126 Shortcuts to take your songs from good to great!
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SONGWRITER TIP:  USE CONTRAST TO GET ATTENTION!

by Robin Frederick (c) 2008.
Based on “Shortcuts to Hit Songwriting: 126 Proven Techniques for Writing Songs That Sell” available at Amazon.com.

 

Imagine you and I are standing in a room full of people. If I suddenly start yelling, I will get everyone’s attention. But if I keep on yelling at the same level for awhile, what happens? Pretty soon they all get bored and stop listening (and probably leave). It’s natural to think that being loud, is an attention-getter but if loudness becomes the norm then it ceases to be something we are interested in.

 

We are ‘hardwired’ to notice change. When something changes, we check it out. What’s happening? What’s different? It’s a survival mechanism, like the ‘fight or flight’ response. Once we are satisfied that everything is safe, we no longer need to devote energy to it and we disengage our attention. When I started yelling, everyone noticed the change; when they determined there was no threat, they disengaged their attention.

 

So, let’s try this. What happens if I yell for 30 seconds, then speak softly for 30 seconds, then yell again? Each of those changes in volume level will attract attention. It’s the change — the AMOUNT of change, which we call CONTRAST —  that gets attention. Contrast says: “Hey, notice THIS! It’s different.” The more contrast, the more difference, the more it captures attention.

 

We’re going to do the same thing with songs: grab the listener’s attention and hold it by using CONTRAST!

 

If I sing in a loud, urgent tone of voice I will get attention, especially if the words are emotionally compelling – let’s call that a chorus. Then, if I employ a softer tone and the words reveal intimate details, I pull the listener closer, still keeping them involved because I’m doing something different. I’ve used contrast to create a new section. Let’s call this the verse. Then, when I return to the first section – louder, more urgent – I’ve got their attention again and it’s clear that we’re not in the verse anymore, we’re in the chorus. Thus, I have created a structured experience, directed the listener’s attention and successfully kept them involved in what I’m doing. And I used contrast to do it!

 

This example of yelling and whispering is pretty basic. In a song,  we can create contrast with NOTE RANGE, PACE OF THE WORDS, and PHRASE LENGTHS. Try adding contrast to your songs by writing the verse in a low note range and the chorus in a higher note range or write a verse with a lot of words sung quickly and a chorus with slower, smoother delivery of the words. Listen to current hit songs and you’ll hear both of those techniques.

 

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SONGWRITER TIP: FINDING A BLOCKBUSTER THEME

by Robin Frederick (c) 2008.
Based on “Shortcuts to Hit Songwriting: 126 Proven Techniques for Writing Songs That Sell” available at Amazon.com.

 

Some songwriters spend a lot of time waiting. Waiting for inspiration. Waiting for an idea. Waiting. I don’t want you to wait. I want you to start doing, writing, creating. Now.

 

One of the things songwriters most often seem to wait for is an idea that will launch them into the deep emotional waters of a song. Not only is it unnecessary to hang around hoping an idea will magically appear, it can lead to repetition and stagnation of your creative muscles. It’s funny how, once an idea has worked, it tends to reappear over and over again. So, here’s an idea…

 

You might have noticed that songs use many of the same themes that drive other types of dramatic entertainment. Just check out the list of top ten romantic films of all time or today’s favorite contemporary TV dramas. While hit songs tend to focus on relationships and emotions rather than car chases and shoot-outs, they share many of the same dramatic elements: Who is involved? What will happen next? You can use popular movies and TV shows to lead you to themes that pack a big emotional punch both for you and your listeners.

 

So, yes, I’m telling you to watch TV and go to the movies. Remember, it’s important for you to be present emotionally in your song so start by looking for a scene that draws your emotional attention. When did you find yourself getting involved with a character? When did you identify with the character? What was the peak emotional moment for you in this character’s story? Any of these points in a storyline can provide a theme for a song. For example, here’s a scene: The lead character sits alone in a dark room after seeing an ex-lover who is now involved with someone else.  If you were watching this scene and you felt moved by it, consider creating a song based on it. Use your imagination to create dialogue, images, background, and specific examples, whatever you need for your song. And you don’t have to limit yourself to romantic themes; you can write social commentary or character songs based on drama and action scenes.

 

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SONGWRITER TIP: LOOK FOR THE MELODY THAT LIVES IN YOUR LYRIC

by Robin Frederick (c) 2008.
Based on “Shortcuts to Hit Songwriting: 126 Proven Techniques for Writing Songs That Sell” available at Amazon.com.

 

Every time you open your mouth to speak, you start singing! Don’t believe me? Just try speaking without rhythm or pitch. You can’t do it. We generally imagine singing as something quite apart from everyday speech. People who think nothing of talking your head off, are scared to death if you ask them to sing a few notes. (Hmm, might be a good way to shut them up) In reality, when we speak we use pitch, volume, pace, rhythm, and words — all the elements of a song. The only difference is in a song these elements are exaggerated. Of course, we also add some repetition and a couple other things but to get your raw melody going, speech is all you need.

 

It’s the melody portion of speech that communicates emotion. In fact, just by changing the melody you can give the same words an entirely different emotional meaning. Try this: say the phrase “Oh, no?” as if you are asking a simple question. Now, say the same phrase –“Oh no!”-as if you are anxious and frightened. Notice the difference in the melody? Exaggerate the emotion in the second phrase and you’ll really hear it.  In the first phrase the “no” has a slight rising melody. In the second phrase, the “no” has a slight downward melody, words were higher pitched, the pace is faster, the volume louder. Now try saying “Oh no.” with a sarcastic, disbelieving, ‘you’ve got to be kidding’ tone. It’s an entirely different melody from the other two.

