Taking a Look at Tom Petty’s Musical Genome and What Made Him So Successful

No one sounded like Tom Petty. His songs are as easily identifiable as the sun in the sky. But why? What was it about his sound that set him apart? This article from Medium picks things apart.

In the wake of Tom Petty’s death on Monday, in hundreds of remembrances and obituaries, the rock legend’s songs have been called everything from succinct to great driving music. Indeed, Petty wrote short, concise songs that AM/FM radio picked up in the late ’70s and ’80s, providing millions of Americans a soundtrack for the road. At Pandora, the musical characteristics of Petty’s recordings have been scored by analysts and stored in the Music Genome Project. Out of hundreds of possible traits—anything from a voice’s sound to a song’s syncopation—a handful of traits best describe Petty’s voluminous catalog:

— Emphasis on lyrics and melody. Whether he sings about love (“Good love is hard to find” he sang in “You Got Lucky”) and sadness (“She’s a woman in love, but it’s not me” he laments in “Woman in Love (But It’s Not Me),” Petty’s lyrics are always front and center. Famed music writer Robert Palmer once wrote Petty “has a knack for writing songs that express, in a straight-forward manner, his listeners most basic attitudes — dissatisfaction with job and hometown, a deep-seated need to believe love can really conquer all.” Melodies are also prominent, and Petty has arsenal of them (how about that “Free Fallin’” singalong, or the call-and-response in“Refugee”? ). “He’s got tremendous words and very different kinds of melodies,” Jeff Lynn, producer of two Petty albums, told Billboard magazine in 2006. “I really admire what he does with them.”

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Alan Cross

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 40+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.

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