by Austin Weimer
The greatest songwriters of all time, such as Bob Dylan and Paul McCartney, knew the secrets to staying on the billboard top 40 charts for years. Their chords and unmistakeable lyrics stand front and center in such hits as “The Times They Are A-Changin” or “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds.” These songs and thousands more across popular music history use the classic G-C- D chord progression, or a variant of it, and repeat lyrical structures in a similar order. They are the ones that stick— the catchy and relatable songs everyone can sing word for word. Every greatest hit has already been written, and will continue to repeat this fundamental structure forever. Moving forward, however, songwriters are aiming to embellish this formula with new approaches to writing and performance.
Nobody illustrates this approach to songwriting better than Dylan himself. In an interview with Paul Zollo, found in the fourth edition of Songwriters On Songwriting, Dylan says, “There’s enough songs for people to listen to, if they want to listen to songs…Unless someone’s gonna come along with a pure heart and has something to say. That’s a different story. But as far as songwriting, any idiot could do it.” Today, artists are still using the same“idiot” formula, with a few key differences. Simply put, more people can put their heart into music and achieve greater results than ever possible.
Songwriting in the 21st century with a computer provides multiple opportunities to deviate from and expand upon the previously successful formula. A standard three chord song suddenly becomes exciting when embellished with a dance beat and synthesizers. New highly-accessible instruments allow ambitious would-be musicians to forgo the arduous process of formal training. Free software such as Pure Data offers a plethora of MIDI devices and sound interfaces for artists to play around with, eventually creating interesting work. Soundgrain, another free and accessible program, allows users to draw and manipulate sound in real-time, no prior knowledge necessary.
Creative 3D hardware provides even more opportunities for exploration. In 2012, Tedx hosted Imogen Heap and her musical gloves, capable of new songwriting possibilities and expressive integration. Sensors cover her body and respond to pre-programmed settings, such as arm movements and body positions in space. Her motion creates and alters the music, imparting another layer to her performance. Max, a software mentioned in a previous article on 4DSOUND, explores similar ground in motor-visual approaches to songwriting. Cameras linked with Max interpret motion and color and turn them into MIDI notes for any instrument imaginable.
Drawing, dancing, and other media are integrating with music at an incredible pace. Due to the advent of computers, as well as the advent of human sensory features as manipulatable data, artists have infinitely more opportunities for expansion and innovation. They have an unprecedented freedom to create in new environments, which were previously one-dimensional or inaccessible. The next greatest hit may not arrive in any form familiar to the classics, which is an exciting proposition for everyone.