What Are You Recalling When You Remember a Song?

Listeners remember relationships between musical elements, not usually the elements themselves.


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Paper & PenThe most important part of a song’s success is its ability to be remembered. If no one is remembering it after it’s done, it hasn’t made the proper impact.

Successful songs create a crucial balance between melody, lyrics and chords, and then infuse it with catchy a rhythm. In that sense, it is fair to argue that no one remembers notes, lyrics and/or chords, as much as they hear and remember the balance and relationship between those elements.

Every good song has at least one moment when the melody note coincides with a beautifully chosen chord. But in fact, what’s far more important than that is: what led up to that moment? And what happens immediately afterward?

That’s why I so rarely talk about the “killer chord progression.” True, there are chords that are wonderfully selected and placed, and lines of lyric that are powerful and poignant. But what really counts when it comes to making a song memorable is: how did you get to that moment? And what happens immediately after?

A child (OK, you and I as well) will get a big kick seeing a watermelon smash into hundreds of pieces as it hits a tree after being rolled down a hill. But where we get a real thrill is watching the entire event: the watermelon bouncing and rolling, lunging this way and that, before it finally disintegrates in a cloud of pink juice. The entire trip down the hill makes the climactic moment memorable and far more exciting.

Great songs often have a climactic moment, and we may put a lot of trust in that moment to carry the song. But what really makes that moment work in songwriting is the journey that leads up to it. That’s what you’re really recalling when you remember a song.

The journey, not the moment.


Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow on Twitter.

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