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The science of music: What makes a song ‘catchy’?

If you've worked with me or know me personally (or both) you know that I have a pop music sensibility. I really love a song with a great hook. The catchier the better for me. And I've been very lucky lately because I've had the pleasure and privilege of working with some amazing songwriters.

One in particular I call "The Hit Maker". His songs have more hooks than a tackle box! This got me thinking about what makes a catchy song, well, catchy? Some will say it's the melody while others believe it's the lyrics. Personally I think it's both, but there has to be something more, right? To find out I did a some research about the science of music and found the article below. It's written by Tibi Puiu over at ZME Science. If you're as fascinated with music as I am I think you'll find this one to be very interesting.

Written by Tibi Puiu
Musicologist Dr. Alison Pawley and psychologist Dr. Daniel Mullensiefen out at the University of London have dabbled into the difficult task of scientifically determining what makes people sing along to certain tunes. Their research has lead them to claim that there are various factors that make a song catchy, and in the process have compiled a list of the UK’s top 10 sing-along songs.

Mullensiefen said, “Every musical hit is reliant on maths, science, engineering and technology, from the physics and frequencies of sound that determine pitch and harmony, to the hi-tech digital processors and synthesisers that can add effects to make a song more catchy.

“We’ve discovered that there’s a science behind the sing-along and a special combination of neuroscience, maths and cognitive psychology can produce the elusive elixir of the perfect sing-along song. We hope that our study will inspire musicians of the future to crack the equation for the textbook tune.”

The researchers conclusion was that there are four traits that make a song catchy:

  1. Longer and detailed musical phrases. The breath a vocalist takes as they sing a line is crucial to creating a sing-along-able tune. The longer a vocal in one breath, the more likely we are to sing along.
  2. Higher number of pitches in the chorus hook. The more sounds there are, the more infectious a song becomes. Combining longer musical phrases and a hook over three different pitches was found to be key to sing-along success
  3. Male vocalists. Singing along to a song may be a subconscious war cry, tapping into an inherent tribal part of our consciousness. Psychologically we look to men to lead us into battle, so it could be in our intuitive nature to follow male-fronted songs.
  4. Higher male voices with noticeable vocal effort. This indicates high energy and purpose, particularly when combined with a smaller vocal range (Freddie Mercury of Queen and Jon Bon Jovi).
"Freddie Mercury possessed all the necessary frontman skills to write and perform a "catchy" song."

You can read the rest of the article as well as a list of Top 10 UK singles that include the criteria above over at ZME Science.

The Problem With Music by Steve Albini

For those of you who's only dream is to get a record deal I highly suggest you read this article. It's from the 90's, but the story is practically the same today.

Thanks to the folks over at Negativland.com for sharing it with us. They wrote "This oft-referenced article is from the early '90s, and originally appeared in Maximum Rock 'n' Roll magazine. While some of the information and figures listed here are dated, it is still a useful and informative article. And no, we don't know how to reach Steve Albini."

The Problem With Music

by Steve Albini
Steve AlbiniSteve Albini is not happy wdsith record companies.

Whenever I talk to a band who are about to sign with a major label, I always end up thinking of them in a particular context. I imagine a trench, about four feet wide and five feet deep, maybe sixty yards long, filled with runny, decaying shit. I imagine these people, some of them good friends, some of them barely acquaintances, at one end of this trench. I also imagine a faceless industry lackey at the other end holding a fountain pen and a contract waiting to be signed. Nobody can see what's printed on the contract. It's too far away, and besides, the shit stench is making everybody's eyes water. The lackey shouts to everybody that the first one to swim the trench gets to sign the contract. Everybody dives in the trench and they struggle furiously to get to the other end. Two people arrive simultaneously and begin wrestling furiously, clawing each other and dunking each other under the shit. Eventually, one of them capitulates, and there's only one contestant left. He reaches for the pen, but the Lackey says "Actually, I think you need a little more development. Swim again, please. Backstroke". And he does of course.

Every major label involved in the hunt for new bands now has on staff a high-profile point man, an "A & R" rep who can present a comfortable face to any prospective band. The initials stand for "Artist and Repertoire." because historically, the A & R staff would select artists to record music that they had also selected, out of an available pool of each. This is still the case, though not openly. These guys are universally young [about the same age as the bands being wooed], and nowadays they always have some obvious underground rock credibility flag they can wave.

This is a very long and interesting article so I'm going to cut to the chase. A band got a deal and found money being thrown at them and taken from them at an astounding rate with many people taking a cut. In the end, per Albini, "the band members have each earned about 1/3 as much as they would working at a 7-11..."

