My partner, Dave Dodds, and I have been talking about, and disagreeing, as we often do, as to what is the best songwriting form to teach new songwriters. There are arguably so many successful forms/structures that have been around for years and as it happens many popular songs have different structures. There are a dizzying number of books that promise the best way to write a song, some even promise you will learn to write a hit song, a claim that should be weighed before spending your money. Be specific about the help you want. We do have some very knowledgeable folks on this site who’s books will be of enormous help, as well as our new Workshop series from long time songwriters, of which this article is one.
There are certainly statistically compelling information about the similarities between songs that have become hits.
One could look at the Musical Key that most hit songs are performed in, but that could be conditioning, if that is all the buying public gets then that’s what they want. If every rock song that is a success is in the key of F or A then that is what is expected. If all the hit song ballads are in the piano friendly key of Bb then that is what is expected. Every good Producer knows what’s best for the genre.
One could look to the ‘Hook’, A&R guys like to bandy that word about as if it was gold, the truth is they don’t really know – but like a good Advertising Exec listening to a jingle – they know a good slogan when they hear it. A ‘Hook’ is just something lyrically or musically that seems to stick in the mind. If you write a line you think is catchy, it may not be. When enough people, your fans, hear it they will tell you by singing it with you when you play. Modern Country tunes will jam as many catchy and clever lines as is musically possible to have the listener remember the song – and it works.
One could look at the voice of the lead singer, should a hit song have a high-pitched male voice, or a low-pitched female voice. Does the songwriter write for the singer, or just write what comes and then find the singer best suited? My own songs got attention in the 70s but my voice, as I was told by every Record Company Exec. – ‘cept one, they said was to male – too low pitched. All the ‘hits’ at the time were with male high pitched singers.
One could look at what genre sells the best – write a love song, a blues song, a novelty song, a rock song, a country song, whatever interests you – or more importantly, you love and know well. Each genre has it’s own rules and styles that address all the a fore mentioned points. I would say learn the form and arrangements inherent in the genre – you’ll have a much better chance of placing a blues song that sounds, and is structured, as a blues song – common sense will out.
If having another cover your song is your intention for writing a song – then paying attention to what is out there and what has come before is important – the irony is you may be told by the client/label/artist, after a few seconds, that your demo song isn’t fresh and that they have heard it before – if they say anything at all. All the while looking for a clone of a song already released. The idea is to make it fresh even while you give proper homage to the genre.
If you are convinced your stuff is hot, and all those industry people are wrong (A self indulgent position every songwriter must go through at least once in their career!) then find a great starting band that needs material and loves yours, then get out-o-the-way and let them work at it. If the band gets noticed, your material gets noticed.
If pitching to industry folks is not your thing – the other way to write, if you are a performer, is to write for yourself and your fans, long and rewarding careers have happily been done just this way. This has been my route, happily for most of my long life. Although I still write for my band ‘Burning Sage Band’ (A 20+ year old band undergoing three incarnations!), and for myself, it hasn’t been till recently that I have signed my portfolio over to a publishing company, in order to archive and pitch my material. Having done that, I am more aware now of writing with others in mind and the possibility of placing a song.
All in all, I’m still not sure what makes a hit song. Certainly skill is needed, perseverance, patience, and a certain amount of luck as well. Am I saying don’t bother? Of course not, do everything you can do to get your work out there, we are songwriters and we want our songs heard. But rather, I offer this suggestion, when you have done what you can do today to write, record, and pitch a song – write one for yourself, no matter what, and write the best song you are able to write at the time. And when those other elements all line up, and the stars are positioned as they should be, then one of your songs, or mine, will end up on the top 10 on Billboard. Until then, let’s celebrate that we have this amazing gift and be thankful we are songwriters.
Now for a workshop on songwriting: I think that form/structure does matter as much in lyric writing as it does in poetry. For myself I tend to write in one form/structure to start with. If the words come in a different way than the form allows I’ll add tags or different verse, chorus structures. The starting frame work is always the same for me and allows for a sense of already beginning the song – the words come easier for me that way.
Here it is: 4 line verse- 4 line chorus-verse-chorus- 3, 4, or 5 line bridge-verse-chorus2X – out. I then fill in the lyric to this structure.
Now the lyric lines can rhyme AAAA, ABAB, ABBA. AABB or ABCD.
Here is an example from ‘Redbone’ (See my Article on this site) where every line of the verse rhymes. AAAA
A nightmare came out the darkness
The willows weeping cause the witness
That deed surely evil with the madness
Leave behind a life full of sadness I
In the same song there are verse stanzas where no verse line rhymes. ABCD Here is a non-rhyming stanza. Note the use of Red Bone in all four lines – Red Bone is Blood Hound and Sam Red Bone is the name of the bad man in the story. My intention is for that to be a hook.
My Red Bone riding on the warm wind
Red Bone howling at the moon beams
Red Bone sniffin’ out the bad man
Sam Red Bone hanging from an old oak tree[cincopa AMKAqfqYpJ4k]A Chorus can rhyme, or not, with any number of lines as long as it isn’t musically cumbersome -ABB, ABBC, AAAB, ABABC, AAAA , ABCD, or the typical ABAB – any variation.
I tend to write the chorus first – to find a subject, the story, and a hook (The chorus usually contains the title and the hook) The story in the verses come, for me, in the Chorus.
The Chorus in this one ‘Gonna Save Me’ has 5 lines ABBCC with a tag 6th line as the hook. ‘Her love is gonna save me.’ is a ‘Tag’ and is outside the musical structure and is added on here for emphasis.
She’s got a face of sunshine
She’s got a halo and wings
She’s got everything that heaven brings
She’s my love and my life
She’ll makes everything right
Her love’s gonna save me
(Note: Starting each line with the same word may create stickiness – acting as a secondary hook.)
Now that I have showed a simple framework – occasionally something comes down the astral pipe that wants a different form. Maybe a 3 line verse and two line Chorus. Such as an ABA verse and an AA Chorus.
Another successful form is where the hook and refrain/chorus is built into a 5 or 6 line structure.
This is a blues song ‘Good Man Goes Bad’ with a 5-line stanza with the last line written as the hook. AABBC, where C is the Tag and the Hook
I lost all reason – fell nose down in cocaine
Burned both candle ends – had me go near insane
If stupid was a virtue – I’d surely win heaven’s prize
But you can’t dance to a tune – when the music is a lie
If you ever wondered – how a good man goes bad
Okay, maybe ‘prize’ and ‘lie’ don’t exactly rhyme but it’s close enough if the singer slurs a bit. ;)
There are many song structure variations and any one could be a hit song – or one of yours, and your fan’s favorites. The most important thing to being a successful songwriter, no matter how that is measured, is to keep writing, to keep honing your craft. Keep learning – get through the bluesy days, your thoughts on those days are the material for great songs- always keep writing – and love that you can do it, it is a gift!
I hope this article has been helpful – starting with a form/structure in your head can make the daunting process of starting to write a song much easier. Writing songs is a process and everyone has their own way the come to it. If this article has been helpful then comment below, if the article has been disturbing, confusing, or just plain wrong then comment below, if you have a better way then comment below. We look forward to your input.[flash_video 3 /]
Red Bone’ Ken Lehnig ©1986 Desert Windsong Publishing
‘Gonna Save Me’ Ken Lehnig©2011 Desert Windsong Publishing
‘Good Man Goes Bad’ Ken Lehnig©2009 Desert Windsong Publishing
Ken Lehnig © 2011 SongwritersMarketplace.com All rights reserved