Many songs have a noticeable climactic high point — a spot where the highest note happens. It’s often found in the chorus, because choruses in general use higher notes than verses.
Though you can find the highest note in the bridge, the high note of the chorus often comes with a higher impact. That’s because the chorus tends to use shorter, stronger progressions, and more emotional lyrics. Those things together can make a chorus’s high note sound more significant.
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Rather than simply allowing a high note to occur randomly, it’s worth thinking about where to actually place it. Here’s a suggestion: placing the high note at the start of the chorus or refrain has certain benefits that can make your song more memorable and more powerful.
This is certainly not to say that songs where the highest note happens later in a chorus (or later in a verse in verse-only songs) have a problem. Many songs do this: “Imagine” (John Lennon), and “Billie Jean” (Michael Jackson), for instance.
And some songs, though they obviously have a highest note somewhere, may not treat that note with any special kind of significance. Ed Sheeran’s “Thinking Out Loud” (Ed Sheeran, Amy Wadge), just as one example, doesn’t make a big deal out of using a high note as a climactic high point.
But placing the high note at the start of the chorus (and sometimes again later in the chorus) has the advantage of setting up the chorus hook as being noticeable and structurally significant.
“Penny Lane”, “The Times They Are a-Changin'”, “Firework”, “Payphone”, “Pumped Up Kicks”, “Poker Face”… many songs feature the placement of the highest note at the start of the chorus.
What are the specific benefits to placing a song’s high note at the beginning of the chorus? There are 3 main ones:
- It draws immediate attention to the chorus hook.
- It’s easier for listeners to remember the chorus hook.
- It draws a cleaner distinction between the verse and the chorus.
To make this work for you, try starting your song by working out the chorus first. This can happen any number of ways, including creating a chord progression and then working out a melody that begins high in your vocal range.
Then as you switch to working on the verse, you’ll want to keep the range below that of the chorus you’ve just written.
As you work out a chorus melody that starts with the highest notes of the song, keep in mind that the lyric will likely feature the song’s title. So your songwriting process might well start by brainstorming song titles and lines that pair well with it.
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When songs are boring to audiences, don’t expect them to be able to say exactly why they’re bored. Most people can say what they like about a good song, but are less able to say specifically what isn’t working about a bad one.
When a song sounds boring, it simply means that little or nothing is jumping out and grabbing attention. So to say that in a different way, good songs have a way of getting your attention in some way, and they’re easy to remember and fun to sing.
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The notion of grabbing attention is worth thinking about in songwriting, because bad songs can also grab attention. A listener might not be able to recognize bad melodies, chords or lyrics, but that doesn’t mean they don’t recognize that it’s bad.
So simply striving to write a song that grabs attention may not get you on the right track at all.
When grabbing attention is working well, it’s usually because it is close to fulfilling an audience’s expectations. In other words, your job as a songwriter is to give listeners something close to what they are expecting, but not quite.
To get the balance right, consider the following points:
- Think of your song as being a collection of separate elements. That way, it might feel easier to write a strange lyric, let’s say, while having the chords and melodies behaving in a more traditional way. Those more traditional chords and melodies gives the audience something to cling to even if they don’t immediately understand your lyric. (A good example: Imogen Heap’s “Hide and Seek.”
- Think of “weirdness” as a subtle quality. In pop songwriting, it doesn’t take much to have a song sound different. In the balance between weird and predictable, a small touch of innovation goes a long way.
- Song components still need to partner well in songs that grab attention. Your instrumentation or backing vocal treatment, for example, might sound strange to most people, but there still needs to be a sense of partnership between everything. In other words, a weird melody needs to sound supported by the chords underneath it.
- There is a fine line between being creative and being pretentious. Be careful that you haven’t simply written something that sounds high-brow for no good reason.
- Good song structure is necessary whether you’re writing a simple song or a complex one. So always think carefully about the basic principles of good songwriting, whether you’re writing something that’s as simple as a standard 12-bar blues, or as complex as a progressive rock tone poem.
If your songs aren’t grabbing attention, they’re just adding to the noise. You should think of every song you write as being worthy of having something about it that’s attention-grabbing.
Just remember that in the pop songwriting world, we’re usually talking about subtleties.
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This week, with the passing of legendary singer-songwriter Glen Campbell, we’ve been hearing a lot about some of the songs that made him famous as a solo artist: “Rhinestone Cowboy”, “Galveston”, “Gentle On My Mind”, and “Wichita Lineman”, among many, many others.
“Wichita Lineman” was written by Jimmy Webb, and it’s the song I’ve been hearing most about this week by those who loved Glen’s music. Many describe this song as the unlikeliest of hits: how on earth do you make a hit song about a guy who fixes power lines in Wichita?
The fact that he’s a lineman is actually part of the success of the song. The image of the lineman represents the common man to us, doing a mundane job, immersed in thoughts about his love. From that opening line, “I am a lineman for the county..” we immediately identify with the character type.
But I think the success of the song — the part that really connects — is how masterfully Webb is able to move the subject from the lineman to the unnamed love of his life. The lyric constantly mentions “I”, but it’s in the second half of each verse where “you” finally gets a mention, and that’s where we get pulled in:
It’s wonderful, the simplicity of how this works. Webb starts by creating a character we can identify with. It could have been an office worker, a plumber, a carpenter… but somehow, the image of a lineman “searching’ in the sun” was the perfect metaphor.
