Thoughts on why some songs get airplay decades after being written and performed, and why others die a quick death.
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The hope of every songwriter is not just to write something that has relevance and market value today. Longevity in the songwriting business- the thought that people will be listening to, and radios playing, your songs decades from now- that has got to be the dream of anyone who writes. It begs the question, “What is good music?” But that question quickly becomes too argumentative. It’s far better to simplify the question to this: “What will cause listeners from the next generation to want to listen to the songs I’m writing today?”
To determine why some music stays alive and appeals to the next generation, it might help to try to figure out the opposite: why do many songs become dated and unplayed a few years after hitting the top of the charts?
Here’s a list of what appears to be the most important factors that affect the longterm staying power of a song, starting with the most influential ones:
- Lyrics. Just do an online search for lists of “bad songs”; you’ll find that most of the songs on those lists are cited due to their bad or corny lyrics. What makes a bad lyric is hard to define, but usually they violate the basic two rules of 1) using plain, everyday language, and 2) matching the natural pulse of the words with the pulse of the music. In addition, for lyrics to mean something to the next generation, avoid trendy “hip” lingo that’s going to soon be the language equivalent of seeing your Dad in spandex.
- Performance-Related Choices. This is not a songwriting issue as much as a production issue, but if you want your own recording to be the one people are listening to in the future, your performance-related choices will be very important. For songs to project well into the future, be careful using technologies and instrumental/vocal effects that are trendy and fad-like: auto-tune, for example, which is going to date many of the songs being produced today. And try where possible to work acoustic instruments into your recording.
- Song Topics. This is tricky, because some topics will retain their importance from decade to decade (issues relating to human rights, for example), but other topics might sound just a tad “twee” to the next generation (the “Dad-won’t-lend-me-the-car” kinds of songs, which today sound so dated.) Love always sells, of course, but one love song will stay relevant due to the quality of the lyrics (Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne”, or The Beatles’ “Yesterday”), while another loses relevance (The Captain & Tennille’s “Muskrat Love”).
- Harmonic Choices. The way chords work doesn’t change from one era to another, and chord progressions Mozart put together can work today. But some types of chords will go in and out of fashion. Early rock & roll rarely strayed from basic I – IV – V progressions, with the occasional vi- and ii-chord. Late 60s and early- to mid- 70s popular music added lots of non-dominant 7th chords (listen to Crosby, Stills & Nash and America, for example). Just like a basic grey business suit stays wearable for a long time without looking overly dated, plain un-elaborate chord choices have a better hope of keeping music sounding undated for longer. The downside is that plain harmonies are less interesting. Getting the balance right is the trick.
- Formal Design. This strays into “Performance-related choices” listed above, but I’m mainly talking about the form of the final product. It’s hard to know today what will sound dated 30 years from now. Verse-chorus-bridge formats have remained relevant for years. But some aspects of form quickly date songs. For example, long, dragged-out, improvised guitar solos were a hallmark of late-60s and early-70s rock, and we don’t see those so much today (at least not done the same way). Also, check out how background vocals from 60s pop compare to today’s. The ones that still sound like they could have been written today are unobtrusive and quietly supportive of the melody. (Oo-ing and humming dates a song less than “ahs”, you’ll notice.)
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