When you hear a song, you are rarely actually just hearing a song. Confused? Well a song is just a melody allied to a chord change – the kind of thing you get when someone plays the piano or guitar and sings along. What you most commonly hear is actually a production. A production is where a bunch of choices are made by a bunch of people to create a sonic interpretation of the underlying song.
This is most obvious to us when someone we hate covers a song we love. We are so familiar with, say, The Beatles’ Can’t Buy Me Love that a change of production seems jarring. In fact, let’s give that direct example a run out. Here is the Beatles original from 1963.
You might detect a hint of swing about the song, but what about this 1964 version by Ella Fitzgerald?
It’s the same song, clearly, but how different! Taking the same chord progressions and effectively the same melody, Fitzgerald and – critically for today’s discussion – takes a wildly different approach to instrumentation and presentation. The tempo is slightly slower. Instead of the clanging acoustic guitars of the Beatles, a full band is at play – snapping through jazzy horn stabs in the patent big band ‘swing’ style. Where the Beatles present the song with a straightforward delivery, Ella’s take clearly comes from a very different place.
So what you are hearing here are two different productions of the same song. One is basically the song peformed in front of microphones by a live four piece guitar band. The other is a carefully orchestrated and scored piece of music played by a much bigger ensemble of jazz musicians.
Since music first became primarily a recorded medium (rather than just being a live performance) production has been of enormous import – in terms of both artistic and commercial ‘success’. Arguably, we live in the age of the celebrity producer: a Timbaland, Mark Ronson or Will.I.Am can create hits from songs that otherwise might languish in obscurity through the strength of their production skills. It’s a different kind of talent to that of songwriting, but something that is almost unavoidable when talking about songs. As far as possible on this blog I’ll be talking about songs themselves, but it’s always worth remembering that very rarely are we ever talking just about a ‘song’ in the purest of terms.