A song termed ‘formulaic’ wasn’t scribbled out as an incomprehensible equation on a dusty songwriter’s dustier chalkboard. Sure, most music critics know what’s meant when such an insult is tossed at a song, but they know it in the same sense that they know how a combustion engine makes their car move.
What makes that seemingly trite, inescapable pop tune you hate having stuck in your head stick there in the first place is as much a mystery as the precise functions of your Honda’s engine and electrical system.
Though some songwriters throw musical spaghetti at the wall to see what sticks, others have stepped their game up a bit – recognizing the common components of everyone else’s spaghetti art and extrapolating these prime ingredients into their own musical concoctions.
It’s common knowledge that slow songs are sad songs, but few realize just how far this logic can take us. And by extension, we can easily assert that fast songs tend to be happy songs. However, that happiness quickly sours into fear should the rhythms mix too chaotically or the key drift too far into minor domain.
Is it any wonder most pop music, especially the formulaic stuff, hovers within a narrow 10 bpm range around 120 bpm?
Like some silly blonde lost in a bear cave, we’re looking for a nice spot in the middle. Is it any wonder most pop music, especially the formulaic stuff, hovers within a narrow 10 bpm range around 120 bpm? Trance music is often kept in the 125 bpm range and is widely known to put listeners into an actual ‘trance.’ Drugs help too, but never mind that.
This is step one in producing appealing music – setting your tempo within the right range to pacify your listeners. Yep, songwriters are playing with your brain.
Shakespeare was certainly no stranger to the value of rhetoric; his immensely popular iambic-pentameter-bound creations hang heavy with the stuff. Coincidental or formulaic?
Simplicity is key to crafting a catchy chorus (and song), but rhetoric is the skeleton of the chorus itself. Rhetoric, the art of persuasion, holds that certain phrases and word groupings appeal more to the ears than others. Skeptical? Ought not the way in which an idea is put forth be just as important as the idea itself? If the previous sentence was but an inkling nicer to read than this one, my point has already been made.
The catchiest choruses are riddled with figures of speech and simplified to the extent that they’re essentially nursery rhymes. Take Carly Rae Jepsen’s insidiously unforgettable “Call Me Maybe,” for example… Most of the words in the chorus are of a single syllable. Worse still, “But here’s my number, so call me, maybe?” is repeated four times per chorus. (Simplicity, check!) Simple as it may be, there are big rhetorical concepts hiding in Jepsen’s hit tune as well; ellipsis, for starters, or the omission of words without loss of meaning, accounts for the song’s overall relatability and ‘down to Earth’ vibe.
Who’d have thought down-to-Earthness could be artificially synthesized? This is the hidden power of rhetoric. Shakespeare was certainly no stranger to the value of rhetoric; his immensely popular iambic-pentameter-bound creations hang heavy with the stuff. Coincidental or formulaic?
This actually goes beyond the scope of the lyrics a bit.
Predictability in music encompasses all aspects of a song, from chorus to coda. Popular music is, as a rule, predictable music. Think, Kesha’s “Tik Tok” and Calvin Harris’ “Feels.” On an unconscious level, listeners know what’s coming next in the song. Speculators allude to our innate desire to be in control of our environment as the reason for this phenomenon in musical preference… Most listeners are basically afraid of the unknown.
Burglars lurking down a dark corridor, venomous snakes hiding in bushes and bass drops coming in 3 beats too soon all have one thing in common: they’re scary.
Burglars lurking down a dark corridor, venomous snakes hiding in bushes and bass drops coming in 3 beats too soon all have one thing in common: they’re scary. A song’s constituent parts must lead into one another fairly obviously and at predictable intervals for us to find them enjoyable. So-called formulaic music abides by this principle to a fault.
The Pop Music Formula is a Guideline
Now, I know what you’re thinking… “The music industry is dead to me. Wah!” Fine, you aren’t crying, but you likely aren’t too pleased to know quite a few of your favorite tunes were just following the rules for making popular music. Where have all the creative geniuses gone?
Don’t be so dramatic.
…without the formulaic tenets of popular, albeit manufactured music, most songwriters would miss more than they’d hit and we’d all sit around listening to Pachelbel’s “Kanon in D” for the rest of our lives.
This formula is a helpful guideline for musicians to produce music that anyone could generally enjoy. It is no more dangerous to ‘real’ music as figures of speech are to ‘real’ writing; the best songs balance adherence to these rules with free-flowing creativity perfectly. The worst songs either know nothing about these rules or follow them so strictly they become indistinguishable from others doing the same – hence, the common critique of being too ‘formulaic.’
Alas, without the formulaic tenets of popular, albeit manufactured music, most songwriters would miss more than they’d hit and we’d all sit around listening to Pachelbel’s “Kanon in D” for the rest of our lives. Knowing exactly what it takes to please most listeners keeps artists from churning out unpredictable tripe ad nauseum.
It’s basic mathematics, folks.
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