Tony Orlando and Dawn

What Can Kill a Song’s Staying Power?

Some songs are still with us fifty or more years after they hit the top of the charts (Smokey Robinson’s “The Tears of a Clown“, for example), but other songs, even ones that were big hits when they came out, are rarely heard anymore, not because they aren’t good, but… well, it’s hard to say why (“Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Ole Oak Tree“).

I think that successful songs take advantage of a certain kind of social mindset on the week they’re released, and that kind of “perfect storm” will drive a song upwards. After that, if the song is well-written and well-performed, and if the topic and lyrics stay somewhat relevant, the song might succeed in the long-term, and that’s the hope of every songwriter.

Hooks and RiffsSongwriters are very familiar with the chorus hook, but there are other kinds to experiment with, and you will want to discover the power of layering various kinds of hooks in the same song. “Hooks and Riffs: How They Grab Attention, Make Songs Memorable, and Build Your Fan Base“ shows you how it’s done.

There are elements within a song that might contribute to a song’s quick removal from our musical radar. In no particular order, you’ll want to consider the following

  1. Lyrics. Lyrics can sound good in one generation and corny in the next one. Generally speaking, the more you rely on expressions that become attached to a particular era, or use lyrics full of forced rhymes, clichés and other overused phrases, the quicker the song will go from sounding OK to sounding a bit cringy.
  2. Performance-Related Choices. Auto-tune may be a good example of this, although you still hear it quite a lot in today’s Billboard Hot 100. In the 1970s, the prevalent use of wah-wah pedal (the way it’s used in Isaac Hayes’ “Shaft“) has a way of dating songs from that era. There are certain performance-related choices that can dangerously date songs where it becomes something to avoid. Sometimes this can happen to an entire genre, as we witnessed with disco, and the Bee Gees music being almost eliminated from radio play in the early 80s.
  3. Song Topics. In a way, the less pertinent the lyrics are to a particular moment in time, the more chance it has to survive and still be played decades later. So all the songs written in the past couple of years that refer to the pandemic, or isolation, or masking, etc., may be relegated to shows and podcasts that deal with history. The songs we’re still listening to today that were written 50 years ago are the “I still love her” kinds of songs. That’s just the way it is.
  4. Harmonic Choices. There’s nothing really new in the way chords work today. How one chord follows another hasn’t really changed since the time of Bach (early 1700s). But every era and every genre has its own distinctive add-ons to typical chord structures. In the 1970s for instance, major 7th chords built on the I and IV chords, and the use of V9, V11 or V13, in place of a standard V7, were common. In the 1980s, those chord choices practically evaporated, and we saw lots of add2, add9 and add6. The more you stray from standard triads (chords with few  or no added tones), the more likely they’ll last and still sound attractive 50 years later.
  5. Formal Design. This one isn’t as defining of a generation as the other aspects listed above, but there are some features of songs that seemed to define an era. Long instrumental solos are more likely to have happened a few decades back, but not so much today in most pop genres you can name. But songs can be reworked in the studio to edit out aspects of songs that might date the original. So formal design issues that might sound dated can be dealt with and solved after the fact.

This whole issue of music becoming dated is why I so often recommend that people listen to lots of music from different genres and different eras. By listening to what’s being released today, you stay current. By listening to older good songs, you hear what’s worked, and it’s pretty easy to identify why they worked.

And through all this listening, you have a better chance of writing and recording music that is uniquely yours, less patterned after one particular genre or performer, giving your songs a fighting chance to still sound good when your grandchildren listen to it.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

“The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” 10-eBook Bundle“The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” eBook bundle includes “Writing a Song From a Chord Progression”. Discover the secrets of making the chords-first songwriting process work for you.

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