20 Pitfalls To Avoid When Making Rock Music
For the past few years I've been involved in producing my own songs and during that time I didn't listen very much to the music of others within my own genre -- that of rock music broadly construed. (My taste includes many rock subgenres, such as bluesy rock, soft-rock, folk-rock, electronic rock, new age rock, metal rock, Americana rock, and so on). A few months ago I decided to spend at least an hour each day listening to the music of others. My sources were archives of music radio pod casts and the thousands of EPKs (electronic press kits) available on websites specialized for musicians. (Artists commonly include several songs within their EPKs.). I have avoided sites like MySpace because I wanted to examine the music of indie musicians who are way past the "high school garage band" stage but, at the same time, are not famous.
I've discovered that I can sample a 4-minute song within about 60 seconds. So I can sample about 50 songs an hour. Thus, I was able to explore over 1500 songs a month. I always listened to the beginning, and at least to one or more of the vocal and instrumental segments. Of course, there is no disputing taste and so my complaints will reveal my own taste and biases, but after having listened to over three thousand songs within a relatively short period of time, I have the following observations to make about what I consider pitfalls in the composition and performance of songs within the rock genre.
But before I do, let me point out that this listening exercise made me recognize weaknesses in my own compositions, arrangements and performance. I have to admit that some of my own songs suffer from the pitfalls I mention below. I survey these pitfalls for three reasons: (a) I'm interested to see to what extent other listeners might agree or disagree with me. (b) My comments may be helpful to any budding artists/musicians who come upon this article. (c) I find it therapeutic to place "out there in the open" my own criteria for criticizing the songs of others.
I think it's relatively easy for any artist with years of experience to write and produce songs but it is quite difficult to write a song that lots of people will want to hear over and over again and I do not claim that I have achieved this level of skill. To me, when judging a song, the key question is: "Will I want to hear this song over and over again?" If the answer is "no" then I ask myself: "Why not? What is it problem with this song – the pitfall that will ultimately drive me away?" With that said, here is my list of pitfalls:
1. The rapid drone-beat pitfall: Countless rock bands write songs that are held together by a fast duh-duh-duh-duh hitting of a single note throughout the piece. While it is, I guess, supposed to convey energy and a fast pace, it invariably results in a monotonous, nervous, unpleasant, relentless feeling. It is probably OK to dance to such a song (maybe under the influence of some drug) but a drone beat also results in a song that one will not want to listen to over and over again. Almost as bad is a single note being held down on the keyboard so that is sustains itself for what seems to be forever. I have heard many songs that use both these techniques at once and this quite effectively chases me away from the song quite effectively.
2. The pointless start-up pitfall: It is surprising how many bands will start a song with a bunch of sound effects (whizzes, spits and splatters, whooshes from one ear to the other, tinkling or banging sounds, hisses, burps or hums, etc.) that have nothing to do with the rest of the song. This artificial start-up becomes more and more annoying at each listen, until one wants to use editing software to remove it. A sound-effect beginning to a song simply indicates that the artist(s) couldn't figure out how to get started and that's a bad sign. One particularly glaring version of this pitfall is the let's-pretend-you-are-sitting-in-on-a-recording-session and so the song starts with the musicians talking to each other about what they're going to play. Having to hear this at the start of the song, over and over, becomes quite annoying and will drive me away. Such techniques are made worse when, before one gets to hear the actual song, one must first listen to static, or to changing dials over radio stations, or to pointless effects that also start, stop and start again. I have heard numerous songs that have all of these effects going on at once as the song starts up! Usually, if a song has a pointless start-up then the rest of the song will have problems too, but it's sad when a really nice piece is ruined by an unrelated effects start-up.
