Simon & Garfunkel

Writing a Rock Anthem – The Important Characteristics

It’s hard to define what a rock anthem is. It’s the sort of song form that you recognize when you hear it, though. The most important quality of an anthem is probably universality: the notion that everyone could join in and sing the chorus together, and feel a sense of camaraderie and celebration for doing so.

Some great examples of anthems that show this “let’s all sing it together” are Twisted Sister’s “We’re Not Gonna Take It” (Dee Snider), Queen’s “We Will Rock You/We Are the Champions” (Freddie Mercury/Brian May), and Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’” (Steve Perry, Jonathan Cain, Neal Schon).

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There’s a sense of empowerment mixed with joy in the singing of an anthem, but what should songwriters be doing to bring those characteristics to the fore? How do you write something that encourages your audience to stand up and sing along?

Here are some important traits to consider:

  1. Anthems tend to use simple, tonally strong chord progressions in their chorus. So keep your progressions from wandering into other keys, or meandering in such a way that confuses listeners.
  2. Secondary dominant chords work well. You can read this article to show you how secondary dominants work. But if you want a quick way to use the most common one, try this: identify the key of your song, and then find a way to use a major II-chord instead of the normal minor ii. You hear this chord and its power in “You’ll Never Walk Alone” from Roger’s & Hammerstein’s musical “Carousel”. It starts slow and quiet, but there’s a secondary dominant (which you can hear at the 1’35” mark of this recording) that provides a tremendous feeling of emotional strength to the lyric.
  3. The lyric needs to be inclusive and empowering. You need to write about something that touches most people’s hearts, and do so in such a way as to generate a feeling of strength and empowerment by the mere singing of the words.
  4. Let the chorus melody build energy by moving upward to a climactic high point. Paul Simon’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water” is a great example of this. As the melody moves higher and higher, you sense the building energy, and then you get the climactic high point near the end. It can be an important part of making audiences feel exhilarated.
  5. Think about how tempo can strengthen your song’s message. A song like “We’re Not Gonna Take It” might not have had the same power if the tempo were slower, but similarly, “Bridge Over Troubled Water” would likely lose a lot of its message if it were a fast song. As you’re writing your song, experiment with musical elements such as tempo, dynamics (loudness), and instrumentation, and find the combination that does the best job of powering up the message.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

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