There’s nothing quite like the nostalgia of listening to an old song. No matter how much time has passed, a melody or lyric can transport you right back to the age when you first heard it. So how do we create that in modern music?
Let’s talk about the ‘throwback song’. A throwback song is a song that ‘throws back’ to the ideas or elements of a song from an older era of music, emulating it in some way or form. However, the art of a throwback song is more complicated than it sounds. While many songs have done this successfully, a greater number you haven’t heard of have failed.
Think of it this way, if you make an exact copy of an old song, all you have is an old song. But if you make a modern song with hints of that beautiful nostalgic piece, you’ve got yourself a winner.
So how do you do that? Here are a few tips to get you writing a throwback song without sounding dated.
One of the first things you should do before sitting down and writing a Throwback Song is to look at the common melodic motifs in music from the era you’re trying to emulate. Believe it or not, this is important in making your songs sound modern because you’ll know when and how to use these melodic motifs sparingly.
Singing a 1920’s croon over a modern pop track can showcase both elements nicely without making the song sound too ‘dated.’ Alternatively, using a melodic hook in your production from another era can do the same thing as if it were sung.
Similar to melodic themes, knowing the rhythmic themes of popular music in the era you’re trying to ‘borrow’ from is important when writing your throwback song. The rhythm of the sung words as well as the rhythm in the track can be surprisingly telling. For example, think about the 1960’s piano lines, or the 1970’s four on the floor. Both of those rhythmic pieces are great signifiers of the era.
Bringing them into a more modern setting can help showcase that throwback feeling that you are looking for without making them the only star of the show. So again, research and use your elements wisely.
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Hunt for samples
Hunting for samples, especially those within the public domain, can be a great way to add just a hint of a throwback vibe into your track and give it that real authentic feel.
Alternatively, creating your own samples that emulate the ideas from samples in throwback music is also a really cool idea. Just make sure anything you use is your own idea, and not something you are going to get in trouble for.
That being said, using techniques like other producers used to create their samples is a great idea for this kind of work. Taking a vocal, distorting it and experimenting with its sound until it’s unrecognizable, or even throwing in a guitar loop played in reverse and altered with some cool plug-ins can add just that perfect little retro hint to your song - and since it’s a sample, you can be the one who decides just how prominent or minimal you want this component to be in your track.
Pro tip: Make sure that you clear all your samples before you use them! The only samples that don’t have to have permission or paid usage are songs under public domain. Public domain samples are royalty free and thus you don’t have to worry about paying sample rates or being sued.
Iconic lyrical lines
Lyrical lines are often ignored when it comes to recreating throwback music. However, songs like Anne Marie’s “2002” do a great job of adding a taste of the past by using lyrics or ideas from older songs and bringing them into a modern melodic, rhythmic, and production setting.
Using well known throwback lyrics to add a hint of nostalgia to your modern song can really up the nostalgia factor without making your music sound out of place, as well as get your listener’s bopping their heads along and singing “oops, they smashed it again.”
I mean, who doesn’t love a healthy dose of nostalgia?
Use things sparingly!
Last but not least, choose one or two elements like the ones listed above to make your song pop. If you try to use all of these tips at once, more likely than not the song is going to come out sounding like nothing we’ve heard in quite a while. And while sometimes that’s a good thing, if your goal isn’t to fully write a ‘throwback song,’ then that’s not what you’re going for.
That being said, mixing these ideas up can be a recipe for some major success.
When you try this out on your own, if you’re using throwback melodies, go ahead and try them over a modern production. Or vice versa! That way you’ve still got a modern base for your ideas, and you’re just getting that extra dose of nostalgia without dating your own records.
Now that we’ve given you some tips on how to write your throwback songs without sounding dated, we can’t wait to see what you come up with. Remember, when writing songs everything should have a healthy dose of your own styles and preferences.
Feel free to comment below to share some of your favorite throwback songs - and, let us know how these tips worked for you.
Have fun, and happy writing.
Sammy Hakim is an up and coming young songwriter based in Los Angeles. In May 2018 she graduated from Berklee College of Music with a Major in songwriting and a focus in music business. These days she spends most of her time in songwriting sessions with artists all over the country.
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