The Song Machine


bandz ahoy

Has anyone else read this? Really fascinating look at how modern pop mega-hits are written/produced (which is: mostly by Swedes and Nords.) Reading it made me respect the brilliance of people like Max Martin (who's written the most number 1s/top 10 hits ever), but when I listen to the actual tunes I have this sense of disappointment with how underwhelming the end product is.

Dr. Luke talks about how he and Max Martin were listening to 'Maps' by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and it kept irritating M.M. because the song keeps getting more intense up to the chorus, and then DROPS in intensity for the chorus. I thought that was really telling, because the intensity of the sentiment expressed in the lyrics of the chorus seems to me an emotional peak. But for MM, there has to be a melodic peak. There has to be a formula. (Off the back of this, they wrote 'Since You've Been Gone'.)

Other points of interest:

- The mainstream swing between'the extremes' of rap/rock and the 'doldrums' of pure pop.
- The committee approach to songwriting. One person does melody, one person does lyrics, etc.
- 'Melodic Math' - lyrics are less important for what they express than for how they fit with a perfectly balanced melody.
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Well-known member
Yes, the inexplicable chart success of most that's in the charts, at least for me. If you know a little bit bout music theory/are a musician yourself it's not difficult to dissect the elements of popular music which vary only a little in all the chartsmashers. Yet it's impossible to write one yourself if you don't have that extra bit of sense what the masses like. A mate of mine for instance would hear a new song/track and could immediately tell this will be a chart smasher - he was usually right - , it was outstanding.

And yeah, melody trumps lyrics, has always regarding charts music.


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IDK lads, a lot of those were bangers.

The early MM wave of gentrified New Jack Swing has to be my prefered period but still.


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Agree with Crowley on this. Skimmed through the video. Loved Oops I Did It Again, California Girls. Love me harder's good too, as are a couple of those Taylor Swift songs.


bandz ahoy
Since You've Been Gone is his masterpiece IMO

I mean, when I was a kid I was into some of those Backstreet Boys Tunes. Can't deny the guy knows how to write melodies.

Check the book out though it's great.


Well-known member
In general there's flaws with that book in how the producer as auteur is emphasized... It goes back to the old classic Shadow Morton / Phil Spector idea of the pop-svengali; legitimate in how those guys managed to personify a certain style of record they made, but forgets about the elements... In the Spectorian 60s pop (or the Johnny Franz team at Phillips for Dusty Springfield / Scott Walker if you want to bring it back to the UK) there's a myriad of elements... Musicians, Producer, Arranger, Engineers, and the artists in question, whether or not you'd prefer to put airquotes around whether or not a Britney or whomever is an artist.

Each of these elements are not drones, there's a certain degree of agency there... In the modern context, you have the songwriters, the co-producers who keep a Martin or Dr. Luke or whomever like figure hip... So for a record like Dr. Luke producing Katy Perry's "Black Horse", Juicy J was not only a guest rapper, but one of the assisting co-producers there because they wanted a modern rap sound and Dr. Luke is not like, in the clubs the way Juicy J might be. Benny Blanco, who's assisted a lot of Dr. Luke's music and recently now has become a solo producer working behind groups like Fifth Harmony did a collaborative album with Spank Rock waaaaay back when, so he has one foot in the more hipster worlds of electronic music and the other in the pop world (a position a Diplo has worked hard to occupy, though in his case with much more emphasis on branding himself as a producer artist rather than a background figure). Those co-producers occupy the 'musician' role often, now that organic music band structures are mostly novelty while the older establishment producers take the arranger role as described in the infamous "Since You Been Gone" analogy.

The thing is, in pop and also in rap/R&B this sort of 'pyramid system' has been long in effect... Timbaland had engineers who worked under him (such as Danjahandz) or writers (Static Major, Missy) who were occasionally featured artists on what he worked on, but primarily helped to refine who were the artists he had to work on. Eventually, they use their credits as 'parts' to further their careers, and that's what happened a lot in pop... Dr. Luke had Kesha sing on a Flo-Rida hook, the song did arguably well, and that's enough to convince the industry "OK the Kesha girl is investible". We recognize often that Aaliyah CHOSE to leave the more commercially successful R Kelly for Timbaland who was then kind of a still on the rise and not yet massively popular artist. Then after that, on the final album Timbaland is not present nearly as much, but Static Major as a writer is still very very much an integral part so he's getting moved as a songwriter into a more essential position while the 'beat-makers' are more or less disparate in reputation. You can claim of course management were integral in those decisions and maybe that was the case as well, but either way then the artist leads to that sort of shifting of the players behind the scenes of the record.

