As discussed earlier, there are 4 elements to a song.
Most instruments fall into multiple categories or elements at the same time, including the voice as an instrument. For example, a lead vocal falls into three: melody, rhythm and lyrics.
In this module, we will analyse the layered elements in a TOP 40 pop song. Even though you may not like this type of music, remember that you can learn new things from every genre of music.
One of the main production techniques we will be discussing is what I like to call “Triangle Production”.
This simply means that for a song to feel like it is continually growing and is exciting, it needs to start small and finish big. The way we do this is by sticking to a rule: Only bring in one or two new elements at the same time.
While this rule can of course be broken, all the top producers use it as a guide to assist in keeping production as clean as possible and to ensure that every new element is being heard.
For this exercise we are going to pull apart the instrumentation to the song “Shake It Off” by Taylor Swift.
Let’s break this song down from start to finish. You’ll see that as new elements are added one by one, it keeps the energy of the song exciting and never gets boring!
- The first instrument we hear are the drums, which fall into the rhythm category. This groove gives us a great representation of the feeling of the song. That drum groove is energetic, fast paced and most of all, fun!
- The next thing we hear is the lead vocal together with the trumpet. The trumpet is pivotal. Not only is it a ‘hooky’ part, but it is also showing us what the chord progression is in relation to the melody.
- These elements lead us to the pre-chorus at 30 seconds. At this point there’s the introduction of an organ part. All this part is doing is assisting the trumpet with the harmony. It helps ground the melody change in the pre-chorus.
- The only extra addition in this section is the claps just before the chorus
Lets recap. Up until the chorus we have
- Drum’s (rhythm)
- Trumpet (harmony, rhythm)
- Organ (harmony)
- Lead Vocal (melody, rhythm, lyrics)
- Claps (rhythm)
What makes this track so powerful is how simple it is. Something to always remember, if it doesn’t need another layer, don’t add one!
Here there is the introduction of a few more elements simultaneously.
- Firstly, the bass. This is just a low synth following the same notes as the trumpet part. This is a great trick that producers use a lot ie. to have no bass in the verse, but to then bring it into the chorus. Instantly it feels larger. Great trick!
- At the same time there are some horns added. Even though they are quite subtle, they fill the harmony out in a great way.
- If you really listen closely you can hear some vocal chants on beat one of every bar. It sounds like Taylor is just yelling “hey” and “ho”. With a touch of reverb added, they are panned hard left and hard right to add to the excitement!
- In addition, there’s the introduction of a vocal melody hook at 52 seconds. Taylor singing “hoo hoo hoo” with an ascending melody.
- There’s also a few new synths that help fill it out.
Recap of the new Chorus elements.
- Bass (harmony)
- Horns (harmony)
- Vocal Chants (melody, rhythm)
- Vocal Melody Hook (melody, rhythm)
- Synths (harmony)
- Once we reach 1:06 mins. we again hear a very common production trick. Strip the production back for a couple of bars, then bring it all back in. This maintains excitement in the verse.
- At this point the bass and drums stop, leaving just the lead vocals, trumpet and claps. This is called a ‘dropout’ and it’s a great way to keep listener interest.
- They are all brought back at 1:12 mins to keep the song moving along. Make sure to study these six seconds and realise how important it is to ‘reset’ the verse.
- Next we have a new addition with a ‘vocal response’ at 1:18 mins. Again this is another production technique to keep verse 2 feeling a little bit different than verse 1. If verse 2 sounds exactly the same as verse 1 and there’s no new elements, the song starts to get boring very quickly.
- Back to our main rule. Remember: Only bring in 1 or 2 new elements at the same time.
- Bass returns on verse 2 at 1:12mins, mimicking the trumpet rhythm. All of a sudden, verse 2 feels very different to verse 1.
- Some new backing vocal parts also come in at 1:27 mins.
The rest of the song breakdown will be up to you! Take the time to go from Chorus 2 to the end of the song and write down what are the new elements that you haven’t heard before?
What happens in the bridge where we have another ‘dropout?’
How does chorus 3 feel different than chorus 1 and 2?
What are the new elements that are added in those sections to add to the excitement?