guitarist - songwriter

Songwriting, and Mastering the Short Musical Journey

Symphonies and operas are probably the longest complete works in our musical history. By the time you get to the end of the Romantic era (i.e., the end of the 19th century), a typical symphony (or symphony-like work) could be over an hour long.

By contrast, songs in the pop genres (pop, country, rock, etc.) represent some of the shortest complete musical works of everything we listen to. The typical length of a pop song is longer now than it was in, say, the 50s, but even now most pop songs come in under 4 minutes.

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You might wonder why we’d even take the time to compare pop songs and symphonies, but there is one thing that a song and a symphony have in common: they each represent a complete musical journey.

The Complete Musical Journey

What do we mean by this term “complete musical journey”? It means that by the time we’ve listened to the entire work, whether it’s a 3-and-a-half minute pop song or a 45 minute symphonic movement, we’re satisfied that we’ve just heard something in its entirety. We don’t feel that we need something more in order to complete the work; it’s done.

That’s something that all musical works have in common. And that actually presents a bigger challenge for pop songwriters than symphonic composers.

The challenge is that short works don’t get much time to grab an audience’s attention. Grabbing attention needs to happen pretty quickly. It’s why the expression “Don’t bore us, get to the chorus” is still an adage that songwriters follow.

You know how songwriters design songs, using verses and choruses, with other miscellaneous and optional parts. The moving back and forth from one section to the next is an important way to build and keep audience interest.

If you were composing a symphony, you wouldn’t be using verses and choruses. You’d likely be doing something like this:

  1. You’d present an initial theme, or melody. If you’re familiar with Beethoven’s 5th Symphony, it’s the “Da-da-da-DUM” melody you hear at the start.
  2. You’d eventually present a second theme or melody. This melody contrasts with the first one. So if the first theme is, let’s say, aggressive or articulate, the second theme will likely be gentle and flowing, as you can hear.
  3. You’d create a section, called the development section, where you’d take these two melodies and work them together. Bits of this one, accompanied by bits of the other one, and so on. This is where the composer really gets to show their skill and artistry.
  4. The movement ends by restating the original melodies.

The key word for composers is development. They develop musical ideas as the movement proceeds, and you hope that the audience is understanding, on some level, how these musical ideas are being developed.

But that kind of music — where ideas develop and change — takes time. It’s why symphonic movements can be comparatively long.

The Pop Song’s Complete Musical Journey

But pop songs are usually short. So how do you present a complete musical journey in 4 minutes?

This is where the hook comes in. The main difference between a pop song and a symphony is that word development. Where symphonies develop ideas, pop songs grab an audience’s attention by using a short, catchy hook.

The typical pop song hook makes its main appearance in the chorus, and so if you’re a pop songwriter, here’s a normal set of steps you’d be following:

  1. You’d present an initial theme, or melody. This is the verse melody, and it will normally sit low in the singer’s range, for a very important reason: you don’t want to upstage the chorus when it happens.
  2. You’d support that melody with a chord progression that connects smoothly to the chorus. You might insert a pre-chorus, but the job is the same: make that chorus, when it happens, sound exciting.
  3. You’d present a chorus theme that (usually) starts with the chorus hook. That hook is something short, attractive, and meant to establish the key of the song. The hook will sound like the whole point of the song. Everything needs to point to the hook.
  4. Any other optional sections (pre-chorus, bridge, etc.), are sections you’d add to provide contrast to the hook, as well as to allow for more lyrics, interesting instrumentation, and so on.

In a sense, then, pop songs are about development, but everything we hear in a song that we might call “development” — the gradual raising of a verse melody, the fact that the instrumentation might be getting louder, the fact that the singer’s voice moves upward as it approaches the chorus — these are all things meant to shine a spotlight on the hook.

The Importance of a Good Chorus Hook

Where symphony composers consider the development section of their symphonic movement to be the main point of the entire movement, the pop songwriter considers the hook to be the jewel that succeeds or fails.

If it’s exaggerating to say that pop songs are all about the hook, it’s not exaggerating by much.

In your own songwriting, once you’ve got what you think of as a good chorus hook, take the time to work it and rework it, and make sure that, on its own, the chorus hook is something that listeners would love to sing, and want to keep returning to.

That’s certainly not to say that nothing else matters, of course. But how you know that an entire pop song is succeeding is that everything prepares the way for the hook. Musically, everything you write in a song should be making the hook sound like the obvious focal point.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

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