Much of what songwriters do today was established at least 250 years ago in the composition of opera.
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I mention quite often on this blog the importance of individual song elements progressing as a song moves from beginning to end. It’s not just chords that show this sense of progression; every single song element you can think of works together with all other elements to create this sense of music moving forward. If you study music history, you’ll know that this is nothing new. Progression has always been a vital part of the success of music, even centuries ago.
If you listen to Classical opera, for example, you’ll know that the majority of the music is recitatives followed by arias. A recitative is a short “song” during which the singer describes a situation, relates part of a story, and/or converses with another character. The “recit”, as it’s called in the business, is usually very lightly scored, with rather creative melodic shapes and phrasing. At its conclusion, the aria starts, during which the singer describes the feelings stirred up by the recitative. A typical opera will fluctuate back and forth between recits and arias. Here’s an example from Mozart’s famous “Don Giovanni”. The recit shows the typical “chopped up phrasing” with sparse instrumentation. The aria, which starts at 0’48”, features more regular phrasing and fuller instrumentation.
It is that fluctuating back and forth between descriptive and emotive singing throughout an opera that keeps an audience entranced and entertained. At some point, nearer the end of the opera than the beginning, one of the arias will be quite exciting, pulling all story lines together in a climactic moment that makes the audience feel that they are coming to the end of their musical journey.
That recitative-aria construction eventually made its way into pop music. You clearly hear it in “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” written by George Cory and Douglass Cross, and made most famous by Tony Bennett, where the “recitative” gives important background to the passionate love demonstrated for the “city by the bay.”
These days, songwriters are less likely to write recitatives. They start right in with the aria (i.e., the “song”), but that need for narrative followed by emotion is still there, and still very important. You still need to construct your music to oscillate between narrative and emotional lyrics.
To see this clearly demonstrated, listen to Peter Gabriel’s duet with Kate Bush, “Don’t Give Up“.
Except for the obvious difference in compositional style, the same basic requirements still exist in today’s pop music that were in place when Mozart composed “Don Giovanni”. In fact, it all points back even centuries before Mozart, when the contrast principle — juxtaposing one musical idea with an opposite one — became a crucial requirement for keeping listeners entertained.
And whether today’s pop song writers know it or not, they are simply fulfilling that 600-year-old concept in a 21st century way.