What’s the most serious problem that songwriters face when writing a new song? There are many possible songwriting errors that can lead to a song’s failure, but probably top amongst them is audience boredom. If the listener never comes back to the song, the song has probably failed. Not all listeners will like your songs, because humans are like that: we all have different desires and taste when it comes to the arts. But if no one wants to hear your song, you need to figure out why that is.
The aspect of songwriting that pulls the listener in and makes them want to hear your song again is the repeating element. When listeners hear things repeat throughout a song, it gives them a satisfying feeling that they’re on a musical journey that makes some sort of sense. Repeating elements are a crucial part of a song’s success.
Some of the repeating elements in songs are the obvious ones: the beat that the drummer lays down is a great example. That constant pattern of alternating snare, bass drum and cymbal gives the audience a groove that their musical brains lock in to. Constantly shifting patterns, constant outspinning of new ideas without centering on any of them creates frustrated and bored listeners.
A song’s hook is another obvious example of an important repeating feature. As the listener hears that hook repeating throughout the song, it generates interest and helps give the song purpose.
When we talk about a repeating element within a song, the term we often use is motif. A motif is an aspect of a song that repeats, but perhaps not with the attention-getting characteristic of a hook. While a hook is obvious, a motif is subtle. The drum’s beat can set up important rhythmic motifs, but certain shapes from the melody can be a motif if they repeat throughout the song. A song with no repeating ideas, no motifs, quickly becomes boring because there’s a limited sense of purpose and design.
The best analogy to understand motif would be to think of the decorative ideas within a house. For example, the dining room walls may be a pale yellow with dabs of red. Picking up on that red motif, a designer might then put a vase of red roses on the table. Someone coming into the room may not be immediately aware that the walls and the roses are working together to give the room this sense of form and purpose, but that doesn’t matter; it works.
It’s true of songs. The rhythms set up by the drums should be imitated to some degree in the piano and guitar, and certain melodic ideas from the singer should be copied into the other instruments, even if just in small measure. It helps give the song a sense of shape and form that is vital to the life of the song.
Without a repeating element, listeners will stay away from your songs without even knowing why. As you write your next song, make mental note of the aspects that repeat. If your list is small, think about incorporating repeating rhythms and melodic shapes. Suddenly you’ll find your songs having greater purpose and greater interest.
-Gary Ewer, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website.