7 THINGS MOST PEOPLE DON’T KNOW ABOUT SONGWRITING [LIST]
1. Each song should have ONE BIG IDEA.
Real talk: you’ve got about 3-3 ½ minutes to tell your tale, and if you try to sing Dante’s Divine Comedy at people, they’ll remember a grand total of NOTHING. Phiddlestix. Try to say everything, and you’ll end up saying nothing. Give them one big idea (like Sweet Home Alabama, Yesterday, or Kumbaya), and you’ve got a fighting chance at being heard.
2. Great songs often start on paper.
“But Ben, hold up! I thought great songs were written by tormented visionaries singing their hearts out into a pillow?” Vast MINORITY. Typically, great songs begin in an impressively normal setting, written by sane (though profoundly empathetic) professionals. On paper. Sometimes without an instrument handy. So yes, capture your inspired moments when they come. But songwriting is a discipline; a skills-based art. Master the skills, and when inspiration strikes, you’ll be armed to the teeth.
3. Each song should tackle ONE UNIVERSAL EMOTION.
Like love, loneliness, fear, or friendship. Try to avoid themes that are too specific, like taxes, an oppressive boss, or cardiac arrest. Not enough people can relate. Instead, take a universal emotion (something everyone – or almost everyone – can relate to) and give it a specific context. Make sure the song isn’t actually about the context though. Try to touch a common human nerve. Put words to some aspect of the human experience.
4. “Great songs aren’t written, they’re re-written.”
– RC Bannon. This highlights another songwriting myth, namely that songs are penned flawlessly in one fit of inspiration at 3:00 a.m., never to be touched again. Radio, Grammys, iTunes festival, and so on. Unfortunately, it’s not usually that straightforward. We write an OK song, edit it to make it a good song, edit it again to make it an above-average song, etc. This is a line of demarcation between professional writers and amateurs. When it comes down to staring at a single line for hours, searching for a word that rhymes with “life” that isn’t wife, knife, or strife, most of us tap out. But it’s sooo worth it. On the listening end, our brains catch that kind of laziness incredibly quickly. Rewrite, rewrite, rewrite.
5. Songs should NOT be like lists.
They should be like sentences. List-songs are a common favorite among inexperienced writers. How do you write a list-song you ask? Collect 20 lines that pertain to the theme, glue them end to end using rhyme and meter, and voila…a list-song! Basically, just finding a bunch of related thoughts and getting them to fit and rhyme isn’t going to produce a powerful result. There has to be a reason for their order. Tell a story! Make it clear why each line comes next in the sequence. It takes a lot more work, but it also packs a much heftier punch.
6. Popular songs [almost] always follow a recipe.
I say almost because technically, there are no “rules” for pop music. But there are definitely conventions. And the fact that pop songs are so short makes convention all the more specific. (When a song is only 4 minutes long, extending the pre-chorus by 10 seconds becomes a mighty big deal). And without following at least some of the conventions, people’s brains will feel like you’re feeding them octopus and calling it peanut butter and jelly; it just won’t fit in the expected category. So what are these conventions? Here are a few to get started with:
- Most successful songs follow a Verse-Chorus-Verse-Chorus-Bridge-Chorus-Chorus song structure (ABABCBB). There are acceptable variations, but if you think you’ll write a smash hit with 1 verse, 2 bridges, and a descant, well…you have fun with that 😉
- Chart-topping songs usually get to the chorus in 30-50 seconds. You may have heard the phrase, “Don’t bore us, get to the chorus.” This is especially important if you dream of radio airplay. So maybe cut that plodding verse in half and drop the padmospheric intro. REMEMBER: you have a matter of seconds to impress.
- The chorus is usually the punchline. It’s bigger, badder, louder, higher, and way more important than the rest of the song. There are tons of super hip indie artists who write deep lyrics, catchy melodies, and fresh instrumental parts, only to fall woefully short in this department. Now if your goal was only ever to reach a niche market, cool. More power to ya, my dude. But in the mainstream, people are conditioned to expect a knock-your-socks-off, we-are-the-champions type chorus.
7. Less is more.
I know, welcome to Cliché-ville, USA. But this is a real life thing with songwriting. Simple is usually better. Now don’t get me wrong on this…there might be a lot going on in your song. You might be a rapper. Maybe your song is a story song. But the point is, whatever you’re saying in a given word or line or stanza, gun for the shortest, pithiest phrasing. It’s hard to do (what with rhyme scheme and meter tugging us in separate directions already). But simplicity is a token trait of most hit songs.