Guitarist - songwriter

Writing Songs that Keep People Listening to the End

Good moments in music are good because they make us believe that even better moments are coming, and so we want to keep listening.

The inverse of that is true as well: bad moments in music make us believe that nothing better is coming, and so we give up listening and click to hear something else.

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Most listeners don’t have the musical vocabulary to describe why they dislike a song. They’re pretty good at saying what they like: “I love that melody..”, “I love that singer..” “I love that guitar solo..”, and so on.

But when songs are boring, listeners don’t have much of an ability to identify the cause of the boredom. As a songwriter, you need to know the specific reasons for a song’s failure if you want to fix the problem.

To solve this kind of problem, you need to start with the general and then move to the specific. So here it is: In general, a song that bores a listener is one that gives no hope that better moments are coming. So your audience gives up.

But that kind of general comment, though extremely relevant to an audience, is of little help to you the songwriter. It doesn’t give you anything to fix.

To fix bad moments in songs, you’re often looking for those spots where the musical energy wanes and dies, where you don’t feel that you’re being lured by anything specific. More than simply saying “that’s a boring moment”, you need to be able to say exactly what’s causing that moment of boredom, and what you can do to fix it.

To do that, you need to put a magnifying glass on every possible element within your song. Some of those are specifically songwriting issues, while others are better defined as production issues.

For songs that fail the test of having a listener stick with it to the end, here are some things to look for:

1. Lyrics

  1. Good lyrics have a point — a focus. For every line of lyric, you should be able to say, “Because I said this, I then said that.” That sounds simple, but you’d be surprised how often lyrics come across to listeners as a random set of lines with no discernible point of focus.
  2. Good lyrics treat emotion carefully. Verses should minimize the emotional content, allowing it to blossom more in the chorus. The difference is subtle, as you see in Adele’s song “Someone Like You”: VERSE: “I heard that you’re settled down/ That you found a girl and you’re married now...” CHORUS: “Never mind, I’ll find someone like you/ I wish nothing but the best for you two/ Don’t forget me, I beg…”
  3. Good lyrics sound oral, not written. If your lyrics sound like a written document of a situation, you’ve uncovered a reason why people abandon your songs.

2. Melodies

  1. Good melodies use up and down motion as a way of pumping up (and diminishing) musical energy. You’ll notice that many songs feature rising melodies as a verse passes its midpoint.
  2. Good melodies partner well with lyrics. They give emotional lyrics high points, and move up and down to mimic the natural pulse of language.

3. Chord Progressions

  1. In the pop genres, good chord progressions usually target the tonic chord. This is especially true of the chorus. Verse and bridge progressions can wander a little, but by the time the chorus happens, progressions should make the tonic chord obvious.
  2. Most progressions are shorter than you think. Again, this is especially true of chorus progressions, which often use 3 – 5 chords. Verse and bridge progressions might become longer, in their attempt to more accurately partner up with the lyric.

So how does this information help you as a songwriter? It won’t if you don’t learn to listen to your own songs objectively, as if someone else has written them.

By listening objectively, you are better able to pinpoint the moments where boredom is taking hold, and then better able to assess exactly why. It might be a moment where the lyric doesn’t work, a moment where the melody goes flat, or perhaps a moment when the chord progression lacks harmonic drive.

Identifying those moments is crucial to songwriting success. Remember, a weak moment in a song makes listeners immediately give up on finding good moments.

My advice: Listen to your latest song several times. The first time, listen simply for those moments when you feel the song weakens. Then start listening start listening again, for specific elements occurring at those moments: the lyrics, the melody, the chords. And then, if you’ve got a good recording of it, listen for performance and production issues.

With a few targeted listens, you should be able to focus in on the exact problem. You might be pleasantly surprised to find that songs that sound weak can be fixed with one small correction.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter

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