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How To Write A Hit Song

Posted by Jessica Brandon on Fri, Jan 08, 2016 @09:48 AM

How To Write A Hit Song

by Mark Cawley

 songwriting

If chart success is your songwriting goal, then you need to pay attention to how today’s hits are actually written. MARK CAWLEY of iDoCoach.com shares some thoughts on breaking into a very competitive field..

Even as I sit down to write this, I can hear the groans. “Who is this guy? How can he claim to know how to write a hit? And if he knows, how come he hasn’t written a ton of them?”

So let me back up. No one can guarantee a hit. No label, no producer, no artist, and no songwriter. Max Martin misses, Diane Warren misses, Ryan Tedder misses. They all miss more often than they hit! There is no formula. But there are things you can do to up the odds of your song getting heard, cut, and (if all the stars align) becoming a hit.

 

Look Around You

Start by doing your homework. Listen to the hits and look for patterns. Are you hearing lots of songs about affirmation? Songs that say ‘I wanna see you be brave, stronger, beautiful, happy’? Songwriters have long understood that one of the quickest ways to a listener’s heart is to lift them up with your song. There’s a fancy term for this called ‘second person positive,’ which basically means writing lyrics that make someone else feel great about themselves. A classic example of this it would be the Joe Cocker standard, “You Are So Beautiful.”

I’m in Nashville and every publisher, artist and producer right now is asking for ‘uptempo positive’. The reason for this is the sheer volume of ballads and midtempo songs they get: for some reason, when a writer gets in the room with an acoustic guitar or a piano they turn into Ed Sheeran or James Taylor. It can be hard to create the energy required unless you plan for it, but again, your chances of getting that hit improve by giving the powers that be what they’re asking for.

One of the very best ways I know is to get in the habit of deconstructing recent hits. Go beyond just learning to play them: write down the structure, print out the lyric, make notes about the production. I’m always amazed at the songwriting clients I get who will say they want to write a huge song, but who pay absolutely no attention to the current hits. If you’re writing pop or even new country and still creating long intros, lots of verses, using only one hook, and aren’t familiar with terms like ‘post-chorus’, you might have a harder road.

Try going one step beyond deconstructing and create a playlist with a couple of hits along with a song of your own. Try to pick ones that might have a bit in common with yours, but the idea is to be objective. Does your song hold up to the two hits? If not, why? Go back to your notes. What’s different? The point is not to clone, just get this info into your subconscious so the next song you write is at least informed by structural ideas that are more current.

 

Do It Yourself

A bit of a disclaimer here. Even though you’re listening to the radio and learning the structural and lyrical as well as musical content, the songs you’re hearing were probably written and recorded as much as a year ago. If you set out to write something exactly like what you’re hearing, you’re likely already too late! So what can you do now?

Try and take it all in and then add yourself to the mix. What makes you different as a songwriter? Can you bring something fresh to your songwriting? You could argue there’s nothing new under the Sun, but I would disagree. Music goes in cycles, styles change, old becomes new every once in a while. Our job is to tap into a listener’s head and create something that a whole lot of people are gonna love at the same time.

It’s not easy, but the chances get better by not only honing your craft, but learning what came before (even if it’s only a month back). It all goes into your toolbox as a songwriter and gives you the best chance of writing a hit.

 

Team Up

Finally, I want to talk about the biggest obstacle to writing that hit on your own. This is something that comes up in my sessions all the time: people say to me, “I look at the writing credits on a Beyoncé song and see six writers! How can I hope to be heard, if I’m not part of one of these writing crews?” It’s a tough one. But keep in mind, not every song is a hit by committee!

