Songwriting is a funny thing in that it is both an art and a science. You have to be creative, which means taking risks and innovating new ideas, but you also have to follow a formula and structure that has a proven itself for hundreds of years.
Walking this fine line and thriving in both of these worlds at the same time has confounded many a would-be songwriter and caused them to throw out their pen and paper for good. If I can help it, you won’t be one of these tragic characters…
In my time as a songwriter, I have found that there are four main ingredients that go into the crafting of an effective song, no matter what the genre or style. If these elements exist, chances are you are going to have a hit on your hands more often than not. That is what good songwriting is about…CONSISTENCY! Anyone can do something amazing once by pure accident. It is being able to reproduce that result intentionally and repeatedly that makes a true artist.
The easiest way to remember these four ingredients is to ask yourself if your song is a M.E.S.S.
Let me explain…is your song…
1. “M” IS FOR MEMORABLE:
Is the content of your song meaningful enough for someone to invest their brain’s real estate on? Is the song necessary? The goal of great songwriting is to craft something that people don’t mind having stuck in their heads and want to share with others or use at their wedding. Don’t just say what everyone else is saying, unless you have a mind blowing and profound way of reinventing a cliche’d concept. Dig deeper until you find a song topic that will stand the test of time.
2. “E” IS FOR EMOTIONAL:
I have come across so many aspiring writers who craft the most amazing lyrics…stories that would make a grown man weep, but the delivery and the accompaniment was so stale that the powerful lyric was lost. Emotional doesn’t just have to mean sad…the term includes all emotions; Joy, Anger, Heartache, Courage, etc… Ways to create emotion in your song are by creating strong imagery (using concrete objects, not just facts and statements), contrasting dynamics (make sure your chorus lifts out of the verse and your bridge breathes life into the song on purpose) and prosody (your musical accompaniment should tell the same story and convey the same emotion as the words).
3. “S” IS FOR SINGABLE:
Just because a line says the perfect thing doesn’t mean that it fits in the song as is. Syllables, word count and rhythm all play a big part in making a song singable and therefore accessible to the listener. Most of the time, less is more with this element. Keep the amount of total individual notes you use down to four to six notes in a section and make each one count. Also don’t try to cram too many words into a line or end on an awkward syllable emphasis just because you really really really like that line. Again, dig deeper into your creativity and find a fluid way to say the same thing.
4. “S” IS FOR SPECIFIC
One of the biggest stumbling blocks of beginning writers is getting them to stay on topic. In a song you have three minutes, two verses and a chorus to get your idea across in a Memorable, Singable and Emotional way. Don’t just write a generic love song or break up song…find a specific image or phrase to craft around, and make every line in the song point back to that concept. Before you write your song sections, take time to make lists of every image and concept that relates to your topic. For example if your song is about traveling somewhere, pick a specific destination (the beach, Paris, the moon) and then list out every traveling reference you can think of (road, truck, plane, stop sign, green light, time, flying, etc…). In short, drive the idea home with every line, don’t waste your lyrics on filler lines and stuff that doesn’t pertain to the hook.
I have found that checking myself on this M.E.S.S. system has greatly improved the response to my songs. People tell me more often that my songs are stuck in their head or they tell me how much a particular theme impacted them. It is imperative that as a writer you are writing intentionally and not just intuitively. You may be doing these things with your natural creative gift, but great songs are crafted on purpose and are tested every step of the way. Now go write a “messy” song!