I remember a university prof years ago asking us fledgling students a question: What is the one thing that all pieces of music ever written have in common?
You might think that it’s a pretty easy question. Obviously, all music involves sound, right? No. John Cage’s “4’33” is a work in which the performer (usually a pianist) clicks a stopwatch and sits there playing nothing for 3 short movements.
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In the final analysis, the question yielded one answer that did seem to apply to everything ever written that we call music: all music takes time. Any audience for any piece of music must commit to giving up time if they choose to listen.
In committing the time necessary, audiences must first be enticed to listen, and then the singer/songwriter/performing group has a second challenge every bit as important as that first one: they must entice the audience to keep listening.
Beyond that, you’ve then got a third challenge, particularly if you want to be successful in the music industry: you must entice an audience to return.
Those three things are crucial whether you write symphonies, pop songs, operas, piano sonatas, or anything:
- You must entice someone to listen.
- You must make them want to keep listening.
- You must make them want to return and listen again.
Those are the 3 hallmarks of musical success. And they all have one thing in common: they all require people to commit time.
It’s the second in that list I want to focus on: keeping an audience listening. How do you make sure that 30 seconds into your song your audience still wants to listen? If they lose interest, what’s causing that? Why do people stop listening. If you can’t answer that, you’ve got a problem.
There is only one reason that an audience member will stop listening to your song, and it’s this: they’ve lost confidence that something as good or better is about to happen.
Audiences need to have confidence (usually intuitively at first) that the good stuff they’re hearing right now is going to lead to something every bit as good, and hopefully even better. When a listener clicks away from your song to try something else, they’ve lost confidence in you.
Every time you write a song, you need to do a kind of deep analysis that answers this basic question: what happens — through each verse, each iteration of the chorus, on through the bridge, or any other section of your song — that makes your song get better. What keeps people listening?
If your answer is “nothing much”, then why would you expect your fans to stick with your music? If the question is hard to answer in the first place, then ask yourself a more generic, objective question: What keeps you listening to your favourite songs? I think you’ll find many of the following will likely apply:
- The lyric moves forward in a logical way, even if it’s more situational (“This is why I love her/you”) than straight-ahead story.
- The lyric alternates between narrative-style and emotional, such that when the narrative comes back in verse 2, we want to hear the emotional outpouring of the chorus, and you’re willing to wait for that.
- The chorus progression becomes simpler and more hook-driven.
- The chorus melody is primarily charged up by the chorus hook.
- The instrumentation/production builds and energizes — though not necessarily in a straight line — as each song section occurs.
In other words, the best songs sound like a journey, where each landmark (i.e., each song section) offers something a little different, even in supposedly identical choruses. Sometimes a repeat of the chorus might feature a new instrument, a slight improvisation on the melody you know is going to happen, perhaps a little louder or rhythmically intense, and so on.
Somehow, in some way, listeners need to know that something significant builds as your song progresses. If that’s not happening, your audience will lose confidence that it will ever happen, and they will click away to find something else.
So for the song you’ve just finished, ask yourself that all-important question: What have I given listeners, on a section-by-section basis, that will give them the confidence that something better — something greater — is about to happen?
“Hooks and Riffs: How They Grab Attention, Make Songs Memorable, and Build Your Fan Base” shows you how a good hook can make the difference between songwriting success and failure. With great examples from pop music history.