Start with the beat. Well, at least that’s pretty much the way pop music-making goes these days. Skrillex or Max Martin or 40 or other producers work with a “beatmaker” to come up with a – ahem – sick groove. From that beat they layer in chords and instruments and, if there are any, vocals. Lyrics are generally the last ingredient and are often based on consonant mono-syllabic words that don’t make a statement so much as complement – you might have guessed – the beat.
That Drake song that hit #1 probably started with a beat by Noah “40” Shebib.
“Topliners” are the folks who take the beat and add in the melody. The good ones can make lots of money, too, since there’s no “song” without them. But they are generally less important than the beat-makers. Topliners are often aspiring writers of fully-formed songs who are looking to break into the music industry.
Great beatmakers are highly sought-out and they can command major money and receive significant royalties for their work. You might hate the idea of reverse-engineered music, but consider this: some pipe music composers have been doing largely the same thing at least since the 1990s.
I never thought I’d say these words, but 25 years ago Robert Mathieson was our Skrillex. The grooves that Mathieson derived from some of his music started with a beat created with Jim Kilpatrick. Kilpatrick and Mathieson would apparently come up with a rhythmical feel first, and Mathieson would then wrap a melody around it, often syncopating a shuck-and-jive opener or finisher.
Going back a little further, Tom Anderson apparently got the inspiration for his now-classic hornpipe “The Train Journey North” while riding the rails back to Belfast from a practice with the Grade 1 St. Patrick’s Donaghmore Pipe Band of Dublin. Go back another 50 years and you get G.S. McLennan getting inspiration for “The Little Cascade” – perhaps the greatest pipe tune ever composed – from the rhythm of a dripping faucet.
These anecdotes might well be apocryphal, but there’s something to the idea of reverse engineering a tune.
Pop songs don’t mess around: they are intended to be loved immediately, not after a dozen listens, which is often a major failing of tunes that a judge hears for the first time and they just don’t resonate. I don’t care if pipe band protectionists are aghast at the thought. If you want a great groove to draw people into that opener in your medley instantly with no messing about, you might want to start with a sick beat.
McLennan, Anderson and Mathieson: the Max Martin, 40 and Skrillex of their day.