It is a well-known fact that the music business is very competitive. It is an industry comprised of thousands of artists working relentlessly every day to get their music to as many people as possible - striving for that big break that will take them to the top. As a struggling songwriter in this ever-evolving business, one must consider the fact that every artist in the game most likely has an arsenal of songs they are marketing and each artist is creating new material daily.
When you sit down and think about it, that's a lot of songs. The music industry is bursting with countless melodies, lyrics, and hooks all competing for the coveted spotlight. So the question is – what is it about the songs that DO make it to the top? What is so special about those hits you hear playing in every car stereo, mall, restaurant, and record store that make thousands of people want to turn up their radio, go out, and buy that particular artist’s CD? The answer to that question is sometimes hard to determine. Sometimes songs become very popular for completely different reasons. In most cases, the songs that expand artists’ fan bases and turn their groups into a household name usually follow a general formula and share certain characteristics when compared to other hit songs.
In my songwriting experience, I have developed a number of tools that have helped me fine-tune my songwriting. Below, I have listed four important topics to help you improve your writing and make your songs more memorable and commercially accessible.
1. The Chorus Section & ‘The Hook’
I believe that most songwriting professionals and music producers will agree that ultimately the chorus is the most important section of any pop song. The chorus of your song should be the part that everyone sings along with; the chorus is the part that really drives your message home. When people ask about a song and don’t know the name, people will say, “Sing me the chorus.” In most cases, the song is easily identified afterward. Bottom line – you want the chorus of your song to be the strongest part of your whole song. With this in mind, I usually begin writing a song by writing the chorus first. It helps me get the main idea across and establish the key of the song. From there, I build my verses and bridge around the main chorus concept. Beginning to write from a verse is all right too. However, without a chorus idea in mind, it is often easy to lose focus of what your song is truly about.
When composing the melody for the chorus, it is best to keep your listeners in mind. This is the section you want everyone to sing. You don't want to cram in too many words or use a million notes making your melody harder to sing and easier to forget. Keep things simple. The simpler your chorus is, the more people will be able to sing along. Your chorus will appeal to both the mother driving her child to school and her ten year old listening in the backseat.
Special emphasis should also be placed on ‘the hook’ of your song. Often times, the hook means the song title’s placement in your chorus. Some songs will just repeat the hook or song title throughout the whole chorus such as Bruce Springsteen’s, “Born In the USA.” Some choruses begin with the hook. This can be seen in Neil Young’s, “Only Love Can Break Your Heart.” One of the most popular places for a hook or title is at the end of the chorus. Using this hook placement, your title will be the last thing the listener hears during the chorus section. Since most songs end with the chorus, the title will also be the last thing the listener hears when the song ends. A contemporary example of this type of chorus can be found in The Killer’s, “Mr. Brightside.”
It can be argued whether the title or the hook chorus placement is the best. Either way, you want your title to stick out in your song. This can be achieved using a catchy melody or by musical arrangement ideas. For instance, having a certain guitar line under your title or the whole band stop while your title hangs there could cause your hook to stand out. If you begin writing by building a strong chorus, you have already established your main idea and you can now draw inspiration from that idea for the other sections of your song.
In my opinion, lyrics equal 50% of a song’s worth. If you’ve got great music and bad lyrics, you don’t have a great song. In popular music, it is evident that lyrics don’t need to be amazing and extremely meaningful in order for a song to be successful. However, if you can write compelling music and pair it with clever or significant lyrics, your song will be ten times stronger. In addition, for the common listener, words will often have a greater effect than a musical event or gesture. If you can secure a strong connection with your listener through your lyrics, they will be hooked.
When writing your lyrics, it is always important to keep your listener in mind. Do your lyrics make sense from start to end? Are all your lyrics in the same tense - past or present? What is your song about? Is it a story? Does it describe a certain event or feeling? Is the meaning evident? If you worked hard on creating an amazing chorus, you don't want to lose your listener during your verses by not staying focused lyrically on your message or story. The majority of people do not have huge attention spans when it comes to music. Therefore, someone might lose patience waiting for your hooky chorus to come back around and change the radio station during your verse. One way to make sure you remain focused in your lyric writing is to map out your song’s lyrical progression before you actually start writing. Take a piece of paper and write out the general idea you’re going to speak about or describe in verse 1, your chorus, verse 2, your bridge, etc. This way, when you start writing, you can reference back to your map and stay focused on what you want to say for each section. This will create a clear outline for the listener and allow it to progress from start to finish through the song.
Another more subtle consideration for lyric writing is point of view. By experimenting with the point of view in your lyrics, you can take your song to a completely different level and connect with your listener in a different way. For example, say the first line of your first verse is something like, “She was the best thing that ever happened to me, she’s all I think about.” This lyric could easily be changed to, “YOU are the best thing that ever happened to me, YOU are all I think about.” With this change, the listener is much more likely to relate to the ‘you’ in the song instead of the ‘she’. Using the word ‘she’ confines the song’s meaning to a woman, but using ‘you’ allows the listener to insert any person to whom they want that lyric to relate. Moreover, the use of ‘I’ instead of ‘you’ is oftentimes even stronger. Compare the line, “You said you were leaving, and then you shut the door” to “I said I was leaving, and then I shut the door.” If your listener is singing along, they are most likely to identify more with singing ‘I’ instead of ‘you.’
