Measure for Measure: Devils Into Angels

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

On June 30, 2014, Epic Records released Meghan Trainor’s “All About That Bass.” As her first single for a major label, it was a career milestone. If she had been wondering whether the subject matter — an exuberant celebration of booty power — might ignite a controversy, she didn’t have long to wait.

Time magazine called “Bass” the “sixth worst song of the year,” while others hailed it as a body blow to anorexic beauty standards. Jon Carmanica of the New York Times dubbed it a “cheeky novelty hit” (wink, wink, nudge, nudge), but ideologues were unamused, accusing Trainor of shaming thin women and promoting anti-feminist notions, such as “real men love curves.” Trainor responded simply, saying she wrote the song to “help my body confidence — and to help others.”

One thing was certain: people loved the song. By the end of the year, sales hit 11 million — a fantastic return on investment for 40 minutes of composition work. “Bass” lingered at the top of the Billboard Hot 100 list for 25 consecutive weeks and went on to collect a Grammy nomination. It was arguably the song of the summer.

Trainor followed up with several more hits, proving her initial success was no fluke. Her secret? Catchiness, for one thing. “Insanely catchy,” said Hugh McIntyre of Forbes, and you will find the word “catchy” in every other comment online. Since our last three columns have been dedicated to catchiness, Trainor seems like the ideal act to bring the curtain down on the series.

In March, we introduced a game aimed at developing your catchiness skills. This column offers a variation called “Devils Into Angels.”

Why “Devils”? Well, the devil, as everyone knows, is in the details. We all have a natural aversion to dealing with devils, but if you don’t control them, they will control you.

Whatever you think about “All About That Bass,” Trainor undeniably had a wealth of musical details on tap when she composed it. Hence the plethora of influences noted by critics: bubblegum pop, doo-wop, retro-R&B, soul-pop, reggae, hip-hop, country, rock ’n’ roll, 1960s girl groups and vintage 1950s singers such as Eydie Gormé and Rosemary Clooney. I can’t help but hear echoes of “You Never Can Tell” by Chuck Berry when I listen to the interlude of “Yeah, my momma she told me ….”

When you listen to a song such as “Bass,” all those musical details rush around in an entertaining whirlwind. But when you try to compose a song, they vanish. Diabolical, isn’t it? Artists like Trainor have tamed the little devils and turned them into songwriting angels, which is why she could write a song like “All About That Bass” in 40 minutes. Is she a natural? No doubt. But if you read her bio, you’ll see that it took years of hard work, too — years of turning devils into angels.

How to Play

To play “Devils into Angels,” you need ears, a song you like and a score. An instrument is desirable. If you can’t read music, get a score anyway and match words to notes. This allows you to see the melodic contour and track the phrasing. One last ingredient: index cards.

Step 1: Divide and conquer. If a song contains a hundred devils and you can wrangle them onto 10 index cards, then you’ve conquered the whirlwind of confusion.

Write the song title at the top of each card (same title, different cards). On each card, choose one topic as a subhead: Bass Rhythm, Chords, Melody, Structure, Lyrics. “Structure” means parts, such as “Verse,” “Chorus,” “Pre-Chorus,” “Intro,” etc.

You can add more cards at any time. For example, to sharpen your focus, you might subdivide “Melody” into “Measures 1 & 2,” “Contours,” “Scale Tone Mood,” or “Intervals.” 

On the back of each card, write “Angels.” It’s important to keep your devils and angels separated.

Step 2: Catchiness. Take one of the cards—“Bass Rhythm,” for example—and listen to the song, focusing on that feature. If you hear something catchy, make a note of it. In Trainor’s song, “After You,” for example, we hear “| Short-Short-Long | Short-Short-Long | Short-Short-Short-Short | Long, Long ||.”

Step 3: Convert those devils. Sing along with the song until you think of a variation, and write it on the angel side of the card. You’re on your way to winning the game.

Step 4: Keep going. Convert all your devils into angels. In “After You,” for example, the chord progression is catchy. It is also similar to “SOS” by ABBA. Notice the similarity of subject matter, too. One song might be an angel of the other. See what kind of new angel you can make out of the same devil.

Under “Melody,” the motif on “one short life” caught my ear. The melodic contour of the whole four-measure phrase was worthy of conversion from devil to angel.

Step 5: Imitate the structure. Once you’ve converted all your devils to angels, try to write a song similar to the original.

Outro

Southern California is gray and rainy today. Now there’s an idea! Next topic: Rain songs.

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