar for studio time, get as many vocal and instrumental takes as you can and stitch the best parts together. With a good engineer at the helm, this process can be made as seamless as butter and ultimately save you time and money. Repeat the drill with any doubled instrumentals or vocal harmony parts.

Once you're this deep into production, it's time to beef up transitional phrases, add instruments that reinforce vocal melodies (essentially by doubling the vocal melody on an instrument) and lay on "ooohhhs" and "aaaahs" in the places where your song might need some sonic ligaments or chunks of aural cartilage. If you've gotten well and truly lost in the Brian Wilson bedroom of your creative mind (and why shouldn't you?) you can also brush on additional keyboard parts, percussion, organs, wind instruments, string sections or sound effects, etc., but you should also consider chopping out swaths of sound with your virtual machete to create things likebreakdown/rebuild sections.

These can really give a song a vital dynamic character, and also allow your audience a peek at the stripped-down essence of your now fully embellished masterwork, thereby imbuing them with a feeling of intimate connection to the naked core of your song (remember MTV Unplugged?). Poetic lyrics can do a lot to facilitate a sense of intimacy as well, but therein lies an entire other lesson possibly best taught by someone like the elegant and loquacious Stratford Billy Shakes.

All the while—if you're writing to communicate to other people—it's critical that you be constantly putting yourself in their place as a listener. Add it, listen. Cut it, listen. Double it, listen. Pan it, listen. Compress it, listen. Un-compress it, listen.

And don't forget to listen.

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