Two reasons why I don’t like your song

I’m addicted to Symphony X. It has to be said. Most recently I bought their two latest albums, “Paradise Lost” (2007) and “Iconoclast” (2011), and have had them on almost perpetual repeat since. I’m up to about 40-50 plays on each song by now.

So why do I find their music so more-ish? Very few other bands pull me into their world of sound with the same degree of force.

Okay, I don’t listen to a huge amount of different bands (I certainly wouldn’t know Take That from Coldplay), but I believe that I’m fairly open-minded about the various kinds of music – I can appreciate pretty much any genre, given that I decide to give it a listen in the first place. There aren’t any genres I outright refuse to listen to, but there are two criteria by which I judge the extent of my dislike for any given song or type of music. If your song violates either or even both of these rules, you will find it incredibly difficult to impress me.

  1. Repetition. It’s good in moderation, but a lot of music nowadays (particularly electronic) is direly repetitive. I can’t stand to listen to most pop for more than about 10 seconds before I start pondering on how exactly I could chew my own ears off to spare them the misery of how lazily most of it is written. This goes for not just the music itself, but also structure. In order for a song to really stand out from the crowd, it has to be something far more than just intro-verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus-outro. It should take the listener by surprise with a few unexpected bits thrown in here and there. A less pronounced structure is better, in my view. That’s why Symphony X resonates so well with me – their songs’ structures are terribly complex, and that entices me to listen to them more and more – to get those weird time signatures and syncopated sections memorized. 😛 In my own music, I try to avoid mindless repetition as best I can – it’s a kind of last resort if I’m low on ideas otherwise.
  2. Vocal dominance. That is; the balance between vocals and backing track. Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with your song having a message – but for me, lyrics are an afterthought when it comes to writing music, and they should be. It seems for a large portion of music (again, pop mainly), whenever a vocalist first appears in a song, the focus of it seems to shift entirely onto them, with the musicality of the piece taking a dramatically steep drop. Now okay, I understand that a “backing track” is so-called because it provides backing for the vocalist. But if the whole track revolves around either (a) the vocalist yelling out a repetitive and clichéd message, drowning out most of the backing track, or (b) a single repeated motif in the backing track that runs throughout the whole of the song while the vocalist fires words into the mix like some kind of lyrical submachinegun, then I will lose interest quickly. For music to appeal to me, there has to be a balance – the music has to be nicely varied, and the vocals mustn’t complete dominate the mix. As such, I don’t tend to write my songs with lyrics of any kind in mind. I will occasionally write lyrics for the songs well after I’ve finished them (which I do enjoy), but I will always feel that my songs don’t really need them. Again, Symphony X do this well. They keep the music interesting by introducing a brand new guitar riff whenever vocalist Russell Allen starts singing a new section.

Pop music producers, take note, please.