Music composition
November 28, 2014 11:09 PM   Subscribe

How difficult is it for a skilled classical composer to write a decent pop song?

I've just stumbled on the Youtube videos from Nick Hallett's "salon" in 2009 ... some of which have less than 200 views. These seem like almost Stephen Merritt type songs that were just tossed off by Hallett. How hard is that to do?
posted by neat graffitist to Media & Arts (16 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Mechanically speaking, it would be easy for a skilled classical composer to write a pop song, a jazz song or a blues song. Decent? Not so sure. I don't know if you seen the TED talks where someone shows his code that writes music. There are ways to analyse and categorize the elements of musc in a way that will create a composition. If given the following characteristics:

Duration: 3 1/2 minutes
Harmonic: consonant, major
Melody: simple, consonant with
Catchy bridge.
Structure: Verse, verse, bridge (the part everyone sings along with), verse and out

I think a classical composer could write something "believable" in an hour or less (not counting words).
However, unless the composer has a feel for the type of music, it's unlikely to produced anything moving. Performance, even for a demo, would make a difference, too. If it's all computer, it will sound less organic, whereas if played on piano or guitar or in a band it might sound more human.
posted by randulo at 11:46 PM on November 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

It's really going to depend on the person. I think that the average classical composer would be better at writing pop music than a random person plucked off the street with no prior musical training. Just as someone who is a professional basketball player can probably also play football better than a random person who has never thrown or caught a ball before. But beyond that initial skills boost from already understanding some of the underlying mechanics of the activity, the level of talent and ability is going to vary pretty widely among members of the group.

In other words, it's still a pretty impressive feat to write a good song, even if you're somebody who has a lot of skill and talent and training in a related genre.
posted by decathecting at 12:05 AM on November 29, 2014 [3 favorites]

A hard question to answer because of details like: what do you mean by "write"? Do you mean writing down notes on staffs for all of the parts? Or diddling on a computer with something like Ableton? Or just sitting down with a guitar and playing and singing? And how do you judge "decent"? What about lyrics?

That said, I'd wager that a composer would have an easier time of it than a non-musician, simply because they know more about music. How good the resulting work is will likely rely on how much the composer likes (and understands) that style.

I think that if you're asking if a classical composer would have trouble dealing with pop music because it's "beneath" them, or that it is crass and "commercial", the answer is: no, not at all, not these days, and maybe never. Musicians and composers have been doing it for money for centuries. Some of them were undoubtedly snobs, but it's not much of a stretch to imagine Bach or Mozart, if they were alive today, playing progressive rock and also scoring movies.
posted by doctor tough love at 1:13 AM on November 29, 2014 [4 favorites]

Perhaps illustrating in a mirror kind of way. I watched an interview with Elton John where he said that it took him about twenty minutes - and hardly ever more - to create a tune once Bernie Taupin, his lyricist, had supplied him with the lyrics. Any lyrics.

Here is a startling example.

So I suppose there is a structure.
posted by vapidave at 3:28 AM on November 29, 2014 [4 favorites]

Broadway / popular composers can toss off tunes in very short order. In the 24- Hour Musicals event, each team needs to write a short play including three songs over the course of one evening.
posted by alms at 5:18 AM on November 29, 2014

I had a conversation long ago with a composer who wrote for Sesame Street. He had a comprehensive music education. That gave him a toolkit that could be used for any kind of music. I remember him saying that it was harder for him to enjoy the results of a composition because he knew the techniques being employed.

It would be like a novelist writing a children's book. Not hard, but that doesn't guarantee a hit.
posted by SemiSalt at 5:25 AM on November 29, 2014 [1 favorite]

The writing part (music + lyrics) should be quite do-able for a skilled composer, especially if you follow the advise of someone like Wayne Chase:

However, to compose a GOOD song, i.e. one that stands out from the crowd and has hit potential, I think even a skilled composer should do a lot of listening and research. After all, it is not just the quality of the composition that makes it a hit. It should also be a contemporary piece of music that hits it off with the current audience. This comes only after lots of experimenting, testing on audiences and luck. When I had a hit with a female vocalist ("Amsterdam" by Jennifer Delano), it came as a huge surprise. It probably was the silly lyric that just was right for that moment in time.

As for the production, that is another thing. People laugh at songs by the likes of Britney Spears, but just try to get that fat compressed in your face sound. That is a work of art, even if you don't like the end result. Research something like "Pop" by N'Sync. Even if you hate the song, listen to the amazing production value of that song. It does everything right. A classical composer might need a few years of practicing to get the experience to filter out just the right amounts of energy from a guitar loop.

Good luck!
posted by hz37 at 6:32 AM on November 29, 2014 [3 favorites]

I have a classical composition degree and front a rock group, so I should know! The answer is: it depends.

It certainly helps that a classical composition education means that you know melody and harmony backwards and forwards, but a lot of classical composers aren't really steeped in the pop idiom, so what comes out when they try to write pop it comes out strangely stilted, like someone writing in a foreign language.

