When a song is described as an anthem, it’s one of those things where you just know that it’s an anthem. But when it comes to actually defining what that word means, it can be a bit tricky.
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We know that “We’re Not Gonna Take It” (Twisted Sister), “Raise a Little Hell” (Trooper) and “Don’t Stop Believin'” (Journey) are some of rock music’s top anthems, but what puts them in that category? Most anthems have to have the following three qualities:
- They address some universal issue. It can be a serious topic, but might be something as simple as “our team is better than your team.”
- They address a large identifiable group. It could be women (“I Am Woman” – Helen Reddy), or it might be everyone on the planet.
- They ask for (demand) change, and usually show the way.
So far, it seems that what makes a song an anthem comes down to the lyric. But there are actually some musical characteristics you’ll want to keep in mind if you’re trying to write a rock anthem. These characteristics will go a long way to partnering up with and strengthening the message in the lyric:
- Think about tempo. If your topic is at all sombre or serious, slow to moderate tempos may work better than fast ones. Experiment!
- Keep the chord progression of the chorus simple and tonally strong. A tonally strong progression is one that strongly emphasizes the key of the song. (“We’re Not Gonna Take It” uses I-V-I-IV-I-V-I as the progression for both the verse and chorus… about as simple but effective as it gets.)
- Make sure your chorus melody has an easily identifiable high point. Usually that high point should be just past the middle point, after which the section will end slightly lower.
- Think about instrumentation. This is where working with a knowledgeable producer can be really helpful. Instrumentation, like almost everything else in music, is a product of our times. The way songs were performed in 1985, let’s say, is not the way they’re performed today. You need to know what will have the greatest impact on your target audience. “Don’t Stop Believin'” likely wouldn’t have its anthem-like quality if it had been recorded with acoustic guitar. Use instrumental ideas to power-up the message of the lyric.
- Think about the partnership of the bass line with the melody line. If you’re familiar with the theme music for the NBC series “The West Wing“, you can hear the subtle power of what a good bass line can do. From the middle of the theme until it’s end, we hear this constantly upward-moving bass line, and it empowers the song, giving it a strong sense of optimism and strength. It does with with a combination of root position chords and inverted ones. And even without words, the theme to “The West Wing” sounds like an anthem.
As with all aspects of music, let your ears be your guide. Your ears alone should tell you how fast your song should be, whether the chords are strong enough, and whether or not the lyrics need to be tweaked to reach out more powerfully to your target audience.
A good song anthem has a way of living on beyond the normal lifespan of a typical song. “We’re Not Gonna Take It” is often used at sporting events, and is still enjoyed every bit as much as when it was new almost forty years ago.
One other thing to keep in mind: anthems usually require a large emotional response from your audience. In that regard, writing an anthem that really connects to your fans is wonderful, but writing an entire album of anthems can be overkill. Think of an anthem as a collection of powerful musical effects: write them and perform them sparingly for best effect.
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