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Anyone in the music business will tell you that teaching songwriting is a difficult—if not impossible—task. There are some who do it well. For instance, Judy Stakee at Berklee is excellent. Whenever I am asked to teach songwriting, it normally comes down to teaching forms: Verse – Pre – Chorus – Bridge, or the difference between AABA and ABABCB, or lyric writing guidance having to do with story continuity, simile tricks, rhyming techniques, and so on. More often than not, it’s really about teaching what not to do, and there is a good reason for that. I can’t teach you exactly how to write a melody, but I can teach you what’s important about crafting a melody. I can’t really teach you how to write a catchy chorus hook, but I can guide you to make sure it is repeating in a certain way and uses the title.
As licensing professionals, we are dying to be surprised by how you naturally write a song. If you are following some cookie-cutter instructions, then you are going to end up writing the same kind of songs as everyone else. While that can be helpful for beginning songwriters–think of it as training wheels—and it may result in a good song, it rarely results in a truly great song; and that’s what we are all chasing.
I am in the midst of judging a songwriting contest right now. Many songwriters, music publishers and licensors do this from time to time, and it’s an honor to do so. As I am blasting through these 65 songs (in addition to the 150 songs I listen to weekly), I have a few insights I want to share with my fellow songwriters which can help you navigate today’s industry, no matter where you are in your writing career. Because, like it or not, it’s never just about the “song,” it’s also about how the song is presented, how it’s performed, and packaged.▼ Article continues below ▼
These five rules are pretty much universal, and while they may seem simple, I see (hear) them dismissed every single day.
You may have a killer riff for an intro, or you want to establish the chord structure with a little solo over it in the intro. Don’t. Not here. These are decisions that can be made in the recording process and may be edited in different mixes. I can tell you from experience that many of us end up having long intros because when we initially wrote the song, we needed to play the chord structure a few times before we really developed the melody. Bands often fall into this trap when they write in rehearsals because they establish a groove to write over or get used to playing that long intro live. There is no need for that crutch once you’ve finished writing the song. Get to the story. Songs are like meeting someone, that first impression is super important. Engage early.
There are two types of “demos” that are allowable today when you are sharing them with a publisher, licensor, or even a producer. The first one is a completely sparse arrangement with a single instrument (normally piano, guitar, or beat) and a clean, well-delivered vocal track for the melody. At most, you can maybe put in some light harmonies or callbacks on the chorus if that feels important to the material. That’s it. Don’t do doubling, don’t do panning, don’t do multiple stacks of harmonic vocal lines. Do not include a solo. Don’t do a rambling band recording. Don’t do a rushed performance. The second type of “demo” is a damn-near full production. Full drums, bass, keys, guitars, and vocal stacks with harmonies. There is no in-between. In both cases, you need to establish a BPM and make sure you are recording to a click. Most importantly, clear audio (vocals especially) is a must. You might think you are just pitching a song, and that is somewhat true, but poor audio or a weak performance might kill your chances. Think about the people listening to this “demo,” chances are, they are listening to dozens or even hundreds of songs this week, and while the quality of your recording may not be the determining factor, if it’s bad, it will be remembered – no matter how good the song is.
This is a very hard thing to do correctly, but it is essential to every great song. We all fail at this, especially once we start writing more complex songs. We get caught up in the wordsmithing, in the cool turns of phrases as we work through a song over and over, and we forget about the first listen. This means, you need to capture the ear the first time. You must repeat hooks. I’m not here to tell you there is a magic number of times to repeat a set of words in the chorus, but it better be at least twice. I know it can seem lazy to repeat choruses or hooks, you want to change it up, but just think about every song you love, every song that gets stuck in your head, they all have one thing in common: repeating lines. The trick is to spend your time on what you are repeating rather than trying to find a way to avoid it. This is true across hip-hop, EDM, rock, pop, even classical. Humans are hardwired to recognize patterns, audio especially. The best way to do that is through repetition. If it’s a great hook, it deserves to be repeated.
I wish I had learned this earlier in my career. Even the very best, most accomplished, songwriters don’t write great songs every time. And sometimes the first few songs you ever write are the ones that outlive you. Songwriting is a mixture of learned principles, talent, time in your life, and then something that just cannot be defined. Call it the muse, the universe, vibration, or maybe even luck. You will never find that amazing moment, that happy accident, if you aren’t writing songs all the time. To do that, you have to be willing to write (and finish) bad songs. The sooner you accept this as truth, the better your creative writing life will be.
Bonus tip: trying to write a stupid song (a joke, a jingle, a cheesy tune) is an excellent way of breaking a writer’s block.
The (not-so) secret ingredient to every great song is the surprise. Much like songwriting in general, I cannot teach you how to surprise the listener, but here are a few examples. Starting the song with the full chorus. Going to a leading 9th chord and then resolving. Dropping your rhyme structure on the last verse of a four-line verse stanza. Modulating the second repeated chorus by lifting a half step. Use outlandish word choices, think Nirvana, “mosquito” and “libido.” Coin a unique phrases, like Jay Z: “I’m not a businessman, I’m a business, man” or Gershwin, “‘S Wonderful, ‘S Marvelous,” or Eminem, “Mom’s spaghetti.” Use brutal honesty. Instead of saying, “you’re the love of my life,” it could be “when you die, my love will disappear with you.” Remember this: you are a listener to songs, too. What in this song sets it apart? Did it surprise you? If not, keep grinding it out. Surprise yourself, and you’ll surprise others.
What I want you to take from this is that you are in control of the song and the story, but don’t forget the listener. Yes, write songs from your heart to heal yourself, to give your unique point of view, to tell your story, but if you plan on sharing them with the world, these tips will help you secure a wider listening audience. Great songs deserve to be heard, so give them every chance to find their way into the world and into people’s lives.
Now, go write the best song you’ve ever written because I can’t wait to hear it.
–Michael St. James is the founder and creative director of St. James Media, specializing in music licensing, publishing, production and artist development.
*main photo by Thorsten Krienke, used under a Creative Commons license.