The Great Song
by Chris Sannino
My friend Ken, at Allure Artist Management, asked me to write an article entitled "How to write a hit song". Since my name is not exactly one which comes up when thinking about hits, it struck me that it might be difficult for anyone to take it seriously, so I changed the title to what you see at the top of the page. Every songwriter thinks they have a few great songs; I'm in that group. Some others think so too - in and out of the music industry. I've lived in the world of writers and publishers, made and sold some records (remember them?) with some success. So I suppose I can get away with writing on the subject. And since this article isn't about me or my bio, I'm sparing you the rest of the details. I think what is below is much more useful...
It's not all about your great songs. Hit songs require a lot of elements to come together. Elements like connections, timing, and often luck; things that, unless you are established, you should seek people like Ken to guide you through. I'm here for the writing part of it. This isn't going to be a step by step workshop, but more a brief, simple - and I think essential - guideline on how to approach it if you want to be happy doing it. So with no further preamble, here you go:
Learn the basics
Picasso could paint recognizable faces. He isn't known for it, but he did it very well because he studied the basics of form, composition, color etc. He started at the beginning, and then he became Picasso.
Remember arts and crafts? That's songwriting, and you need the basics to help you with the craft part. Study the basics. How? Listen to what's successful; figure out its structure; listen to how phrases - musical and lyrical - are constructed. You can go on line and find any number of free songwriting guides which will quite correctly spell out the construction of successful songs. Songs with big choruses, songs with tag lines, verse/chorus/bridge combinations, rhyme patterns, chord patterns, etc. It's all good stuff to know - necessary stuff. Don't worry, it doesnï¿½t mean you're doomed to be formulaic, but you do need to understand structure. And don't forget: those formulas became formulas because they work.
Music. It's not a bad idea to learn a little about it. That may sound like stating the obvious considering that we are talking about the music industry here, but let's face it, most of us pick up a guitar, learn a few chords and start calling ourselves musicians. The more you know, the more you'll be able to transmit what you're hearing in your head to music. Accordingly, the more fluent you become at your instrument the better, and more versatile you'll be at getting out your message. Practice. Write little ditties; learn new ways of playing things. Really be what you say you are...
So learn as much as you can, but not to the point where you can't enjoy what you're listening to anymore. You should do this always, but be able to put it in the back of your head and call upon it when you need it. The things you learn are the things you fall back on when you need them.
Don't Forget the Words
This could actually be last section on the basics, but it deserves its own space because it's among the most basic things you need to know about songwriting. The words are the song. You'd be surprised how many "songwriters" don't understand this basic concept and just throw in any old words that fit. All of your beautiful melodies and clever chord patterns are fine, they are there to set the mood; they are there to grab the attention. But most people don't understand what you're doing musically. In most cases, people remember what you're talking about. They hear the words. (Thatï¿½s why when a song doesn't have words, they call it an instrumental.) Think of the song as fine piece of jewelry. The music is the setting, the words are the gem. How well they intertwine and compliment one another is the measure of your writing.
Work on the words.
Know who you are
Distinguish between being an "artist", and being a songwriter.
I know, you're both, but for our purposes here's the distinction: if you're in it to do what you do and don't care who does or doesn't like your stuff, and you're happy for the pure artistry of it, go to the last section, if you even got this far.
If you're kind of on the fence and hung up about "selling out", either find out how to be happy being an artist, or get over it. Remember that your favorite artists are your favorite artists because they sold something. It really isn't a sin.
If you want to be successful as a songwriter in the competitive world of the song business you'll need to recognize that it is just that - a business, and a tough one, and you'll need to be flexible. And you don't have to stop being an artist for this, in fact you can't. The difference between you and the "artist" mentioned above that you're simply taking the extra effort to make your art more accessible.
Get tough - just like your fingers get calloused from playing, you have to callous your ego. If you can't stand rejection, stop reading this and go to a trade school.
It's not all about your great songs (sound familiar?). They don't automatically become hits - and may never. That's the reality of the business. What makes a song great is subjective and debatable; and in the real world a song is only as good as how it's perceived by the listener. Everybody's different. How people hear and what they need to hear is different - embrace this.
The decision makers - the ones you need to help you - listen with their own taste just like everyone else, and they may just not get your great song. There's very little you can do about that. Don't think you've failed because someone didn't like your song. Accept it, and in those times when it frustrates you, realize that the subjective nature of listening to songs will also work in your favor at some point. There's always hope.
Get tough - if you can't stand rejection, stop reading this and go to a trade school. (It's repeated here on purpose)
Get opinions - and listen to them.
Play your songs for people before you submit them anywhere. If you're a performer, try them out in front of an audience. That's probably the best way - impartial people reacting honestly to what they are hearing. If you're a studio person, get your CD's and mp3's out to your friends, post them on websites (secure ones - where your work can't be downloaded) ï¿½ and donï¿½t listen to the ones that always tell you you're great. They mean well but are not helping you. Find the ones who give you real feedback; find out if it moves them, and why. Do they want it on their play list? And look for the on-line places where you can become part of a community which listens to and comments on music. It will also help you, by the way, to comment on other people's songs ï¿½ makes you think about it a little.
Beware of critiques that get too technical. Your friends are not qualified for that, and you can't assume strangers are either. Go for what moves people and leave the technical comments to the pros.
Here's the big thing on getting opinions: listen to them. I know how it is to have worked hard and long on a song and know it's a winner only to get a mediocre - or worse - reaction, and then come to the conclusion that everybody is wrong. They're not. You may well have written a good one, but if it isn't getting to the people on the street, it isn't likely that it's going to impress an industry professional. Get over it and write something else. If you're happy with what you wrote, keep those masterpieces in your back pocket for the occasion that might come up which calls for exactly that song. Remember - there's always hope, and move on.
A note on editing: Once I get to a certain point with a song, I find it very hard to edit. I can't remember the number of times some producer or publishing person has asked me to redo a verse, add a bridge, or just generally say that it needs something different somewhere. Sometimes I've rejected the idea, and other times I've managed to rework a few tunes for the better. The point here is that, while you do need to get opinions and suggestions, ultimately you're the boss. You'll think some songs are right - and when you do, don't let other people make you doubt yourself. But also be open to reworking them - the exercise is good. It makes you reach for more. That's good. Whatever you decide to do you have to be comfortable with what you write; not lazy, but comfortable. Be decisive, but be open because, like us, songs often have to evolve.
Now you can become Picasso.
You know all those people who you think can get you somewhere and just tell you to be true to yourself; to do what you feel; if you're honest it will come? And you think they're patronizing you when you just want a little help? Well they probably are patronizing you, but they're also right. Let's give them the benefit of the doubt and say that what they really mean is this:
Great writing is about reaching people, talking about things they can relate to. As much as you think you're unique, you're probably not. You feel the same things everyone else does, and the more clearly you can communicate those life sensations in a song, the more people will relate to what you've written, and the more potential for success you'll have. The listeners don't necessarily have to have had the same experiences, but if you say it right, they'll get it. The irony is that the more you really are like everyone else, just going about your life, the more others are likely to appreciate your songs. The more you just write about what you know, the easier and more effective it becomes. This is your art - this is where it can be about you. You let what you've learned about technique and structure come together, whip it up, and pour yourself into it.
Just live, and write about what you experience. Your goal is to become unique in your ability to communicate it. When you can do that, you can write a great song.
So relax, don't try to think about what people want to hear. Think about what you want them to hear and feel. It may be from real life; you may dream it up, but it should come from you. You have to be comfortable with it. You have to live with it.
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