In 1958, American composer Milton Babbitt wrote an article for High Fidelity Magazine, called “Who Cares If You Listen?” The provocative title referred to the complexity of modern classical music, and the inability for most people to understand it or enjoy it. Babbitt’s position was that music had become like advanced physics or mathematics: too complex for those who, as he put it, were only “normally well-educated.”
In pop songwriting, the question doesn’t even need to be asked. Of course you care if people listen. But caring, and then actually ensuring that people listen… that can be tricky. How do you make sure that the music you’re writing has a caring audience?
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In a recent article for SongTown website, titled “4 Questions Pro Songwriters Ask While They Write,” American singer-songwriter Marty Dodson said this about writing songs that connect to audiences:
I can’t count the times that I have critiqued songs that were written very well, but did not connect with me in any way. For a song to be commercial, it has to connect to me in some way. Otherwise, I’m asking people to watch a 3 minute home movie. Even if my song moves me, it also has to connect to the audience in order to move them. You might appreciate my horribly sad song about my grandmother, but unless it connects you to YOUR grandmother, it probably doesn’t have a chance of commercial success. Pros are always looking for that connection – a way to make the listener care enough to keep listening. If I give listeners a reason to care, I have a shot.
He’s hit the nail right on the head. Audiences have to care. But how do you do that? Because in fact, you can actually write about your grandmother, or your own situation in life, and make the requisite connection. But how do you do that? Here are 4 ideas to ponder as you write your next song’s lyric:
- Write about a person, not about an emotion. If your lyric is something like, “I love you so much/ You’ve really touched my life…“, those are empty words that won’t connect to your audience. But if your lyric is about a person, using some attractive imagery, something like McCartney’s “My Love” (“And when the cupboard’s bare/ I’ll still find somethin’ there with my love/ It’s understood…), you generate a powerful image of love and devotion that everyone will connect with.
- Let your melodies power-up your lyrics. Think about the way your melody moves up and down, and place emotionally significant words and phrases higher in a melody. Often it’s even more subtle than that: a midrange note followed by a low note gives that midrange note the same power as a high one. Example: listen to Tracy Chapman’s “Baby Can I Hold You“, and notice the interplay between melodic range and lyrics. A wonderful song with a powerful lyric.
- A lyric’s emotional power needs to move up and down to be effective. A song lyric that’s all-emotion all the time is going to dull the effect it’s trying to achieve. The emotion of a lyric will make a more powerful impact if it starts low, moves high, then back to low, then back to high… To see this in action in its simplest form, check out Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You.”
- The simplest emotions, based on the simplest situations, have the best chance of connecting. There’s no doubt that someone will love a song and will shed a tear about the extinction of the Desert Bettong as a species, but it’s too far removed from most people’s emotional psyche to make it a hit. You can do it, if you sing about something simpler: what humanity is doing generally to the planet that’s resulting in many of the ecological disasters we see around us. Simplicity is everything. That’s why love still sells.
For every song you write, you should be able to look at your lyric sheet and ask yourself, “Will someone care about what I’ve written about here?” Or, to put it as Marty Dodson does, are you just asking people to watch a 3-minute home movie?
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