 

There are two ways to go to access this route. One is to create your own team. If you’re a writer but have no aspirations to produce, find someone who’s interested in production and work with them. If you’re a writer but not the artist, look for local talent; find someone with star potential and hitch your wagon to them. Hit songwriter Liz Rose co-write with Taylor Swift when no one else really wanted to know, and that worked out rather well for her…

 

The other route is to join an existing team. I just read an interview with Dr Luke in which he talked about signing writers to his publishing company, usually for their unique talent. Anything from track-builders to vibe masters that know how to get the most out of co-writing with an artist. The point was they gained entry to the writing process, and some have moved from being the fourth writer on a song to producing artists and co-writing with them. I did this for a few years, working with Eliot Kennedy and his hit machine Steelworks in the UK. By getting access to the artists he was working with, I got cuts on many of them, including the No 1 single Day & Night by Billie Piper.

 

Again, there’s no magic bullet for writing a hit... but you can definitely educate yourself to get your best shot. Good luck!

 

[Reprinted by permission from Songwriter Magazine]

 

ABOUT MARK CAWLEY

Born in Syracuse, NEW YORK, Mark has LIVED in Nashville FOR the last 20 years. His songs have been recorded by Tina Turner, Joe Cocker, Chaka Khan, Diana Ross, The Spice Girls and many more. These days, he mentors WRITERS AND ARTISTS around the globe via iDoCoach.

To enter the 21st Annual USA Songwriting Competition, go to: http://www.songwriting.net

 

Tags: songwriter, song writer, Song writing, Songwriting, hit song, Lyrics, Writing Music, writing lyrics, Song writers, writing hit melodies

Songwriting Tip: Writing Music to Words (Part 2)

Posted by Jessica Brandon on Mon, Jan 21, 2013 @09:56 AM

Writing Music to Words  (Part 2)

 

 Harriet Schock, songwriter

Last year, I wrote an article for the USA Songwriting Competition called “Writing Words to Music.” This year I’d like to explore the other side of that coin. Since I write both words and music, and mostly write alone,  when I collaborate, I prefer to have the finished lyric or finished melody to work with. If someone gives me a finished lyric, I read it first…in rhythm. The rhythm of the words will dictate much of what I do as a composer. I’ve seen some composers try to make a lyric fit a melody idea they have. This is often like putting a square peg in a round hole. You have to be completely free to start from scratch.

I love writing to Arthur Hamilton’s lyrics (he wrote words and music to “Cry Me A River” among other hits). That’s because he writes short lines that are much easier to write a good melody to than longer lines with more beats. I had a student the other day who was having trouble coming up with a good melody for her song but when we analyzed the lyric, both the verse and chorus were in iambic pentameter. It could have been Shakespeare! This would make the verse sound a bit like the chorus and give the overall song a sameness. So, if you’re choosing a lyric to set to music, look out for that. It’s a road to heartache.

So you have a lyric and you put it in front of you and your instrument. You’ve read it out loud and gotten a bit of the rhythm. Now what? I don’t sit down without my recorder. I just use a small digital recorder and I don’t go to the piano without it. I start singing the words and playing chords. And I record everything. Sometimes I have a drum track going before I start, usually not. But I try to get a rhythmic feel before I start. I record whatever comes into my mind, with special attention to the chord changes as well as the melody. Then I turn it off and walk away. In a few hours or a few minutes, I’ll go back and sing another melody into the recorder. Sometimes I don’t try another one until the next day. But I NEVER listen back until I have about ten different melodic approaches. Once you listen back, the melodies start to sound really good and then you can’t think of other things. It’s like a movie director who falls in love with his temp track because he’s heard it so many times. Don’t listen back, as tempting as it may seem.

After you’ve gone through this, then you can listen.  Try to get your first impressions of each melody the first time you listen through the melodies. After two listens, they’ll start to sound good because they’ve broken the unfamiliarity barrier. You need your first impression. Does the melody sound inevitable yet not predictable? Does it make the hair on your neck stand up? Is it memorable without being derivative? Of course, it has to fit the mood and intention of the lyric, but I’m assuming all of them do that.

