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The Musical Evolution of Taylor Swift

One of the advantages that observing the MMA game has given me, in terms of creative media, is that the comparisons between fighters and writers has been made clear as day.

Many people think that the better fighter is someone who is better overall at fighting than the other. And while in lower levels of competition that may be the case, when you reach the top pros that train of thinking becomes dangerously naïve.

In truth, top level fighting is about utilising your personal style of combat to its maximum effectiveness whilst minimising the effectiveness of your opponent’s. To illustrate, Anderson Silva, a long time middle weight champion, was outstanding in countering the striking attacks of his opponents with his own. This is a great strategy, and can lead to very fast knock outs of adversaries who fall into his game. But if for some reason Silva has to be the one who throws first, he becomes very much less effective. Counter striking is Silva’s A-game. Leading is his C.

To link with writing. David Mamet is probably the best dialogue writer in playwriting today. But if he had to write a play where only one character spoke, he would struggle. Ernest Hemmingway, using Ice-Berg theory, could break your heart with 6 words. But if you asked him to write a book with no ‘Ice-Bergs’ he would be staring at a blank sheet of paper for a long time. Bryony Lavery would find it difficult to write a play where no character is allowed in any way to monologue. If you told Anthony Horowitz to write a book with only one major plot event, he would crumble. If Cormac McCarthy had to write a book where none of his characters or the narrator could digress into personal philosophy, you’d get a very bland book.

Every writer has their A-game. There’s no such thing as a great writer. There’s only a writer who is very adept at a particular writing style. If you try to excel at every aspect of writing, or every aspect of fighting for that matter, you will be barely average in everything. And you will not be impressive.

Writers, unlike fighters, don’t ever have to face fellow writers who will ruthlessly exploit any deficiencies in their styles. But writers, and artists in general, do occasionally have to change genres. This is where a writer’s reliance on their style can become very problematic. Certain genres require and negate certain techniques. F. Scott Fitzgerald, without the ability to undercut the actions and dialogue of his character via narration, struggled to write for Hollywood. And, to bring this to a musical perspective, when the Ska/Punk Rock band Less than Jake tried to switch to a more mainstream Pop-Rock sound for their album In with the Out Crowd, they were met with critical backlash from their core fans, and subsequently made a swift retreat back to Ska/Punk Rock in their next album, GNV FLA.

So when a writer is able, successfully, to jump genre, and to achieve a critical acclaim that had before been elusive, it’s always worth taking notes.

Taylor Swift’s album 1989 outsold both her previous albums put together. It was critically acclaimed. It is a far more cohesive and powerful compilation than her last album, Red. But how did a songwriter who specialised in a blend of Country Folk-esque Pop tunes make the jump to what is essentially Soundscape Pop with so much success? Obviously part of it is marketing and being in the right place at the right time, but there is an underlying evolution to Taylor’s Music between Red and 1989 which demonstrates how cleverly Swift made her style’s strengths stronger while limiting her weaknesses.

I will attempt to analyse the music composition of Red and 1989 in order to highlight this evolution. I feel, however, that it is important to make some disclaimers. I am by no means an expert at musical composition, and will be limited by that. Also, though I am using fairly basic terminology in music theory, this article will probably be quite technical for some, so I ask patience. Also, while I am using classical musical theory to analyse Swift’s music, the composition of the music itself was probably by a process more akin to Sound Design. So this is by no way the process Swift is conscious of when she composes. Also it’s worth noting that Swift is a collaborative artist, like all the cool kids today, and she worked with very different people for Red and 1989. So this obviously is a large factor in their differing sounds.

Now with all that out of the way, let me introduce you to a keyboard.

A Piano Keyboard

What is important to understand is each key has a letter designation. This is the musical note of that key. You can see which key is what here. How all these work together is vital to understanding Swift’s evolution.

What do we know about how Taylor Swift writes music from Red?

When examining Red, it becomes pretty clear what the “Classical” Swift likes to do.

Taylor Technique No. 1: Use 4 chords in continuous order.

The old adage goes, “three chords and the truth can change the world.” Taylor prefers to use four. This is by no means unique in Pop song writing, but what Taylor does – which is slightly unusual – is to repeat her chosen 4 chords in the same order throughout the song.

If you played the C, E, G notes simultaneously on the keyboard above you’d be playing a C major chord. Where C is the root note, E is the 3rd, and G is the 5th. If you play any three separate notes at the right intervals on the keyboard above you get a triad. Taylor likes to go through 4 separate triads in her songs in continuous order. What other Pop song writers would usually do for the verse is to use a sequence like C major, E minor, D minor, G major, and for the chorus change to C major, G major, D minor, E minor or something of that nature.