 

We begin tuning into the melodic/emotional elements of speech from the time we are born, even before we ever understand the actual words being used. By the time we’re teenagers, even small nuances of melody convey loads of meaning. You can use this melodic element of speech to give your songs added emotional impact and credibility. If you’ve got a lyric that asks a question, try a rising melody on end of the phrase, just as if you were really asking a question.  Or, if your questions are the kind that don’t really want an answer, try a descending melody on the end of the phrase. It will convey a lot of information and sound natural and believable to your listeners. If you’ve got a song with sarcasm in it, try lowering the melody a la “You’re So Vain” by Carly Simon. Add a descending, ‘sighing’ note for a sense of resignation and hopelessness as at the end of the bridge in “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”

 

To achieve the conversational tone of many of today’s verses, try speaking your verse lyric in an offhand, conversational manner, then exaggerate it a little to begin creating your verse melody. Keep the pauses that occur naturally and exaggerate the little ups and downs in your speaking voice. You’ll want to make changes later but, for now, this will give you a good place to start. Remember, this is your raw material, not the finished melody.

 

Choruses often have more energy and urgency, conveying more of the song’s emotional heart. As we saw with the “Oh, no!” phrase, the more emotion there is, the more the melody of speech tends to rise. That’s why very emotional pop and rock choruses work well in a higher note range. Speak the chorus lyric with as much emotion as you can put into it.  Now, exaggerate the pitches, keeping the rhythm of the words and any pauses that occur naturally. This will get you started on your chorus.

 

Once you have found the  melody your lyric wants, then sit down with your guitar or keyboard and starting roughing out the chords. I like to record my vocal ideas before I even start to add chords, that way I can recall the original “spoken word” melody if the chords start to pull me away.

 

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SONGWRITER TIP: PUT A FAMILY OF IMAGES TO WORK FOR YOU

by Robin Frederick (c) 2008.
Based on “Shortcuts to Hit Songwriting: 126 Proven Techniques for Writing Songs That Sell” available at Amazon.com.

 

Using an image is like opening a door into your listener’s head. It’s impossible not to see a mental picture when we hear an image-word.  If I say ‘rain’, you picture rain. But that’s not all that happens; along with that picture of rain, come all the associations you have with it: a grey sky, the physical sensation of humidity, cozy indoors, cold and wet outdoors. Images don’t arrive alone. They are always accompanied by a gaggle of related images, ideas, sensations, and experiences. Think of it as a family that stays together.

 

As a songwriter, you can use this family to your advantage. While you can’t control all of the responses to an image your listener will have, there are plenty of shared associations you can count on. Associations like these add depth and richness to your lyric with no extra effort on your part. Play with them, use them to underscore your theme, you can get a lot of bang for your buck with an image that’s got a big family.

 

Be alert to images with associations that conflict with your theme or with each other. These can create a distraction that drags your song down. If the singer is driving “a flashy pink Cadillac” with its suggestion of ego and impulsiveness, it will be difficult for us to believe he’s also “the salt of the earth” and “dependable as the rising sun.” Your listeners will end up spending a lot of time trying to reconcile these two sets of images instead of listening to your song. This is an extreme example; look for more subtle occurrences where one image is undermining another. Of course, it’s fine to have contrasting images if you want to demonstrate the difference between two people or things.

 

A phrase like “I’m a prisoner of your love,” can work for and against you. The image of a ‘prisoner’ has a lot of associations with it that might add depth to your theme but it’s become such a cliché that listeners don’t ‘see’ it anymore. To make an image like this work for you, freshen it up by varying the image itself: “Your love is holding me hostage.” Or, give us a new insight or twist on the image in the surrounding lines: “I’d give up my freedom to become / a prisoner of your love.”

 

Go through some of your own song lyrics and see if you can put image families to work for you!

 

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SONGWRITER TIP: WRITE IN A GENRE

by Robin Frederick (c) 2008.
Based on “Shortcuts to Hit Songwriting: 126 Proven Techniques for Writing Songs That Sell” available at Amazon.com.

 

Like ice cream, songs come in different flavors: strawberry, chocolate, peach, and rocky road. And, like ice cream flavors, there are very real differences between the four mainstream music genres-Country, Pop, Rock, and R&B/Soul-and each one appeals to a different audience.

 

CHOOSE A GENRE AND GET FAMILIAR WITH IT

Spend some time listening to current hits in the genre you want to write in. If you like Country music, listen to the top  20 current Country hits and study the chords, melodies, and lyrics to see what they have in common. What is it that Country audiences are excited about right now? If you’re interested in Rock, Pop, R&B/Soul or Hip-Hop, check out the current radio airplay charts to see which songs are getting the most play. These are the ones that listeners are eating up! You can find up-to-date Radio Airplay Charts at http://www.radioandrecords.com. Click on “Charts” and check out the ones you’re interested in. (If you don’t know which charts you’re interested in, check out a few. This is essential research for songwriters!)

 

Once you’ve found a genre you like and a couple of songs, listen to them carefully and study your genre. Look for the general, broad characteristics of your genre by asking the following questions as you listen.

 

LYRICS:

What themes are featured?

What kind of language is used?

What sorts of characters turn up in these songs?

 

MELODY:

How much contrast is being used between sections?

Are the melodies complicated or simple?

How much repetition is used, how much variation in the melody line?

 

CHORDS:

Do you hear basic three-note chords primarily?

What other kinds of chords are being played?

How frequently are the chords changing?

 

These are just a few of the questions that will help you study your genre. No one wants to sound exactly like everyone else but you do want your song to incorporate enough of a genre’s characteristic sound so that it will fit  into a radio format. Blend it with your own style to make sure YOU still sound like YOU but give it an extra push toward radio.