Behind the Scenes: How Songs Land in Smule’s Catalog
Ever wondered how songs get selected for Smule’s Songbooks? Wonder no more.
We tapped Lynn Noble and David Young for some answers. As Smule’s Content Licensing & Analytics Leads, David and Lynn are responsible for choosing which songs make it into our catalog. Requests from our community are tops on the list. But there are other criteria.
Lynn’s background in psychoacoustics informs a good deal of her decisions. Music has the power to trigger a symphony of complex emotions, and Lynn uses that knowledge to assemble a catalog that is more nuanced than what first meets the eye – or ear.
David is an accomplished producer and composer – whose track record is reinforced by the fact that David is a voting member of the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences. That means, in addition to picking Smule’s songs, David also gets to help pick each year’s Grammy winners. David’s alt-rock band, The Burning River Ramblers, created the music video that’s played at the Cleveland Cavalier’s home court, The Q Arena, before every home game this past season. The video, which you can watch here, features their song, “Keep It Classy.”
We sat down with Lynn and David to get their insights on Smule’s unique process for selecting songs. Read on for their answers.
Q: In addition to requests from Smule’s users for specific titles, what are your other main criteria for picking songs?
David: I want to be able to spot rising talent and give them a boost on our platform. Having performed, composed and produced my own music, I understand what makes a hit.
Lynn: The most basic component is popularity. What’s most popular on the charts will do well with our apps. There’s a cognitive explanation for that. Cognitive learning is linked through pleasure and reward. Anytime you hear something familiar, it triggers a pleasurable neural pathway. The brain pathways that music triggers are mostly reward pathways. Music releases dopamine and serotonin – neurotransmitters that makes you feel better.
Q: How does that inform what you do?
Lynn: Here’s an example. Anyone who’s lived through the 1990s probably heard Mariah Carey’s “Hero.” During that era, there was a lesser known song called “A Long Walk” by Jill Scott. By placing a song that people would definitely recognize, say “Hero,” next to a song from the same era or genre, “A Long Walk,” you might be able to trigger a person’s memory, maybe even evoke nostalgia. This allows us to expand the pool of content people can relate to by piggybacking lesser known songs on top of more well known songs. In cognitive science, that’s called context specific memory.
Q: Why is that?
Lynn: In neuroscience, there’s a theory called Hebb’s Rule. It states that neurons that fire together, wire together. If I hear one song that immediately follows another song, those two songs will be linked in my brain. Same thing goes for songs and experiences. If you listened to a song around the same time you met your first boyfriend, hearing it again years later can cause you to remember him. This explains why music can trigger such powerful emotions.
Q: Tell me how this plays out in the songbooks.
Lynn: We naturally like to categorize, segment and relate things. Our brains develop schemas to understand the world around us. On a micro level, our songbooks are also schemas. It represents all the content that we work with. My job is to make sure that schema is understandable to anyone who happens to look at it.
Q: What happens if you don’t try to organize the songs?
Lynn: If we just threw songs together in random order, we create cognitive dissonance, which causes the brain to hurt. People will avoid dissonance and may not come back. When people look at our songbook, we want it to make sense to them. We want the songs, by how they are juxtaposed and organized, to see the content as rationally ordered because that triggers positive emotions. We also want to potentially trigger context specific memories, as well.
Q: Are there songs that work well along all these parameters but yet don’t end up in the catalog?
Lynn: There are. We have very few orchestral arrangements, because you can’t have the same auditory experience on your phone within the context of our apps. We also don’t have much trance, dance or bass music because those low frequencies don’t transmit very well out of your phone. Also, a song that works well on Sing! may not work for Magic Piano. Party anthems are fun to sing, but they often don’t work so well on Piano because they’re so repetitive.
Q: What sensibilities will you bring to the table, David?
David: As a composer and musician, I had to operate my own business, handling all the contracts and licenses. So I bring that perspective with me. I understand what it’s like for songwriters. Obviously, there will be a slightly different flavor now, because I’m different than Lynn. But my goal is to continue the work that Lynn did so we don’t miss a beat.
Q: How would you explain the unexpected success of “All of Me,” John Legend’s threadbare piano ballad, which you recently selected for both Magic Piano and Sing! Karakoke?
Lynn: In a world where music has become an industry, not something you do because you’re human being, people are hungry for a shred of humanity. Anytime a reasonably well known musician puts out a heartfelt song, people latch on to it. They hear it, and they want it.