Swift prefers to keep the chords on a continuous loop, because this creates a unity and cohesion in her songs which would otherwise be missing.

Now obviously just playing exactly the same chords over and over again would get a bit samey. So what Swift does is usually for the verse of her song is to slightly modify the chords by playing the “Power chord” or “Augmented variations” with lesser instrumentation, and going Major or Minor in the chorus with much more instrumentation.

Obviously sometimes Taylor does use different chord sequences for the verse and chorus, but she usually tries to employ as similar a scheme as possibly.  In I Almost Do for example, the verse goes A augmented 2nd, E major, B augmented 4th, and in the chorus it changes to A major add 2nd, E major, B augmented 4th , C# Minor Seventh to B augmented 4th.

You can see that even with all the 2nds, 4ths, and majors and minors, the song still basically goes through A, E, B continually. But all this “augmented” talk leads us to our next point.

Taylor Technique No. 2: Augmented chords are your friends.

In keeping with making the chord patterns the same throughout her numbers, Taylor loves to use augmenteds to vary the sounds from verse to chorus. By augmenteds I mean instead of playing C, E, G on the keyboard above to play C major, you play C, D, G to play C augmented second. Or you play C, D, E, G to play C major add 2nd. Or you play C, F, G to play C augmented 4th.

These different chords all produce different sounds, and they all can be linked together intelligently. One specific example of how Taylor likes to use augmented chords is to use the augmented 2nd of one chord followed by augmented 4th of the chord one tone up.

You see the keyboard. Play C, D, G together. C augmented 2nd. Now play D, G, A together. D augmented 4th. Notice how both chords share the same two notes; G and D. This creates a nice sense of cohesion, and can be used to build up to resolution with a triad, such as D minor; D, F, A. Swift loves using this sequence.

Taylor Technique No. 3: Power Chords are your friends.

Like Rock music? Then you love power chords. The term is actually a misnomer, though. The term ‘chord’ implies 3 notes. A power chord is when you go from the root note, straight to the 5th, missing out the 3rd completely. An example would be C plus G; the C Power Chord.

Taylor uses power chords extensively to vary her continuous cycles of chords. Power chords have a far more open and stark sound than traditional Major or Minor Chords, which require the 3rd in the mix. Note that Swift doesn’t usually play power chords on a distorted Electric guitar, so she can avoid the whole ‘Rock’ sound to her songs. Though she has used this occasionally for previous albums.

But both Taylor Technique No. 2 and No. 3 apart from improving Technique No. 1 are quintessential to Technique No. 4.

Taylor Technique No. 4: Minor Keys are for Wusses.

Listen to a Major scale. C major. Listen to a minor scale. A minor. Notice how they have drastically different moods? How one sounds chirpy and bright, and the other sounds moody and sad? They are actually the same set of notes. It’s just changing the first note which is played which makes the difference.

A song written in a minor key uses a minor chord as its root. For example, A minor, which is A, C, E on the keyboard. Traditionally songs in minor keys sound sadder and more down-beat.

But Swift prefers Major keys. In fact every song in Red is written in a major key.

‘Hang on?’ I hear you say. ‘How does she write about being sad about ex-boyfriends if she only uses the chirpy major key?’

Well what makes a chord Major or Minor is the 3rd. C major is C, E, G. C minor is C, Eb, G. The major 3rd, E, makes it happy. The minor 3rd, Eb, makes it minor.

The thing is, playing a sad song in a minor key is very predictable. And corny. And over done in general. It just sounds naff. Swift is very aware of this, so she mixes it up by playing in a major key, but avoiding the major 3rd.

For example, a typical major chord progression would be G major, C major, E minor, D major. If Swift was using this key to write about an ex, the progress would go, G Power Chord, C augmented 2nd, E minor, D Power Chord. Swift when writing sad songs using a major key does so by denying the major 3rd, and implementing the minors. This creates a freshness to her ‘heartbreak’ melodies which other less harmonically aware Pop songwriters would not be able to replicate.

Looking at Red, and Swift’s earlier work in general, you can tell she is very harmonically aware. This awareness, combined with an ability to write very catchy tunes, are her strengths.

But Swift’s style has weaknesses. As I’ve already mentioned, recycling your chords from verse to chorus can get samey, especially if that’s what you’re doing for a whole album.  Even if you use augmenteds and Power Chords to mix things up, you start running out of variations eventually.

Swift’s typical line of defense in this case is to use instrumentation to vary her chorus and verse. But if you’re only stuck with a guitar, a piano, a drum kit, and a bass, with possibly a violin, there are only so many different ways you can differentiate the verse and chorus.

So what did Swift do different, or in many ways the same, in 1989? Well…

The Innovations of 1989.