If anything, that's my issue with the book is that the Producer remains the unquestionable genius; there's a lot to be explored in the songwriters/affiliate producers, both those who remain behind the scenes figures and whom try to branch out and become artists in their own right. There's the boundaries of R&B/Pop in so much that, who gets to say Timbaland & The Neptunes can cross over into pop, but others can't. Why does rap, who do similar things much more blatantly now with ghost-writers and co-producers on beats, struggle with this sense of authenticity in the face of similar work. Who were the artists who drove their careers, who were passive? Even the sleazy aspect like, yes, did the Pussycat Dolls have that string of singles in the 00s b/c someone in the group was supposedly sleeping with Jimmy Iovine?

It introduces an idea that's been a sort of playpen for critics into the 'book world', but there's so much more to work with.


bandz ahoy
Yeah, that's a fair criticism. Saying that, I think the book does a good job of showing how the modern mega-smash-hit is created by a whole team of people, with some people writing hooks, some writing verses, etc. The producer (in the sense of 'beat maker') is presented as someone who emails 20 beats to a songwriting team, who then work their magic (or not). It also does touch on how MM has had to bring in other producers/songwriters to help him plug into hip-hop and rock. (E.G. bringing in Dr Luke for the Kelly Clarkson song.)

I also thought that the book didn't really talk about how these pop producers/songwriters are often just nicking ideas from other genres. Their 'genius' is to take the edge of these influences and package them in this ultra-effective pop format. There isn't much sense, in the book, of where these ideas are coming from. (Saying that, the author certainly does bring up the numerous allegations that have been made against MM/Dr Luke of plagiarising songs.)

The sleazy stuff you mentioned was something I also noticed was absent. The music industry is presented as being full of brutal, unscrupulous snakes, but I'm pretty sure the only time sex comes up is when Dr. Luke was accused of raping Ke$ha.

I find the whole collaborative process thing pretty fascinating. I'd love to see footage of how it all works. This is how Kanye works, isn't it? Also, one assumes, Drake, hence the Quentin Miller leaks.


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Very much, and you know... When Bjork mentioned how her collaborators are always used to undermine her authority as a producer/artist and that such a thing never happens to Kanye West... It was kind of bullshit? I mean, in our Kanye thread alone people here and elsewhere mentioned how without Arca (who collaborated w/ Bjork on her last album), Daft Punk, Evian Christ, Geffsthalthenwhatever the stupid goth edm guy is named, does Kanye 'actually do anything', or when we discuss the roles of producers/figureheads who may/may not be 'talents' on the record such as Birdman, DJ Khaled or even as far back as Puffy... Such an undermining of Kanye's collaborative inspiration with left-field producers because he wants to utilize them...

I mean, we can talk about the fact that these guys 'swipe' ideas from genres and fields, but let's take an example of when rap producers tried their hands at similar sounds to dubstep like say the Lil Wayne & Pharrell record "Yes" or the Snoop Dogg hijacking of Chase & Status... Nobody finds it much more of a 'cheating' when the relatively obscure genre like dubstep draws from older genres that might seemingly have more value such as rap-influenced tracks such as Loefah's "Ruffage" or a bunch of the early Joker tracks. When dubstep draws from reggae in kind of lazy fashion, is it any better than the dubstep out now... *clears throat* Ahem, the "INSTRUMENTAL GRIME" out now made by ex-Dubstep acts now that crudely samples grime MC vocal snippets?

I think that in many ways the size, age, commercial success of the genre is one thing... its another when there's social positions of the artists. I feel a lot more issue when someone like Drake for example is drawing influence from afrobeats and whomever and the reward of his one-way patronage very rarely trickles down than when the Yeah Yeah Yeahs lose out on some co-writing credits to Kelly Clarkson.


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There were TWO good things, I'll have you know.


