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September 20, 2019

There’s madness behind the method

Bottling that secret sauce – the stuff that makes a good song or performance great – isn’t something that can be automated. Or is it…?

From Jimi Hendrix at Woodstock to The Sex Pistols at the Lesser Free Trade Hall, music history has its fair share of myth-forging live moments. But for fans of Oasis – or, in truth, fans of British guitar music in the 1990s – King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut in Glasgow is hallowed ground. It was here, in 1993, that former rail clerk and Creation Records founder Alan McGee first saw the Manchester band perform. Well, in truth – if you believe the much-embellished legend – the first thing he saw was the Gallagher brothers and their bandmates threatening to trash the venue if, as the gig promoter had initially suggested, they weren’t allowed to perform.

But that’s not the part that now belongs to the ages. That moment came when, four songs into their fourth-on-the-bill set, Oasis unleashed a wholly unexpected, typically snarling cover of I Am the Walrus by The Beatles. While McGee – only at the gig because some friends in another band had dragged him along – had been impressed by the Mancunians before then, this was different. This was something he hadn’t seen before; this was something that prompted a visceral reaction and the urge to offer them a record deal as soon as they stepped off the stage. “Seeing them there [it felt like] what seeing The Stones must have been like in the early days,” was how McGee would describe it later. “Brutal, exciting, arrogant.”

How does this happen? How does a particular chord progression or musical phrase – a certain vocal or soaring middle eight – prompt this reaction in people? You can see it in the 1955 New York radio DJ who was so taken with the driving thrum of Chuck Berry’s Maybellene that he played it on repeat for two hours straight; you can see it in the awestruck applause that rocked the foundations of Vienna’s Kärntnertortheater in 1824, at the premiere of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. We all know it. We all recognise it. But what prompts it? And can this particular brew of sonic special sauce be perfected, bottled and whipped out as required?

Unpacking the DNA

Well, yes and no. Analysts have been taking a surgical scalpel to hit records and particularly stirring compositions throughout all of recorded history. But in the past 20 years – perhaps inspired by the rise of ruthlessly effective, largely Scandi-honed modern pop songs – this fevered dissection of what makes certain tunes work has intensified. And, while a certain unknowable magic is always going to be part of a special piece of music’s curious power, there are certain, definable things that the human ear tends to respond to.

First among these is the fact that – generally – we tend to favour songs with consonant intervals; which is to say those bright, decisive progressions that are the opposite of harsh-sounding, elliptical dissonant intervals. However, there are areas where slightly different rules apply. Sifting through two decades of Eurovision Song Contest data, musicologist Kit Lovelace found that 15 out of 20 winners had songs in the darker, more sombre minor key. “Moody songs are key in the modern contest,” is how Lovelace put it in one analytical article. “It’s a misconception that songs need to be happy-clappy singalongs in order to be successful.”

And we know, if we are even partly interested in music, that this isn’t the only instance when conventional wisdom can be thrillingly subverted. The thing that makes a piece of music connect is infamously intangible and unpredictable. Motown boss Berry Gordy thought Marvin Gaye’s searing, era-defining What’s Going On was “the worst thing [he’d] ever heard” until it was secretly released behind his back and duly became the hit-making label’s fastest-selling single of all time. Gloria Gaynor’s I Will Survive was held in such low-esteem that it was originally the B-side to a low-charting Righteous Brothers cover. Keith Richards was so convinced that an early sketch of his iconic (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction riff was “filler” that he practically had to be strong armed into recording it. Everywhere you look, there is evidence that creating these moments is more about capturing lightning in a bottle than it is working within any sort of repeatable formula.

“I think of each song in the popular music world almost as a person in a social space, almost like high school,” suggests Asaf Peres, composer, music theorist and creator of songwriting analysis site Top 40 Theory. “You have the popular kids, the average kids and the really unpopular kids. Popularity means you know the social norms but you’re confident enough to break them. Average kids – or songs – usually follow the rules or are very safe. And then you have the unpopular kids, who break the rules but do it in a way that isn’t really coherent to most people. So, what you need, is to have a level of familiarity but to also stand out. Which is a tough balance to strike.”

It makes sense. We know from zeitgeist-grabbing moments in rock history – Nirvana delivering catchy rock with a scuzzy new edge; Pulitzer-winner Kendrick Lamar bending the autobiographical blueprint of West Coast hip-hop to his will – that this familiarity, used sparingly, is a powerful ingredient. And this potency, the thrill of getting something we know in a slightly altered shape, can apply to the melodic architecture of an individual song as well. Peres notes that, instructive modern pop songs like Rihanna and Calvin Harris’s We Found Love, manage to “build a sonic world by using the same tune but kind of changing the context around it”.

And Max Martin – elusive Swedish producer of dozens of maddeningly catchy pop hits by everyone from Britney Spears to The Weeknd – has spoken about a trick, borrowed from Prince, wherein a verse melody that matches the tune of the chorus tricks the listener into a sense of instant recognition. “Once the chorus comes, you feel like you’ve heard it before,” explained Martin during a rare 2016 interview. “And you have! You’ve heard it in the verse. [So] it automatically creates a sense of familiarity.”

Primal theme

There is another kind of unexplainable familiarity as well. And in this instance, it comes from the connection with the person behind the guitar or microphone or trumpet. Something exists, in our divine wiring, that enables those heart-stopping, time-stilling moments; when it can feel like it is just us in the room, hearing a sung refrain or spine-tingling plucked chord. In fact, there is a school of thought that says the more primal – or, perhaps, primitive – an element of a song is, the deeper and more profound its resonance.

“There are people that believe there are natural notes, like the overtone series, that we are built as humans to resonate with,” says Stuart Isacoff, musician and author of Temperament, the seminal history of Western instrument tuning. “And because of that, people claim that if these natural intervals are compromised, not only does it not reach our souls, it’s actually physically unhealthy for us. And when you listen to a great choir, singing very early music, there’s something incredibly beautiful and moving about it; because they’re singing in these very pure intervals.”

Again, we arrive in the realm of a perfection that is easy to recognise but difficult to quantify. When writing about his favourite guitar solos (which ranged from The Kinks’ You Really Got Me to Peg by Steely Dan), writer and music teacher Will Byers perhaps put it best. “All of these solos contain rhythmic flourishes and extraneous noise, whether it is distortion, microtonal string bends or fret noise, which are impossible to notate but essential to the finished item,” he said. “This is why popular music cannot succumb to musicological analysis which is steeped in harmonic theory – it simply misses the point of the thrill in the noise being made.”

And this, is the nub of it. Musicians may not always be able to readily replicate it, record label bosses may not be able to accurately predict it and fans may not be able to eloquently define it. But – like Alan McGee having his mind blown on that night in Glasgow – by god we know it when we hear it.