8 Tech Innovations that Set Off New Trends in Songwriting

June 25, 2018 | By David Bawiec, Spire Contributor 

Twenty years ago, everyone walked the streets showing off their bulky Sony Walkmans. Today, we're listening to music on our wireless headphones while streaming the latest singles of our favorite artists from across the world. As it always does, technology has changed a lot, including how we create music.

In this post we’re taking a look back at the biggest innovations that set off new trends, inspired new genres, and changed the world of music.

But first, a short history lesson.

The beginnings of songwriting and music technology

It’s impossible to mention every great invention that changed music. Each one (small or large) had an impact on where we are today. For the purpose of keeping this article relatively short, I’ll be skipping and condensing big chunks of music tech history, particularly in the early years. We’ll start off in the 20th century. Edison had already created the phonograph and Berliner popularized the gramophone, which used flat discs to record sound. Music was no longer something accessible to the elites. Homes across the world were starting to fill up with music, as members of the middle class were able to purchase sound recordings for their homes. At this time, however, popular music primarily consisted of opera.

In the early 20th century, new musical styles started to appear in theatrical shows called "musicals." Eventually, this would lead to the popularization of show tunes and soothing ballads of such greats like Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, and George Gershwin.

In the early 1930s, jazz and blues were born in the New Orleans area. Jazz was an improvisational form of music that was primarily instrumental and incorporated a variety of styles, including African rhythms, gospel, and blues. Stars like Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, and Ella Fitzgerald all came out of the jazz world. In the mid-1930's jazz music began to take on a big band style, combining elements of ragtime, African American spirituals, blues, and European music. Big band orchestras started using an arranger to limit improvisation by assigning parts of a piece of music to various band members. Although improvisation was allowed during solo performances, the format became more structured, resulting in the swing style of jazz that became popular at the time. Duke Ellington, Coleman Hawkins, and Glenn Miller were but a few to change the landscape of popular music. Eventually, swing would also open the doors to such crooners like Frank Sinatra and Nat King Cole.

At this time the standard song form was AABA, also called the 32-bar blues. Unlike the later Verse-Chorus, this song form didn't have a chorus. Instead, it consisted of 3 repeated refrains (verses with hooks) called A sections and a contrasting B section (like a bridge). The hook of the song would usually appear in the first or last line of the A sections. For examples of AABA songs, listen to the Judy Garland’s Somewhere Over the Rainbow or Etta James’ At Last.

1. The electric guitar & amps

One of the most important gateways to a musical revolution was the creation of the electric guitar. George Beauchamp, who spent much of the 1920s coming up with ways to electrify and amplify lap steel guitars, bass guitars, and violins, later paired with Adolph Rickenbacker who would eventually create the first electric guitar in 1931. What made electric guitars revolutionary was that they intensified the sound and created a louder volume that could cut through the noise in loud bars and nightclubs. Suddenly singers didn't need to shout as much and could focus on conveying more emotion and intimacy in their performances. This electrified form of blues provided the foundations of rock and roll, featuring early adopters like Les Paul and T-Bone Walker.

As time progressed and a new generation of musical artists matured, they wanted to express themselves in new ways. This brought on the birth of a new breed of amplifiers geared specifically at amplifying the sound of electric guitars and bass guitars. It wasn't until in 1949, when Leo Fender and engineer Don Randall created the Super Amp, that true rock was given a chance to form.

Since then, electric guitars and the accompanying amps have become a staple of so many genres, from blues to heavy metal. Without them, there would be no Queen, no Elvis Presley, no Rolling Stones, no Nirvana, no U2, and no Metallica.

Young the Giant’s Jacob Tilley with a Rickenbacker electric guitar

2. Multitrack tape recorder

Back in the day if you were recording a song, you were recording it live, which literally meant bringing all the musicians into one room, placing a microphone in front of all of them and capturing a live performance as it happened, all in one take. Needless to say, a generally brilliant performance could have been ruined if just one of the players messed something up. So frequently multiple takes were recorded and the band/artist would settle on the best one.

An additional problem was that the mix and balance of instruments couldn't be changed later. If you wanted the trumpet to be softer or louder, you would place the player further from or closer to the microphone before you started recording. This meant that once the performance was recorded you couldn't alter the mix or change the balance of any of the instruments.

Ross Snyder changed music history when he developed the first 8-track tape recorder at Ampex in 1955. The unit was quickly sold to guitarist Les Paul, who used it to record a number of groundbreaking releases.

Although it was initially used as a means to enhance vocals and other instruments with a new technique called 'overdubbing' (recording new material over previously recorded material), Les Paul and his wife Mary Ford laid the foundation for what would eventually become an entirely new art form—the art of modern studio recording.