3. The overly long start-up pitfall: To get the song going, many performers just strum and strum their guitars (or get a groove beat and/or bass pattern going) for way too many measures, so that one is already bored with the song before one has even gotten to the vocals. Usually, if the start-up takes too long to get going, the intervals in between the vocals will tend also to go on too long. The only time that strumming (or a bass/drum rhythm) can go on for a long time is if there happens to be excellent instrumental lead musicianship also being displayed. Other types of songs that take a long time to get going are the ones that slowly fad-in at the start-up. I'm not a fan of fad-out at the end of song but that is nothing compared to having to wait at the beginning for what seems to be an eternity before you can even hear what the song is finally going to do once it gets going.
4. The group yelling pitfall: Unfortunately, many rock bands don't think they need to be able to sing well or that they can yell the words together as a group and that this will somehow make up for the lack of an interesting vocal melodic line or appealing harmonies. The saddest case is Modest Mouse, some of whose music I really enjoy. Although they are very good musicians, they can't sing in key and when they all sing together it just gets worse. Each song starts out musically very interesting but I can only re-listen to that subset of their music which is missing their worst out-of-key group yelling. (I am not necessarily against off-key singing. I like some songs by The Incredible String Band. That group sang songs with melodic microtones, which can sound "out of key".) Because all members of some band can sing somewhat is no reason to have all of them singing all of the words all of the time (especially for those not musically sophisticated enough to even try to come up with harmonies).
5. The missing vocal nuances/dynamics pitfall: Many singers think that they can compensate for lack of vocal nuances and dynamics in their voices by half speaking while singing or singing with a strong nasal tone (the Dylanesque technique) or by singing with a kind of yowling sound. Unfortunately, these techniques rarely work to achieve a song that will sustain multiple hearings. Many songs end up hampered by a mediocre vocal performance because the singer doesn't know how to make his/her voice do anything interesting (and I fear that I myself fall into this category). I have heard numerous folk songs that end up being boring because the artists sing them in an overly straightforward manner. A pleasant or even pretty voice is not enough – it has to also be an interesting voice. The main way to make one's voice interesting is to do interesting things with it. (Of course, an artist should avoid over-use of quavering or falsetto or moaning or breathiness or swooping up/down to a note, but a little of this here and there can create real interest.) Lots of rock bands think they can avoid working on their vocals by the use of a lot a screaming and yelling (but they can't). Personally, I've noticed that when I concentrate on having my voice hit all the notes correctly then I tend to forget to use my voice to create interesting nuances and variations. Conversely, when I concentrate on those vocal nuances and variations, then I'll sometimes fail to hit the notes quite right. I think learning how to make vocals (and especially harmonies) interesting (and with nuances appropriate to each song) requires as much practice as when learning how to play really interesting lead guitar (when to slide up to a note, when to bend a note, when to hit a note legato vs. staccato, etc.) but many bands put all of their practice into their instruments and none into their vocals.
6. The relentless-sound pitfall: When I first started using software to create and mix my own multi-track songs, my wife listened to my first attempts and invariably complained that some single sound pattern (be it a drum pattern, a picking pattern, or a keyboard effect) was "relentless" -- in the sense that it practically never ceased throughout much of the song. A given pattern might sound good for 30 seconds, but not for three minutes straight. I recall one song that I really liked at first: The artist had an appealing voice, good lyrics, interesting melodic line, etc. but there was a strange, kind of scratchy sound (probably part of the drumming) that went on throughout the entire song and never relented. I realized that this one, unrelenting sound had driven me away. Anything (beat, bass, rhythm, picking) that fails to vary will, sooner or later, be perceived by the listener as unrelenting and chase the listener away. The artist must learn to shift key, or to stop all drumming for a measure in the middle, or suddenly go into a cappella, or change the drum beat or bass licks, or add harmonies – anything to break the monotony.
