Hey, pilgrim… here’s a wake up call. While you’re trolling for tips and tricks and hacks, the pros are busy constructing the next hit songs. Hate to be the one to break it to you, but these people know what they’re doing and it’s a lot more science than sentimentality these days. I mean, have you ever wondered why Taylor Swift’s verses are as contagious as her choruses? Have you stopped to ask yourself just how and why Ed Sheeran’s taking over the known world (and significant parts of the mesosphere) with his captivating lyrics, melodies, and rapid-fire British white guy rap stuck right up in the middle of his songs? There are reasons. Read on.
These guys aren’t sitting around waiting to get a rush of inspiration to write full-blown songs. I know, I know. That’s counter-intuitive, right? Doesn’t it seem like these mega-artist/songwriters would be meeting up at midnight in some posh L.A. or New York or London loft studio with their producers and track guys and entourage with some catered snacks to talk about how this next idea’s going to “really touch somebody’s heart,” how they nearly wept when they got it, and then sit down at the Grand or pick up their hand-built custom acoustic to experience the song’s birth together as one big happy pop family?
No. Not how it works. Not saying they didn’t get excited about their ideas or even feel strongly about them when they happened. Just saying that’s the first step.
Whether it’s Swift’s purported feud with Katy Perry that inspired Bad Blood on her “1989” album or Sheeran’s openly penned heart poundings for Scottish singer Nina Nesbitt in his songs Photograph (“When I’m away / I will remember how you kissed me / Under the lamppost back on 6th street / Hearing you whisper through the phone, ‘Wait for me to come home”) and Nina (“Oh Nina, you should go Nina / Cause I ain’t ever coming home Nina / Oh won’t you leave me now / And I’ve been livin’ on the road Nina / But then again you should know Nina / Cause that’s you and me both Nina / Oh won’t you leave me now, now”), there is certainly something that sparks a song idea, but, again, the spark is the start and then the real work begins.
Lady Gaga’s Million Reasons, co-written with Brit songwriter Mark Ronson and American mega-hit songwriter Hillary Lindsey, (Jesus, Take the Wheel and 14 other #1 songs so far), for one more example, grew organically out of conversations between Gaga and Lindsey about the men in Gaga’s life. Doesn’t sound like she’s had a lot of luck with the guys, but the song’s pretty catchy. However the hook “You’re giving me a million reasons to let you go / You’re giving me a million reasons to quit the show” happened in their conversation, they then began crafting the rest of the lyric and melody into what it became as a Top Ten chart song and important enough to include in her Super Bowl LI halftime show.
The point here is that it’s a mistake to think you’re going to plop out a hit song from inspiration alone without developing it from a great idea into a great hook and from there into a great song.
The point here is that it’s a mistake to think you’re going to plop out a hit song from inspiration alone without developing it from a great idea into a great hook and from there into a great song. This process can happen in a single writing session if you’re advanced enough, but most of us mere mortals take a lot more time to get through it. Obviously, co-writing like Gaga, Ronson, and Lindsey did on this song accelerates the process and brings much more song power, but we’ll save co-writing for another day.
Great songs are more “assembled” than “written.” If a song idea happens from a conversation between Gaga and Lindsey or from Sheeran pining for an ex-girlfriend, the song itself is then built, pieced together one word at a time and married with a killer melody. If you’ve been living right, maybe a power hook has hit you fully developed like Million Reasons and now all you have to do is let it guide you through the process like a North Star. If not, repent for cutting that guy off on the freeway and pray for a great hook out of whatever inspiration you have on hand.
The lyric hook is what drives the central theme of the song. It’s almost always the song’s title, too, and should be the most compelling, memorable, and emotional part that listeners can’t stop humming, whistling, or wishing would stop running around in their head because it’s just that hooky (think Shake It Off). The hook is what I call the One Big Idea (“OBI”) and what aspiring songwriters most wander away from to their own detriment.
Once you have a strong hook, it’s time to start looking at the context for your song, also called focus or setting. It’s all about the old questions of who, what, where, when, and why just like you learned in grammar school paper writing. Someone’s experiencing this song and exactly who has to be clear from the top. Gaga croons “You’re giving me a million reasons,” so we know immediately she’s in first person singular. This is personal stuff. You’re breaking my heart.
If the context is unclear, the listener never feels settled in for the ride. Great songs always establish context and then help the listener experience what we want. It’s about controlling their journey through the 3 ½ minutes we might be lucky enough to have them paying attention.
Look at the first verse of Reid/Shamblin’s brilliant I Can’t Make You Love Me made a stellar hit by Bonnie Raitt for a great example of establishing context.
