As songwriters, we so often get bogged down in the micro-details of our songs (whether to use “and” or “but,” should the last note of the chorus melody go up or down, etc.) that we tend to overlook the big issues that can help us tighten, streamline and otherwise improve our songs in major ways. I’m going to bring up a few of the commonly overlooked issues that I see time and again in my role as songwriting consultant. Still, it’s always worth mentioning that songwriting – and songwriting success, for that matter – is highly subjective and there is no “right” or “wrong” way when it comes to rewriting a song. My reference points are simply the common traits of a large number of commercially successful songs.
One of the most important things to remember if you’re writing songs for the commercial market is how VERY little time you have to get your listener’s attention. We, as songwriters, necessarily give our songs our full, loving and undivided attention which is why a long, winding musical intro feels perfectly natural as a way to set the stage for the song to come. The reality, though, is that our listeners rarely give a song they’ve never heard their full attention which is why you, as the songwriter, have to go and get it. Quickly. A short, to-the-point intro which leads directly into the verse of the song is the first step towards pulling your listener in.
The verses in your song are there to, more or less, tell the story. While feelings are an important part of any story, so are the actual details. In other words, give people images to hold on to so they know what your song is about. Since you’re the one writing the song, you already know the story so it’s easy to forget that your listener doesn’t. While you’re at it, I’m a big believer in the “show ’em don’t tell ’em” approach. This means if you can use an image rather than a long explanation to describe a situation, do it. Whoever wrote “a picture is worth a thousand words” had it right.
In another effort to help you keep the big picture in mind while you’re writing, I’d suggest making sure that your chorus really drives the point of your song home. This is the place where your message becomes clear and memorable. Ideally, the listener should be able to start singing along after they’ve heard your chorus once or twice. Another, less delicate way of putting this is to think of your chorus as the equivalent of tying the theme of your song to a baseball bat and beating the hell out of people with it.
In general, it’s a good idea to keep similar sections in your song similar in structure. In other words, your first verse should match your second verse in number of lines and rhyme scheme and your choruses should have the same length and lyric. There are always exceptions to this approach but here’s the reasoning behind it. The simpler and more clear your song is, the more memorable it will be. Memorable is a good thing. I’m in no way suggesting not to tackle complex topics or musical themes, I’m simply saying that “complicated” and “different” don’t, in and of themselves, mean success. The real challenge is to tell your story, whatever it may be, in the simplest, most effective way possible.
At the end of the day, songwriting is art and, as in all art, there are many, many ways to create. However, sometimes guidelines and limitations can be a blessing rather than a curse. Mozart didn’t invent classical music, he simply refined it within the existing boundaries into something that is still moving and memorable over two hundred years later. That sounds like a good goal to me.
*Hat-Tip* Cliff Goldmacher - songwriter, music producer and educator with recording studios in Nashville, TN and Sonoma, CA
All right, I'll add my four tips, and these are pretty specific to "worship" songs, and to getting worship leaders to listen to / use your song:
- keep the melody within a single octave, and resist all temptation to "go up an octave" to make the chorus more exciting. "Worship songs" are written to be sung by untrained singers, make sure your song is singable that way.
- my pet peeve, but I'll say it again: keep your lyric consistent in how it refers to God. If God (or Jesus) is "You" in the verses, don't change that to "He" for the chorus. In a worship song, you are putting words into the congregation's mouth, and if I change from talking TO God to talking ABOUT God, it gets confusing. Yes, there are popular worship songs that do this, but they could have been better...
- don't give your song a title until you're finished writing it... if you call your song "Lord Beyond the Stars" and then in the process of revising / recording it, you decide that that phrase needs to be changed, it's really hard to change it once you've already decided it's your title. Also on titles, avoid titles that are already overused. You may write the best worship song ever and call it "Oceans," but if our band already does a song called "Oceans," I'll probably skip over yours.
- If you're recording a demo of your song, in addition to keeping the intro short (15 seconds), do the entire song through once before you start adding instrumental breaks, repeats, ad lib sections, etc. If there's a bridge that doesn't appear until 7:15 into your demo, I probably won't even hear it.
Anybody else got four tips?