Swift speaks of the year 1989 as being one of immense innovation for the Pop music industry. 1989, the album, is one of immense innovation for Swift. But this was a very calculated innovation. In fact, an innovation which augmented the strengths of Swift’s song writing style, and negated the weaknesses. I would go so far as to say that the way Taylor Swift approached her new genre of 1989 is masterful.

The disuse of Harmony.

When using a repeating chord pattern for the verse and chorus, Swift sometimes used Power Chords to vary the progression in Red, dropping the major 3rd or minor 3rd to produce a starker sound.

For 1989, it’s almost as though she had the thought, ‘Well, if I’ve already dropped the 3rd, why don’t I just drop 5th?’

Numerous sequences in 1989 only use root notes or octaves; doubled up root notes. Welcome to New York and Shake it off are examples, both having very harmonically-thin verses.

Using only the root note is nothing new in Pop music, but the effect on Swift’s song writing is drastic. Swift has already established herself as being very confident in writing melodies, so just cutting down to a single melodic line is very comfortable for her. Additionally, this creates another line of defense to avoid samey-ness in her repeating chord patterns.

By being able to use only the root means she can create three harmonic layers in her songs. Start off just with root notes in the verse. Move to Power Chords in the build up to the chorus. Then use triads or augmented chords in the chorus. And move back to root notes in the bridge.

Using single bass lines with slick drum rhythms in Pop music is very hip. When Swift does it, not only does she hang with the cool kids, but she adds another tool to complement her original song writing style.

Sound Design.

Pop music owes so much to John Cage.

The grandfather of Sound Design has created a whole generation of people willing and wanting to experiment with new sounds. Electronic or otherwise.

Swift has taken to Sound Design like a duck to water. Whether it’s using her recorded heart beat to be the rhythm to Wildest Dreams or using obviously-altered soundbites of herself to say the lyric of the song in All you had to do was Stay, she loves her John Cage.

The reason why Swift uses Sound Design so effectively is because, in addition to being something new in her arsenal to listen to, it also complements her pre-existing style. Swift’s Sound Design acts, in 1989, as another defense to sameness when using a repeating chord sequence in the verse and chorus. It’s another tool to allow the chorus to sound unique, even when the verse has essentially the same chord structure.

As I said, there’s only so much you can do with a barn dance band in terms of instrumentation. Sound Design gives Swift a whole other avenue to explore when trying to differentiate her verses and Choruses while maintaining her sense of cohesion.

The use of Minor in minor doses.

In her album Red, Swift didn’t use minor keys at all. In 1989 she did. Style is partly written in B minor. But this is where it gets clever.

Remember me telling you that the key of C major and A minor had the same notes, but start at different places? Well, every major key has its complimentary minor. D major’s complimentary minor is B minor. Taylor swift starts her song in B minor, but ends in D major.

And you if you consider the notes of B minor (B, D, F#), and D major (D, F#, A) you notice they share two of the same notes. This means by switching between them, you keep a sense of cohesiveness.

In Style, the verse goes B minor, G major, B minor, G major. In the chorus, Swift goes D major, G major, D major, G major, B minor, G major. It’s the same but different, and this is the essence of Swift’s music, harmonically. Swift’s switching between major and minor is another tool to create cohesion but avoid ‘sameness’. And, you’ll note, Style wasn’t about how much she misses an Ex.

Building on your strengths. Limiting your weaknesses.

In 1989, Swift not only switched genres without sacrificing her strengths, but used the trademarks of the genre she entered into to improve upon them, while limiting her weaknesses at the same time. All the original Taylor techniques are in 1989. All have been improved upon because of the intelligent use of her new genre. I could go into the additional lyrical improvements Swift made but I’m already approaching 3000 words, so it’s best I wrap this up.

A fighter who never evolves becomes predictable and is easy prey to a savvy opponent. An artist who never evolves becomes boring to their audience. When an artist is able to switch between genres in their medium, it shows diversity. When an artist is able to swift from a life-long pigeonholing into an almost into entirely separate stream and grow stronger for the efforts, that shows excellence.

When talking about Taylor Swift it is unfortunate how much her social life and public perceptions of her personality enter the conversation. And while it is fun to indulge in this gossiping (Harry Styles, anyone?), sometimes it can distract from a few points that should be taken seriously. 1989 is an exceptional album just on its own merits. By far the best Swift has ever done. When you consider Swift’s artistic development in its composition it’s almost magical.

Swift published her first album in 2006. By the common yardstick of an artist having a decade of good work in them, Swift is approaching the end of her best years. Hopefully in the time she has left she can produce one last album to demonstrate another significant positive evolution. But, even if she doesn’t, what she has done with 1989 is exceptional.

She has proven that you may only have one style, but you never have just one limit.

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