Darned cockwombles.

I thought this book told an intriguing tale - bizarre to me how so much can be traced back to 'All That She Wants' (a good pop song for the record), although maybe that was authorial licence to make it all so neat. Plus an insight into how circumstantial superstardom (eg for Rihanna) is, and how it came to be that so many Mickey Mouse Club stars became household names. As to the music featured, I'm not very keen on an awful lot of it - most of the tunes mentioned constitute the arm of pop music I greet with a shrug, and I hadn't realised there was a link between them before..
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i read this last year when it came out.
theres some good playlists for it on spotify (i happen to like a lot of it lol, more than i expected).
i cant remember much about it anymore, but i think i thought the author was too surprised at how these songs were made in a modern context. i know he said he was an admitted rock guy, but does he not know much about motown, stax or any other pop songwriting teams/processes in history? that said, i was surprised at the stuff about there being dedicated hook writers. also, interesting about writers like esther dean trying to go it alone, and that age old thing about backroom people trying to make it in their own right (i still dont quite know how pharrell has done it).
the best part was finding out that dr luke started out on rawkus lol.
el-p will be making pop records in 2026.
actually no, i know he wont, hes not got the dynamics.
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Well-known member
You're going to have to explain this with diagrams, I'm afraid, this isn't the old dissensus. :gun:

He was right about a lot of things, but I imagine this in reference to the standardised production of cultural goods to formula, disguised by a patina of individual variation.

Been a long time since Ive visited Frankfurt though.


bandz ahoy
He does discuss that, although I can't remember what he says now!

Led me to these articles:

IN THE 1940s, CHURCH leaders and cultural conservatives in Sweden rallied together around a solemn mission: to safeguard the country’s youth against the degenerate music — the “dance-floor misery” — that was being piped in from America. To combat this threat, the country built one of the most ambitious arts-education programs in the West.
Municipal schools of music spread across the country, offering morally uplifting instruction in classical music. Many of the schools, which were often free to attend, allowed students to borrow instruments, as if from a public library, for a nominal fee.

The aesthetically conservative intent of the municipal schools created an extremely democratic form of education. Because their purpose was to inoculate the masses against the corrosive effects of popular entertainment — and not to train a select group of virtuosos — the schools were widespread and accessible to children of all talent levels. (Fees have become more prevalent over the years, and currently run about $100 per semester.) When the schools’ curricular offerings began to diversify in the 1960s, Swedish students gradually started studying the very genres the schools were built to stifle.

Judged against their original purpose, Swedish municipal music schools have been a total failure. An initiative that started out as an antidote to the licentious sounds of Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman, and the like, instead set loose a musical juggernaut that would help give the world such hits as Katy Perry’s “California Gurls” and Britney Spears’ “If You Seek Amy” (try saying it out loud: F, U, C…). As the super-producer Max
Martin once said, “I have public music education to thank for everything.”

On the most basic level, municipal music schools increased the odds that Swedes would discover their talents, while also giving the country an unusually music-literate domestic audience. Other knock-on effects were less obvious. The municipal schools provided an indirect subsidy to the music industry itself, for instance, by offering a steady supply of flexible teaching jobs to musicians. “Whether it was 10 hours a week or full-time,” says Christian Helgesson, a management consultant and former musician who has studied Sweden’s music industry cluster, “many of the musicians I knew during the ’80s and ’90s were able to participate.”

Eventually the aesthetics of Swedish music education came around to strikingly modern sensibilities. In the United States, the repertoire of primary and secondary music education still leans heavily toward the marching band. In Sweden, by contrast, rock and pop have been part of the curriculum in music schools since the 1980s, and in the 1990s courses in mixing and recording became available, too.
Outside the classroom, the government also encouraged young musicians with subsidies for practice space and even practice itself. “Every time we rehearsed, we’d get a couple dollars an hour,” says Ludvig Werner, a former musician and now the managing director of the music-industry group IFPI Sweden. Musicians couldn’t use the subsidy to pay their bar tabs; the money was earmarked for music. “You could use it to buy strings,” Werner says.

And perhaps most importantly, Sweden’s municipal schools gave rise to social networks of musically inclined youth — networks that ultimately formed the basis for the Swedish capital’s music industry cluster.