By Kim Copeland
We all know that it is best to write what you know. It’s even better to write what you know in a way that makes people want to hear it.
I have production and critique clients constantly asking me to explain songs that make it onto the radio with lyrics that are less than profound or melodies that are seemingly mundane. There are many factors in play when it comes to getting songs on the radio. Few have to do with the quality of the material.
However, songs that become classics, that remain in our hearts and minds and create the soundtrack of our lives, those I can explain. Those songs are written with grooves, melodies and words (not just lyrics, but words) that invite the listener to participate. They are fun to sing, or cry to or make love to or laugh with. They are messages that are presented in such a way that the listener can’t help but feel a specific emotion while listening to them.
I have had the pleasure to work with some amazing artists and songwriters in my career. Sometimes I work on projects where the singer’s delivery carries the song. Sometimes a song is so creative and original that many singers could sell t equally well. In every situation, the goal is the same. To create an infectious recording that cannot be ignored by the listener.
If you want to say “I love you” in a song, you have to find a new way to say it to get noticed. It may be the melody. Try singing that phrase at least five different ways before you settle on one. (Put the accent on a different syllable. Take the melody up on different syllables to see which expresses the emotion best. Start the melody high and cascade down on the phrase. Start the melody low and soar on the “you”, etc.
Now explore rhythm. Try five different grooves, tempos, attitudes for the message. (Yes, “I love you” can be expressed with anger, sadness, fear or surprise!)
Next, think about the presentation for your message. Different instrumentation can express different emotion. The same way a singer uses dynamics to sell the emotion of a song, a songwriter can use instrumentation.
There are probably still some totally unique ideas left for songwriters to discover. There are way more unique ways to use old ideas. There will always be common emotions to write about. Love will always have an audience.
Perhaps the way to songwriting success is less about WHAT to say, and more about HOW to say it. Clever alliteration will sometimes get you a lot further down the path to success than thought provoking brilliance (“Achey, Breaky Heart”, “Itsy, Bitsy, Teeny, Weeny, Yellow, Polka, Dot Bikini”). A beautiful melody that can make you cry or dance or remember, even without the lyric present (“Can you Feel the Love Tonight”, “Imagine”) will keep people humming it far beyond the life of radio. A groove that makes you want to move creates its own life (“I Feel Good”, “Poker Face”, “Twist and Shout”).
As you are learning and practicing the “rules” of songwriting and stressing over what to say during your upcoming writing sessions, take a moment to think about how to say something. Think about how you can you use language, rhythm, melody and instrumentation to “hook” your audience. See if the how can lead you to the what. And when you end up writing your most popular song ever, don’t apologize for it or overanalyze it. Just appreciate the fact that you have become a well rounded, commercial songwriter with more ways to reach a mass audience.
I am working on an album project right now with an amazingly talented young songwriter/artist. Do her songs break some songwriting rules? Yes. (She’s young.) Do I care about that when I am listening to them and taping my foot and feeling the emotion of them? NO! (She’s great!) Because music is an exchange of emotion and at the end of the proverbial day, it doesn’t matter what you say. It only matters how your audience feels about it.