Simplicity and repetition are keys to making a song stick in a listener’s ear.
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One of the most important aspects of a successful song is this: how easily is it remembered by listeners? We know this by simply checking industry stats. The songs that fly to the top of the charts are usually ones with strong chorus hooks, where simplicity is a quality that’s as important as any other. But excessive simplicity creates boring music. So it’s a vital balancing act to write a song that’s simple enough to be easily remembered, while complex enough to be interesting.
Music with a high degree of complexity is the kind that musicians like to study, whether formally or informally. In 100 years, we’ll still be analyzing Yes, Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, Peter Gabriel, and a number of other highly regarded musicians.
Many of today’s chart-topping singer-songwriters will also be highly regarded and remembered, though it’s harder for us to identify those musicians right now. There usually is a natural “fading” that happens once a musician moves out of the charts, before they rise again in people’s esteem.
In any case, to be successful in the songwriting world means writing music that audiences like, and, even more importantly, that audiences remember.
There are things you can do as you compose your music to ensure that your songs are going to stick in people’s musical ear. They aren’t rules, so don’t go changing your music if you find that you haven’t done some of these. But it’s a list worth checking out from time to time:
- With chord progressions, strong ones should follow fragile ones. Many songs use simple progressions (i.e., the I-IV-V-I kind) throughout, and that’s fine. But if you’re going to venture into using more complex chord progressions, they belong in a verse. So a verse should use fragile progressions, and a chorus should use strong ones. Bridge progressions should explore a different side to your song’s key (for example, venturing into the minor if your song is in major).
- Limit the number of “ideas” in your song. A song should have two main melodies (verse and chorus), with the possibility of a 3rd melody in the bridge. That’s it. Don’t clutter your song up with too many ideas.
- Make your melodies easily singable by anyone. The best way for someone to remember your melody is to be able to sing it themselves, even if it’s just in the shower. So think carefully if you plan to use a melody that spans an octave-and-a-half. Limiting your melodies to the range of one octave is often best.
- Put a hook, or something “hooky” somewhere in your song, preferably the chorus. A hook will work best when it’s accompanied by simple, strong chords. The chorus is the most likely location for a melodic hook. But background instrumental hooks hooks (like the guitar hook of “Smoke on the Water”) can occur in many spots throughout the length of a song. Hooks, by definition, are easily remembered, and will bring listeners back.
- Use a musical motif. A motif is a short rhythmic or melodic idea that serves as a building block for other musical ideas in a song. It’s a little bit like a hook, but it’s more subtle, doing its work mainly in the background.
As a good example of how a motif works and how it’s so important to the success of a song, listen to Lady Gaga’s “You and I”. Most of the melodic ideas that occur in that song are related to melodic and rhythmic ideas that happen in that very first line, “It’s been a long time since I came around”. You hear a similarity in each line, rhythmically and/or melodically. That’s the power of a motif, and it makes the song easier to remember.
So for writing memorable songs, remember the two most important qualities: Simplicity and repetition.
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