Write Jazz Tunes Like a Pop Star

Ilove John Mayer. There, I said it. My secret is out. I’d totally go to one of his concerts if I could stomach being one of many in a herd of screaming fourteen year old girls. I’m not about to be a part of Bye Bye Birdie, so sorry John, not sure when I’ll be showing my support. But I love him not for his dreamy eyes, or his perfect hair. Oh no no. I love him for his ability to craft a tune. Not write. Craft.

There’s so much we can learn about writing tunes simply by listening to pop music. So while you’re improving your ear through pop music, pay attention to these 3 key points, and the next time you go to write a tune, it just might be a keeper.

Write a great hook

In pop music writing, they talk about hooks all day. Write a great hook is their credo, yet in the jazz composition universe, we rarely if ever talk about it.

Wikipedia offers a pretty good definition:

“A hook is a musical idea, often a short riff, passage, or phrase, that is used in popular music to make a song appealing and to catch the ear of the listener. The term generally applies to popular music, especially rock music, R&B, hip hop, dance music, and pop. In these genres, the hook is often found in, or consists of, the chorus. A hook can be either melodic or rhythmic, and often incorporates the main motif for a piece of music.”

Make a song appealing and catch the ear of the listener. Aren’t these things that any composer of any genre of music should strive for? So why discount the hook? If I had to put in my own words, I’d say a hook is a melodic or rhythmic phrase or piece of a phrase that has uniquely defined character and is easily remembered aurally by any listener.

Yes, any listener. People have better ears than we give them credit for. Of course the uninitiated can’t sing and identify intervals or chords, but they can sing along with parts of their favorite songs, reproducing the lyrics and melody from memory.

It’s precisely because of people’s ability to do this that the hook matters so much. If people weren’t capable of remembering and reproducing melodic fragments in their mind, it wouldn’t matter much if anything in a tune was that memorable.

To get an idea of a hook, let’s listen to some in a pop context:

Here’s Mayer on a live version of Neon. Pay close attention at 2:24 when the audience starts screaming. As he transitions from an improvised intro into the body of the tune, the audience clearly recognizes and can hear the melodic hook of the tune. Without that hook people would have nothing to identify with and no screaming for John would be happening. This melodic riff serves as the backbone for all the other hooks that happen throughout the tune, including the chorus, a place in pop music where a hook is absolutely essential.

Here’s another example of a hook from Mariah Carey on Touch my Body, extra funny video just for you. Here she repeats a minor third interval between the 3rd and the 5th of the major triad in a specific rhythm. The alternating between these two notes combined with that specific rhythm results in a unique phrase identifiable by anyone. And what do we get? Our beautiful hook.

Notice as well that the chorus of Touch my Body still implies the underlying rhythm of the previous hook, but elongates part of it. At this point, it’s the first time we’ve heard a held out note, and what does that do for us? It sticks out clearly in our mind as a unique singable phrase, providing yet another great hook.

Moreover, hooks are more than motivic development. They’re about the motif itself. They’re about inventing a motif that listeners will latch on to and sink they’re teeth into, begging to hear it again. These motifs are usually simple, but something about them transforms them into something special. This specialness is what makes a great hook.

Plenty of great jazz tunes have great hooks too, although you may have never thought of them as hooks before because in jazz we don’t naturally think about things from this perspective.

So what has multiple hooks all interwoven to create a more than memorable experience.

Here’s another example of crafting great hooks. Kurt Rosenwinkel from his album Star of Jupiter, which contains excellent examples of hooks throughout.

Start thinking in terms of crafting great hooks in any tune you write. Just this simple paradigm shift will greatly transform how you approach writing.

Spend time on the arrangement and the groove

Jazz composition is so focused on harmony that often we forget there’s a lot more to focus on if we truly want to create something great. How many times have you written a tune by figuring out the chord changes, then a melody, and then completely stopped? I know I’m guilty of this hundreds of times over. Oh, I’ll just figure out the groove and feel later.

In pop music composition, they focus on building the groove and arrangement often even before or in conjunction with writing the melody and chords. The point is they actually care about and spend time on more than just the melody and chords.

