Creating hit songs also means sounding out possible futures

A doctoral thesis by Riikka Hiltunen sheds light on the creation of pop music, especially from the perspectives of future-oriented thinking and trend-spotting. The thesis explores foresightfulness as an element of creativity and demonstrates that thinking of alternative futures or attempts to affect the future may both feed and restrict the creative process of songwriters whose aim is to write hit songs.

Finland has a number of writers of pop music whose goal is to break into the international market, including composers, lyricists and producers. Especially from the 2010s onward, the export of Finnish pop music has steadily grown, according to surveys published by Music Finland.

“Songwriters try to offer their creations to big international pop artists, but the competition is tough and trends in pop music come and go fast,” Riikka Hiltunen says.

The thesis, which combines popular music studies, futures studies, creativity studies and fashion studies, is based on interviews with eight Finnish songwriters and observations of international teams working at the Song Castle and A-Pop Castle song writing camps organised by Music Finland. The songwriters include Pasi Siitonen, who goes by the stage name Stig; Axel Ehnström, who is gaining traction in music export; Eva Louhivuori from the Eva & Manu duo; and Andrew Jackson from England, whose song writing credits include pieces for, among others, Dua Lipa and Katy Perry.

Are songwriters futurologists?

Many songwriters probe, in part unconsciously, alternative futures of music in ways that resemble methods used in futures studies or fashion forecasting.

“Songwriters observe the pioneers, share their observations with colleagues and carry on past patterns to the future. Assumptions about the future are also made on the basis of intuition and collective taste. Many of the thought patterns employed by songwriters bear a striking resemblance to the methodology of futures studies,” Hiltunen says.

Songwriters may assume that specific trends are always followed by counter trends, or that a certain decade will eventually return to fashion time and again. Others follow underlying phenomena or emerging trends in the United States or Sweden. Many also anticipate continuity and assume that certain things will always be popular.

“Such foresight can restrict creativity if songwriters end up writing, on the basis of their assumptions, songs that are similar to those that have been popular before.”

A wakeup call for the music industry: Foresightfulness and creativity are not opposites

According to Hiltunen, there were differences in thinking between individual songwriters: different conceptions, beliefs and values.

“Someone may avoid anticipating things because they think it compromises the integrity of their creative process, or because they simply don’t believe in it. Others consider the topicality of music such an important value that they consider anticipation a necessary part of their work. Then again, people’s view of their status in the music industry and their opportunities for influencing have a marked effect on how much courage they have to create something that could change trends.”

Often, one of the goals of futures studies is to increase future-oriented thinking. Hiltunen too wishes to stimulate future awareness among the entire music industry and highlight foresightfulness in a more positive way.

“Foresightfulness is easily seen as calculating and, thus, the opposite of creativity, even though in the field of pop music it can be creative in itself, while probing alternative futures can be inspiring. You can always also try to influence the future.”

Information about the doctoral thesis

Follow the public examination via a live stream.

Riikka Hiltunen, MA, will defend her doctoral thesis entitled Foresightfulness in the creation of pop music. – Songwriters' insights, attitudes and actions on 18 June 2021 at 12.15 at the Faculty of Arts, University of Helsinki (in Finnish). Professor Heidi Partti from the University of the Arts Helsinki will serve as the opponent and Professor Susanna Välimäki as the custos.

The thesis is also available in electronic form through the Helda repository.

Contact details for the doctoral candidate

Riikka Hiltunen