 

Advance: $ 250,000
Manager's cut: $ 37,500
Legal fees: $ 10,000
Recording Budget: $ 150,000
Producer's advance: $ 50,000
Studio fee: $ 52,500
Drum Amp, Mic and Phase "Doctors": $ 3,000
Recording tape: $ 8,000
Equipment rental: $ 5,000
Cartage and Transportation: $ 5,000
Lodgings while in studio: $ 10,000
Catering: $ 3,000
Mastering: $ 10,000
Tape copies, reference CDs, shipping tapes, misc. expenses: $ 2,000
Video budget: $ 30,000
Cameras: $ 8,000
Crew: $ 5,000
Processing and transfers: $ 3,000
Off-line: $ 2,000
On-line editing: $ 3,000
Catering: $ 1,000
Stage and construction: $ 3,000
Copies, couriers, transportation: $ 2,000
Director's fee: $ 3,000
Album Artwork: $ 5,000
Promotional photo shoot and duplication: $ 2,000
Band fund: $ 15,000
New fancy professional drum kit: $ 5,000
New fancy professional guitars [2]: $ 3,000
New fancy professional guitar amp rigs [2]: $ 4,000
New fancy potato-shaped bass guitar: $ 1,000
New fancy rack of lights bass amp: $ 1,000
Rehearsal space rental: $ 500
Big blowout party for their friends: $ 500
Tour expense [5 weeks]: $ 50,875
Bus: $ 25,000
Crew [3]: $ 7,500
Food and per diems: $ 7,875
Fuel: $ 3,000
Consumable supplies: $ 3,500
Wardrobe: $ 1,000
Promotion: $ 3,000
Tour gross income: $ 50,000
Agent's cut: $ 7,500
Manager's cut: $ 7,500
Merchandising advance: $ 20,000
Manager's cut: $ 3,000
Lawyer's fee: $ 1,000
Publishing advance: $ 20,000
Manager's cut: $ 3,000
Lawyer's fee: $ 1,000
Record sales: 250,000 @ $12 =
$3,000,000
Gross retail revenue Royalty: [13% of 90% of retail]:
$ 351,000
Less advance: $ 250,000
Producer's points: [3% less $50,000 advance]:
$ 40,000
Promotional budget: $ 25,000
Recoupable buyout from previous label: $ 50,000
Net royalty: $ -14,000

Record company income:

 

Record wholesale price: $6.50 x 250,000 =
$1,625,000 gross income
Artist Royalties: $ 351,000
Deficit from royalties: $ 14,000
Manufacturing, packaging and distribution: @ $2.20 per record: $ 550,000
Gross profit: $ 7l0,000

The Balance Sheet: This is how much each player got paid at the end of the game.

 

Record company: $ 710,000
Producer: $ 90,000
Manager: $ 51,000
Studio: $ 52,500
Previous label: $ 50,000
Agent: $ 7,500
Lawyer: $ 12,000
Band member net income each: $ 4,031.25

"The band is now 1/4 of the way through its contract, has made the music industry more than 3 million dollars richer, but is in the hole $14,000 on royalties. The band members have each earned about 1/3 as much as they would working at a 7-11..."

You can read everything that happened in between here, The Problem With Music.

Can’t we all get along? “Axl Rose not attending induction.” Really!?

I don't understand this. They have it all; world wide recognition, tens of millions sold and at one point, infectious chemistry. Why won't they work together?

To much ego too soon?

Getting caught up in this business can be sad. So much success so fast typically leads to very talented artists thinking that the only thing that matters is the issue that only affects them. When, in fact, it's only their fans that matter. They are already not going to work together again so why not do one more show? It's about a bigger picture gentlemen. If it wasn't for the people they are going to disappoint they wouldn't be where they are.

Right now it seems hopeless, but at some point I sincerely hope they can work it out. The funny thing is that I'm not a huge GN'R fan. I love Appetite for Destruction, but that's about it. Anyway here's what going on right now....

 

Axl Rose Writes Letter To Rock Hall, Says He's Not Attending Induction

By Jason Lipshutz and Marc Schneider, New York

 

GN'R

GN'R. The good ol' days.

Fed up with "reunion lies" and looking to avoid awkward situations with ex-bandmates, Axl Rose has decided to not attend the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony on Guns N' Roses this Saturday (Apr. 14), and has asked to have his name withdrawn as a member of the band he co-founded and still fronts today.

Eric B. & Rakim, Guns N' Roses, The Cure, Joan Jett Nominated for Rock and Roll Hall of Fame

In an open letter released on GN'R's official website on Wednesday, Rose writes, "I respectfully decline my induction as a member of Guns N' Roses to the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame. I strongly request that I not be inducted in absentia and please know that no one is authorized nor may anyone be permitted to accept any induction for me or speak on my behalf."

