Minimalism in Music: Why Less is More in Today’s Pop Tracks
Remember how blown away the industry was by the success of Lorde’s “Royals”?
Back in 2012, no one thought such a modestly produced record could land on the radio.
Then, Billie Eilish walked in and took that minimalist approach to a whole new level.
With trap taking the lead now, we’re used to hearing music producers strip-down tracks to their bare bones.
But why are tracks with minimal production so powerful?
When done right, a minimal arrangement demands the listener’s utmost attention.
If you work with a bare arrangement, you’ll feel the urge to pick your instruments more carefully.
If your goal is to make the vocals shine, you have to produce beats that leave plenty of space for them to do so.
They say if your song sounds great with simple accompaniment, you’re onto something.
Minimalism in music has been around for a long time and while it’s new to pop, the reasons why it’s loved by so many are well understood.
So, if you’re not sold on minimalism yet, let’s take a look at why it’s so great for writing good pop tunes.
The power of repetition
Songwriters tend to work with familiar song structures.
Even people who know nothing about making music are familiar with terms like “chorus”, “verse” and “bridge” for a reason.
Regardless of genre, the chorus is known to be the part of a song that repeats. Some call it the “hook” while listeners in other circles might call it a “drop”.
Either way, repetition appears to be a necessity in music. But it can easily become an ailment, too.
There are songs that are annoyingly catchy due to their repetitive content. There are also brilliant songs that contain various repeating sections and words.
Repetition and simplicity in music doesn’t mean it’s easy to get right.
Finding balance is always the most difficult part. After all, you can’t have too much of a good thing.
It’s well researched as to why people love repetition in music so much.
It turns out there’s a scientific explanation behind it. Human beings find the music they hear more than once in a song easier to follow and enjoy.
The power of simple structure
Music blogger Paul Lamere once studied Spotify’s data to understand listeners’ habits. He found that half the listeners decide whether they like a song or not within the first 30 seconds.
It’s no wonder so many pop artists begin their songs with a chorus nowadays! You have to get the attention of the listener as quickly as possible.
For example, nearly half of Post Malone’s catalog consists of songs that start with a chorus.
The power of limitations
Some artists stick to a limited tonal melodic range in their songs for good reason.
If you write songs that are easy to sing along to, chances are more people will sing along to them.
In 2017, Dua Lipa broke out with “New Rules”. The chorus was one of those infectiously catchy choruses.
How the writers achieved this with a melody that only uses three pitches is beyond me!
Dua Lipa followed a similar strategy with her latest massive hit, “Don’t Start Now”.
The song is undeniably well-written without trying too hard. It was stuck in my head from the first moment I heard it, which prompted me to ask myself, “Why?”.
Dua Lipa starts “Don’t Start Now” with a sneak peek of the pre-chorus.
The lush piano paired with her reverberated vocals makes a majestic intro.
Then the first verse arrives. All of a sudden, we hear the drums, a funky bassline and Dua Lipa’s much drier-sounding lead vocal performance.
The use of layers and time-based effects keep fluctuating throughout the track. Some sections are more stripped down to increase the impact of the more layered sections.
The result is a production that’s all about getting your attention and never letting go.
Drawing inspiration from minimalism in your own tracks
When you think you’re done producing a track, edit it. Then, edit some more.
Layering instruments and samples in a production can be a creative necessity. But over-producing is a bad habit.
This is why learning the skill and art of arrangement is so important.
There’s a time and place for everything. The beginning stages are great for experimentation. Once you’re midway through, you should ask yourself what elements are truly essential.
More layers, more problems
Layering is especially problematic when you work with vocals. If you want to keep the vocals front and center, you need to carve out space for them in your arrangement.
Sometimes turning the volume faders up and down won’t be enough to achieve the perfect balance. But it still can’t hurt to mix in order of importance.
Start mixing the drums, bass and vocals together first.
Then, introduce the rest of the instruments one by one.
Unmute the most significant layers. Think about what you can edit out and when. This strategy might urge you to revise the arrangement in a positive way.
Be meticulous in rhythmically complex productions.
If the sub-heavy trap trend taught us anything, it’s the fact that you have to make room for the bass.
In hip hop influenced trap productions, rhythmic variations are a key element.
The more sophisticated the groove section becomes, the more meticulous you have to be. Don’t overlook the audio and MIDI editing process. Every creative choice has to be deliberate.
Arrange and process with lyrics in mind
Pay attention to the particularly well-written lines in the songs you produce.
Ask yourself how you can highlight them.
The answer may be as simple as doubling the vocal melody with another instrument in that section. Or, perhaps dialing the layering back instead will work wonders.
Everyone is talking about Taylor Swift’s new album “folklore” and how brilliant her lyrics are.
The truth is, Taylor Swift’s vocal delivery stands out due to the way the songs are produced.
Her vocals sound dry, raspy and intimate in various parts of the album. Sometimes you get the feeling that she’s singing in your living room.
In those moments, distracting background vocal layers and shimmery reverb are nowhere to be found.
Next time you listen to your favorite music, listen more closely. The way a record is mixed can greatly influence the listener’s perception of it.
SIRMA is a singer, songwriter and producer who can be found creating, writing or teaching out of her home studio in Brooklyn on any given day.
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