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How Technology has Changed Songwriting Through the Years

Stylistic changes in music over the last century have pushed songwriters to navigate how to write a hit song through myriad types of music consumption. But what a No. 1 smash hit sounds like when you're composing for sheet music in the big band era is a lot different than a mixtape released on Spotify. Technology has caused a symphony of shifts for songwriters, with the ingenuity of new formats and studio equipment driving significant changes in what kinds of music are popular and what kinds are possible. 

How the Past Influenced the Future of Music

Technology has shifted the audience's relationship with music from an ephemeral interaction to something owned and consumed on-demand. The shift from hearing music primarily as live performances before Edison revealed the phonograph in 1887 to owning wax records changed how music was composed. That happened, in part, because it changed how much music fit on the delivery device; those early records could only hold around three minutes of music. This launched the infamous three-minute rule that would guide pop songwriting for a century.

Changing it up to create shorter songs that could be played on multiple instruments became the fashion among songwriters looking for a hit single. Though the novelty hits and pop juggernaut records of the early part of the 20th century became ubiquitous as families bought Victrolas and record players for their homes, the songwriters who crafted them didn't know they'd be creating the blueprint for pop music for generations to come.

Songs from 100 years ago could be highly emotional (think “Who’s Sorry Now?”) to a little bit silly (like “When The Red, Red Robin’ Goes Bob, Bob, Bobbin’ Along”). That work evolved into the Great American Songbook in the ‘30s and ‘40s, which included jazz originals, show tunes, and vaudeville. Some of these songs have had an exceptionally long lifespan, interpreted by hundreds of singers over an era spanning fifty years.

Shifting Perspectives About Songwriters

Early 20th-century music was often danceable, whether fast or slow, because it was primarily played in communal settings. Even though some families had machines that played singles in their home, the latest music was still most often heard in public: on jukeboxes, streetcorner Victrolas, and in nightclubs. That meant sticking to simple time signatures that listeners could foxtrot, Charleston, or shimmy along to—that is, a whole lot of 4/4 based music composition. This simplicity led to songs that can sound unsophisticated and sentimental to modern ears. 

When records went from 78s to 45s at the start of the 1950s, song length stayed the same, even though the format could accommodate longer tracks, mostly to keep radio happy, as broadcast radio was where music buyers did almost all of their discovery. Kids, mostly teenagers, were buying the new, cheaper 45s based on what they heard, and radio programmers wanted to play as many songs as possible that hooked people as quickly as possible (the early days of "don't bore us, get to the chorus"). Songwriters stuck mainly to the verse/chorus/verse format, 4/4 time, and major keys to make new songs feel familiar and fit into what DJs were playing. This era also ushered in a change away from simple verse/chorus songs in the AABA song style

Through both the Great American Songbook era and the popular music of the ‘50s and early ‘60s, one thing remained the same: songwriters were distinct from singers. Many worked in Tin Pan Alley, where publishers and writers had offices on 28th Street in New York City. They’d compose away, writing hits for everyone from Broadway shows to Hollywood movies to girl groups to jazz singers, and record demos of their songs that were then interpreted by whoever wanted them. The notion that artists could or should write their own songs would change this paradigm in the mid-1960s.

Studio Technology Gets an Update

Studio technology also created numerous shifts in recording trends from the 1950s on. David Byrne explains in How Music Works that introducing the vocal microphone shifted the sound of popular music, moving away from big band or dance orchestras recorded live, with the singer having to produce top volume to be heard over the other instruments. Instead, we got crooners, from Frank Sinatra to Billie Holiday, singing directly into a microphone. With that change, the song's lyrics and vocal timbre became far more significant elements of songs that songwriters had to consider in their arrangements.

The formula for popular songs shifted in the 1950s when country and blues began to merge into rockabilly and R&B, leading to the birth of rock and roll. The movement crystallized in the mid-’60s under the boundary-pushing songwriting by the Beatles, who evolved over time from single- to album-oriented songwriters, and many contemporaries followed suit. But the Beatles (and the Rolling Stones and the Led Zeppelin after them) owed their shift away from writing collections of singles to writing album-oriented projects to another genre: jazz. Marc Myers details in Why Jazz Happened that the LP, which was developed in 1948, was originally aimed at jazz artists and listeners, in order to accommodate the long-form playing of improvisational artists such as Miles Davis and John Coltrane.

At this time, the range of recording equipment was severely limited compared to what’s available now. Studios were owned mainly by record labels or radio stations, recording engineer Robert Auld notes. And signal processing as we know it - to produce reverb, equalization, and dynamics - only existed in a primitive form, largely dictated by room dynamics and each studio’s custom mixing board. Once those audio tricks were in their toolbox, songwriters and producers, increasingly often the musicians themselves, found their sonic boundaries expanded.

Technology continued to push the music industry forward, including songwriting and production. The 8-track was invented as automobile culture demanded a way for music to travel with the listener, and later, the cassette tape improved on that technology with even greater convenience. Album lengths in the ‘70s and ‘80s reflected a customer base who were listening to this lower-sound-quality medium, with at most 30-45 minutes per side. Single lengths, it should be noted, stayed much the same.

The invention of the CD ushered in a high-quality audio revolution. According to NBC News article marking its 30 year anniversary, the first modern CD was used in 1979 to make a copy of Richard Strauss's Alpine Symphony. The format was conceived for fans of opera and classical music and, as such, they can accommodate 74 minutes of music—up from the 60, on average, of an LP, and without the side flip. Songs and albums could get much longer. And in the ‘80s, they did, as five-minute singles became all the rage.

The ‘80s brought with them another groundbreaking technological shift that has stayed in music: electronic instruments. With the synthesizer and the move to programmed samples and drum machines, prominently featured in rap and New Wave music of the early ‘80s, musical elements in songs shifted from organic to electronic. In this time, the Echo Nest found that singles started to get louder and faster

Looking Towards the Future

The trend towards louder, electronically-based music continues to the present day. But after streaming services overtook all other music consumption formats, the structure of songs has shifted yet again to meet the new technology. Songs are shorter, which The Verge chalks up to how royalties from streaming work. With artists and songwriters earning significantly less money per stream, the need to drive up the total number of streams combined with unlimited space means the length of albums and the number of songs on them are increasing even as song length continues getting shorter. The idea that listeners need to stay tuned in for the first 30 seconds of a song to earn that royalty has led to a change in song structure, Pitchfork reports, from starting with a chorus to cutting intros to introducing the hook at the start of the song. 

Streaming has also flattened the world for music listeners, as physical distribution limitations ceased to be a factor; in 2020, Rolling Stone reports, Afropop, K-pop, and Regional Mexican music genres saw streams increase and Latin music streams were up 25% from the previous year among American listeners. Also in 2020, K-Pop and Latin artists broke through the top of the Hot 100, and Afropop stars crossed over into American hip hop radio and charts. The phenomenon has Vogue questioning if singing in English is even a prerequisite for having a pop hit anymore - with all indications from the top of the charts pointing to the same answer: no.

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