Within three lines, we identify. Then the real power of the lyric happens when he switches from being simply autobiographical (“I am a lineman”), allowing us to peer inside his emotional soul: “I hear you singing’ in the wires..”
It’s that switch, from singing about himself, to singing about his love, where we’re smitten. Think about it: by the 4th line of the song, we’re feeling the strong emotions of a lonely man missing his love, in a very powerful way. Talk about efficiency!
That pattern — switching from “me” to “you”, happens again in the second verse. I do believe, as I mentioned in a Twitter post a few days ago, that the final lines of the song are amongst the best lyrics in 50 years of pop music:
And I need you more than want you,
And I want you for all time.
Toggling back and forth between writing about yourself and then writing about someone else is a powerful way to make a connection to your audience.
And here’s something else: we feel the enormous emotional connection the singer has for this unnamed love, but he gives us no information about that other person at all. Nothing. So why are we feeling the emotions? It’s because once we identify with the singer, we’ll feel anything he’s feeling.
So the switch from the singer to the singer’s love only really works if you been successful in drawing listeners in to who the singer is. If you’re writing about yourself, you’ve got to find imagery that listeners can identify with.
It doesn’t matter if you can do it in three lines, as Webb was able to do, or if it takes you longer. But moving from narrative-style lyrics to emotional ones will only work if the audience connects somehow to the character you initially set up.
“Essential Chord Progressions” give you hundreds of progressions you can use as is, or modify to suit the songs you’re working on. If all you need are some chords to get you going, check out this ebook collection.
I’m excited to announce that the newest edition of “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” eBook is complete and now available at the Online Store.
As with previous new editions that I’ve released, this 4th Edition contains some new sections (“The Pay-Off Line”, “The Songwriting Process”, for example), as well as the typical rewording and including of more recent songs as examples.
Previous purchasers of this text: Whether you bought it as a stand-alone or as part of my eBook Bundle, I’m very happy to make this one available to you at no charge to replace your previous edition. Can I ask that you give me a few days, though, before I send it to you — it’s a tad busy for me at the moment. From August 15 would be good.
Please write me: gary [at] pantomimemusic [dot] com, and give me any info you have on your purchase.. even if you just have an approximate date and email address that you used to make your purchase.
For new purchasers: this 4th edition is now ready, and will be in the bundle package that you buy today.
If you’d like to read an excerpt, please click here to view the Introduction to the 4th Edition
To view this eBook in the Online Store, and all the songwriting materials I offer, please click here.
As a songwriter with aspirations for success in the business, your dream is to have your songs appeal to as many people as possible. But as you know, there have been legendary fights between producers, who make it their job to understand the market, and songwriters, who might be reluctant to commercialize their music to any great extent.
The problem is that the appeal of music is a subjective matter. No one calculates in an objective way how appealing a song is. People either like it, hate it, or have some other sort of reaction in between. Producers theoretically know, more than most, the kind of song that appeals to a target audience. They usually have the best chance of knowing how to “package a song” for maximum effect.
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That observation isn’t very helpful to you, the songwriter. You may not mind making compromises in your songwriting style to bring your music to a larger audience — as long as the compromises aren’t a total sell-out — but your question may be more basic than that: What are audiences looking for?
For each genre, audiences look for something a little different. Most of those differing qualities relate to producer-related issues: instrumentation, overall sound, tempo, feel and so on. For you as the songwriter, however, there are things you can be doing to make your song more attractive before it ever gets to the studio.
Here’s a list of song characteristics that, regardless of genre, are the kinds of things audiences are looking for:
- A catchy chorus hook. Most songs need some short 1- or 2-bar fragment that sells the song. That will be the bit that people keep singing to themselves after they’ve heard the song, and makes them want to hear the song again.
- A strong chord progression. There is nothing wrong with looking for chords that are creative and unexpected, but great songs often have very attractive moments of clarity, when the chords are suddenly strong, predictable and enticing.
- Lyrics that attract with emotional content, by way of an interesting topic. Whether you’ve written a song with lyrics that speak plainly (“Can’t Stop the Feeling” – Timberlake) or are more abstract (“For Emma” – Bon Iver), there need to be moments in the lyric when the listener feels an emotional rush. The specific emotion is less important than simply having the audience feel something – anything.
- A song that’s well paced. Having audiences wait too long through a long, meaningless intro, or wait too long for the chorus — these are problems that can hamper an otherwise good song.
- Melodies that are patterned, nicely contoured, and easy to remember. Tunes that use repetition cleverly, that look designed rather than random, and that are easy for listeners to hum or sing to themselves — these are important qualities for successful songs.
If you find yourself worrying about the packaging of a song more than the actual construction of it, that may explain why any success you have appears to be hit-and-miss.
Before you ever give serious thought to what a song’s final version should sound like, you should be thinking about the qualities as listed above. Everything else is packaging.
Good packaging will be vital to a song’s success, to be sure, but it’s hard to package garbage in a way that people want to hear it. Get the structure of your music working first, and then work on production-related issues.
Practice makes perfect, but only if you aren’t reinforcing mistakes. Get going in the right direction – Get “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” 10-eBook Deluxe Bundle, and this special deal.
I’m Gary Ewer. This blog has been my labour of love since 2008. You’ll find the five most recent songwriting articles right here on this page, and if you want to browse through the more than 1500 posts in the archive, scroll to the bottom of the page.
Please feel free to leave a comment at the end of any article. I love reading what others are thinking about music.
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