I can write a generic pop song pretty much instantaneously (like, making it up as I play), but writing something that I am really proud of probably takes as much time per minute of product as writing a classical piece. When you are trying to make something really catchy, every single note really matters a ton. Also, there are lyrics, which usually takes significantly more time than the music, for me at least.
posted by dfan at 6:40 AM on November 29, 2014 [3 favorites]

Pop music is all about the "hook".

"While the term, hook, is a relatively contemporary term, the concept behind it has been around for centuries. George Frederic Handel, for example, may have used the word motif or theme or some other composer’s terminology, but the Hallelujah Chorus alone demonstrates that George definitely knew how to write a hook. Centuries after it was written, people old and young — from every country and background — students of Baroque Music as well as Pop and Country music fans — still can whistle or hum the “Hal-le-lu-jah!” THAT is an effective hook!"

I think the major difference between a pop music hook and a classical music motif would be the length. You've got about 3 minutes in a pop song to hammer the listener with that hook and get out. A classical composer might not be used to doing it so quickly.
posted by JoeZydeco at 7:04 AM on November 29, 2014 [1 favorite]

I agree with what's been said about the difference in the skills needed, and to me the big factor is how familiar the composer is with the style of song they're writing. I don't care what the Ted Talk guy says, you can't just write a program to plug in a form and key and pull out a song that's in the right style. Well, maybe you can, but only in a style you're intimately familiar with. Musical Genres are like languages: Beats are different; rhythms are different; the shape of the melody (when does it go raise or lower in pitch, and by what interval, how big is the range); the spacing of the melody; emotional cues; harmonies; and how important any of these particular elements is to the others, all are different from genre to genre. Plus a thousand other little factors that an outsider would have no feel for. Believe me, nothing is less "decent" than someone speaking Chicago Blues with a Musical Theater accent.

So, how hard would it be? Probably less hard than someone that didn't compose (because they're used to thinking in a way that produces coherent music), but being a talented art composer doesn't mean someone's magic. They still have to actually know the style they're writing in to produce consistently good stuff.
posted by Gygesringtone at 7:05 AM on November 29, 2014 [1 favorite]

To write a really good pop song, you also need to be conversant with the pop zeitgeist, and you need to be able to get out 6-12 months ahead of it, either anticipating its next mutation or exerting some force (charisma?) to author its next mutation.

Those skills are very different from musical intelligence and learning.

And so much of what makes pop enjoyable and good is down to production nowadays. I mean, a real classic will shine even if stripped down to an acoustic guitar or piano and voice (see: Britney Spears Toxic, Lady Gaga's Bad Romance, etc), but having good bones is just one element among many.
posted by erlking at 7:08 AM on November 29, 2014 [2 favorites]

It's also possible that classical training could be a hindrance for some composers. There are many, many hit pop songs from the rock/pop era that consist of 3 simple chords. Most often I-IV-V progressions of one form or another. A skilled classical composer might have a hard time dialing back to such simple structure.

Also, most classical composers aren't dealing with lyrics, certainly not in the "pop" sense. Rock Around the Clock is #4 on the list of top selling singles. (also a 3-chorder). "We're gonna rock around the clock tonight / Rock, rock, rock til broad daylight".... You gotta have a knack for broadly appealing lyrics.

Point being, musical complexity and refinement are not a requirement for pop hits. They do, though, have to have that perfect combination of groove, beat, lyric and hooks. Not so easy. Just ask the gazillion failed pop writers out there.
posted by ecorrocio at 7:47 AM on November 29, 2014 [3 favorites]

I'm classically trained (as a performer, though I took theory and could probably compose a melody and stuff). My husband is a garage rock musician. We both understand the structure of pop songs, but speak completely different musical languages.

He's all about chords and chord progressions, which I guess a composer would know better than I would. But he and his bandmates composed mostly by improvising chunk by chunk.

I, on the other hand, would probably start with a melody or a verse and try to fit them together.
posted by Madamina at 9:17 AM on November 29, 2014

Pop music is pretty mindless, so I'd expect you could write something decent fairly easily. There are a very small number of chord progressions that make up a large majority of the genre. Learn those 5-6 conventions and it's color by numbers from there.
posted by jpe at 10:11 AM on November 29, 2014

Manuel Ponce spent most of his life writing classical compositions, most of which are now forgotten, at least in the English-speaking world. It's said (no citation, regrettably) that to prove he could write popular songs, he dashed off "Estrellita", and thought so little of it that he didn't copyright it. So as much as anything, it's the lack of conviction on the part of the classical composer that anything popular should be taken seriously that hampers him/her.
posted by alonsoquijano at 2:02 PM on November 29, 2014 [1 favorite]

It's easy to write pop songs regardless of your musical background. It's moderately more difficult to write pretty darn good pop songs. But, most musicians who put some effort in over time can write a compelling chord progression with some clever wordplay.

However, it's extremely difficult to sing and perform songs in a compelling, engaging, soul satisfying manner that makes the little hairs on the back of your neck stand up. The nuance and dynamic control of the song and the phrasing is what really makes or breaks a song.

For example. The Star Spangled Banner... as played by Jimi Hendrix.

Then there's this.

Nope. no saving that song.
posted by j03 at 3:13 PM on November 29, 2014 [1 favorite]

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