The multitrack tape allowed each of the individual players to record their part independently without affecting the previously recorded parts. This opened the doors to new collaborations that would have been impossible before. Suddenly you could record two artists at different locations singing "together."

Overdubbing also opened up the gateway to vocal doubling/stacking (layering multiple recordings of the same person singing the same melody), which became the staple of The Carpenters. It's still done today to fatten the lead vocal in so many dance songs (listen to almost any chorus of a Katy Perry hit), to make the guitars more aggressive (check out U2) and to create a larger and rounder sound for many modern acapella groups. Although original models only allowed for recording and mixing of 8 tracks, modern equivalents are pretty much limitless.

Multitrack tape changed how we made music. Without it, albums like The Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band or Pink Floyd's The Dark Side of the Moon would never have been possible.

Two of RCA Studio B's Ampex 440's audio tape recorder stereo 1/4" version from the 70's, and the Ampex MM1000 16 track recorder

3. The synthesizer

By the early 1960s, electricity had taken over the world of music through the use of electric guitars and keyboards. But one of the bigger electrical music revolutions was still to come, and it would be developed by a gentleman by the name of Robert Moog. Released in 1964, Moog’s synthesizer paved the way for a plethora of new unique sounds generated by electricity.

Moog's modular system allowed users to create, modify and generate sounds that imitated existing instruments or created truly new unheard before sounds. It was used by artists as diverse as Gershon Kingsley, The Beatles, and the Monkees. Soon enough, Moog followed up with a smaller compact portable unit of the synthesizer meant for touring musicians. Popular music would never be the same.

Can you imagine Cyndi Lauper's "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun" without those blazing synths? Synthesizers have evolved and changed with time, with many new digital emulations in existence today. Daft Punk, Lady Gaga, and Hans Zimmer built their careers on the heavy use of synthesizers. In fact many songs were written around great synth lead melodies. The synth shaped the landscape of songwriting in new unheard ways.

The Minimoog

4. The sampler

Synths definitely changed the world of music. But what followed really revolutionized it. In 1979, the Australian company called Fairlight introduced its Fairlight CMI, the world's first commercially available polyphonic digital sampler. So what's a sampler? It's an instrument capable of playing back samples (mini recordings) at different pitches and triggering them from a keyboard.

Check out this incredible video to see just one of the many sounds that the Fairlight CMI brought to the world:

With time samplers became more compact, eventually becoming standalone units that could be controlled by a MIDI keyboard. As our computers got more powerful virtual samplers started popping up, including Giga, EXS, and the most popular today—Kontakt. Some of the most successful pop songs and film scores have been created with the use of some incredible samples. I for one cannot even begin to tell you how much samples have changed my life. I can't wait to hear what new sounds we'll be able to create soon!

From a songwriting perspective, although almost every genre of music in the world has been impacted by the use of Samples, dance-pop and hip-hop are the two that were truly re-shaped by them. Sampling extended to using actual samples of existing songs by other artists to create new derivative works. Take Rihanna’s Don't Stop The Music, which features a sample of Michael Jackson’s Wanna Be Startin' Somethin’.

5. DAWs

You can't talk about modern recording without talking about DAWs—Digital Audio Workstations, which is a fancy name for a program that can record, edit and mix, all digitally on a computer. As much as nowadays that seems like the obvious and the only logical way to work when the first DAWs were introduced they were met with a lot of backlash and resistance.

After all, by then everyone was so used to recording on all sorts of tape machines that this whole new digital world seemed scary and unreliable. And to be fair, early computers weren't powerful enough to allow users to accomplish a lot, but soon, as PC's and Mac's started to evolve at an exceptionally fast pace, DAWs started earning their respect. Cubase and ProTools were among the first programs to allow users to record audio on a computer. Cubase allowing users to work with MIDI and edit it right in the program which was a new way of creating music. Soon recording studios started switching to the digital way of working. Before you knew it all-digital studios were appearing left and right.

With time new programs appeared on the market—some offered MIDI capabilities geared more at record producers (like Cubase, Logic), whereas other programs focused on perfecting recording capabilities (like Pro Tools). Additional contenders appeared as well, appealing to entry-level musicians (like Garageband) and live performances (Ableton Live). Throughout the years, many of these programs evolved to include the features the competitors had. Nowadays almost all the programs offer the ability to record audio, record MIDI, edit, and mix, all in the box (meaning, in the program).

DAWs have completely transformed how we work. For songwriters and composers in particular, you no longer had to wait to go into the studio to hear how your song was going to sound. With the use of some MIDI, Samplers and a DAW, you could hear how the song was going to sound before hiring a single musician or renting the studio. Which meant you could hear what worked, what didn’t, and make changes accordingly. Nowadays, every musician can create music on their laptop, iPad or even phone! Some of them are very simple, others are rich with professional-grade features. Regardless of your level or your focus, you'll be able to find a program that suits your needs (and then some).

