If you’ve been struggling to find a place for your songs in the music industry, here’s a suggestion that will help!
Imagine you’ve been asked to build a house. Without drawing up any plans or consulting potential homeowners, you jump right in and construct a unique dwelling that’s a cross between a ski chalet, an office building, and a log cabin. Proudly, you show it off to prospective buyers. At first they seem merely puzzled, then they grow frustrated, and finally they turn and walk away, making it clear they’re just not interested in living there.
What does that have to do with songwriting? If you write a song that’s a combination of two or three genres, you may find that listeners—the people you’re inviting into your song—are confused or uninterested. Your song may have plenty of emotional content and an intriguing story to tell but if it’s straddling too many styles listeners may not hang around long enough to discover those things.
Finding listeners and a place in the music industry for your songs begins with finding a genre you want to write in. So before you start humming your next melody or roughing out a lyric, let’s spend some time exploring this amazingly useful concept.
What is a music genre?
Music genres have been around for hundreds of years. A couple centuries ago, there were just a few genres; these included religious music, classical music, and folk songs. Today we have numerous genres with names like Country, Rock, Pop, Dance, Jazz, Electronica, Alternative, R&B, Hip-Hop, Americana and sub-genres such as Neo-Traditional Country, Dance-Pop, Teen-Pop, EMO, and Neo-Soul. Wikipedia lists 26 sub-genres of Blues! How do you deal with all this?!!
There’s only one important thing to keep in mind: All of these genres have been separated, named, and identified because they appeal to different audiences. There’s nothing inherently better or worse, more or less creative about any of them. But they differ markedly in melodic and lyric style, themes, chord progressions, rhythm, and production and each one has an audience that likes a certain sound. Listeners who like Modern Rock generally aren’t crazy about Traditional Country and vice versa. Think of your own likes and dislikes; there are probably certain styles of music you love and others you don’t like at all. Each set of listeners wants to easily find the artists and music they like. Record labels, radio, and song publishers want to deliver it to them! So the music industry began classifying the music based on similarities of sound and audience.
So why is this important to you?
If you write a song that does not share the melodic, lyric, or thematic characteristics of a mainstream, commercial music genre, you’re going to have a tough time when it comes to selling it. Publishers and record labels are looking for songs and artists that sound like they could be played on major radio stations; these stations play songs that fall into one of four broad, contemporary genres: Pop, Rock, Country, or R&B. If your song doesn’t fit into any of these current genres, radio isn’t likely to play it because their audience may not respond positively. You might have success selling it in a niche market or releasing it as an independent artist and seeking your own audience, but as far as finding a home for it in the commercial, mainstream music industry, the odds are not in your favor.
Get to know your genre
Each genre has some general characteristics within the melody, lyric, chord, and production elements. For example, one of the hallmarks of today’s Pop singer-songwriter melodies (a la John Mayer, Colbie Caillat, and Jason Mraz) is the use of a variety of line lengths and unexpected starting points for those lines. This type of melody keeps listeners off-balance, guessing what will happen next. Country songwriters have adopted this technique, too, but they don’t use it nearly as much as Pop Singer-Songwriters; instead, they spice up the melody in carefully chosen spots. So, when you compare a Pop hit song like the Fray’s “How to Save a Life” with a Country hit like Trace Adkins’ “You’re Gonna Miss This,” you’ll notice that the sound and feel are very different. These two melodies share many elements of song craft but use them in different ways and amounts.
There are lyric differences between genres, too. An aggressive, bold Rock lyric won’t work well in the conversational, image-filled Country genre or the sensual, story-driven R&B style. Language, characters, situations, and attitudes vary from genre to genre. While these styles share some important elements of lyric song craft—a strong opening line that launches the listener into the middle of the situation, a powerful lyric hook, a memorable payoff line at the end of the chorus—the overall effect varies from genre to genre because the lyric language is different.
You can find and listen to examples from each mainstream genre at Billboard.com. Just click on “Charts” then choose the genre you’re interested in. If you don’t know which one you’d like to write in, check out all the charts. When you find one with three or four songs in the top twenty that you like, then that’s a style worth exploring. Of course you won’t like all the hits on any chart. I never do! Look for those special songs that have strong appeal for you and study those.
