Imogen Heap

Grabbing Attention In Pop Songwriting

When songs are boring to audiences, don’t expect them to be able to say exactly why they’re bored. Most people can say what they like about a good song, but are less able to say specifically what isn’t working about a bad one.

When a song sounds boring, it simply means that little or nothing is jumping out and grabbing attention. So to say that in a different way, good songs have a way of getting your attention in some way, and they’re easy to remember and fun to sing.

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The notion of grabbing attention is worth thinking about in songwriting, because bad songs can also grab attention. A listener might not be able to recognize bad melodies, chords or lyrics, but that doesn’t mean they don’t recognize that it’s bad.

So simply striving to write a song that grabs attention may not get you on the right track at all.

When grabbing attention is working well, it’s usually because it is close to fulfilling an audience’s expectations. In other words, your job as a songwriter is to give listeners something close to what they are expecting, but not quite.

To get the balance right, consider the following points:

  1. Think of your song as being a collection of separate elements. That way, it might feel easier to write a strange lyric, let’s say, while having the chords and melodies behaving in a more traditional way. Those more traditional chords and melodies gives the audience something to cling to even if they don’t immediately understand your lyric. (A good example: Imogen Heap’s “Hide and Seek.”
  2. Think of “weirdness” as a subtle quality. In pop songwriting, it doesn’t take much to have a song sound different. In the balance between weird and predictable, a small touch of innovation goes a long way.
  3. Song components still need to partner well in songs that grab attention. Your instrumentation or backing vocal treatment, for example, might sound strange to most people, but there still needs to be a sense of partnership between everything. In other words, a weird melody needs to sound supported by the chords underneath it.
  4. There is a fine line between being creative and being pretentious. Be careful that you haven’t simply written something that sounds high-brow for no good reason.
  5. Good song structure is necessary whether you’re writing a simple song or a complex one. So always think carefully about the basic principles of good songwriting, whether you’re writing something that’s as simple as a standard 12-bar blues, or as complex as a progressive rock tone poem.

If your songs aren’t grabbing attention, they’re just adding to the noise. You should think of every song you write as being worthy of having something about it that’s attention-grabbing.

Just remember that in the pop songwriting world, we’re usually talking about subtleties.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

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