In his letter, Rose begins by saying he was honored when the news was announced in December, but that after listening to fans, talking to members of the board of the Hall of Fame and reading "various public comments and jabs from former members" of the band, as well as assorted press coverage, he has decided to "let sleeping dogs lie" and not attend the ceremony.

"I certainly don't intend to disappoint anyone, especially the fans, with this decision," he writes. "Since the announcement of the nomination we've actively sought out a solution to what, with all things considered, appears to be a no win, at least for me, 'damned if I do, damned if I don't' scenario all the way around."

Read: Slash's Heartfelt Tribute to Marshall Amps Founder Jim Marshall

In recent weeks, members of the original GN'R lineup, which included Rose, Slash, Izzy Stradlin, Duff McKagan and Steven Adler, have addressed a rumored reunion at the Rock Hall induction with ambivalence. Matt Sorum, who replaced Adler as the band's drummer in 1989, told Billboard last month that there were "no real plans" to reunite for a performance, while current keyboardist Dizzy Reed said, "I don't know exactly what's going to go down. It's one of those things I'm sure will all come together and be really cool. I'm just going to go in with a good attitude and a clear head and a grateful heart." Green Day is set to induct Guns N' Roses at the Cleveland ceremony.

The current version of Guns N' Roses -- of which Rose is the only original member -- continues its world tour in Moscow on May 11.

Here is the full text of Axl Rose's letter and the rest of the article.

Music Industry RoundUp – April 12th, 2012

 

CrazyEye Music Services - Music Industry RoundUp

ARTIST EDITION

 

Finding the right manager

By, Bobby Borg

Peter Grant

Peter Grant

In the classic concert film The Song Remains the Same, there’s a famous scene where Led Zeppelin’s manager Peter Grant, a 270-pound former wrestler from East London, is backstage screaming at one of the promoters at Madison Square Garden. Needless to say, the promoter is backed in a corner and shaking in his boots! Many artists may think that an intimidating personal manager is exactly what they need. But…
Jeffrey Jampol, current manager of The Doors says, “The days of the Peter Grants in this business are over.” People in the music industry prefer to do business with nice guys. A manager must be able to nurture and maintain numerous relationships, while at the same time standing firm, being sensible, and demonstrating a strong knowledge of the business. (It’s a fine balance between ticking people off and not being a push-over.) If a manager walks into the record label and starts pounding desks, insisting that things get done his way, HE’S BOUND TO GET ABSOLUTELY NOWHERE!

So what are the most important qualities to look for in a manager? In addition to being powerful, well-connected, a good negotiator, enthusiastic, committed, and accessible, a good manager should be one who overall inspires your TRUST AND RESPECT.

This is from "Choosing the Right Manager" over at nimbit.com.

Bobby Borg is the author of “The Musician's Handbook: A Practical Guide to Understanding the Music Business” which is available now in a store near you.

 

Vocal Health Basics – How to Properly Care for Your Voice

by Keith Hatschek over at Disc Makers blog, Echoes

It seems that hardly a month goes by where a top singer isn’t forced to interrupt a tour, take a break, or undergo a medical procedure due to problems with their voice. Vocal health is often taken for granted, but once problems develop, they can stop a singer dead in his or her tracks, and in some cases require surgery and a lengthy post-surgery period of rest and recovery.

While we don’t normally think of singers as world-class athletes, some medical professionals are making the case that the demands put on one’s voice when singing one to three hours a night is as intense as those made by an Olympic marathon runner on his body. Additional factors such as nutrition, smoking, drug use, noisy environments, and proper voice training (or the lack of it) all play a role in a singer’s ability to hit the stage night after night and perform at their best.

Like many health-related issues, prevention is much easier and less expensive than having to undergo surgery, so it’s important to understand how to keep your voice in good health.

Superstars Losing Their Voices
During the last half of 2011, three major recording artists dropped out of circulation due to vocal health issues. Each developed a slightly different voice problem that required rest and eventually surgery.

Adele

Arguably, the most valuable voice in pop music at the moment, that of the talented British pop singer Adele, whose sophomore album 21 has sold more than 10 million copies worldwide, was silenced when she was required to cancel seventeen US dates mid-tour and have laser surgery due to the condition of her vocal cords. While she is expected to make a full recovery, her condition is just one example of a high profile artist facing problems maintaining their vocal mechanism. Adele’s condition, reported in the press as two hemorrhages of the vocal cords (the terms vocal cords and vocal folds are often used interchangeably), was likely exacerbated by the stresses of touring.

 

You can find the rest of the "Vocal Health Basics" article at Echoes

 

Shredding is Great, But Know How to Play Melodies

by Ron Zabrocki, writer for Guitar World magazine.

