Recently I was watching some videos on noted session musicians and a drummer making a video commented that the most important element in a given band was the song. Each of the instruments involved is supposed to serve the song, not to draw attention to itself or to try to run roughshod over other elements of the material, but rather to serve the interests of what the song is trying to accomplish. How this is to be done is, of course, a matter of art rather than science, and something that depends on the context of the given song and how it develops. After all, some songs begin with a hook, some with a melody, some with lyrics that need music set to them, and so on and so forth, and the specific elements that are present influence the way that other elements then serve the song when put on top of it. Making sure that the elements that are added serve the song itself is a good way of knowing what sort of elements make the song better, rather than just being added because one can.
There is no need to be snobby about any of this. Even elements to songs that may not be particularly well-regarded, like autotune for example, can serve as a musical instrument in the way that they transform a voice, such as was done for Cher’s massive hit “Believe” in 1999, when autotune was in its infancy. Even singers whose voices are perfectly fine, like Fun’s Nate Ruess, can use such elements in their songs to serve the specific thematic interests of the song, as was done in “Some Nights.” Similarly, the feel or vibe that one wants for a song may also influence the choice of the elements for a song. The drumming for a song may be strongly influenced by whether or not the song is meant to have a groove, in which case one wants to avoid a rigidly preset drum pattern, or whether it is meant to be a straight-ahead , even stiff sort of number. Similarly, certain vibes to a song may lead to an organ being chosen over a piano, or may lead to a song having soft strings added to it for adornment, or may lead to a pedal steel or banjo or mandolin being used for instrumentation instead of the usual guitar mix.
Even if one is not writing original music, in the performance of existing music the interest of serving the song remains. Songwriters have goals in the sort of feeling they wish to invoke with their choices in lyrics and music. Sometimes there is tone painting, sometimes the dynamics of the song and the range of the notes and the instrumentation and even the space that is allowed for breathing among the phrases of the lyrics all influence the sort of feel that a song provides and the demands it places on performers. A thoughtful musician, whether a singer or one who plays an instrument, spends at least some time reading the music and listening to other performances and pondering what sort of feeling the song is meant to invoke. By changing the way a song is performed, one changes the emotional resonance of the song. Likewise, different people tend to have different native emotional registers when it comes to approaching a song. Speaking personally, I tend to be a somewhat emotionally restrained person, so the way I would approach a song is to hold back on the histrionics of performing a song and to create a large gap between the emotion that is felt and that is implied by the lyrics and instrumentation and the emotion that is shown in the singing, allowing the listener to infer that much more is felt than is expressed, and to infer that a greater emotional life exists beneath the surface appearance. Others, of course, approach such matters differently based on their own personality and nature.
In any case, the interest of serving the song requires a great deal of choices to be made at any step of the process. One may even take a step further back and ask the question of the larger interests that a song itself is supposed to serve. Sometimes the context of when a song is to be performed or what sort of project a song is to be recorded for will influence the songs that are chosen and the way that a song is performed and even the songs themselves that are chosen to serve the event or occasion in the first place. A song that is chosen for a memorial service should have had meaning for the person being memorialized. A choice of song for a religious service should have meaning for the holy day and/or for the fellowship one is performing for, and/or for the people performing it. The choice of a song to sing for karaoke or some other more informal occasion should again have meaning for the person singing it and should be able to convey some meaning for the people listening to it as well. Just as the song is served by the choices that are made by writers, arrangers, and performers, so to the song serves the larger interests of those performers. Ideally, songs should be part of a larger set of material that provides context, and should have something to say that is meaningful from the song itself in its music and lyrics as well as the context the song plays in the larger project in which it serves as an important piece.
Not everyone approaches music this way. Sometimes a song develops out of a catchy hook and not a lot of attention is paid in thinking of the larger meaning that this hook might convey, and instead one simply gets a catchy but rather vapid and brainless song that is popular but which does not require or invite a great deal of thinking because so little thinking was involved in its creation beyond the thought that this song would become popular and make a fair bit of money for someone. Likewise, sometimes performers do not take a lot of time to think about the meaning of the songs that they are performing to make sure that this meaning is conveyed to the audience through choices in how the piece is performed. Also, sometimes people pay little attention to the way that songs in larger projects can provide a context for other songs that can sometimes add to or detract from the appreciation of the whole by virtue of how those parts fit together. Some artists can make individual songs that are certainly good but lack the interest in visualizing the overall pattern or structure in which those songs are meant to serve, and so some songs may contradict each other in ways that may irritate the sensitive listener. For we can rest assured that no matter what sort of creation we make and no matter how we try to serve the song and use the song itself to serve some other interest, there will be people who are sensitive to context and meaning and who will seek to understand us through the choices we make in our art and performance. And not all of those discoveries are pleasant in nature.