Demanding Attention in the Songwriting World

SingerPart of my job is to conduct performing groups, mostly choirs and orchestras these days. I find myself often using a phrase with performers of music which has particular relevance to the songwriting world: “Don’t let the fact that you’re the only sound going on in the room be the reason why people are listening.” You may need to read that a few times to really get it. And if you truly understand that statement, it’s probably going to improve your skills as a writer.

Songwriting Your Dream?

When I think about all the songs I’ve heard once that I never bothered to try to hear twice, the list is rather large. Songs that no one wants to hear more than once are, for that particular listener, failures. They failed to captivate.

But that’s OK. No song you write is going to captivate everyone who hears it. But if most of your songs leave most people feeling bored enough that they don’t want to revisit it, you’ve got problems.

And my “don’t let the fact…” statement becomes significant.

In the performing world, I use that statement because it reminds musicians that in order to be worthy of an audience’s attention, it takes more than simply being the only sound in the room. It takes more than simply showing up. Your performance must demand attention.

Similarly, your songs must demand attention.

So how do you demand attention in the songwriting world? You need to be sure that you’re giving your audience something other than the mundane. It’s not enough for your song to simply follow the structural guidelines of good writing, they need to offer something that’s pleasantly unique, something that demands a bit of attention.

That something does not (and should not) need to be extraordinary or bizarre, but needs to be hooky, memorable and appealing.

Ultimately, you should be able to look at every song you write and be able to answer the question, “What is it about this song that makes people want to keep listening?”

Besides some sort of catchy hook, or a “neat moment”, you need to be sure that the song is structured to keep people listening. The following checklist provides questions you can ask yourself about your latest song. And you should find yourself answering “yes” to most of them:

  1. Does the melody move upward from verse to chorus?
  2. Do the lyrics follow a sensible progression of posing situations and asking questions near the beginning, through to answering those questions and describing the emotional response near the end?
  3. Do the harmonies work, especially in the chorus, to make the tonic note and chord strong and significant?
  4. Do the instrumental voicings move upward from verse to chorus?
  5. Is there more rhythmic activity in the chorus and bridge than in the verse?
  6. Do you get a strong sense of higher song energy at the end of the song than at the beginning?
  7. Is the song placed in the right key to generate the kind of energy the song needs? (Higher keys generate higher energy).
  8. Do you avoid boredom by adding a structural element that provides variety? (A bridge, an instrumental solo, an interlude, a pause, an unaccompanied section, etc.)
  9. Do you use more vocal harmonies in the chorus than in the verse?
  10. Do you get a sense at the end of the song that you’ve taken the listener on an interesting musical journey?

These are important questions. It can be the difference between providing the listener with something captivating, and simply being “a sound going on in the room.”

Not only do listeners deserve better, but they demand better.

-Gary Ewer, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website.
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  1. In response to your tip #2: I recently picked up a way to create meaningful and engaging lyrical story, including the elements you listed, from an interview with singer-songwriter James McMurtry. He explained he likes to create a specific character, then write the rest of the song from their point of view or situation. Ideally, listeners will connect with this character and their struggles, triumphs, etc.

    • Hi Chelsey – That’s great advice, because it makes it more likely that the listeners can put themselves in the shoes of the singer, and really experience the emotions of the song.

      Thanks for writing!

    • This reminds me of a comment made about Jonathan Cain. He writes songs about the audience from their point of view — the character he chooses to use is a typical audience member.

  2. A quick note:

    Another question that someone should ask themselves and answer “no” to this time is, “Do I primarily expect that people will be utterly bowled over with my technical virtuosity?”

    Not that one should stink on ice, but technical ability is not the endpoint for music. It’s the beginning. One should no more expect an audience to admire one’s technical chops than they would marvel at the fluency of a gifted public speaker. Fluency in the language or instrument is where you start, not where you finish up.

    It’s a common failing among gifted musicians to forget that they aren’t there to make people marvel, “Wow, what a fabulous technical musician!” They’re there to make people cry and cheer.

    Basically, it’s about them, not you. 🙂 I guess this is an expansion on your #10.

    • Thanks for writing, you make an excellent point. When it becomes all about technique, we’re missing the point. And we’re certainly missing the target.

      Thanks again!

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