Written by Gary Ewer, Senior Instructor, Dalhousie University, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website.
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If hit songs are what you’re trying to write, you need to be concerned about composing something that keeps your listeners humming. In order for listeners to hum something, it needs to be memorable, and written in such a way that the general public could sing it (even badly) in the shower. There are five things you need to keep in mind to make sure your songs are hummable.
- Construct your song’s phrases to be factors of two. A phrase is a resting point – a cadence – within your song. Most songs that are written to appeal to the general public should cadence every 2, 4 or 8 bars. Don’t feel that you can’t experiment with something less predictable, but consider the 2-4-8 rule to be the norm. The point is that simple phrase structure is more easily remembered.
- Include repeating figures within your melody. This happens at the macro level (i.e., the chorus will repeat at regular intervals throughout your song), and at the micro level (i.e., use a short 3 or 4 note melodic idea), and gives the listener something familiar that repeats throughout the song.
- Balance melodic and lyrical complexity. A complex lyric does not necessarily need a complex melody, and in fact, you should consider that simplifying a melody will often allow a poetic lyric to take the center stage. And a simplified melody makes it more likely that people will be able to recall it and hum it.
- Try using a single repeated-note motif to add profundity to an otherwise unremarkable lyric. In other words, if you find that melodic ideas are not coming to mind, experiment with “chanting” the lyric on one or two pitches.
- In addition to point 4 above, don’t forget basic formal repetition. Repeating a phrase, a line, a chorus, etc., drills that melody into the mind of the listener, and becomes an important tool for allowing listeners to more easily remember the song.
You’ll notice that several of the points above refer to repetition as a vital way to ensure that people will hum your songs all day. As the songwriter, you are the one who has to determine if you’ve repeated something too much. Over-repetition will have an adverse effect on the audience by causing boredom.
And of course, you need to be sure that whatever you are giving to your audience to hum will be interesting enough to do so. That’s the beauty, for instance, of the hook. A hook is a standard component that makes hummable songs because they consist of a short rhythmic/melodic idea that demands to be repeated.
And so if you feel that your melody doesn’t seem to have enough to lock itself into listeners’ minds for easy recall later, try pairing your melody with a catchy hook that will do the job.
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