What makes a song age better than others?
Formulas to make timeless music
Whenever I listen to She Works Hard For The Money (Donna Summer) I can't help but think of the 80s, it’s strange to imagine that it was created in another era.
Synths, processed guitar, electronic beats, and persistent bass scream of VINTAGE! Just to be clear, I’m not saying this is a bad song or that it’s no longer a classic, I’m fascinated with that song as a matter of fact, but I just feel that it has a tad old-fashioned sound.
She Works Hard For The Money – Donna Summer:
Instead, when I listen to Here Comes The Sun (The Beatles) there’s no particular element that tells me it was written in the hippie heyday of the 60s. It doesn’t sound too old, I could even say it was released today.
Here Comes the Sun – The Beatles:
Video Games, an analogy
Something similar happens with the video games’ graphics. Each new generation promises superior resolution and ultra-realistic image quality like never before. Remember back in the day, what people thought of hyper realistic graphics, can be quite pixelated in today’s standards.
Take Call of Duty for PC as an example, a video game released in 2003:
At the time, you can bet that people were more than excited to experience historical events first hand. My experience playing it was amazing, I really imagined how the soldiers might have felt back then, especially during Russian and air missions.
Now, I’ll show you the graphics of the latest Call of Duty, a remake of the classic Modern Warfare.
Do you understand the analogy? When I see this, I think of how unrealistic the first version of the Call Of Duty game looks. How could I’ve believed those graphics were ever realistic?
Now let's look at a timeless example, Megaman VII (1995):
With an intentionally cartoonish look, the game’s style becomes timeless. This game may as well have been released today for Android phones and not nearly 25 years ago.
The same can be said about Cuphead (2017). In this case, the game is recent, but it has a design that makes it impossible to know when it was created.
Now, after this slight deviation that serves as an analogy, what elements cause a track to be perceived older than another as the time passes after its release?
Style / Aesthetics: Each musical style has certain clichés in terms of instrumentation and arrangements. Relying too much on clichés will result in a period piece, rather than a timeless one. Most likely, the popular Reggaeton of today will be heard as somewhat dated in the future. This is because almost all artists use the same formulas and effects.
A vintage example would be listening to Rock & Roll pioneer Chuck Berry. His way of playing the guitar, the riff, the melody and the structure refer totally to the 50s.
Johnny B Goode – Chuck Berry:
Instrumentation: Like Donna Summer, we can find instrumentation and similar effects in the 90s boy bands. Orchestral hits, electronic rhythms, synthesizers and a very pop choral arrangement were signature at the time (this doesn’t take away its excellent and extraordinary execution).
Bye Bye Bye – *NSYNC:
Recording: The recording quality has improved a lot over the years, and the home studios right now are able to offer a professional, polished product. However, that sound quality wasn’t always available. Here’s an example of Disney Fantasy, recorded with the best equipment of the time:
Toccata y Fuga – J.S.Bach (adaptación de Disney, Fantasia en 1940):
The good thing is, there are reissues or new recordings of the pieces with current first-rate equipment. With it, these timeless pieces are certainly given new life.
Toccata y Fuga – J.S.Bach (sinfónica de la BBC 2010):
And we also see it with works from the 70s:
The Pointer Sisters - I´m so excited (Remastered):
The Pointer Sisters - I´m so excited (vieja versión):
You can listen to the Stems (audio tracks) separately from the Remastered version of The Pointer Sisters in the Music Puzzle: JigSaw game.
Mixing: Like arrangements, mixing sounds has similar formulas. For example, The Beatles used a maximum of 8 channels for their recordings. Today this number has grown a lot, but it’s very curious to hear how the battery is "panned" (this means the audio is playing to the right or left in a stereo system), whereas today it’s spread across the spectrum. Here is an example:
Help – The Beatles:
Instrument Processing: Effects such as reverb, delay, echo, chorus, flanger,etc. Are used differently depending on style or time. There are genres that use them aggressively in a search for personality. In the song Call Me, by Blondie the instruments are over-processed, evidently as part of the 80s style.
Call Me – Blondie:
Music, like any creative discipline, ages, especially when made with the popular elements of a particular era. Taking fashion as an example, we can appreciate the contrast the 80s and today’s has:
Fusion: Influences are an important part of music, the more influences are mixed, the less dated a track becomes as time goes by. Imagine what a combination of The Beatles, Stravinsky and Metallica would sound like, it’d be very difficult to catalogue something like that in a genre.
A modern musical genius is Jacob Collier, his mastery as a multi-instrumentalist and the way he composes makes it impossible to group him in one genre, therefore I think his music will age like fine wine.
All I Need (feat Mahalia & Ty Dollar $ign) – Jacob Collier:
Other timeless songs:
Bohemian Rhapsody - Queen:
Another Brick In The Wall Pt.2 - Pink Floyd:
A Day In Life – The Beatles:
I want to clarify that just because a song sounds old, it doesn’t mean it’s bad! There’s a reason why they’re classics and this article is only intended to discuss a bit about the ageing of songs.
What other elements do you think make a song age better than others?
Have you heard famous songs with all the instruments separated as presented by the game Music Puzzle: JigSaw? Do you think you can identify the elements that make them larger than life? James Blunt's keeps sounding pretty modern to me. What do you think?
Share your opinions!
* All images are used for illustrative purposes.
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