A number of years ago Paul McCartney was asked in an interview about writing songs, and particularly, “What if you can’t remember what you came up with in your previous songwriting session?” McCartney’s answer was something like, “Well, John and I thought that if we couldn’t remember it, it probably wasn’t very good in the first place.”
When you’ve written song that’s successful, it’s a no-brainer that you’ve written something that’s memorable: you’re not likely to have success with a song that no one can remember.
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It turns out that what makes a song memorable is, relatively speaking, the same collection of elements that makes a song hook great. Memorable songs offer most of the following:
- Use (at least in the chorus) a tonally strong chord progression. A progression is tonally strong if it focuses in on one particular chord as that all-important key chord. So the progression I-ii-IV-I (C-Dm-F-C) focuses in on C as the chord that represents the song’s key.
- Feature a short, melodic idea that’s catchy and easy to sing.
- Use a rhythmic idea that sets up a groove that’s easy to bring to mind.
- Is fun to sing. (There are many definitions of “fun” in music, but in most cases, so I am speaking of a broader definition of the word, where a “fun” song elicits strong emotions.
No one is going to remember a song that has problems, or a song that’s just “bad”, whatever that might be for you. But there are times when you’ve written a song that even you find hard to remember.
If that happens, don’t automatically assume that you’ve written a dud; there is always the chance of improving a song by looking at it and perhaps identifying what you’ve neglected to put in there. If you feel that your song has definite possibilities, but it’s just not working yet, take those four points above and put the words “Have I…” in front of each statement:
- Have I used a tonally strong chord progression, at least in the chorus?
- Have I featured a short, melodic idea that’s catchy and easy to sing?
- Have I developed a rhythmic idea… a nice groove that pulls the audience in?
- Have I written something that’s fun to sing?
As a songwriter, you’ll come up with your own definitions of when you’ve actually achieved those four objectives. It’s different for everybody. And those four elements will be in most songs to varying degrees. For example, Eric Clapton’s “Tears in Heaven” is a great song, but the rhythmic idea that is woven throughout its length is subtle… not a “groove”, but definitely offers an important musical feel.
Most of those elements, by the way, involve the use of musical patterns, and it’s one more opportunity for me to remind you that repetition in a musical context is a crucial part of what makes a song memorable and enticing to listen to.
Patterns, from the listeners’ point of view, make it far more likely that they’ll be able to easily remember and mentally replicate (hum or sing) the music you’ve written. Without patterns, you’ve given the audience little to enjoy, and made it far more difficult for them to feel compelled to want to listen again.
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