If you’re a successful landscape artist or photographer, you know the vital importance of a focal point. That’s the feature that immediately draws the viewer’s eye and establishes the artwork’s main subject.
Without a focal point, you’ve got a painting or photo that looks fine but keeps the viewer endlessly searching for purpose. Like staring at the Windows XP desktop image of the rolling green hill, a picture without a point of focus may give a warm fuzzy feeling, but nothing more.
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In songwriting — and you could argue in practically any form of creative art — a point of focus is equally crucial. The difference between a song an a painting is that a painting can be taken in almost instantaneously, even if it isn’t fully understood so quickly. But a song takes 3-4 minutes before its complete picture is revealed.
The problem songwriters face is that the song’s main point of focus might be any or all of the following:
- The chorus hook.
- A short, catchy chord progression.
- A melodic fragment.
- A payoff line.
- A rhythmic groove.
- Any number of other unique instrumental/lyrical/melodic features.
And it takes time. A great chorus hook requires the listener to wait until close to the 1-minute mark before it happens. A payoff line will usually be longer than that. So how do you keep a listener interested enough in your song that they’re still listening past the 1-minute mark?
Layered Points of Focus
The answer is in providing a set of layered points of focus. You need to ensure that your songs start with something that is enticing enough, even if it’s not the main point of focus. From there, each interesting point of focus acts as a kind of hook that grabs more attention. Here’s how that might work:
- Use a song intro that grabs attention. Incorporate a kind of intro hook that will lure the listener to keep listening. This means establishing interesting rhythms and instrumental motifs that sound catchy on their own, whether or not they have a lot to do with the main body of the song. (At the same time, never underestimate the power of starting without an intro at all.) Examples: “Satisfaction” (Mick Jagger, Keith Richards), “Poker Face” (Stefani Germanotta, Nadir Khayat)
- Once the intro is done, present a melodic fragment that’s captivating right from the start of the verse melody. No matter what happens after that, you’ve at least given the audience something catchy to listen to for the next few seconds. A great melodic fragment usually also means a finding chord progression that properly supports it. Using a melodic leap is a good idea. Example: “The Long and Winding Road” (Lennon & McCartney), “Somebody That I Used to Know” (Wally de Backer).
- Establish a powerful groove right away. If your song’s chorus is a sing-along/dance-along kind of thing, you’re wasting time if you wait for the chorus to have things really get going. Set something powerful up right away to get people moving, and then keep them moving. Example: “Uptown Funk!” (Jeff Bhasker, Philip Lawrence, Peter Hernandez, Mark Ronson, Nicholas Williams, Devon Gallaspy, Lonnie Simmons, Charles Wilson, Rudolph Taylor).
- Constantly build song energy as the verse moves along. One of the best ways to ensure people are still listening by the time the chorus happens is to build dynamics (i.e., get louder), and/or move the melody higher, and/or make the instrumentation busier. It’s hard to turn away from a song doing that. It’s an important duty for a good verse. Example: “How Deep Is Your Love” (Barry, Robin & Maurice Gibb).
- Give a strong chorus hook as a kind of “reward for listening this far.” Like the landscape that has the captivating feature we notice right away, you’ll want to provide a strong chorus hook that finally does what a painting’s point of focus does: offer a reason for the song existing at all. Example: “Radioactive” (Alexander Grant, Ben McKee, Josh Mosser, Daniel Platzman, Dan Reynolds, Wayne Sermon).