Now you get to play it for the lyricist. Usually he or she is just thrilled to have a great melody to the words. Sometimes, though, there’s a dummy melody in his head he wrote it to and when your melody veers from that rhythmic approach or emphasis on certain words, etc., he can be surprised and will have to hear it a few time before he warms up to it. I have heard that Bernie Taupin, also a composer himself,  was often a bit shocked when he heard Elton’s melodies to his lyric because it was frequently so different and unexpected. I’m sure he found a way to make peace with that over the lucrative and record-breaking years.

Remember, the greatest lyric in the world will simply never be heard without a good melody. It’s the wave length on which the words travel and without it, they’re not going anywhere.

 

© 2013 Harriet Schock

Harriet Schock wrote the words and music to the Grammy-nominated #1 hit for Helen Reddy, "Ain't No Way To Treat A Lady" plus many songs for other artists, TV shows and films. She co-wrote the theme for “Jakers! The Adventures of Piggley Winks,” currently showing in 30 countries. She and her band were featured in Henry Jaglom’s film “Irene In Time” performing 4 of Harriet’s songs. She also scored two other Jaglom films and is starring in the current movie “Just 45 Minutes from Broadway.“ Harriet is in the process of writing the songs for “Last of the Bad Girls,” a musical with book by Diane Ladd. Karen Black wrote the play, “Missouri Waltz,” around five of Harriet’s songs, which ran for 6 weeks at the Blank Theatre in Hollywood as well as in Macon, Georgia. Harriet teaches songwriting privately, in classes and a popular online course by private email. In 2007, Los Angeles Women In Music honored Harriet with their Career Achievement and Industry Contribution award. For her performance schedule, list of credits and samples of her work or information on herbook (Becoming Remarkable, for Songwriters and Those Who Love Songs), her songwriting classes and consultation, go to: www.harrietschock.com.

For more information on the 18th Annual USA Songwriting Competition, go to: http://www.songwriting.net

 

Tags: songwriter, song writer, Song writing, Songwriting, lyric, Helen Reddy, Harriet Schock, Writing Music, Writing Words, iambic pentameter, Ain't No Way To Treat A Lady

Songwriting Tip: Composing For Film and TV

Posted by Jessica Brandon on Thu, Jun 14, 2012 @12:54 PM

 

Songwriting Tip: Composing For Film & TV

By Brian Tarquin

Brian Tarquin, songwriter
There is more to composing than just buying a computer and a handful of plug-ins! After 20 years composing for television and films, with three Emmys and seven nominations, I’ve come to rely on instincts and input from producers and music editors around me. It’s a team effort, and the sooner you learn this lesson, the better.

1. Get the Vibe. Remember you are composing music for the show, which will be heard by its fans. Understand the viewers and what works between score and picture. In Ken Burns’ Civil War series, what worked was that beautiful solo violin melody, not blazing metal guitar. Proper background score is a key to a successful series.

2. Understand exactly what the producer or music supervisor wants.This can be a very tricky thing. It can change from day to day and from moment to moment. I found that it could become confusing if more than one person gives you directions. The best thing to do is ask for musical references from the main person giving the instructions. For example, if they are requesting a vibe like Led Zeppelin-meets-Metallica, then make sure you get your project’s creative team to specify what elements of each band they like and how they want them combined. Ask as many questions as possible to nailing the exact vibe they want.

3. Don’t rush it, take time and get it right. This really pertains to composing for new clients. Even if you are juggling many projects, as we all seem to do, give it the time it deserves. Clients can sense when you are rushing and not giving it the proper attention. Remember the kids in school who had six weeks to do their final paper, but waited until the night before to do it? By showing the client that you care about their project, it will almost ensure you a continued relationship for future projects.

4. Use real instruments when you can, don’t rely on plug-ins and sample CDs. As a guitarist and recording artist for many years, it is annoying to me that there are so many electronic composers today who take the shortcut and substitute talent for computer plug-ins and samples. Instead of getting a real drummer they use some drum “extraordinaire” plug-in and samples from CDs of horns and bass. It makes no sense––just hire real musicians to make it sound as authentic as possible. Back in the day, I remember laboring through sessions getting musicians to nail the right sound before the digital era and plug-ins; it actually was a great challenge to see if you could achieve the sound for the project and a real feeling of reward when you did.

