Musical theory and lyricism reveals why some tunes are memorable and others are not
Why is it that our generation is constantly hearing that our music is bad or maybe not even music at all? Why are people still listening to the music from decades ago, but get tired of the songs on the radio after just a few months? We all know Michael Jackson, the Beatles and Journey. Is it possible that our children and grandchildren will be listening to Taylor Swift, Ed Sheeran or even Justin Bieber?
Whether music now is considered good or bad is completely based on opinion. However, a large portion of today’s popular music is very different from the popular music of the generations before us.
“Bands started using a lot more distortion in their sound,” said band and orchestra teacher Diane Hallberg. “You can’t hear the lyrics as well, so the poetry and the lyrics become less important. In a way that’s cool because it has more of a visceral emotional, slam your body into this rhythm kind of thing, much more than the simple songs before, but in my opinion, people connect to text more than we think.”
The lyrics of a song are supposed to develop emotions within its listener, whether it be happy or sad, so when we listen to an old song, we remember the emotional response we had to it before. The more distortion in a song, the less we hear and connect to the words.
“The text as well as the music together bind in your head and you remember them,” said Hallberg. “When you write a piece of music that fits well with text there’s a lot of things that those songwriters think about. They’re thinking about how the words scan with the music, they’re thinking about how the poetry works, they’re thinking about the relationships between the music and the text. However, as bands evolved there was so much distortion that we couldn’t even hear the text. There’s so much other stuff going on, not that that’s a bad thing, but I think it’s a different type of craftsmanship.”
With or without text, music conveys all types of emotion. People may feel a connection to certain music, good or bad, when it is related to an important time in that person’s life. When a person finds their “own” music, they often believe the other music less than or not as good quality.
“There is research that suggests that the music that becomes “our own” during our teens and early 20’s,” said Dr. Scott Lipscomb, Associate Professor & Division Head of Music Education and Music Therapy in the University of Minnesota School of Music, “remains with us and typically among our “favorites” for life.”
Music is a way for adults to share their life experiences with their children and connect them to how their life was growing up. Songs would not be able to remain popular for multiple generations without each generation making the effort to expose their children to the songs they like. If a parent plays their favorite music to their child, the next generation will continue to treasure it.
English teacher Robyn Westrem makes an effort to expose her son to the music her husband and her listen to such as folk and jazz music. “He has stuff that he likes to listen to like pop,” said Westrem, “but we make sure he listens to certain music so he gains an appreciation for it, even if he doesn’t love it.”
Another factor in making a song last through many years, is how easy it is to remember it or how “catchy” it is. Everyone knows a song that they haven’t listened to in years, but somehow when it plays again, they can recite every single word.
Our brains naturally like to chunk large amounts of information, especially in familiar patterns, in order to memorize it. The majority of popular music before and during the early part of the 21st century was written in 32 bar and AABA form. The AABA form means that the song is structured around two verses, a bridge and then another verse, each section being 8 bars long. “Yesterday” (The Beatles, 1965) and “Every Breath You Take” (The Police, 1983) are examples of songs that follow the AABA pattern in 32 bar form. Our brains are familiar to that form, therefore we can predict it and remember it more easily.
In the end, the million dollar question is, ‘What genre of music and what artists from this generation are going to last?’
“I look to people in our culture that are writing really good songs. People who are writing meaningful lyrics that fit with the music well. I think those are the artists that we’re going to see endure,” said Hallberg.
Choir teacher Karen Lutgen, with a similar idea said, “One thing I do admire about Taylor Swift is that she does write her own music. She is thinking, she’s telling a story, so I love Adele and Ed Sheeran for that same reason. People who are talented musicians and talented vocalists. You can’t deny their gift.”