‘Each song has its own secret that’s different from another song, and each has its own life. Sometimes it has to be teased out, whereas other times it might come fast. There are no laws about songwriting or producing’ – Mark Knopfler
There are common elements, however, particularly when it comes to finding success on radio. Radio hits are catchy and hook-heavy. They tread the line between being universally relatable and highly personal. And (thanks to RCA’s introduction of the 45-rpm record in 1949, which became the preferred format at radio) they tend to ring in between 3 and 4 minutes, tops. You can debate the relative merits of various tempos, keys, time signatures, and chord movement, but infusing your song a sentiment that resonates with ‘the many’, trumps other considerations.
Hit radio tracks ask and answer questions and call listeners to action, telling them ‘to get down on it’, or ‘raise your fist and yell’. And, they tend to do so repeatedly; as country artist, Hunter Hayes, puts it: ‘…say what you want to say, say it again, say it a different way, then say it again’.
Again, while there are no unbreakable rules, here are a few suggestions…
‘The more songs you write, the more good songs you’ll have’ – Roger McGuinn
Successful songwriter(s) don’t wait for lightning to strike. They exercise their creative muscles and write every day.
‘You don’t really go to songwriting school; you learn by listening to tunes. And you try to understand them and take them apart and see what they’re made of, and wonder if you can make one, too’ – Tom Waits
Cast a wide net – Listen to genres you’re unfamiliar with. Listen to artists talk about songwriting. And pay close attention to the world around you, because anything, even a snippet of overheard conversation, can inspire a uniquely powerful song.
Serve the song and the story
‘Making the simple complicated is commonplace. Making the complicated simple, awesomely simple, that’s creativity’ – Charles Mingus
Again, it’s about listening; throwing the door open to music that’s inside and outside your wheelhouse and identifying commonalities. All radio hits impart something listeners are longing to hear or feel or communicate, in ways they wouldn’t necessarily be able to express in their own words.
Cut to the chase
‘Great songs aren’t written, they’re rewritten’ – R.C. Bannon
The old adage, ‘don’t bore us, get to the chorus’, is repeated often. That said, determining how and when to get to it often requires re-visiting and re-working a song repeatedly. Do you delay the chorus to build tension, hit it right off the top, or pepper your tune with equally hooky chorus-like elements à la Tubthumping (Chumbawumba) or ‘Shape of You’ (Ed Sheeran)?
A great chorus is all about release and payoff. It drives the song’s sentiment home with lyrical and melodic hooks. Every word, every note and every space between them, should underpin your story.
Play well (and often) with others
‘I can write by myself, but it takes a lot longer to come together and it’s less surprising’ – James Morrison
Writing with others (especially those who are more experienced or just plain better than you) will help you up your game and add to your creative toolbox. Nothing is more valuable than exchanging ideas. Honest feedback is always better than empty praise. It deepens your perspective and helps you find a balance between thinking critically and acting on pure creative impulse.
Open your mind
‘Pop music is a creature of the moment; it thrives on the mood of its time. Either you hook into that or you’re not going to be part of it’ – Paul Anka
You may not love every song on the Top 10, but you should strive to recognize (and appreciate) why a given song resonates with so many people. Dismissing music because it challenges your assumptions about what’s ‘good’ is foolish. Far better to follow Anka’s line of thinking than insist one time period or genre represents some mythical, musical pinnacle.
‘Beware the lollipop of mediocrity; lick it once and you’ll suck forever’ – Brian Wilson
Putting limitations around your process can be helpful by helping you avoid ‘option anxiety’ and focus. Limitations can enhance creativity, but there’s no surer way to stagnate than to put down hard, fast rules and refuse to bend them, rethink your go-to formula, and reinvent yourself.
Live the stories you tell
‘Music is your own experience, your thoughts, your wisdom. If you don’t live it, it won’t come out’ – Charlie Parker
The tools, the perspective, the emotional touchstones you share with others – and the experiences that reveal them – are the raw material great songs depend on. Saying a great deal in very few words, and in a way that’s universally relatable and original, isn’t easy. Recognizing a diamond in the rough when you see, hear or feel it is key, but: ‘Without craftsmanship, inspiration is a mere reed shaken in the wind’ – Johannes Brahms.