What makes a great song? It’s a big question and one that has been written about endlessly in an attempt to unravel the “formula” for creating a world-dominating smash hit record. Sure, there are some basic rules and, if you were to examine a handful of the most successful or popular songs of the last four decades, they do have certain things in common. Intro, verse, bridge, chorus, verse, bridge, chorus, middle 8, chorus, chorus, etc, springs to mind!
We can examine things like structure, melody, and production very easily but, for a greater understanding of the “smash”, we need to look at concepts. Have you ever wondered why some songs seem to “connect” with people and others don’t? When asked why people like a song, they will usually say something along the lines of, ‘I like the tune’ or ‘it’s got a great beat’. Very rarely will the average music consumer tell you they love a song because of the clever way it’s been written, or because the music sounds like it was really hard to play. People simply aren’t interested in that stuff. They’re interested in the elusive combination of a great melody and a lyric that they can relate to, and preferably sing along to.
Of course, this isn’t true of all genres of music, for the purposes of this piece I’m referring mainly to more popular styles of music, as this is the domain of the hit single! Yes, there are lots of brilliant, intelligent musicians and songwriters out there whose music isn’t even near the radio and probably never will be. Whilst the music industry is partly responsible for this, it doesn’t change the fact that (generally speaking) if you want to have a big song, you have to be able to connect with lots of people. And that means delivering a message that is clear, simple, catchy and easy to relate to.
This means thinking very carefully about what your song is actually about. It can be so easy to get wrapped up in the details of the music itself, such as which chords to use, how the melody should go, or how should the snare drum sound, that sometimes the central concept of the song can often end up as an afterthought.
Years of experience in the music business means that I get to hear lot of demos from new artists, some of whom are quick to tell me very confidently which of their songs are the singles, or “radio-friendly”. More often than not, the song they point out is the one they’ve labored over the most or the song with the lyrics about their ex-girlfriend/boyfriend. Sometimes this can mean lyrics that are so personal to them that they’re in danger of not meaning anything to anyone else! So, it helps a lot if you are able to step back from your work and ask yourself, ‘if I had never heard this song, what would I think about it?’ ‘Do I know what it’s about?’ And, more importantly, ‘do I care what it’s about?’
The sentiment in your song is important – is it something that people can relate to and connect with? Of course, it can be a niche topic, but then you are only likely to attract a niche crowd. If you want to blow up, you need something that has a wide appeal.
What I’m getting at here is the importance of considering exactly what it is you’re are saying in your songs. It’s not usually enough just to have a great beat or a great riff, try and think of these things as the starting point!
It’s also important not to confuse “simple” ideas with “dumb” ideas. Writing complicated pop lyrics is relatively easy compared with writing good simple pop lyrics, and great lyricists will write on several levels providing you with deeper meanings if you want to look for them. This is a skill that is harder than it sounds and can take a long time to develop. Take someone like Jay-Z for example, who has simplified his lyrics, yet at the same time, often includes double meanings behind his rhymes.
You don’t have to “dumb down” your masterpiece to get your message across, just try disguising it a bit and add some depth to your work!
Of course, the most important part of focusing on the concept of your song is having a concept to begin with. What do people want to hear about? Themes of love and loss are the most popular, anecdotes about feeding your cat or dog will not grab people’s attention the same way. If you spend a bit of time considering what you’re actually saying – and how people will interpret your message – you should be able to give your work a better chance of connecting with your audience.
Instead of spending three hours on the snare drum, spend three hours on making your central idea something people can relate to, as, generally, people don’t listen to songs because of how the drums sound.
And you never know, you may even be giving yourself a greater chance at that world-dominating chart-topping success in the process…..