Essential perspective on songwriting
Where to start
There’s an age old question in song writing “Where do I start?”. Do I write a riff, come up with some chords, a rhythm or a lyric? This is the wrong question to ask. A better question is “How will I make decisions?”.
You see the truth is it doesn’t much matter where you start. You might like the sound of a riff you have found or a beat you have created and that’s great. You also might be inspired by some words you have written, again great. Start somewhere. Each of these elements will suggest others. A beat suggests a melodic rhythm and the feeling suggests some harmony choices. A lyrical phrase prompts a melody or a musical idea. These sparks are great but if you want to turn them into complete songs you need more. Decide who the song is for and the emotion you want them to feel. If you do that every subsequent decision will be easier.
Your job as a songwriter
Your job as a songwriter is to create a song that is emotional, memorable, useful and is fun to perform. Let’s take each of those four things in order.
Great songs help the audience experience a strong emotion. If you analyse the lyrics to popular songs you will find four feelings pop up again and again:
Powerful – Anything by Rage against the machine, “Eye of the tiger” by Survivor, “Respect” by Aretha
Romance – “lets get it on” by Marvin Gaye , “Thinking Out Loud” by Ed Sheeran
Sadness/loss – “Love Will Tear Us Apart” by Joy Division, “You Oughta Know” by Alanis Morissette, “thank u, next” by Ariana Grande
Like dancing – “Get Lucky” by Daft Punk, “Groove Is In The Heart” by Deee-Lite, “Can’t stop the feeling” by Justin Timberlake
In fact two researchers at North Carolina State University found the top 12 lyrical themes from five decades of No. 1 songs on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart. Pain, loss, desperation and Rebellion were consistently top of the list.
Your audience need to learn your song in less than three minutes. Pop songs are designed to be “ear worms”, they have repeated phrases that hook into your memory and won’t let go. Remember that this means we can’t overload the listener with too much information.
Great songs do a job for their audience. “Hey Jude” picks you up when you feel down. Dancing Queen helps people get over their nerves and start dancing. Figure out where your song will fit in the sound track of your audiences lives.
The song needs to be easy to sing. Both by the artist that performs it and the audience. If it’s easy to sing it’s easy to remember. Ideally it should also fit into a performance well. There’s a reason why most songs are written in direct voice (Use the pronouns I and you), they turn the performer and audience into the characters in the song.
If you want to succeed at songwriting you need to adopt a productive mindset.
Songwriting is a job, work at it.
Lots of people play at songwriting and then wonder why they don’t have the success they hoped for. If you put in the work however you will produce good songs.
Songwriters are made not born
There are a set of essential skills that you can learn, it’s not about talent. Lots of people think that you have to have some sort of inbuilt talent. It’s simply not the case. Learning the craft requires you to understand the effect your choices have on your audience.
Plan your songs
If you want to write a hit plan to write a hit. If you want to create an artwork that a select few will love plan it out. The next page in this recipe will show you how to plan effectively.
You need to hunt for ideas, chase them down and develop them. Don’t wait for inspiration. Great songs don’t emerge from the ether, they are carefully crafted. Almost all songs start off as bad songs. You job is to turn them into good songs with work and analysis.
Put your audience first
Put your audience at the heart of your decisions. Think about what you want them to experience. You are writing the song for them and it’s their response that will make you successful.
Never settle for OK
Make the song great or dump it. Most songs go through multiple iterations before they are ready. It’s all too easy to think this will do, it’s good enough. If you can see a way to improve it it isn’t good enough, keep pushing and make it the best song you have ever written.
Songwriting is an iterative process
You planning you will define what your song will do and outcome you want. You can also set out criteria that you want your song to meet. Doing this makes it easier to know when your song is done and when to keep working. For the sake of this exercise let’s imagine you want to make a song that everyone will dance to.
You can’t bring all of the elements of the song into being at once. As you write a lyric or add a chord you change how the song is working. It’s helpful if you can do this with the aid of a DAW (digital audio workstation) such a Garageband, Ableton, Logic or Reaper. They make it easy to pull your song around and try different options.
As you work through the song you need to ask yourself if it is working. Is it telling the story you want to tell. Are heads nodding as you play the groove? If it isn’t you need to think about what to change.
At each step you have lots of options. Sometimes you need to let go of things you liked in order for the song to work as a whole. If the groove isn’t working it may mean removing or sliming down a part to provide space. This can be tough if you had fallen in love with the riff it was playing.
You need to know when to stop. This is a difficult thing to do. That’s why planning your song helps. If you have planned to make a dance hit you might have to cut back on the clever lyrics and keep it simple. Once the song makes you and everyone else who hears it want to boogie you know it’s ready.
You can optimise this process with techniques and practise. Our recipes provide lots of ways to do this.
What makes a hit
There’s no formula for a hit but we do know what works:
1. Strong feelings
Songs that express a feeling that many people have tend to connect with large audiences. Many songs make you feel powerful, romantic, sad or like dancing. That’s because people need those feelings.
2. Express the Zeitgeist
Fans make hits. A “hit” song is one that a great many people identify with. You can have music and lyrics that deserve to be a hit and still not achieve the desired outcome. Most hits connect to a movement and a feeling that many people have. This is why successful artists are often those who have built a following. Lady Gaga demonstrated great skill in tapping into a subculture. If you are a writer, composer or a music artist it pays to find or create your fan base.
3. Optimal differentiation
Research shows that hit songs strike the right balance between accessibility and novelty. The researchers call this ‘optimal differentiation’. This is where a song is familiar enough to be easy to engage with and different enough to be new and stimulating. Often songwriters overvalue originality and undervalue cliché. In fact the term cliché has negative connotations where it shouldn’t.
If you want a piece of music to belong to a genre for instance you need to use some of the norms of that genre. These clichés allow us to access the piece of music. I’m not suggesting you rip of other peoples songs but it’s helpful not to worry too much about originality. Where your song sits on the accessible to original continuum is just another artistic choice you need to make.