What Taylor Swift Can Teach Us About Pop Music

  • Video Views: 49460
  • Published On: 2020-12-11 23:30:08
  • Video Published/Author: 12tone
  • Video Duration: 00:13:36
  • Source: Watch on YouTube

I swear I didn’t know she was gonna drop a new album.
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Pop music is weird. Or, I mean, it’s not, it’s pretty normal, but music theory is bad at explaining it because we’re so focused on notes and chords that we miss out on what makes a great pop song so special. Can we do better? Sure! But how? Well, one possible approach would be to build some new models that actually incorporate pop production, and fortunately for us, Dr. Asaf Peres has already done that, and to understand how it works, I want to talk about one of my favorite pop albums of all time: Taylor Swift’s 1989.

Dr. Peres’s article: https://www.top40theory.com/blog/sonic-functions-the-alternative-to-harmonic-functions-in-modern-music

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Script: https://tinyurl.com/y57pus4l

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Also, thanks to Jareth Arnold for proofreading the script to make sure this all makes sense hopefully!

  1. The first 1000 people to use the link will get a free trial of Skillshare Premium Membership: https://skl.sh/12tone12201

    Some additional thoughts/corrections:

    1) So… funny story. While I was making this video, Taylor Swift announced and then released another album. Out of nowhere. I haven't listened to it yet because it literally came out last night and I've been working, but I'm excited to check it out. This was a complete coincidence: If I'd intended this to be a tie-in from the beginning I probably would've focused more on her work in the intro, but still. Pretty cool.

    2) On the prechorus in Style, I decided while filming to add chords 'cause there wasn't really a melody to hang my notation on, but I didn't have time to transcribe it myself so I just googled a transcription and used those chords and boy were they wrong. They should be Emi-A, not Dmi-Emi. Should've done a bit more due diligence on that to actually make sure they were, like, accurate, or at least to check a couple other transcriptions to see if they were consistent, but I was in a hurry, skipped that step, and got burned for it. I'll try not to let that happen again.

    3) Oh, and while we're on that, the second note in the Bad Blood verse should be E, not G. That one was just a typographical error.

    4) I should note that, while the set-up and climax are structurally pretty straightforward, it can still be useful to look at the absolute energy levels they mark out, and especially the differences between the two. If the climax is just a little bigger than the set-up, that's gonna sound fairly smooth, whereas if it's a huge leap you'll have a more dramatic arc. So when I say the build-up is the most interesting function, I don't mean it's the only interesting function.

    5) To maximize the chances that this video doesn't get caught by automatic copyright bots that don't understand fair use, all clips are limited to 6 seconds or less. I made sure to include enough musical context to identify the points I was making, but that did force me to do some awkward cuts sometimes. Sorry, blame overzealous record labels.

    6) I purposefully chose pretty clear-cut examples to make sure the concepts were easily recognizable, but if you check out Dr. Peres's work, you'll see that these tools can lead to some pretty powerful insights: https://www.top40theory.com/

    7) Technically, Harding's definition of a pop-drop is a little more nuanced than what I presented here. You can check out his article on the subject for more detail: https://www.billboard.com/articles/columns/pop/7625628/pop-drop-sound-of-2016-chainsmokers-justin-bieber-switched-on-pop

  2. 12tone, This is by far the best breakdown in song structure and production techniques I have seen. I haven't found anyone doing it in this manner. Your thorough explanations and understanding of what's going on in these songs is impressive. Even in songs such as That's how you get the girl etc. It demonstrates the work and ingenuity that goes into making pop songs. Educational and entertaining. ✔ 👍 👏 👏 👏

  3. I totally agree with Dr. Peres as you've described him here. I've always found pop music endlessly fascinating and it's sometimes eluded me as to why. I think the production may explain a lot of it. You do a great job here, as usual, of explaining why.

  4. i thought it was a video about pop in the year 1989, hahahahah I was about to say that babyface made some amazing songs around that era…. have you ever heard "girlfriend" by pebbles?

  5. im not done with the video but i love how u had to interject that i know places is hands-down the best song on the album😭😭 it has always been one of if not actually my favorite on the album, but i feel like i never saw anyone talking about it so i could never tell if if was just me.

  6. Other than Shake It Off and Bad Blood 1989 is a masterpiece! Lover is mostly great too, and while I’m not a huge fan of Reputation, the good songs on the album are some of the best Taylor song. I hope when Taylor is done with the re-recordeding she’ll try a new genre, or make another album like folklore, but I won’t mind if she wants to make another pop album!

  7. Can you make or recommend a video about what pop is as a genre? A person I know insists that pop is just popular music but I heavily reject that idea. I always thought pop was about the way it sounded not how popular it is, because if Sia, Katy Perry, and Lady Gaga were not popular, then what the hell is their genre?

  8. the thing is i am gonna listen to a song that sounds good even if the chords etc. are basic and i will not listen to a song that doesn't sound good even if the chords etc. are smart or creative

  9. Before watching this I used to think pop was the most boring genre of music out of the bunch. After watching this, I agree with what you said. However I still think it's the most boring genre lmao.

