One thing all pop music subgenres have in common, with the possible exception of progressive rock, is that the songs are short. Most of the time you need to offer your audience a complete work of artistic expression that lasts four minutes or less.
In the creative arts, that’s not very long. Back in the Classical era, composers were writing symphonies that were twenty or thirty minutes in length, or even longer, and the composer could use that time to fully develop ideas, and give the listener the sense that they’ve been on a long musical journey.
If all you need are tons of progressions to try out, you need “Essential Chord Progressions” and “More Essential Chord Progressions.” They’re both part of “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting 10-eBook Bundle.”
But it’s hard to get too much into developing ideas when your song is just a very few minutes long. In that sense, pop songwriters become experts in creating instant gratification. That’s exactly why the hook becomes such a crucial part of pop songwriting: the hook takes the place of comprehensive musical development.
By instant gratification, we mean this:
- You only get a few seconds to grab your audience’s attention, and make sure that they don’t feel compelled to click away to listen to something else.
- You really need to get to the chorus of your song before the one-minute mark, particularly if it has a moderate tempo or faster. (Ballads can stretch that time requirement a bit.)
- Your melodies need to be immediately attractive, not requiring many listens for a listener to understand it or enjoy it.
- Your chord progressions need to quickly establish the tonic chord, and let that chord serve as a kind of harmonic anchor that keeps the song rooted.
For every song that you thought would work, but doesn’t work, you can usually look at some kind of violation of those four examples listed above: the start of your song isn’t grabbing attention. Or you might be taking too long to get to the chorus. Perhaps the melody just isn’t working, or your chords aren’t establishing the tonic chord.
Whatever it is, you need to become an expert in instant gratification in order for your songs to work. It’s why developing an ability to listen to your own songs objectively is so important. Once you can listen objectively, you have a hope that you can analyze problems.
If you’ve written and recorded something recently, and you find that it’s a bit disappointing, ask yourself these questions:
- If you listen to just the first 15 seconds, is there anything that that makes you want to keep listening?
- Have you reached the chorus before the 1-minute mark?
- Do you like the song’s melodies? Is there any way you can (or should) improve them?
- Does the chorus’s chord progression establish your chosen key in a way that sounds satisfying and musically strong?
By answering those four questions, you should find that the solution to a song that’s not working may actually be something simple — shortening a verse, rewriting the intro, or even just slightly editing your melodies. Don’t look for big changes when small ones are often all that are necessary.
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