Download “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” 6 E-book Bundle. Become a top-level songwriter, starting now.
Recently someone posted an observation on my video about the circle-of-fifths. In that video, I was describing the harmonic strength that comes from root movements of chords that are a 4th or 5th apart, which is the theoretical basis of the circle-of-fifths. The main point of the viewer’s comment was, “why would you prefer to write the same song [as] everybody else and sell yourself out to have a “hit song”, when you could write music that you love that doesn’t necessarily sound good to most people.” My reply focussed on the fact that chord progressions don’t necessarily dictate style, and that it is possible to have two completely different songs that use the same progression.
But he (@MrTrolololol75) makes a good point. Why do we study these hit songs in the first place? Is it just so that we can write more music just like it? I hope not! And why do so many people seem to be fixated on writing a hit song? Why not just write what you want? If people want to hear it, great, and if not… still great.
There’s nothing wrong, per se, with trying to write hit songs. And if you want to write hit songs, songs that will appeal to the masses, you’re going to have to use song elements that tend to have universal appeal. That usually, but not always, means doing a bit of “dumbing down”, and this applies to chord progressions more than anything. So his comment is quite fair: why would you purposely dumb your music down?
The fact is that most successful hit songwriters don’t actually describe what they’re doing as attempting to write a hit song. They would probably describe it more as an attempt to create something innovative enough to stand out from everything else, while at the same time similar enough that it doesn’t scare listeners off. It’s a bit of a tight-rope walk, and for many, an interesting challenge.
The Beatles were probably the most successful at that tight-rope walk. They could write music that seemed to voyage into unknown territory, and instead of scaring off listeners, they grabbed them and pulled them along. “Lucy in the Skies with Diamonds” is a good case in point, but they wrote and performed dozens of other examples.
So what are you fixated on when you write? Are you trying desperately to “write a hit song”, or are you trying to write something that is true to who you are? The attempt to write a hit song can leave you feeling empty if it’s producing something that doesn’t really show the real you.
@MrTrolololol75 used the music of Frank Zappa as an example of someone who wasn’t out to please the general public, but was a musician who simply had something to say, and said it. It’s a great example. And in my opinion, we’ll still be looking at Zappa’s music 100 years from now, when many or most of today’s singer-songwriters will have faded into oblivion.
Every once in a while it’s a good idea to re-examine why you write music, and to figure out if your focus is correct. You may feel that there is a hit song inside you somewhere, but if that song isn’t describing the real you, you may be missing out on an opportunity to show the world the amazing musician you really are.
Follow Gary on Twitter