7. The endless-song pitfall: In my first few CDs I have a few songs that are nearly seven minutes long. I now believe that that was a mistake (unless the extra time is taken up with really virtuoso jamming segments). The longer a song, the more opportunity there is for the listener to become bored with it. If a song is 4 minutes long and the listener likes the song then the walk-away experience will be that the song ended too soon, but the listener can rectify that problem simply by replaying the song. In contrast, if the song goes on too long, then the listener's walk-away experience will be that the song started out appealing but ended up not as good, so the listener will most likely remember the song as being mediocre and not return to it. The artist has to realize that, while it is lots of fun to be in the groove while performing the song (and this groove can go on for hours), the experience for the listener (whose hands and mind are not being taken up with the act of performing) is quite different. A more difficult issue involving the length of a song has to do with whether a song is primarily intended for dancing or for listening. When used for dancing, a song can go on for ages in a largely monotonous manner -- but not when intended for listening. Personally, I think all bands should release songs intended for listening (not dancing) and let the DJs at disco clubs loop them for extended periods of dancing.
8. The unbalanced vocals pitfall: Many bands seem to think that they can compensate for weak vocals by making the instrumental tracks louder. Unfortunately, the listener ends up straining to hear the vocals, which sound even weaker than they already were. The vocals of many techno-rock bands sound like they're way off in the distance. Nowadays there is little excuse for weak vocals because vocals can be strengthened electronically (for example, many artists duplicate their voices onto multiple tracks with slight shifts in timing, so one voice can sound like a chorus of voices). If there are lyrics then I like to (at least occasionally) be able to make out what is being said, so I want the instrumentals to diminish in volume during the vocal segments. In general, a well-balanced song is one in which the volume of the different instruments (including the vocals) rise and fall. A well-balanced song allows each particular instrument, musical theme and vocal segment to have its moment in the spotlight.
9. The blaring/blasting muddy "wall of sound" pitfall: This is a pitfall that new bands (with weak musicianship) commonly fall into. They attempt to hide their weaknesses behind a high volume, blasting "wall of sound" technique (made worse by having the guitars become mostly noise generators). The result is a muddy, murky din (with the band hoping that a lot of energy and antics on stage will carry the day, but a listener on an iPod doesn't have access to these stage antics).
10. The excessive keyboard-effects pitfall: Nowadays the keyboard can produce a wide variety of sounds, from melodic symphonic violins to ear-jarring buzz saws and many artists become overly enamored with all of the effects that they can stuff into the performance of a song. I recall hearing a song in which a sound of human laughter appeared in every other measure, as a kind of additional drumbeat, followed by what sounded like someone turning the channels on a radio. All of this is going on while the listener is trying to follow the melodic and lyrical lines of the song. The result is that all the keyboard effects become a huge distraction. Just as a movie can suffer because it has no character or plot development -- relying mainly on visual special effects -- so too can a song suffer from too many keyboard effects. Many years ago, when the first synthesizers were invented, people would pay to hear strange, synthesized sounds but now anyone's computer or keyboard can do this, so it is usually an irritation to find out that a song is padded out with such effects. I have heard songs where the keyboardist hits one key and generates a sequence of fast notes that repeat over and over throughout the song. That's a sure-fire way to chase the listener away.
11. The avant-garde, experimental pitfall: I have heard songs in which one musical line sounds something like the song from the Mickey Mouse club while another line, simultaneously, is playing a different genre of music with a different tempo. I believe that there are some fundamental constraints on music. These constraints are probably determined by the structure of our brains. I think it is OK, for example, to have two distinct beats placed against each other, but the result has to create a pattern that becomes its own, holistic rhythmic experience. If a song sounds like someone recorded two unrelated songs onto the same track by mistake, then probably the song will be too experimental and avant-garde for more than one listening experience. I have heard a melancholy folk song being sung along with the simultaneous sound of children laughing and other non-musical sound-effects in the background (both distracting and detracting).
12. The echo/flange/reverb/wa-wa pitfall: These effects are very exciting for the guitarist and with restrained use, provide very effective changes in the atmosphere of a song, but I have heard songs where the guitarist attempts to compensate for poor picking (or poor lead) technique by cranking up the echo, flange, reverb or wa-wa. Sometimes the reverb flutters back and forth so rapidly between each ear that it makes me ill. Other times the echo is so thick that the last note partially overlaps with the current note to make a muddy mess. Usually, such problems are a sign that the artist still has a ways to go in mastering the instrument he/she is playing.
