When I adjudicate at music festivals these days, I’m usually talking to players about what they can do to make their performances even better. Usually, it comes down to a very simple concept. You don’t simply hope that your performance is good enough that people will listen. If you’re trying to build an audience, you’ve got to take control of your music can make people listen.
It’s the very same with songwriting. Good songs demand people’s attention.
Occasionally songwriters send me MP3s of their latest songs, asking for my critique, which I am happy to do. As I listen for the first time, I find myself asking, “What’s happening in this song that is demanding my attention? Why do I want to listen to this?”
If there isn’t an immediate answer coming to mind, that song is probably a dud.
A good song takes hold of my attention and doesn’t let go. A good song makes it difficult for me to focus elsewhere. And a good song demands that I listen, doesn’t just ask.
Easy, right? But what’s the difference between songs that ask for attention, and songs that demand it?
In our everyday existence, the things that demand our attention are the things that introduce stress into our lives. Once we encounter stress, we look for ways to release the stress. For example, in its own primal way, hunger is a stress which we solve by eating.
Stress and release is an essential part of what makes a song demand attention. Musical stress pulls us in to a song, and makes us wait for a musical solution.
So what kind of musical stresses are we talking about? What are the things you can do that will pull listeners in, demanding attention? Here are seven typical ways you can be sure that listeners will keep listening:
- An Engaging Hook: Come up with a short (4 – 8 beat) figure that combines a catchy melodic shape with a captivating rhythm.
- Structured Lyrics: Make sure that your chorus lyrics respond to situations in the verse. In that way, chorus lyrics provide release for the tension created in the verse.
- Melodic Shape: Flat melodies with little contour can work, but if you really want to pull people in, create melodies that rise toward their middle, and descend as they come to an end. If your verse feels uninteresting, try working the melody upward the entire way toward the chorus.
- Clever Harmonies: Try ending verses with “open harmonies” – End your verse with a V or ii-chord. These chords demand that the chorus provide a harmonic close, a typical stress and release that demands listeners’ attention.
- Avoiding Mindless Repetition: You’ve got to find ways to keep material throughout your song sounding fresh. Simply repeating your intro endlessly, or having too many verse/chorus occurrences will numb your listeners’ minds.
- Trying a “Melded Bridge”: Use a bridge to introduce new material, new chord progressions and new lyrics. The bridge should occur directly after the second chorus. A melded bridge is one that feels like it’s intruding on the last chord of the chorus. If your chorus uses I-vi-ii-V-I, try substituting that final I-chord with a vi-chord, and start the bridge right away on that chord. It has a way of sounding unexpected in a very exciting way.
- The Musical Surprise: Throw something into your song that listeners wouldn’t be expecting. It’s got to be novel enough that it adds excitement, but not so out of character that it feels overly weird.
When you’ve written your song, you’ve got to take another look at it, and ask yourself, “What have I done here that creates and releases stress?” Because if the answer is, “Nothing, really,” then you’ve got a song that simply adds to all the noise out there and doesn’t demand that anyone listen to it.
Get back to writing songs that demand people listen! Download “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” 6-ebook bundle.