6. Turntables

Can you imagine early hip-hop without those quintessential scratching effects? Me neither. Although turntables primary purpose was to playback pre-recorded vinyl records, their abuse turned out to spawn a whole new genre of music. How? It was the little things that were naturally happening to a turntable that would eventually inspire artists to start experimenting more.

Turning on a turntable would gradually speed up the disc to the desired speed. This speeding up created a warping effect that made the music rise in pitch from low and slow sounding to the actual recording. The same would happen in reverse upon turning off the unit. Bumping the unit during playback would also create different effects like jumps and skips. And instead grabbing the disc and force pulling it forward or background would generate loud scratching sounds as the needle was being pushed or pulled over the disc.

With time, DJ’s started to use these these “mistakes” as actual musical effects in songs. Eventually, scratching techniques would evolve and start crossing into different genres of music, including dance, EDM, and techno.

7. The internet

It's incredible to see how within only 28 years, the internet has COMPLETELY changed our lives. Try turning off your Wifi and cell phone for 24h and see how much we depend on it nowadays. It's how we receive our news, how we share stories, how we communicate, how we get our entertainment, how we listen to music, how we watch videos, and how many of us work. It's truly astounding how this single invention has transformed and revolutionized our world. 30 years ago "far away" meant the other side of town. Nowadays "far away" no longer exists as the internet allows all of us to connect, regardless of location.

Aside from improving our lives, the internet has also opened up the doors to a huge shift in the music industry. Since in its early life internet connections were slow and access was limited, this led to the invention of various compressed audio formats (including MP3 and eventually M4A). Music sharing through services like Napster opened up the floodgates for music discovery. Eventually, this would lead to the creation of iTunes and other online music stores. As technology and internet speeds progressed, a large shift happened in how we consume entertainment. Rather than paying to own movies or music, we started preferring paying for unlimited access to movies and music. A couple companies took notice and Netflix, Hulu, YouTube, Spotify, Pandora, Apple Music, and other streaming services were born.

The internet has truly decentralized music. Nowadays, anyone can record and release music, regardless of who they are, where they are. You no longer need a recording contract to share your music with the world. In fact, some of today's stars started their life as performers recording cover videos on YouTube. From a songwriting perspective, tools like Skype, Dropbox, and Google Docs have created collaboration opportunities where those didn’t exist before. People from all over the world can now work on music together. I'm blown away by all the possibilities that the world wide web has given us and I can't wait to see the new ones that are yet to be born from it.

8. Streaming

Up until the 2000’s, almost every song released on the market was being written in the by-then-standard verse-chorus song form. Verse-Chorus songs have the following basic structure:

Verse - Chorus - Verse - Chorus - Bridge - Chorus.

Some songs may include intros, outs and even pre-choruses building up to the chorus, but the basic foundation is the same. The hook of the song resided in the chorus and brought the main idea home. Since there were at least 3 choruses in each song, songs sold like cookies, with many of them becoming iconic songs that would last for decades.

However, since the 2000’s record labels have really been hurting as album sales have been almost completely replaced with streaming of music. Streaming opened the door to two problems for labels. For starters, streaming generates so much less in royalties than physical purchases and radio performances used to. Secondly, streaming services like Spotify gave everyone access to all the music by all artists in all genres around the world. This meant that record labels were no longer competing with just other songs on the local market. Instead, they were now competing with all the different artists around the world. In this new market, a great chorus no longer guaranteed a smash hit. Record producers and songwriters alike needed to up their game. Record labels turned to songwriters to modify the existing pop song form to include not one but two choruses:

Verse - Main Chorus - Hook Chorus - Verse - Main Chorus - Hook Chorus - Bridge - Main Chorus - Hook Chorus

The Main Chorus section remained identical to the choruses we know from decades past. The Hook Chorus, however, is what made this new song form unique. It focused only on repeating the main hook multiple times, essentially drilling the hook into the listener’s head. If the first chorus wasn't a strong enough hit, the second one would anchor it ever more and truly make it memorable.

Take a listen to Beyoncé’s Halo: around 1:00 the Main Chorus kicks in with the word halo appearing twice in the whole chorus. Since hearing it two times no longer guaranteed a successful hit, the main chorus was followed by a hook chorus at 1:24, which features the word halo an additional 17 times! If that won’t get stuck in your head I don’t know what will! Other examples of songs that feature a Hook Chorus are Katy Perry’s Roar, Lady Gaga’s Poker Face or Owl City’s When Can I See You Again?.

Conclusion

Throughout the years music has inspired technological innovation, and in return new technology inspired new music. Each year the NAMM Show (National Association of Music Merchants) in Anaheim showcases brand new inventions in the music industry. I’m looking forward to seeing which new innovations will eventually lead to even newer trends in songwriting in the near future.