It’s a given that in order for a song to be powerful and effective, it needs to be memorable. But what makes a song memorable?
As we know, songs are a partnership of many different elements all working together. So it’s difficult to point a finger at one particular component and say that it alone is responsible for a song being great, and for listeners to be more likely to remember it after having heard it.
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Just as an example, people often point to Bob Dylan’s lyrics and say that his lyrical prowess is what makes his songs stand out. And while his lyrics are undoubtedly powerful and effective, there’s more to it than that. His instrumental style and production-level choices, the simple quality of his melodies, and the quality of his voice — these are all important players in what has made his songs so great.
Since we know that good songs are a partnership of elements, as a songwriter you can pull your songs apart and examine the various bits that go together to make your completed song.
There’s no requirement that every aspect of your song be the sort of thing that would grab attention when someone hears it. For example, many of Bob Dylan’s songs use very basic chord progressions — the 3-chord variety — which, on their own, are usually unremarkable.
But for every song component you can identify, at least one of them should be waving a flag and getting the attention your song needs. In other words, you may write a song where the melody is very hook-like and powerful, but the chords may be of the standard, basic variety.
Here’s a short list of what individual song components might do if any one of them were the part of your song meant to really grab attention:
- Lyrics should move back and forth throughout a song from being narrative and descriptive, to being emotional.
- Lyrics should use common, everyday words.
- Lyrics should mainly avoid clichés and other overused expressions.
- Lyrics should lock into the rhythms of the melody so that the words sound effortless and natural.
- Melodies should be mainly stepwise, moving up and down mostly to the note just above or below the current note.
- Melodies should use occasional leaps either up or down, which injects musical energy into the melodic line.
- Melodies should act as a strong partner for the lyrics, where more emotional words get placed a bit higher in pitch.
- Chords should partner up strongly with the melody, serving to strengthen the effectiveness of the melody.
- Chord progressions in a verse can be long and wandering, but should tighten up and become shorter and tonally stronger in the chorus.
- Chord progressions almost never should steal the spotlight from the melody or lyrics. Good chords act as a solid foundation.
- Good instrumental choices serve the song, making especially the lyrics sound more potent.
- Good instrumental choices can move up and become tremendously important in between lines of lyrics, or other moments where there are no lyrics being sung. (Solos, for example.)
- Good instrumental choices include how certain instruments are played. For example, switching from finger-picking guitar style to strumming will have an effect on how we hear a song.
All of these elements have the potential to make songs more memorable, and it’s probably fair to say that the most memorable songs are ones which feature different elements that alternately move up and down in importance, allowing other elements to temporarily grab some attention.
To prove this to yourself, think of one of your all-time favourite songs, and then play it. For every second of the song, ask yourself what it is at that particular second that you find to be the most impressive aspect, the bit that you really like.
In doing that experiment, you’re likely to find that there’s a particular line of lyric… then a specific instrumental effect… then a particular chord choice… then the way the singer does a certain line… that all work together to make the song so impressive.
And not just impressive: memorable.
So the most memorable songs are ones in which we hear many different elements that all work together in this way. And that’s what your own songs need to be doing to become memorable and powerful.
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