    At least modern pop, pop in the 2000s were banging. But then again, all music in the 2000s was banging, that's when music peaked imo

  10. I’m very glad to witness a video finally analyzing pop music from a structural or ‘energy’ lens (the word I tend to use is momentum or development). I appreciate the detail and examples.
    For me, however, this lens helps to reveal my perspective that most pop music (and by this I suppose I mean contemporary radio pop and the albums which go along with the singles) fails miserably to have a satisfying set up and payoff and, regardless of these meta sections, there is nowhere near enough structural variety to justify the hoped for climax of the chorus. Insufficient differences between the first and second verse betray a narrative or energetic hole, reminding us that the purpose is to have an ear worm chorus stuck in our brains. 5 second bridges (which are often times merely the ducking chorus without its driving beat, effectively rendering the whole second half of a song as one long chorus) betray the same. Often times rather than a bridge or a third section for a song there is merely a key change for a third chorus.
    On top of all of this, while it is certainly true that pop music is exploring sonic diversity perhaps more than ever, i feel it primarily functions to change a song ever so subtly so that if you’re not really paying attention it will feel as though there is development occurring. However, beyond these slight sonic shifts there is a relatively static, highly compressed, uniform level of sonic variety which will not dare venture into bold new territory.
    Having said alllllll of that, I feel I have to mention hyper pop, which, in my view, is the only salvation for the type of pop music I’m describing. I feel hyper pop is often highly highly highly aware that for all of pops innovation with production (and even then it’s innovations tend to be years later than less popular genres of mainstream musics iterations of those innovations) it fails to feel fresh due to a lowest common denominator approach to songwriting. With this awareness in mind, I think hyper pop sets out to prove me wrong (well that sounds narcissistic!), trying it’s best to be as weird and unexpected with production. I tend to feel it still fails to distract me away from the overall structure which we have all at this point assumed is some golden fucking ratio for our consumeristic attention spans, but sometimes I’m pleasantly surprised (Charli xcx for example, as well as more tangential groups like Kero Kero bonito). And these people have front runners like St Vincent and Radiohead to thank for doing the same over a decade earlier.
    Anyway, on the very small chance you read this months late comment, I’d be interested in further discussion on mainstream music through this lens of analysis.

    The last point I’ll make is that one could say that of course I’m wrong, because people enjoy pop music. They feel a sense of momentum, the need to sing their hearts out, to dance, etc. so I must be completely off. To this claim I’d simply say they’re using a different lens of analysis, and that their listening experience would be threatened if they dared to deconstruct from this perspective.

  11. Shout out to I Know Places. I don't think it's the best but I've always thought it was among the best on 1989. But that album is nearly perfect pop and there are no real stinkers.

  12. Feel like this is missing a major component of what makes pop music. Motivation. Yes we can't mind read the people involved in the creation of the music so it is not really something you can point to and make definitive statements, but it doesn't change overall psychological truths that fill human nature and penetrate our social beliefs and language.

    First lets look at what we think of as art (and music is something we do consider art). Art holds a very special place in our psychology. There are entire college degrees on this subject, but we think of it as a form of creative communication between the artist and the world. Artists appreciate when the communication is effective, but we consider their primary motivation to be the expression itself. The way a patient in therapy gets help simply by talking without necessarily having the therapist talk back. Once you lose that individual expression with so many people being part of the production, it kinda stops being art.

    Going back to the motivation. Artists can make art for themselves, and we often consider this the highest "purity" of art, because their is only constraint on the artist by their talent and the materials they have access to. This material restriction is rough and why when an spectator of that arts examines it they judge the performance with that limitation in mind. This is why we would expect, and arts do look for some community that can provide more materials for their artistic expression, why they go to universities, or seek out donations and benefactors. Much like a scientist needs to go beg for money to do their work, artists need to as well. So then you get the taint of money into the art.

    The first way this can influence the art, is not necessarily bad. The first is the artist that makes art to sell. Now their creative communication (art) needs to not just be expressed, but received as well. Their art is constrained by trying to appeal to people who will buy it, but they have a very big incentive to make the best possible "product" in order to make the most money. A mix of this and art without the taint of money is how we expect and most often get the greatest pieces of art. This is the tradition of art, the ideal of capitalism, the life of a savant. Of course the opinion of what is good or great art is ultimately subjective, the fundamental commonality of human existence can make an objective framework.

    Then we get the commission of art. The artist that is even more constrained because they are paid to do something specific. The graphic designer, the street portrait painter, the architect, the commercial jingle. This is the vast majority of art we get, and the vast majority that artists do. The communication isn't even theirs anymore, it is their "clients", they just express it for others. This cannot produce the best because you are fragmenting the motivation and production and losing the essence of what art is. It is why we call them graphic designers and not "artists" anymore. But on the flip side, this art is going to reach way more people than any of the previous examples, this art has a function, and the fact that anyone in modern times have hundred or thousands of commercial jingles memorized, is a testament to how influential and impactful that "art" can be. There is some motivation to make a good product because you will get hired more.

    The final is a degradation of the previous 2 examples. This is when the art is no longer a creative communication from the artist or any individual person. It is a pandering, a flattering to the public. This is the politician telling the people what they want to hear. There is no communication, there is an artistic sound board where people hear exactly what they want to hear. This is going to be "popular" because it is the definition of popular. There is no incentive other than money, and the only creativity is novelty to avoid copyright infringement.

    Yes, we have studies showing that the music of someones teenage years is the music they are going to be most attracted to their whole life. But there is music that gets appreciated universally, and music that is produced with artistic integrity has an much higher chance of having a cultural permanence, that we can say to the extent of our culture is objectively good or "better" than others.

  13. Awesome content. I’ve listened to a dozen or so of your videos and they are all great. So far this was the best in that I learned something new and very relevant. Gives me more appreciation of what’s going on in music today.

  14. People who programme albums use the same theory you describe here for the songs. This is where the overall feel of an album feels like a large, multi section work.

    Similarly, serialised media works like this.

  15. I don't know about music theory but i always wondered why is it that 1989 stands the test of time so well? I feel like teenagers this day are discovering it and it's still such a great record

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