When it comes to commercial songwriting, what makes the difference between your songs and the most popular songs in their style?
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You might say an immense advertising campaign including radio and television airplay, and you’d more than likely be correct, or at least partly correct. Some success can be explained by the fact that someone saw money to be made by releasing a song by a known artist but lets face it, everyone had to start somewhere and that usually involves getting people to:
- Listen to your song
- Like your song
- Want to hear your song again
In the case of A&R men and record and publishing company executives they have to:
- Listen to your song
- See a market for your song
- See if other people like your song
- See if other people want to hear your song again
- Like your song
To be signed the A&R men and record and publishing company executives also have to, among others:
- Be interested in the target market
- Have resources, or expect to have resources, to devote to that market (short or long term)
- Match that with whether they see you as a short or long term investment
- Believe that other companies are or would be interested
This doesn’t hold true for all cases but it does take care of a lot of them!
To improve your chances of success try writing and promoting yourself with the A&R men and record and publishing company executives in mind. To do this you will need to do a little groundwork to prepare the way. This should help to focus your efforts and clarify the direction you are going in as a songwriter.
In The Beginning
Writing songs is not an exact science. There are many rules and techniques we can apply, that may help give a song a broader appeal. However, if we stick rigidly to these rules the result can often sound clinical, predictable and lifeless. If we ignore these rules altogether the result is likely to be a chaotic, self-indulgent piece with a limited appeal.
Each song then becomes a balance between chaos and clarity. But how do you find the balance that suits you? That, unfortunately, is something only you can answer but hopefully we can provide a little guidance and help you through the process.
Before you race ahead to read up on the techniques themselves or decide to explore the depths of freeform improvisation take a moment to examine your motivation for writing a song. What is the purpose of your song writing? Who are your target audience? The answers to these questions are important and can help you to focus your song writing efforts.
The purpose of writing your song will vary according to your role in the music business. You may be trying to change the world by the power of song, you may be trying to create a landmark song in terms of the creative use of melody and rhythm, you might be trying to write a song that people will dance to or sing along with, or you might be trying to cash in on years of writing experience that so far hasn’t generated enough to buy a new set of strings for your guitar. Fundamentally, for any of these scenarios to be successful, our chances are greatly improved by understanding why we are writing a song.
If you are contracted to write a song for a specific purpose, such as for an advertising company, a play, a band or record company, restrictions are placed on you by another body, namely the client. Restrictions are likely to be the length of a piece, the style of the piece and sometimes a budget for creating the piece, depending on your full role.
If, as is more likely, you are writing songs and are yet unpublished, unsigned, or you have a contract that allows a significant degree of creative freedom, then you need to set your initial focus yourself. This can be difficult because it forces you to try and categorise your music and identify your target market.
In both cases you need to know and understand the music and the production of music in your principle target market. Some features are easier to pinpoint than others:
To help yourself pinpoint these features you need to develop your Decomposition skills. A long way to understanding why some songs work better than others is simply to understand the building blocks of songs and how they fit together.
To be cutting edge you have to be able to assess the direction your principle market is moving in. To do that you need to be aware of recent developments and trends in that market. Try re-creating a couple of current popular songs from that market. This exercises your skills in de-composing a song into building blocks of sound. It will help if you can focus on the artists who write songs in the style you would intend to write or the work of prominent producers whose production style you like. This will help to identify and clarify not only the features mentioned above but, almost more importantly, also the way in which they are used.
You can similarly decompose lyrics looking for rhythm and rhyming, tempo and keywords.
As you become more practiced in the art of decomposition you will be able to strip a song to its building blocks just by listening to it once. You will spot trends in the types of blocks themselves and the way those blocks are arranged. These common factors will help you to write a song that will fit into this market place. The uncommon factors will reveal areas of experimentation and elements of individual style.
Things To Look For
Train your ear. When listening to a piece of music, try decomposing the percussion. Ask yourself these questions: Roughly, what is the tempo? What about time signature? What is the bass drum doing? What about the snare? Is there more than one snare? What are the hats doing? Is there a lot of tom work? Is the tom work riff based? How many bars does it take for the drums to loop? How many distinct loops are used during the song? What kind of drum sounds are used? What beats are accented? What effects are used? You will probably ask yourself more questions but these should do for a start.
By similarly decomposing each instrument in turn you will build up a detailed understanding of the song architecture and the song production. Although the finished song production may be out of your scope you can still gain a lot about targeting your song to a specific market by analysing the production aspects of other songs.
Lyrical Things To Look For
The simplest aspect of lyrics to look for is the use of rhyming. Is rhyming used at all? Are full rhymes always used or does the songwriter use a lot of half rhymes? What pattern does the rhyming use? How do the words match up to the melody?
To complete your understanding of a particular song if you have the means you should try to re-compose each distinct section of the piece to really get a feel for what the songwriter and producer have done.
There is no need to fully reconstruct the piece, as long as you know how to do each type of section, how they are joined and how they are arranged that is normally sufficient.
Writing A Song
So you are now clear about the purpose of your song writing and common themes and developments within your target market. As it is a very large area ‘Writing a song’ will be split into sections detailing lyrics, rhythm, melody, harmony. Production techniques will be dealt with in a separate series of articles.
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