Decide on a genre before you write
Too often, aspiring songwriters think about genre at the end of the process, after the song is written, sometimes after it’s been recorded and mixed. At that point, it’s almost always too late. The decisions that determine a song’s genre have already been made: lyrics, melody, chords, and arrangement are done. If you’re incredibly lucky and just happened to nail the characteristic elements of a particular contemporary genre, then you can breathe a big sigh of relief. But most of the time that’s not how it turns out.
A better idea—and one that’s more likely to lead to success—is to decide on the genre first. Are you writing a Modern Pop song for film and TV? Or will you be pitching to a Country artist? Are you in a Rock band looking for a record deal? What will your song be used for? Your answer will determine the genre of your song.
Once you know the genre, then study the melody, lyric, chord, and production style. Here’s a tip: Study a genre’s characteristics by learning a few recent hits that you like. Play them several times. Get used to how they feel when you sing them. Notice how the chords and melody fit together. Study how the lyrics convey the theme. (See the list of questions at the end of this article.) As you play these songs you’ll be embedding new habits, new choices that will begin to occur to you spontaneously the next time you write a song.
Don’t rely on production to determine your song’s genre
Production works best when it supports what a song is already doing. If your melody and lyric are floating between genres, a focused production will certainly help—you may even end up with something that sounds pretty good—but will it be a successful, commercial song? Probably not. Listeners aren’t likely to be as moved by a lyric or melody that’s fighting the production. It would be much more effective for every element to be working together to create a seamless whole.
Writing in crossover genres
Within each of the mainstream genres, there’s a range of sound. Some songs will push the limits of a style but listeners still like them. As you get familiar with the hits in a given style by studying the music charts over a period of time, you’ll start to hear the elements that are most often featured, including the type of chord choices, melodic phrasing, lyric language, and instrumental arrangement. Try staying close to these at first. Challenge yourself to work creatively within these parameters, to blend these elements into something that sounds authentic within that genre.
As you study the charts, you’ll hear some songs that blend elements from more than one genre. For instance, check out Shinedown’s “Sound of Madness” to hear a Rock melody strongly influenced by Rap rhythms. Taylor Swift’s Country songs feature Pop melodies mixed with Country lyrics. To successfully write a song in a crossover style, first be sure you’re thoroughly familiar with both styles, otherwise your song is likely to sound unfocused and hard to classify. Before attempting a crossover song, try writing two or three complete songs in each of the genres you want to use.
Explore these elements in hit songs in your genre
To become familiar with the characteristics of your genre, listen to recent hit songs in the style and try to answer the following questions. (Remember, you can find a list of current hits by genre at Billboard.com. Click on “Charts” then choose the genre you’re interested in.)
What to look for in the lyrics
What themes are featured?
What kind of language is used: direct, slangy, poetic?
Are there a lot of examples, concrete images, and details?
How are situations developed? Do we know a lot or a little?
What sorts of characters turn up in these songs, including the singer?
What to look for in the melody
How much contrast is being used between sections?
What kind of contrast: Pace? Note range?
How much repetition is used and where?
Is there a lot of syncopation or a little?
What beats do phrases start on? Is there a mix of phrase lengths?
What to look for in the structure
What is the predominant song structure in your genre?
Are there other structures?
What to look for in the chords
Do you primarily hear the basic songwriter chords?
What other kinds of chords are being played?
How much chord repetition do you hear?
How frequently are the chords changing?
The answers to these questions will open the door into your genre. No one wants to sound exactly like everyone else, but you do want your song to incorporate enough of a style’s characteristic sound so that it will fit comfortably into a radio format. To see how I analyze hit songs in various genres and answer some of the questions in the list above, visit my web site where you can “Study the Hits” along with me.
This article is based on Shortcut #117 in Robin’s book “Shortcuts to Hit Songwriting: 126 Proven Techniques for Writing Songs That Sell“. It’s filled with 125 more useful, practical song craft shortcuts you can use to give your songs emotional impact, memorability, and commercial appeal.
Discover songwriting tips, games, and exercises at Robin Frederick.com
Article used with permission.
Songwritersmarketplace.com thanks Robin for her generosity in allowing this reprint of her article.