Q: What makes a great song great?
A: For me, a great song is one that moves listeners emotionally. One that makes them understand something more deeply or see something in a new way. In some ways, a great song actually changes the listener.
Q: What’s your personal ingredient list for what you consider a good song?
A: A good song is one that expresses what the songwriter feels. If, every time you play your song, you say, “Yes, that’s what I felt. That’s what I wanted to say.” Then it’s a good song. A great song is one that communicates your message to listeners and makes them feel what you felt when you wrote it.
Q: Please share some tips to start a song.
A: I like to start with the title. For me, the title captures the heart of the song, the theme, the center. I think of it as the top of a pyramid. Everything underneath builds up to it and supports it.
If you have a title that intrigues you, then you’re going to want to write a song about it, and I think that’s how good songs get started. Once you have your title, then make a list of questions it suggests. What does it mean? Why is it important? What made you feel that way? And think about the questions your listener might have. Answer one or two questions in your verses, chorus, and bridge. More questions will come up for you while you’re writing. Answer those, too. Believe me, you won’t be worrying about what to write in your second verse!
Q: Do you have some tips on how to compose a vocal melody or hookline based on an existing chord progression?
A: Chord progressions in today’s songs are really very simple and repetitive. We use the melody to keep these simple progressions interesting. So rather than thinking about using a variety of chords, stick with a basic three or four-chord progression and let the melody do the work. Try starting your melodic phrases on the third beat of the bar or an upbeat. Eliminate predictable pauses at the ends of lines. Run one line into the next.
Studying hit songs is one of the best ways to pick up this melody/chord technique. Listen to a song like “Stronger (What Doesn’t Kill You)” recorded by Kelly Clarkson. This huge hit is a four-chord song: Am | F | C | G. Both the verse and chorus use the same chords in the same order. (Only the bridge goes to a different chord.) Notice how the melodic phrases in each section start on weak or unusual beats. Listen for patterns of phrase lengths and melodic rhythms and notice how they change from section to section. This is what makes these melodies memorable and keeps the song interesting.
You can find out more about how melody and chords work together to create a hit song in this YouTube video: Secrets of Hit Songwriting – “Stronger (What Doesn’t Kill You)”
Q: Please give our readers some tips on how to build an effective song structure.
A: There are really only a handful of song structures in today’s Pop songs, yet each one can turned into something completely original in the hands of a good songwriter. For example, the following hit songs share the same song structure: “Royals” by Lorde, “Highway Don’t Care” a Country hit for Tim McGraw, and “Stronger What Doesn’t Kill You),” the Kelly Clarkson hit. All three songs use a Verse, Pre-chorus, Chorus form. Yet they don’t sound at all alike.
There are endless ways you can mix lyrics, vocal melody, chords, rhythms, and instrumental arrangement to create something that sounds completely original while the underlying structure – the combination of repetition and variation between sections – remains the same. It’s that pattern of sectional repetition and variation that is essential to keeping your listener anchored in the song.
Q: Can you give our readers some lyric-writing tips?
A: Write your first lyric draft from your heart. Write what you honestly feel and keep it authentic. Then rewrite with your listener in mind. Imagine you’re telling a stranger about what you feel – a stranger who isn’t all that interested. Create a compelling experience for the listener by using vivid images and action words; make your listener feel what you felt.
Start your song at a peak moment. Right in the middle of the emotions and action. You don’t need to tell your listener ever little factual detail. Just the ones that have meaning and importance. It’s not factual truth you’re after, but emotional truth.
Q: Any other songwriting tricks you’d like to share?
A: The best advice I can give any songwriter is: Study the songs you love, especially recent songs. Why do they appeal to you? How do they move you? Study the lyrics and notice the kinds of words that are used. Pull apart the melody to see how it uses patterns, contrast, and phrasing.
Learn to play and sing current hit songs to get them under your skin. The more you physically play and sing these songs, the more the songwriting techniques will start to become spontaneous choices for you as you write your own songs. The more choices you have, the more your own taste will be revealed. I know it seems counter-intuitive, but the more you learn from others, the freer you will be to express your authentic self.
January. 2014, Los Angeles, California
This post is based on my books Shortcuts to Hit Songwriting and Shortcuts to Songwriting for Film & TV. In each book you’ll find over one hundred useful, real-world shortcuts that will show you how to craft songs that work for today’s music market, plus dozens of hands-on exercises to get your creative ideas flowing.