Day 6

Why pop music works: The tricks behind Sia, Drake and Rihanna's catchiest earworms

Nate Sloan, musicologist and host of podcast Switched on Pop, explains how chart-topping artists are reinventing their musical toolkits to make their hits ever more infectious.

Musicologist Nate Sloan breaks down 3 key innovations in modern pop music

According to musicologist Nate Sloan, techniques used by artists like Sia, Drake and Rihanna have changed music over the past decade. (Stuart C. Wilson/Getty Images, Christopher Polk/Getty Images, Caroline McCredie/Getty Images)

In his new book, musicologist Nate Sloan lays out the building blocks to a solid — and successful — pop song.

From vocal timbre to a song's construction, he says over the last decade, artists have used a few specific techniques to keep you humming and singing along to those chart-topping hits.

Switched On Pop: How Popular Music Works, and Why it Matters, co-authored by Sloan and Charlie Harding, takes readers through 16 "modern classics" and highlights the "essential" concepts that have made up more than two decades of music.

Here are three key ways artists are keeping listeners' attention, according to Sloan.

Vocal timbre

When it comes to unique vocal stylings, Sloan says one artist has changed what we expect from women vocalists.

"If you want to hear vocal timbre pushed to its limits, look no further than Sia's track Chandelier," he told Day 6.

Throughout the song's verses, Sia's tone is gravelly, "almost strained," Sloan explains. Then, as she pushes into the chorus's soaring opening line, it becomes almost "crystalline."

"Throughout Western musical history, the female voice has been carefully policed, whether it's in opera or choral music. Female singers are expected to perform in a certain way," he said.

"Sia, by contrast, has this unruly and impassioned vocal timbre that goes from a whisper to a scream. She is opening new frontiers for how female voices can express themselves."

Rhyme and melody

Love him or hate him, Drake has helped to usher in a style of rhyming that most music listeners aren't accustomed to.

"Drake is such a master of these identity rhymes — that is, when you rhyme a phrase or a word literally with itself," Sloan said.

"There's a sort of low-hanging fruit quality to this, and yet he is able to find these phrases that are so indelible that you want to just keep singing them over and over."

While he's sometimes criticized for his style — many see it as over-simplistic — it's effective, Sloan says.

"By the end of this song [God's Plan], you just have these little fragments of melody and lyric kind of going in circles around your brain."


When Rihanna and Calvin Harris released their 2011 chart-topper We Found Love, it broke the traditional songwriting mould.

A typical pop song might have a verse that builds into a pre-chorus that explodes into a chorus. We Found Love is quite different, Sloan argues.

"You might not notice it at first, but these two artists are actually totally breaking the formal conventions of popular music that have been in place for half a century," he said.

In We Found Love, "the chorus finishes and then there's this whole new section out of nowhere that just raises the musical stakes, building up and building up until it reaches this point of unbearable tension and finally explodes into an entirely instrumental dance section known as the drop."

That drop, Sloan says, is now a common part of music today.

To hear more from Nate Sloan, download our podcast or click Listen above


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