Justin Timberlake - Can't Stop the Feeling

In Songwriting, Structure Comes Before Packaging

As a songwriter with aspirations for success in the business, your dream is to have your songs appeal to as many people as possible. But as you know, there have been legendary fights between producers, who make it their job to understand the market, and songwriters, who might be reluctant to commercialize their music to any great extent.

The problem is that the appeal of music is a subjective matter. No one calculates in an objective way how appealing a song is. People either like it, hate it, or have some other sort of reaction in between. Producers theoretically know, more than most, the kind of song that appeals to a target audience. They usually have the best chance of knowing how to “package a song” for maximum effect.

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That observation isn’t very helpful to you, the songwriter. You may not mind making compromises in your songwriting style to bring your music to a larger audience — as long as the compromises aren’t a total sell-out — but your question may be more basic than that: What are audiences looking for?

For each genre, audiences look for something a little different. Most of those differing qualities relate to producer-related issues: instrumentation, overall sound, tempo, feel and so on. For you as the songwriter, however, there are things you can be doing to make your song more attractive before it ever gets to the studio.

Here’s a list of song characteristics that, regardless of genre, are the kinds of things audiences are looking for:

  1. A catchy chorus hook. Most songs need some short 1- or 2-bar fragment that sells the song. That will be the bit that people keep singing to themselves after they’ve heard the song, and makes them want to hear the song again.
  2. A strong chord progression. There is nothing wrong with looking for chords that are creative and unexpected, but great songs often have very attractive moments of clarity, when the chords are suddenly strong, predictable and enticing.
  3. Lyrics that attract with emotional content, by way of an interesting topic. Whether you’ve written a song with lyrics that speak plainly (“Can’t Stop the Feeling” – Timberlake) or are more abstract (“For Emma” – Bon Iver), there need to be moments in the lyric when the listener feels an emotional rush. The specific emotion is less important than simply having the audience feel something – anything.
  4. A song that’s well paced. Having audiences wait too long through a long, meaningless intro, or wait too long for the chorus — these are problems that can hamper an otherwise good song.
  5. Melodies that are patterned, nicely contoured, and easy to remember. Tunes that use repetition cleverly, that look designed rather than random, and that are easy for listeners to hum or sing to themselves — these are important qualities for successful songs.

If you find yourself worrying about the packaging of a song more than the actual construction of it, that may explain why any success you have appears to be hit-and-miss.

Before you ever give serious thought to what a song’s final version should sound like, you should be thinking about the qualities as listed above. Everything else is packaging.

Good packaging will be vital to a song’s success, to be sure, but it’s hard to package garbage in a way that people want to hear it. Get the structure of your music working first, and then work on production-related issues.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter

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