Watch this video of Michael Jackson performing his tune You Rock My World. I couldn’t help but put this version in with Chris Tucker. While you’re enjoying the amazing dancing and comic relief, make sure to listen to how he built the groove and how all the background parts support the groove. When you factor in the video and the choreography, that’s quite an arrangement.

This same care can be taken in the jazz idiom. Listen to Kurt Rosenwinkel’s Zhivago. His attention to detail comes across in everything he does.

Even if you perform or record a standard, spend time on the arrangement, and when I say arrangement, I don’t mean how two or three horn parts harmonically fit together. Yes this is part of the arrangement, but I’m thinking of an arrangement in broader terms: how everything in the tune fits together; as I said before, care about and spend time on more than just the melody and chords.

In my personal opinion, I think this is where the jazz community, even the best players today, fall short. We get into such a habit of showing up and playing, that we put little or no effort into the arrangement of standards.

In pop music the equivalent of a standard is a cover. The most interesting and enjoyable covers don’t try to reproduce the original exactly how it was played. They expand, add, subtract, and remix it, producing a different and in some rare cases, an improved version.

Here’s a few pop covers for you to check out:

Jayme Dee covering Foster the People’s Pumped Up Kicks

Aloe Blacc covering Michael Jackson’s Billie Jean

Jacob Collier covers Stevie Wonder’s Don’t You Worry ‘Bout a Thing

And here’s a couple jazz musicians that always take the time and effort to arrange standards in their own way:

Mulgrew Miller on I Hear a Rhapsody

Brad Mehldau on It Might as Well be Spring

Don’t just write out chords and a melody, then call it a day. And don’t be a a boring cover band. Spend time on the arrangement.

Make something people want to listen to

A lot of jazz compositions sound like they’re an exercise, or they sound like they were assembled in a lab. I’ve written countless pieces like this where when you’re done you’re thinking, wow that’s not something I’d actually want to listen to.

Compositions can be sterile because they weren’t crafted with the intent of creating something that people would actually listen to. I’m not saying pander to the masses; I’m saying to aim for something that you and others would want to listen to. Don’t you want people to get enjoyment from your music? If you don’t there’s nothing wrong with that, but it is something to think about when you’re bringing a new composition to life.

In fact, take other people out of the equation for a minute and just ask yourself if you’re creating something that you actually want to listen to. In his short yet valuable book, Steal Like An Artist , Austin Kleon says you should “write the book you want to read.” He expands upon this principle and naturally, you can see how it applies here: compose, arrange, and play the music you want to listen to.

In pop music, obviously, the goal is to deliver your tune to as many people as possible. I don’t want to get into whether this is morally correct, or discuss the details of the music business. I want you to takeaway the understanding that people listening to your music and enjoying it is a good thing.

The recent song by Avicii (but sung by Aloe Blacc and written by Mike Einziger the guitarist from Incubus, Wake me Up combines two of the most popular music genres, folk rock and EDM, today in a creative and musical way.

Love it or hate it, it makes sense that this song achieved number one in 22 countries and top 10 in six others. Several great hooks, a solid arrangement with clear discernible sections, and it fuses sounds people love listening to.

Think like a pop star

Writing jazz tunes and arranging standards is not as dry and boring as you think. In fact, it’s not dry and boring at all unless you approach it that way. When The Dream and Tricky Stewart wrote Mariah’s Touch my Body they were thinking about how they could craft great hooks, how they could invent something that people would sing in the shower, how they could get people to remember something, anything, a rhythm, a melody, something they could hold onto and take with them back into their own world.

When the same duo wrote Umbrella for Rhianna, Single Ladies for Beyonce, Me Against the Music for Britney Spears, and Baby for Justin Bieber (Coincidental they wrote all these hits? I think not), they thought about every piece of the arrangement: how each section would be clearly stated and defined in the listeners mind, how the groove would feel, how the melody would interact with the drums and bass, how the intro would lead into the tune, how the tune would end.

And of course, when they wrote all these tunes, they were thinking about how to create something that people would actually want to listen to. It doesn’t matter whether you have a vomit reflex when you listen to pop music or if you get teary eyed with joy. There are a lot of lessons we as jazz musicians need to learn from the writers of pop music. Keep these three concepts in mind when you’re writing and you’re sure to enjoy the process more while creating compositions you love to listen to.