Top 10 Tips: Writing a “Hit” Song


10.) Keep a journal.

Many songwriters keep a journal to write down ideas and emotions that they can later use as a reference to write songs. While I have never really used this method, it is clearly a good tool to expand your thinking. Every time you have an idea for a new song or a catchy line, write it down. It’s best to keep it organized so you can easily refer back to it later.

An extension to this tip is to keep all your old songs. Keep the music and lyrics every time you decide not to use a song. You may often find a use for it later when your skill has improved. Recently I began reviewing all the songs I wrote and tossed aside. I used a few riffs and reconstructed entirely new songs that were much better than their predecessors.

9.) Take chances.

Originality is key to getting your sound known. In many cases, an original sound may be more important than technical talent. It sticks in the audiences’ head so they can later more readily recall you. Think about all the copycat bands you hear on the radio. Do you really remember their names? A few days ago I was listening to internet radio, where they label all the songs with their respective band names. There were songs I listened to billions of times but thought the band was another band that happened to sound the same. Influences should be a source of inspiration rather than a mold.

8.) Produce the song in your head.

Create an overview of the song. While this may not be permanent, having a guideline will give you the “big picture” of your song. Make transitions between sections seamless and smooth. Use silence to build tension. Does your song build continuously, or does the energy level drop and rise sporadically?

Try and keep the song relatively structured. Disorganization causes confusion to the listener. They should be able to feel when a verse is going to end and when the chorus comes in. Transitional segments may be needed to alleviate any abrupt jumps from verse to chorus.

Here is what many wish not to hear. A commercial, “hit” song is about 3:30 min. to 4:30 min. in length. It goes from verse to choruses rather quickly. Another verse and chorus, a bridge, a solo, and finally another chorus or two follows it. This stenciled approach to writing leaves little to the imagination. However, there is a reason why this structure is so effective. The chorus is usually what sticks in the heads of listeners. Having simple verses and many choruses makes the song slightly more memorable, at least in the marketing sense. If you don’t want to follow this outline, use some of the ideas to your advantage. We learned that the chorus is the center of the song. Write soaring and emotive choruses that rile up the emotions. Make it easy to sing along so the listener can feel attached to the song.

7.) Listen to “well written” songs in your genre.

Find some hit songs that fit your style and examine what it is that makes them a “hit.” What is the rhyme scheme (or does it even rhyme)? How are the choruses different from the verses? As you write more songs, you will start to listen to other songs more critically. You will be able to examine every instrument and its role in the song. You will even be able to foretell song lyrics before you hear them, because certain words and so commonly used. As a songwriter, you want the lyrics to be flowing and fitting, but not too predictable.

Similarly, you may want to listen to songs generally regarded as unsuccessful. What makes these songs less of a “hit” than the popular songs?

6.) Build your world and stick to it.

It’s easy to get carried away in the songwriting process and ultimately forget what the song was originally about. When you write, try and envision a scene or moment that you are trying to capture. Think about the emotions you want to portray. Use several themes rather than one. For example, “bittersweet” or “calm and happy” are both better than just “happy.” Once you have a scene in mind, write specifically to build that scene. Don’t go off on tangents and write about other emotions that may be contradicting to the ones you’ve chosen. For example, if you’re writing an upbeat song about love, it may be unwise to toss in a sad verse that contradicts the overall mood and flow of the song.

5.) Add pizzazz to chord progressions.

You can easily pick out the number of chords in much of today’s music. So many chord progressions are reused. Some are more apt to be more of a hit song than others, as they are relatively more catchy and pleasant sounding. U2′s “With or Without You” has a chord progression reused in The Callings’ “Wherever You Will Go” and The All-American Rejects’ “Swing, Swing.” Analyze the chord progressions that make hits and add your own flavor to it.

Have you ever noticed that many of the more elaborate songs use more than just four chords? It’s often a good idea to use a simple chord progression for the verses, and a slightly more elaborate one for the chorus. This gives the chorus a greater feeling of grandeur. Songs that use the same chord progression throughout are ultimately repetitive if not produced well.

Chords are the musically vocabulary in which we use to create. For this reason, every songwriter should have some understanding of all the various chords and when/how to use them. Using more unique chords (diminished, augmented, 7th, etc.) adds flavor to an otherwise plain progression.

4.) Let the words write themselves.

Play the chord progression and allow words to flow from your imagination. When you allow the words to write themselves, you ensure that all the words fit rhythmically and emotionally within the song. The opposite would be to write the words and cram them into the melody. This may be a more popular method with some folk singers that need to portray a message rather than write a “hit” song. Letting the words write themselves creates an ease and flow within the song that the listener can easily digest.

Use simple words. Avoid large and clumsy words unless it has some inherent purpose. Listeners relate better to simple words, and they tend to fit into melodies more readily. Large and complex words with more than two syllables can sometimes feel awkward in a song.

3.) Listen to your songs as an audience member for the first time.

It’s difficult to be unbiased to your own songs. You spent so much time writing and revising it that you can’t imagine it to be bad. It’s a good idea to pretend you’re an audience member listening to your song for the first time. Keep in mind that they may or may not know a thing about you. In fact, they may not care about you at all. You want the song to sell itself, and to give the audience a reason to pay attention. An easier method would be to have unbiased friends listen to them. Keep in mind the genres they prefer and how musically trained they are. Regardless, you are marketing your music to the average listener who probably does not have as much musical training and may not appreciate some of the subtleties involved.

2.) Be inspired.

Writing a song without inspiration is like shoving toothpaste back into the tube: it is tiring, time consuming, and ultimately pointless. There are those that believe you should write whenever and wherever, however this may be true for those who easily find inspiration. Personally, I find it hard to write a song when I have no real emotion to draw from. My ideal writing situation is when I have a strong emotion, or can easily draw from some previous strong emotion, that allows me to write my feelings. The result is a much more emotional and passionate song. It also takes much less time and allows one to capture their emotional energy into words.

1.) Practice.

I think that all of my top ten lists will end with “practice.” It is so fundamentally important to practice when one creates music. Practice in songwriting gives you the skill to write effective songs more efficiently. You learn all the best ways for you to personally write a song. You avoid all the pitfalls that lead to writers’ block. I put away over 30 songs before writing a set I was happy with, only to dump them for much better songs a year later. Ultimately, everyone has his or her own way to write, and it is important to find your own path.

About Keane Li

Keane Li is the songwriter/guitarist for the band Festizio. He is also the winner of the 2003 Online Rock Festival's "Original Song" award. Visit Keane's website for more information.

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