5. Don’t reuse old cues. This is something we are all guilty of––yours truly as well! In all my experience I’ve found that trying to rework old cues to try to make them sound different for a new client is more time consuming than actually composing from scratch. And trying to pass off an old cue to a new client thinking it’s “close enough” is bad business, because nine out of 10 times the client will have so many changes that you will be doubling your work. I don’t know how many guys do this, but it’s a lot like trying to turn a polka song into an electronica tune and passing it off to the client. Believe me, they will know!

6. Watch the show and understand how the music is used. Believe it or not, there are composers out there who do not bother to watch the show they are composing for, which seems like a recipe for failure. Set your DVR to record a few episodes and see how the music is synced to picture and compose accordingly. Before I even start composing for a new show I always watch a number of episodes and then go back to the music director and ask what specifically worked for those shows in regards to the music. I also like to throw out ideas to the music director before I proceed, to see if I’m on track.

7. Make sure to send WAV samples (no MP3s) for approval. I’ve learned not to send MP3s to people, because no matter how many times you explain to them that it’s an MP3, they always get bothered about it sounding “too compressed and lacking bottom end.” Well, that’s because IT’S AN MP3 and you’re listening to it on COMPUTER SPEAKERS!!! Then of course they look at the file size and say, “Oh, okay then, never mind.” So there goes a half-hour of my life I won’t get back!

8. Never send a demo sample! Man, this is such a catch-22, you can’t believe! Clients always say, just send a demo so I can hear how it’s coming along. So you send a rough mix to them and the first thing they say is, “It Sounds Like A Demo!” Well DUH, it IS a demo! So if you are going to play something for anyone for the first time, it should be the final mix of the song. Back in the early days of being a recording artist I remember the record label would always tell me to just send demos or rough mixes of the songs “so we can get an idea of what you are working on.” These were the days before I had a nice recording studio; my setup was just a Tascam DA-88 and a cheap Carvin mixer. So off the rough mixes went and the label would come back with, “It sounds like a demo!” Well yeah, that’s because they are demos that you said were okay to send!

9. Keep in good communication with the producer or music supervisor. This is one of the most important things to do. Always check in with the client, especially if you have a long lead-time for the final deadline, because ideas can change. For example, that song they told you to emulate at the start of the project may have changed three times and the client might have have forgotten to tell you. Of all my advice to you, this is the most crucial! I’ve been involved in projects that started off as heavy metal, then midway became techno and then finally wound up as a punk song I had to compose from scratch. Yes, it’s a lot of work and chasing, but it’s all part of the gig.

10. Never say “That’s the best I can do!” Many of us have been at the end of our rope with certain clients, for one reason or another––you want to say “I’m done, you do it!” I certainly have been there with a few people, but the best thing to do is ask for an extension if the changes they request become too much. Step away from the project for a few days, if possible, then come back to it with fresh ears and appease the client.

 

 [This Article is reprinted with permission from June 2012 issue of Music Connection magazine]

The multi-Emmy-winning composer-guitarist Brian Tarquin has established himself as a top TV composer-recording artist and owner of Jungle Room Studios. Some of his accomplishments include writing the theme music for MTV’s Road Rules, as well as producing music for many other TV shows such as CSI, ABC’s Making The Band, Extra, Alias as well as the Keanu Reeves film, The Watcher, and many more. Visit Tarquin’s music catalog at http://bohemianproductions.net/musicsearch.html. To see his recording facility, Jungle Room Studios, visit http://youtu.be/P9QEUO1K0pw.

For more information on the 17th Annual USA Songwriting Competition, go to: http://www.songwriting.net

  

Tags: songwriter, song writer, song write, Song writing, Songwriting, songwrite, Writing Music, Composing For TV and Film, music supervisor