“How Hard Would You Work for a Hit?”
A few weeks ago, a talented writer/artist asked me to write a song with her to fill a specific niche missing from her repertoire. She wanted a lyric that would convey strength and resolve; words that would empower listeners. She hoped we would write a melody that would showcase the power and range of her vocals; something that incorporated unexpected melodic intervals; high notes and low notes that would grab attention. Prior to our writing session she provided me with references—songs that conveyed the emotions she hoped we would capture.
While there is no right or wrong way to begin, we started our writing session by sharing a few titles that we had each stockpiled. We quickly chose one and before we knew it, the first verse poured out of us. It felt as if it had written itself. But when it came to the all-important chorus, we weren’t so lucky.
I’m a firm believer that the chorus melody is one of the most critical—if not the most critical—elements in successful songs. After three hours, we still had not nailed a chorus melody that felt as fresh and memorable as we knew it needed to be. I felt frustrated by my limitations and suggested we give it a rest, think about it on our own, and reconvene in two days.
I had other commitments and had expected to finish this song in one session, but obviously had to spend more time on it. I went for a walk to clear my mind and it became apparent that I needed an attitude adjustment. I had committed to the song, and now the song and artist deserved my best effort and a hundred percent of my attention.
A question popped into my mind. If this were one of only two songs under consideration to be the next single for a GRAMMY-winning superstar, what actions would I take to ensure that I was doing everything in my power to edge out the other song? How many times would I rewrite it if I had a fifty-fifty chance of landing a chart-topping smash? How many hours would I be willing to invest? And what tools and techniques would I experiment with before I felt satisfied that I had given it my all? The answer was clear: I would stay up straight through the night if needed, and pull out every tool in my arsenal. I would leave no stone unturned for an opportunity like the one I imagined.
I thought about some of the key points I share in my workshops and articles. First, I revisited the title and realized that although it was an interesting, unique title, it evoked feelings that were more wistful and melancholier than empowering. Therefore, it did not lend itself to the kind of melody a singer could belt out. I realized that with a small tweak, I could revise our title to better express the strength and power we hoped to evoke with our melody. Finding that new title unleashed the kinds of melodies we hoped to capture. The melodies that began playing in my head conveyed a sense of being invincible, unstoppable. Continuing my walk, I pressed “record” on my phone and sang more than a dozen a cappella melodies for the first line of the chorus. One of those melodies was the clear winner. It commanded attention and pushed all the other contenders out of my head.
I share with my students that when I analyze hits in various genres, I invariably find melodic motifs that repeat throughout a given section. The first line of the chorus melody was crucial because it was likely I would repeat all or part of that melody or the rhythms within it. I wanted to be certain it was exceptionally strong, and not only easy to remember, but worthy of being remembered and repeated. This is why the first line of melody in every section (i.e., verse, pre-chorus, chorus, and bridge) is extra important. Once I locked in that first line of the chorus melody, several options for the rest of the chorus flowed easily.
Back home, I revisted my article “How (and Why) to Rewrite Your Melodies,” then spent the rest of that evening and most of the next day incorporating some of those tools into the song at hand. As suggested in the article, I tried the following techniques:
- Incorporate melodic and rhythmic repetition
- Explore different rhythms, breaking the lines in various places to create shorter – or longer – melodic phrases
- Try rhythms that are fresh, hooky, and unexpected, using syncopation, placing emphases on unexpected beats
- Place the melodic emphases on different syllables of your lyric
- Hold out one or more notes
- Craft a melody that includes ascending notes – or descending notes; try ascending and then descending in the same melodic phrase
- Incorporate a non-lyric vocal hook, a nonsense syllable such as ooh, oh, I, or some combination of these as can be heard in Ed Sheeran’s smash hit “Shape of You” (written by John McDaid, Ed Sheeran, Steve Mac, Tameka Cottle, Kandi Burruss, and Kevin Briggs).
- Include an unexpected high – or low – note, as Dewayne Blackwell and Bud Lee did in Garth Brooks’ “Friends in Low Places”.
It was almost midnight when I made a rough recording of my favorite version and emailed it to my co-writer. She felt as strongly about it as I did and agreed to switch the title and continue in this new direction. We would continue to work on the song individually, prior to our writing session.
When we met again online, we finished our song within a couple of hours. It accomplished all we had hoped. I love the resulting song. I don’t know what the future holds, but I know that it feels amazing to have co-created something I am so proud of.
Sometimes we get a “gift”—a song that pours out of us effortlessly. My first life-changing song, “Change My Mind,” (written with A.J. Masters and recorded by John Berry and the Oak Ridge Boys) was finished in forty-five minutes. Other times, we need to rework and rewrite our songs to make them the very strongest they can be. For example, my song “Dear Diary” (written with Britney Spears and Eugene Wilde, and recorded by Britney) went through seven iterations before being included on Britney’s GRAMMY-nominated Oops, I Did it Again album, which sold more than 24 million copies worldwide.
Every song is an opportunity to change our lives. We cannot know which song will hold the key that unlocks the door to our dreams. Put one hundred percent into every song, and then one hundred percent more. Write every song as if it is the one that will change your life. One of them just might.
Jason Blume is the author of 6 Steps to Songwriting Success, This Business of Songwriting, and Inside Songwriting (Billboard Books). His songs are on Grammy-nominated albums and have sold more than 50,000,000 copies. He has been a guest lecturer at the Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts (co-founded by Sir Paul McCartney) and at the Berklee School of Music, and has been interviewed as a songwriting expert for CNN, NPR, Rolling Stone magazine, and the New York Times. For information about his workshops, webinars, additional articles, and more, visit www.jasonblume.com.
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