 

Hi, gang! I'd like to preface this blog post with a statement:

This is being written from a studio player's point of view. I love shred. I love metal in every form. Some of my favorite guitarists are Greg Howe, Steve Vai, Guthrie Govan and Brent Mason.

Slow down. Melody is the key.

However, I've been noticing a trend amongst younger guitarists on YouTube and elsewhere; it's a distinct lack of melody. Speed, blazing technique, sweeps and taps are all fine and incredible and have my deepest respect. I know the hours of practice and dedication it takes to acquire these techniques. But in the studio world, the place where people hire you to play the way THEY want, these styles are rarely used.

I have asked many of my students to simply play "Happy Birthday" on guitar. MOST COULD NOT! It was a struggle from note to note. Here's something else I used to do in order to check how I was doing: (And this was wrong, I know, because I had no intention of joining ... but I did it anyway ... I was young and foolish and had an attitude.) I would audition for bands.

To learn how to play with more melody check out the rest of the article at Guitar World

 

Mixing tip: During the chorus, push the master fader.

 

Rick Rubin

Rick Rubin

Here’s a tip that I believe came from Rick Rubin.

We all know to push the elements in the chorus, right? It’s kind of a no-brainer. When mixing we usually bump the lead vocal, or whatever instrument is the main melody of the chorus, to separate it from the rest of the track and establish the hook. This is mixing 101. Well Mr. Rubin has gone one better…

The chorus is the money part of a song. Without a good hook in the chorus the listener won’t be inclined to stick around so now your “hit” song will would be just another song that they skip. Well Rick has a little trick up his sleeve that helps push the chorus even further…. He bumps the master fader!

You can finish reading about Rick's technique here on CrazyEye.com

 

Online Radio... Jumps 30 Percent in Past Year

A new study conducted by Arbitron Inc. and Edison Research entitled "The Infinite Dial 2012: Navigating Digital Platforms" found that the online weekly radio audience is now at an estimated 76 million Americans. The figure represents a more than 30% increase from a year ago and s 29% of the U.S. population.

"We've been tracking the usage of online radio in this series since 1998, and this year's increase in weekly usage is the largest year-over-year jump we've ever recorded. said Bill Rose, Senior Vice President of Marketing, Arbitron, in a statement. "The increased demand for online audio content, and the ever-expanding variety of that content, shows that online radio continues to be a resilient, adaptive media for the changing needs of today's consumer,"

The new data also shows that Americans increasingly own smartphones (three times as many in the last two years), use Apple products and engage in social media (especially adults aged 45 and older).

Other specific takeaways from the study can be found at Billboard.biz

Surround Sound Mixing – Part 4 of 5

This is a guest post by mix engineer, Unne Lilijeblad over at www.mix-engineer.com. This is the fourth article in a five part series about his experience with mixing in this still under utilized medium for listening to music. Recording and Mixing in Stereo. This week he talks about Mixing in Surround.

Unne Lilijeblad - Mix Engineer

Unne Lilijeblad - Mix Engineer

 

Mixing in Surround 
Now what about surround? Obviously, the panning of mono sources in a surround mixing environment works very similarly to the way it works in stereo. It gets more complex of course, as the panner has to divide signals between more speakers, and you now have a three dimensional sound field with both an x and a y-axel, rather than just a simple two dimensional field between left and right. The panning via delay technique works too of course, and naturally, the two can be combined.

Read More »

Mixing tip: Bump the chorus about +1.5db to +2.0db

Rick Rubin

Here's a tip that I believe came from Rick Rubin.

We all know to push the elements in the chorus, right? It's kind of a no-brainer. When mixing we usually bump the lead vocal or whatever instrument is the main melody of the chorus to separate it from the rest of the track and establish the hook. This is mixing 101. Well, Mr. Rubin has gone one better...

The chorus is the money part of a song. Without a good hook in the chorus the listener won't be inclined to stick around so now your "hit" song will be just another song that they skip. Rick has a little trick up his sleeve that helps push the chorus even further.... He bumps the master fader!

Yep, he performs the ultimate no-no while mixing - touching the master fader.  I was taught that the master fader is the last bastian of output from the console to the mix down medium. It needs to be set at zero and not touched - at all! As it happens, Rick Rubin doesn't pay attention to the rules of recording and has this little trick up his sleeve.

"When the chorus starts push the level on the master fader from +1.5 db to about +2.0 db and then bring it back down the for the next part."

Genius! Why is it that the simplest of changes to the norm produce such magnificent results? I ask because I tried this recently on a song I was mixing and it made a HUGE difference. The key is to leave enough headroom so that you feel the energy in the song, but don't hear more distortion in the mix.

If you do this with your mix already being slammed up to 0.0db your mastering engineer will not be happy with you at all. He may even consider you a hack. And no mix engineer wants that now, do they?

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