13. The too-many-things-at-once pitfall: A song can be enthralling with a solo voice and one guitar or piano. In those cases the singer has an excellent voice with a unique quality to it and knows how to use it. And the guitarist (pianist) can really play that guitar (piano)! Most artists are not at this level and so either decide to form a band (which is fine) or choose to create a more interesting song by laying down multiple tracks. (That is what I do.) The danger, of course, is that one will lay down too many tracks with too much going on. (This is a tendency that I struggle against.) Bands must remember that, just because they have 5 members does not mean that every song has to have all five of them playing at once throughout every song for every possible second.
14. The wordy-lyricist pitfall: This is a pitfall I know I suffer from. I tend to write long (and I think, rather clever) lyrics. My mother-in-law once told me that what's simplest (lyrically) is often best. At that point I went through a number of songs I had recently written and discovered that I could remove a dozen words from each song and each was improved. Of course, there are cases in which the style of the song involves singing many words very rapidly (as with Matisyahu) but when that is not the case, in general it is best to cut out extra words whenever possible. When composing a song artists will sometimes write a poem and then find music for it. At other times, they will start with the music and then search for words that fit the thoughts and feelings evoked by the music. In both cases, that artist should go through an extensive post-editing period, in which the music and lyrics constrain each other. I can usually tell when a song is a "uni-draft", which is often a shame, because extensive editing would have tightened up that song and possibly made it a hit.
15. The mumbling-singer pitfall: I think it's OK for the listener to sometimes not be able to make out what the artist is singing but if that occurs throughout the entire song then one's mind starts to wander (like when at an Italian opera for the listener who doesn't understand Italian). When the singer mumbles, the singer's voice becomes more like an additional instrument, but I think that, at least occasionally, the listener should be able to hear the message or narrative that is being conveyed. I really dislike listening to a song and being unable to figure out any of the lyrics that are being sung.
16. The constrained melody-line pitfall: Many rock singers have a constrained range in which they can sing, so they tend to write songs that stay within their "comfort range". Unfortunately, this results in a song whose melody line tends to hover around a few nearby notes. I urge rock singers to force themselves to sing outside of their comfort zone so that the melodies are not so monotonous (and it's also a good way to improve one's singing range). Much rock music suffers from an overly cramped chord progression and melodic line and this tends to make such songs monotonous. (The same is true for a lot of blues music, in which the same chord progression is used on one blues song after another.)
17. The poor production quality pitfall: With computers and music software, there is no excuse nowadays for producing a scratchy, tinny song. I have heard numerous songs (with good melody and lyrics) ruined because of poor production quality. I am not talking about the need for a professional studio. I am talking about failure to properly use music-editing software available to any one taking the DYI (do it yourself) route. By the way, I have heard numerous songs that start out scratchy in order to simulate an old LP record. This technique was perhaps innovative the very first time it was used (but once is enough).
18. The pitfall of too-much-in-one ear (dynamic panning): During the making of a recording, it's not a good idea to place any instrument 100% in either ear. In live performances one never hears any one instrument all the way in a single ear (unless one is already deaf in the other ear). Some artists like to pan a sound from one ear to the other when producing a song. Unfortunately, the effect is not the same as a singer or guitarist moving across the stage. When the singer moves around on stage he takes the microphone along with him and that microphone is connected to a fixed set of speakers, so the location of the sound source does not itself move. The guitar also is connected to an amp and no on picks up the amp and moves it around on the stage in the middle of a song, so the dynamic panning effect most likely will detract from the listener's enjoyment of the music. Personally, I don't want to hear effects just to hear effects. Any effect should be in service of the song's melodic or lyrical theme. Too many rock bands use panning simply because it's an available technique.
