Drive is a concept that I think about every time I listen to or write music, to the point of often and rightfully deserved parody from my partner. I don’t know that my definition is one that is fully tangible, but I’ll try to break it down here.
When I’m listening to a song I’m really digging, I find myself moving my body in some way. Whether that’s a typical tapping of the foot or a less typical tightening of my shoulders while my fingers curl on a satisfying change, it’s pretty much inevitable. I crave being literally moved by the music I’m listening to.
So, drive is a way to make the music move forward. Less sitting on each beat and more jumping to the next beat too early out of pure excitement for what’s coming next. I want the listener to hop on for the roller coaster ride and put their hands up as we crest an apex, to be an active participant in the listening process.
There are a lot of ways to evoke this elation, but the most obvious to me is through syncopation. The easiest and most efficient way to surprise and intrigue, until you use it too much of course (then the boring becomes your tool of surprise, and the cycle continues). However, I wouldn’t say that a genre like jazz, practically the king of syncopation, is driving in all cases. Though the improvisation inherent in jazz creates some pockets for musicians to shock and awe their audiences, it can sometimes fall prey to its own atmosphere, becoming more of a philosophical think piece with superficially deep “hmms” and “ahs.”
That’s where the riff comes in. I love masterworks of composition by Sondheim as much as the next guy, but the opening riff to Stereogram’s "Walkie Talkie Man" that I heard on a Nintendo DS game in the early 2000s will permanently hold a spot in my brain despite anything I ever do to erase it (why would I, but point made). I love me some Joe Satriani marathon solos, but have you heard the chord progression in Carly Rae Jepsen’s "Call Me Maybe"? Cause I sure have and I am not tired of it and I think that MATTERS.
Though my process changes all the time, one constant has been basing songs off of core riffs that were fun to play and that made me want to hear the riff again, or push forward (drive, get it?). The catch is that I still need the improvisation in there somewhere to make that riff unexpected. To incorporate it, I will record a riff whenever it comes up, but then give it a title that has nothing to do with what it is. In fact, the further from the actual tone and vibe of the riff, the better. Here are some real riff titles on my phone: “string jumpy blib”, “chuuuuug”, “fhuc”, “go go”, “dirty queen”, and “don’t do it lol”. I have no idea what any of these riffs are, and that’s the point. When I have some lyrics I’m playing around with, I go diving into my voice recordings and pick the first title that comes up. Usually, this results in me using riffs for lyrics that I wouldn’t have associated that way otherwise.
Did I properly define drive? Most certainly not. And honestly, for the sake of all my future songs and musicals, I hope I’m never able to.