The timeless inspiration of musical history
Music is a universal language that is able to break cultural, social and racial barriers. Certain musical pieces can also traverse through time, retaining the emotional resonance from the day they were first released. Timeless songs, from “Hey Jude” by The Beatles to “Smells Like Teen Spirit” by Nirvana, have etched themselves in the halls of music history.
But what are the special aspects of these songs that allow them to stand the test of time?
“The two keys to writing a good song are a beautiful and singable melody and a bass line,” says William Trabold, a music history professor at Santa Monica College. “If those two components are equally as beautiful, what goes on between to fill out those parts of the chords is irrelevant. You’ve got to have yourself a beautiful melody, a beautiful bass line — you’ve got yourself a timeless hit song.”
So, are lyrics a secondary factor when it comes to creating a good song?
“I would say yes, and I would say no,” says Trabold. “It depends on how the composer works.”
Trabold recalls the now-legendary story of how Paul McCartney was inspired to write the iconic Beatles song “Yesterday.”
“McCartney heard the song in a dream and got up immediately and wrote the tune down as quickly as he could,” Trabold says. “It was at least another two years before he could come up with a lyric to go with the tune. In fact, it was a joke among The Beatles that the first line of that song was ‘Scrambled eggs, oh, my baby, how I love your legs.’”
Rolling Stone reports that “Yesterday” has been covered 2,500 times — including by music legends like Elvis Presley, Bruce Springsteen and even Daffy Duck making it the most-recorded song in history.
There are many talented composers and songwriters who are able to create appealing melodies and bass lines.
Trabold feels that to make a song successful and stand apart, artists need to instill a personal link to their songs like Belgian composer Jacques Brell, who wrote songs that were inspired by events he had experienced in life, he says.
“Everything was about what he saw and experienced in life, and many times, the pain that he had experienced, not anger, the pain that he had experienced in his own life was always a thread going throughout his songs,” Trabold says.
He also says that the majority of pop songwriters compose songs about themselves, and for themselves.
This point is evident in the success of singer-songwriters like Taylor Swift, who are able to create songs that not only draw inspiration from their personal life, but are also relatable to listeners on an emotional and individual level.
According to a Huffington Post article, a YouTube video created by an Australian band, called The Axis of Awesome, demonstrates that the majority of pop songs use the same four chords.
Is derivative music a bad thing and should it be discouraged?
“There is no great benefit to a composer’s career to deviate from forms and structures which, we have learnt over the centuries, really make a successful composition,” Trabold says.
The vast majority of all Broadway theater and popular songs are written in the AABA form, which consists of a tune, a repetition of a tune, a contrasting tune to express a secondary emotion, and then the tune repeated at the end, Trabold explains.
“Success breeds success, and as all musicians, we build on the work of those in the past, and the only way we build on that work is to use the things of the past,” he says. “They were doing that in the Renaissance, even as new as the music sounded to everybody’s ear in the early portions of the 20th century. It was a practice that was already present.”
Although new ideas, harmonies and sounds are all created, Trabold says, each is always going to have a historical background and a previous influence from which it came.
“We all build upon the music of what comes in the past; otherwise there would be no connection,” he says. “Everybody builds on their own source. New sounds are created, no question about that.”