Without dropping much music, Alicia Keys has still managed to grab major spotlight in 2016. From abandoning make-up to being chosen as a judge for the popular talent show, “The Voice,” in addition to teasing fans with new music, Keys has made her mark this year without really trying.
With all that going on for the 35 year-old R&B superstar, who is a singer and songwriter, one of her most self-defining moments came, perhaps, during a somewhat low-key interview done with NPR Radio on September 22 for their documentary series, Noteworthy. In that one-on-one with journalist, Jason King, Alicia confessed to not having a systematic formula for writing her hit songs or conforming to a particular structure.
"Every time I write a song, I never know how it happens. And I kinda always wanna be like that," said Keys when asked if there was a scientific method to how she writes her songs. In fact, the Grammy-award winning artist, who broke on the scene in 2001 with “Fallin’” said she found the mathematical way of writing practiced by many pop songwriters in recent times as ‘intriguing’ and that it was opposite to how she does it.
Alicia Keys’ Legacy
Between 2001’s Songs in a Minor album and 2012’s Girl On Fire, Keys has had a string of chart toppers, including soul-stirring numbers and head-bopping, finger-snapping anthems. She has done it through solo songs, written by her, as well as with notable collaborations, including hip-hop hits with Jay-Z and Eve, and R&B works with Usher. During her 15-year career, she has been praised for both her unique vocal talents and her impressive songwriting skills.
The mathematical songwriting style that she refers to is evident in many hit songs that have graced the airwaves over the past decade or so, but it is certainly not a new phenomenon. Even Keys herself spoke about using a three, four beat in some of her songs, which is a popular method that can be found in countless R&B and jazz songs from way back up to now.
What is Math in Music?
For people who study music, it is generally accepted that music relies greatly on mathematical patterns in order to make sense. From putting together a recognizable rhythm, tempo speed, and even arranging notes, music utilizes mathematical patterns in order to be consistent and memorable. In that sense all popular music relies on math, whether it is known or not.
But apart from those basic truths, artistic people on a whole have subscribed to rigorously formulaic ways to come up with works of art. For example, as pointed out in an article posted on secretsofsongwriting.com, called “Songwriting and the Golden Mean,” architects, artists and musicians have used formulas for centuries. That article highlights the Golden Ratio, which speaks to a concept known as the Fibonacci series. Discovered by Leonardo Fibonacci, it is a sequence of numbers that produce a particular ratio when addition and division is applied to adjacent numbers.
With the first seven numbers of the sequence being 0,1,1,2,3,5, and 8, the ratio measures approximately 1.618 most of the time and has been used by artistic legends such as Leonardo da Vinci in iconic pieces of his artwork.
The Fibonacci series is actually abundant in nature, from the number of petals present in a daisy flower, to the patterns found on the skin of pineapples. As a result, it is not surprising that it is present in music.
Fun fact: the piano, which is Alicia Keys’ instrument of choice, has elements of the Fibonacci sequence. The keyboard scale of pianos, which ranges from C to C, is made up of 13 keys (8 white and 5 black) divided into groups of 3 and 2. In her NPR interview, Keys actually says that a piano and a voice in her songs make them more digestible.
In light of the fact that the very foundation of music is laid on sequences and formulas, would it be then fair to say that songwriters such as Alicia Keys are probably naturally programmed to use a formula without ‘actually using a formula?’ And, furthermore, are songwriters who do use a rigorous method (consciously measuring beats, using time signatures, making sure pitch, tone, interpretation, etc. follows a flow), actually doing anything different?
Evidently Keys writes from her emotions, but using the piano as her guide could be seen as adding a formula to the whole thing, based on the existence of Fibonacci. On the other hand, songwriters who have been able to churn out pop hit after pop hit in recent years seem to use a type of blueprint that is guaranteed to resonate with the masses. Take, for example, Max Martin and his Swedish counterparts, whose songs regularly overrun the Billboard Chart. Many of their songs have a light, airy feel to them and regularly appeal to teeny boppers and millennials, who represent a huge chunk of the listening audience.
Whatever the case, successful songwriters are obviously those who find a way to connect with the audience with their words and song arrangements. Maybe that’s the real formula: finding a way. An article on speedsongwriting.com, which features 13 inspirational TED Talks from legendary acts such as Sting and musicians such as Mark Ronson, along with a number of talented artists, actually highlights that notion. The common theme of the talks revolved around how songwriters and other artists can drill down to enhance their skills, find what works, what motivates, etc., and package it to suit their needs.
Are you like Alicia Keys, breathing lyrics into life from your emotions, or are you the carefully methodical songwriter, ensuring every key is where it’s supposed to be? Whatever the case, the real key is to find what works for you and keep refining it until it becomes your formula for success.