Modern sound production technology has provided us with more than just cool new sounds and an ability to create professional sounding tracks on our laptop. It has completely transformed the composer’s toolbox in terms of his/her ability to tell a musical story and lead the listener from one section of the music to the next, at least when it comes to electronically produced pop music. This week I am looking at how producers use these tools to shape the function of a musical section.

The field of music theory has established numerous methods to examine functionality in music. Relationships of pitch and rhythm determine, among other things, whether a section of music is stable or unstable. For example, imagine that you are at Britney Spears’s birthday party and everyone starts singing “Happy Birthday.” The end of the line “Happy birthday, dear Britney” would be considered unstable because the final note leaves you hanging. If you just ended the song there it would feel weird, or incomplete, and an expectation is set up for another line to follow. So the musical function of the last line – “Happy birthday to you” – is to bring us to a stable ending where we feel that the song is complete and we can now eat cake.

But thanks to modern technology, producers have tools at their disposal that allow them to create stability and instability without relying on the notes. Since we are already talking about Britney Spears, there is a great example of this in her 2011 song “Till the World Ends,” which was produced by Lukasz Gottwald (Dr. Luke), Max Martin, Mathieu Jomphe (Billboard), and Emily Wright. Particularly, a comparison between the first half of the chorus (0:53-1:08 or 2:06-2:20) and the second part of the bridge (3:07-3:22). The chorus is a relatively stable section in the music, in the sense that the song can end or fade out from it, and aside from maybe sounding too short, there wouldn’t be any major expectation on the part of the listener that hasn’t been met. The second half of the bridge, however, is unstable, despite being identical to the chorus in vocals, melody, harmony, rhythm, and instrumental arrangement. It is made unstable by using a sound filter to muffle the music, and then slowly and gradually re-amplifying the sonic spectrum, starting with the lowest frequency and sweeping up to the higher frequencies. This is known as a filter sweep.

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This gradual sonic motion creates an expectation for something to follow. If you are a fan of electronic dance music (EDM) you probably know this as a buildup towards the “drop.” Traditionally, this type of climactic buildup would rely on relationships between notes. If you have taken a music theory class, you might have learned that composers would often compose a lengthy passage that centers on the unstable dominant chord to create anticipation for the arrival at the stable tonic. Today’s pop songs don’t do that very often. Rather, the chord progression might remain static (a recurring cycle of three or four chords) while the dynamic processes in the song are expressed through filter sweeps, drum intensification, “bending” of sounds, or sudden removal of sonic layers. While composers in the past have used similar techniques in their music, and certainly recorded music has introduced innovative sonic approaches for over half a century, pop music in the last decade has really elevated these techniques and musical aspects to the forefront of compositional thinking in this genre. To me, this is an exciting development that promises more innovation to come.

–Asaf Peres, Richard & Lillian Ives Graduate Student Fellow, music theory; 6/26/2015