Many songwriters have asked me what makes a winning song. As VP of development at USA Songwriting Competition for the past 14 years and I have heard winning years through the years, a winning song should be creative in both music composition aspect as well as the lyric composition. A good example is the top winning song of 2008 competition "Home" written by Jordan Zevon, Jordan Summers and Morty Coyle. Musically, it displays surprises in Chord changes and the lyrics about coming home are not the clichés of what you hear on radio. It didn't hurt the song that chorus is catchy.
Another example is the winning song of the country category in 2007 "I Can Live Without You", written by Mary Danna and Troy Verges. One would think the song is about someone who doesn't want to live with another. However, there is a twist at the end of the sentence in the chorus "But I just don't want to". They have taken a love and heartache song and given a "surprising twist" in the end. Also, the bridge was short, surprising and also emotionally high (with the melody hitting a high note at the end of the melodic line) and yet sad. That song still remains a favorite at the USA Songwriting Competition.
I have heard submissions where songwriters try to write the derivative songs that were number one on the charts at one time and end up being awkward. One case was a songwriter who took the entire track of Jennifer Lopez song "If You Had My Love" and wrote a similar melody to the background music, even the melodic line's rhythm was so similar. The chorus even copied the melody of the original song. Our judges thought the song has been plagiarized, let alone not being creative as the judges left the room singing to Jennifer Lopez song instead. Needless to say, that song didn't win.
I realized an interesting fact that the top winning songs of the past two years have been a three-way collaboration. The winning song last year was written by three songwriters and so was the year before ("Where the Music Takes You", written by Ari Gold, Joe Hogue "JOJOHO" and Sean Petersen). That song also hit top 10 on the Billboard Charts after winning the competition. "Where the Music Takes You" was unique, it had no intro, the vocals start as soon as the music plays. The chorus was so catchy that the judges left the song singing to it.
Speaking of catchy, the winning song in 2004 was written by five songwriters ("My Three Wishes", written by Patrice Pike, Wayne Sutton, Sean Phillips and Darrell Phillips). The opening hook in the chorus of the Alternative song "My Three Wishes" was accented in an off beat way that would draw the listener to want to hear more. You can tell that the song took extra effort and creativity.
A song may sound nice to listen to but please note that a lot of work is being done to the song: musically, lyrically, artistically and more. Cher's biggest hit "Believe" was written not by one but six songwriters! Paul Barry, Matt Gray, Brian Higgins, Stuart McLellan, Timothy Powell, and Steven Torch wrote that hit number one in 23 different countries. Where would Cher be without this great hit song like this? Could you be creative enough write a song better as good as this or even better? Write one and submit it to us in the USA Songwriting Competition.