In reality, there’s many possible reasons why a song that started with a lot of promise winds up being one where the audience has a ho-hum reaction. But if you’re looking for a likely culprit, here are two of the most common reasons for a song that misses the mark:
- The hook isn’t doing its job of grabbing attention for the song.
- You’re taking too long to get to the chorus or refrain.
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Let’s look at those two problems a little closer. The job of a hook is to wave a big flag for your song. It gets people’s attention. A good hook typically has these important characteristics:
- The melody is usually mainly stepwise, with a melodic leap somewhere to add something of interest.
- The melody is often pitched higher than the chorus.
- The rhythm of the hook’s melody is usually mainly simple (like running eighth notes), something that can lock into the beat of the song. Occasional syncopations work nicely, but you really notice how the melody partners strongly with the basic beat of the song.
- It’s usually built over a simple but strong set of chords, ones that really emphasize the key.
- It’s fun to sing.
There’s no shortage of songs to use as a model of what a good chorus hook does for a song. George Harrison’s “What Is Life” from his “All Things Must Pass” album is a great example. The chorus is completely engaging, fun, and makes you want to listen to it over and over.
So if your chorus isn’t showing those important qualities, it’s time to rework it until you’ve managed to create something that makes your song stand out.
Getting to the Chorus
Whether your song uses a chorus or a verse-refrain format, there is great importance in getting to that chorus or refrain in a timely fashion. It’s hard to put exact timings on something like this, because every song is different.
Another way of saying “You took too long to get to the chorus (or refrain)” is to say “Your verse is simply too long.”
All songs are a display of fluctuation musical energy. Typically, a song starts low in energy, and builds as the verse moves, culminating in the refrain or chorus, both of which are higher in energy.
Listeners to your song, even though they are largely untrained in music, feel this build of musical energy subconsciously. Problems arise when the verse goes on too long, because the longer the verse, the more difficult it becomes to keep musical momentum growing.
That means that by the time the chorus finally happens, your audience is already feeling disinterested and looking for something different.
Fixing Bad Songs
The first problem mentioned above — the hook that doesn’t work — is one that you’ll battle with throughout your entire career as a songwriter. There’s always an attempt to write a better hook, and the more you write, the more experience you’ll get at solving it.
For the second problem, I can tell you that you will solve more problems by shortening a piece of music than by lengthening it. If you find that every time you try to fix a song you wind up removing music and making your song shorter, you’re probably on the right track.
Audiences are, at their core, impatient. There is room in the music world to write long, interesting songs that take audiences on complex journeys. But you need the trust of your fans to make those songs work.
When all is said and done, the shorter song has greater potential to grab and keep an audience’s attention.
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