For one of the Berklee in L.A. electives this week, Michael Farquharson, a faculty member in the Contemporary Writing and Production department, gave a special topics lecture entitled “Michael Jackson: Perfection as a Songwriter and Producer.” Using two of Jackson’s songs as examples, he broke the approach to effective songwriting and producing into categories. “What makes a record amazing?” Farquharson asked, then outlining the five key aspects he feels must be perfected for a truly great piece: composition, performance, recording, mixing, and post-production/mastering.
In examining Jackson’s tune “Bad” through this lens, Farquharson first asked the class to read through the lyrics and give him feedback on what they felt, stating that “Great lyricists are able to make them be something personal to you. They can be very personal to you in whatever way you want.” Students responded with a variety of different opinions on what the lyrics of “Bad” meant to them.
“As simple as the lyrics are, the song is really no different. How do you take that and make it great and perfect?” Farquharson asked. Thus the next step in the process was analyzing the basic structure of the song. By transcribing the two measure bass line of the song, he demonstrated how the repetition of a simple theme can be incredibly effective in building a strong piece. Farquharson explained, “Here’s how the song [Bad] goes—he came up with something that he does all the time. He comes up with incredible ostinatos—a repetitive line in the bass line. That’s 70 percent of the song right there. [Then] they put a counterpoint line, that goes in contrary motion.” He also subsequently transcribed the first two measures of “Billie Jean” to demonstrate how Jackson used this same formula numerous times with great success.
As for the recording, mixing, and post-production aspects of the songs, Farquharson praised the mastery of Jackson and Quincy Jones’ collaboration. He called the production on the record “the best you can get in that era, and it still sounds fresh and new.” Farquharson suggested that the students listen for what he calls “cheap production tricks,” which although the name may indicate otherwise, are actually great tools for artists and producers to know. Essentially, these “tricks” are successful techniques that can be used again and again, such as using a portion of the lyrics in a different context, or adding a new theme near the end of the song to keep it fresh. He encouraged his students to ask themselves, “What do they [the artists/producers] do to make the music interesting? There is something that you can find in all the music you listen to, there is always something happening that makes it intriguing to you.”
Farquharson’s approach to the topic can perhaps best be summarized in his own words to the students: “How do you know what perfection is? By listening to it, studying it, and tearing it apart.”