by Gary Ewer, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website.
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Ever been on a roller coaster? It’s not about the scenery. It’s about the excitement. “Just Dance” is all about the energy of the ride, and if you’re looking for something profound, it ain’t here. But that’s why it works. Profound is neat when it happens, but it doesn’t usually sell a lot of CDs, at least not right away.
“Just Dance” is dance music. And if you’ve ever seen people dance, there’s not a lot to it. If your aim is to write a song that gets people up and dancing, trying to be deep or intellectual will have all the sex appeal of a textbook.
There are elements of this song that are worth thinking about if you are looking to write hit songs. At the time of this writing, “Just Dance” is a number 1 hit on Billboard, so the song is working. So let’s figure out what they’ve done right.
Energy. The song has a driving sense of pulse – and even the non-percussive intro this song has pent-up energy that you just feel is about to erupt. You can keep that rhythm punching out for the entire song, or you can let it take a breather, and that’s what happens here. At 2’27” we get the instrumentation of the intro (synth, no percussion), with the energy creeping back in shortly after. A similar thing happens at 2’51” (more about this section later).
Chords. Why do songwriters look for the elusive killer progression? The best progressions are the ones you hardly notice, and this song is a case in point. There are essentially two basic progressions in play for this song, a couple for the verse (1) C#m E B F#m, then (2) Amaj9 C#m) and then a repeat of the first one for the chorus. More than that would just be too complicated for this song. The lesson here: stay out of the way of the music.
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Melody. It’s a neat discovery that the main notes that occur in the melody are actually the roots of the chords in use: F# E C#. The high note in the chorus (at the second line of the chorus “Just dance, spin that record babe, da da doo-doo-mmm”) is a B, giving us the root of the other chord in the chorus. The melody notes and the roots of the chords don’t happen at the same time, but it’s this kind of relationship between chords and melody that really work, and usually work without the listener knowing.
The Balance Between Innovation and Predictability. No one wants dance music that is not, at least on some level, somewhat predictable. And as I’ve said often, in the balance between innovation and predictability, predictability should usually win if it’s hit songs you’re looking to write. In dance music, that balance should be even more toward the predictable. Let’s face it, “Let’s Dance” is not really giving you much of anything you haven’t heard before. But what it’s giving you is being done really well.
So what are the predictable elements? For certain the basic pulse of the song is not only predictable, it’s necessary. The rather limited vocal range (mainly, as I mentioned, playing with three notes) is typical of this style. And the production elements – use of reverb, echo, sound modification, etc. – are all hallmarks of today’s dance style. You aren’t going to get a string quartet here!
And what about innovation? Even songs like this need a freshness, and that’s where sections like the break that happens at 2’51”. The energy of the pulse changes, a new background melody of descending chromatic scales appears, a new melody (acting essentially as a bridge) emerges. This whole section (2’51” – 3’16”) has a certain “weird” feel that is a great contrast for the rest of the song, without feeling too far out in left field.
So the lesson of “Just Dance” for songwriters is – profundity makes you think but won’t sell as many CDs. But even so, there are aspects of the song (relation between chords and melody, for example) that you can use to give a subtle sense of form to your song. And keep in mind that no matter what you do, like a roller coaster, sometimes it’s more about the energy of the ride than it is about the scenery.
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