Turn down the lights
Turn down the bed
Turn down these voices inside my head
Lay down with me
Tell me no lies
Just hold me close, don’t patronize
Don’t patronize me
© Universal Music Publishing Group
I refer to this song often because it is so deserving of songwriting praise. The story of how these guys wrote it is another terrific study of taking the time to craft a great song because they batted it around for about six months before it all came together. The song’s been recorded around fifty times so far and Bruce Hornsby’s piano work on Raitt’s hit is almost as famous as the song itself.
The hook, your One Big Idea, has to be established in context and driven home in every section, line, word, and syllable. This is the “assembling” part, kind of like when you buy your kid a train set for Christmas and it comes in a box with a million little pieces. You have to pull them out, spread them all over the den floor, and start piecing them together a little at a time like Reid and Shamblin did with I Can’t Make You Love Me.
Sometimes aspiring songwriters feel disappointed when they sit down to write and nothing happens after an hour or two of staring at an empty page. Of course, that’s their first mistake, starting with nothing. No professional writer starts with nothing or writes on empty. They collect ideas, hooks, and song snippets like kleptomaniacs. Then, when it’s time to write, they pull out lists of song titles and shoeboxes filled with napkin scribbles, or search their cell phones for that one brilliant idea they sang into their Evernote® app that could be brought to life with the right kind of construction.
Then that hook becomes the OBI, the North Star, the driving force behind assembling all the little pieces that make for a hit song. It doesn’t happen by accident. Great songwriting is deliberate, intentional, and is the culmination of a lot of work on understanding the right concepts and principles that build the song. And that brings us to the third and most important reason hit songwriters are hit songwriters.
Hit songwriters stay current and utilize economy of words. The new normal in Nashville songwriting is to have a “track guy” in the room when co-writing. With the demise of pure melody writing comes the need for a track-savvy third presence to program tracks while hooks are being developed from the OBI. I’m a songwriting dinosaur, raised on romantic melodies and heartfelt lyric hooks, but the competition for fully developed writer demos is fierce these days and the closer writers can get to a produced sound the better, even in the beginning stages.
Plus, economy of words is crucial unless you’re a rapper. That phrase refers to the brevity of your lyric that’s happily married to a compelling melodic hook that sticks with the listener. That’s the combination that’s unbeatable, when both the lyric hook and melodic hook are stellar, like in Journey’s classic Don’t Stop Believin’ all the way to Bruno Mars’ Uptown Funk. If one or the other isn’t all it should be, it weakens the overall effect. It pays to work equally hard on both.
Most aspiring songwriters are too wordy and wander from their OBI. If you have more than one idea in your song, you’re already sunk. There’s simply not room in a song for more than one big idea. Economy of words is another powerful tool that you really want to have in your kit. Trying to put too many ideas and concepts in your songs confuses listeners as much as lack of context. Pay attention to each line, word, and syllable and fearlessly chop everything that fails to point to the OBI.
If you’re competing for pop cuts, make sure you figure out how to connect with a young track guy or girl who can help you achieve current beats. Co-writing is a great option and we’ll talk about that soon. Making sure you’re crafting lyrics in a current idiom is a life or death issue and your songs will certainly live or die because of it.
If you’re looking to be heard in the country world, Sam Hunt’s hit Body Like a Back Road establishes context (who, what, when, where, why), utilizes economy of words to paint a very clear picture of a country kind of hookup, and sticks perfectly with the OBI throughout.
Got a girl from the south side,
got braids in her hair
First time I seen her walk by,
man I ‘bout fell off my chair
Had to get her number,
it took me like six weeks
Now me and her go way back
like Cadillac seats
Make no mistake. The guys who wrote this song with Hunt (Zach Crowell, Shane McAnally and Josh Osborne), knew what they were doing on every level. They paint a very clear picture with the least amount of words. If you can say something with fewer words, do.
While there’s some truth that success in the music business is about who you’re connected with (like in any business), you still have to have the goods. You still have to know what great songwriting is about if you’re going to step into a co-write and hold your own or sit in front of a publisher and play your songs. A lot of writers think all they really need is to “get in front of the right people” to become successful. Nothing could be further from the truth until you’re ready to be heard.
Discipline yourself with an economy of words and your songwriting will skyrocket. Make the shift from thinking you can write automatically out of inspiration alone, learn how to assemble your songs and you’ll be a lot happier with what you wind up with. Never write on empty and keep filling yourself with great ideas that can be translated into great hooks and then into well-crafted lyrics and songs. Once you do that, you’ll deserve the catered snacks.