Although these lyrical details are subtle, they can make all the difference in your song. Overall, the most important thing is that your lyrics make sense and your listener can relate to what you’re saying. Many people use lyrics and music to express and reflect emotions in their own lives. If you can create lyrics that will connect with someone instantly, it can do wonders for your career. That person will keep listening to your song, they’ll tell their friends about you, they’ll buy your CD, and they will definitely want to see you live and feel that emotion in a live performance.
3. Song Form and Contrasting Sections
One of the defining features of popular music is that musical ideas and sections are repetitive. Although the lyrics can often change from section to section, musical ideas for verses and choruses almost always return in all pop songs. People like hearing familiar things. When a section repeats, the listener can identify with the music since it’s already familiar. It allows them to feel settled inside a song and understand what’s going on. Although this effect is mostly subconscious, it is certainly true. When you hear a song that keeps changing and has crazy sections that don’t make sense together, you feel lost. Unless that is how you want to feel, you probably are going to have a negative reaction to this arrangement. In pop music it can certainly be to your advantage to experiment with traditional pop song forms. However, keeping things structured and easily recognizable is also important and will ensure that your listener can follow along. If your listener knows when the verse is over, they can be ready to sing along with the chorus that belts out your message and gets stuck in their head.
With this attention to song form and changing sections in mind, another aspect that can enhance your songwriting by incredible degrees is the use of dynamics and contrast between your sections. There are multitudes of ways to create contrast in your songs. Utilizing this tool is often something that will set you apart from your peers. If you want to make your booming chorus really stand out, bring down your verses and make them quiet. Therefore, when the chorus hits, it will raise the intensity of your song. Or say your chorus speaks about a very sensitive matter. Maybe your verses will be a bit louder and your chorus bare and fragile in order to reflect the lyric. Contrasts such as these will help map out your song form, while changing sections will further your listeners feeling of security and boost their interest in your song.
Another great way to create contrast in your songs and build or diminish intensity is the use of changing rhythms. Let’s say you wrote a chorus where you hold these big long notes over the whole section. You could create a nice contrast in your verses by having a lot of descriptive words saying them in shorter phrases. Then, when your long note chorus hits, the listener will really feel that difference. Harmonically you can implement these rhythmic variations between sections by experimenting with harmonic rhythm in your chord progressions. For example, you could ride through your verses vamping on one chord or changing between two chords real slow, and then when the chorus hits, you can throw in a lot of chord changes to create a nice contrast. Furthermore, if you want to build intensity leading up to your chorus or lose intensity and slow things down with your bridge, you can achieve this by increasing or decreasing the rhythm of your melody, your harmony, or both.
These types of contrasts, both dynamically and musically, can really do wonders for a song. Experimenting with contrast in your songs will allow your lyrical ideas and melodic hooks to really stand out in their particular sections. Ultimately, your song will be much more organized and memorable.
4. Melodic and Rhythmic Hooks
One last tip that serves as an additional way to make your songs both memorable and identifiable is adding melodic or rhythmic hooks into your compositions. When you insert little motifs into your writing, your listener will get that little musical idea stuck in their head and want to listen to your song again. Also, if someone was scanning through the radio and they heard your hooky melodic guitar line, they would automatically know what song it was and they would stop and listen. Little musical hooks are an excellent way to make your song distinguishable and recognizable among the many other songs that people hear from day to day.
Currently, many rap songs use this tool and stick in little samples or guitar riffs that cycle throughout the song and get stuck in the listener’s head. Coldplay is one contemporary rock band that is especially great at implementing this tool to make their songs memorable and easy to identify. Their hit song, “In My Place,” features a simple guitar lick that repeats becoming a major theme for the song. Their hit song, “Clocks,” starts off with a rhythmic piano arpeggio that drives the whole song and easily gets stuck in your head.
Fundamentally, just having a good beat behind your song is a very subtle way to get people moving to your music. People like feeling safe inside the time and groove of a song. If you are struggling when writing a song, try adding a drum beat behind your progression and see where it takes your writing. You may just find a great groove to support your melody and lyrics.
Overall, adding hooky musical ideas or cool grooves to your songs is a tool that will give your writing an advantage over many other songs being marketed today. If you’ve got a strong song that stands pretty well on its own, one of these tips might be just what you need to unify and enhance the song’s message to achieve an even greater degree.
After years of writing hit songs, many artists have the ability to write and record in a variety of styles and structures. Furthermore, their fans enjoy it because they have a history with that artist and appreciate their musical experiments. As an up and coming songwriter in today’s music industry, it is best to make your songs as commercially acceptable and radio-friendly as possible. In addition, songs that are well structured and have an easily accessible and relatable message are usually the best songs to be featured in movies and television. It is my hope that these tips and tools I’ve discussed will influence your writing and make you think about your songwriting approach from a few new angles.
For more information on similar topics and additional songwriting advice, check out these books that have helped me along the way: Writing Better Lyrics by Pat Pattison and Songwriter’s Workshop: Harmony & Melody by Jimmy Kachulis.