19. The compression pitfall: There are articles on the web by audio engineers who complain about the "volume war" in which each band wants their mpeg sound files to be louder than those of other bands. Bands often achieve this by applying compression to the final mix. Compression cuts off the highs and lows so that the volume can be cranked up more without the listener's ears starting to complain of any sharp sounds. The unfortunate result, though, is that many of the subtle, dynamic effects of the instruments are lost as everything gets compressed to within a narrow range. If the listener wants the sound louder, then that is what the listener's volume knob is for. Many songs I hear have been compressed and the result it that one hears a kind of muddy din in which the particular instruments are unable to stand out. Much older records are: (a) not as loud and (b) each of the instruments, individually, can be heard more clearly.
20. The pitfall of recording a song exactly as performed live: In general, there are two types of artists: Those who are out there on the road touring and performing to live audiences and those who are not. The touring artists will always have a much higher likelihood of achieving success because everywhere that they appear they are automatically marketing themselves and their music. However, there is one pitfall that can befall a touring solo artist (or band) when it comes to recording a song -- the tendency to record the song mostly the way it sounds when performed live. Bar-bands tend to fall into this pitfall. They get good at entertaining noisy beer-drinking crowds with their performances and so they release their CD with songs that sound essentially the same as their live sound. But what is acceptable in a noisy bar is not going to have as much of a chance at becoming a hit when people buy that CD and listen to it on their iPods while doing other activities. The solo artist also learns how to play the guitar as effectively as possible to accompany him or herself while singing live. But I think it's often a mistake to record the song just the same way as it sounded live when done solo. Once an artist starts to record a song, the question becomes: "What can I do, in the studio, to produce the very best listening experience for my potential audience?" and often the answer is to modify (often drastically) the recorded version as compared to the live version. Failure to take the time to make these (sometimes major) alterations is a pitfall specifically reserved for those artists who are mainly doing live performances.
Well, those are my 20 pitfalls. There are many other pitfalls that plagues artists but they tend to be non-musical and are business, maturity/responsibility related, or personality related and ultimately cause most bands to break up. (But I will not discuss these here.)
Regarding the 20 musical pitfalls above, one might claim: "Dyer just likes a certain style of music". I hope that is not the case. I like the arrangements and performances of certain metal songs, certain Americana or folk songs, certain country songs, certain jazz songs, certain blues songs, certain Motown songs, certain 40s swing songs, etc. and even when I reject a song because it's not within one of my favorite genres (I am not a hip-hop or rap fan), I can still distinguish, I believe, a good song from a mediocre song (or a good performance vs. a mediocre performance) within that genre. I believe that, while the "magic" that makes a great song great may be impossible to describe; still, there are general principles that can be followed to help improve any song-in-the-making.
I think that all artists tend to suffer from what I term "inventor's syndrome". When an artist invents a song, the artist tends to become enamored with that song (which makes sense, because it is a part of the soul of the artist who composed it). The song will therefore sound much better to its creator than to other listeners. Also, the artist will tend to hear the song the way that he/she imagines that it should sound (as opposed to how it actually sounds). I have noticed that I love to listen to my own songs (and they sound great to me) right after composing and recording them. However, if I record a song and then let it sit for a week without listening to it, when I come back to it I will notice all kinds of flaws and weaknesses in the recording that I hadn't noticed right after producing it. Unfortunately, some flaws I never hear until after my CD is released. By then it's too late. I have decided that I am going to set aside at least one song track on each new CD to re-arrange and re-perform some song that appeared on an earlier CD but which I now think merits a new attempt at arrangement; that way I can give myself another shot at earlier songs.
Best luck to all you artists out there. May you create what many listeners will love to hear (over-and-over again) and may all your songs become hits!
I wrote this article back in 2008 and posted it on a hosting website that soon had financial difficulty and so disappeared. I think it is still timely and so I have decided to re-post it here.