Early on in my songwriting career, I considered it a minor miracle that I could create a song in the first place. However, once I got a little more used to performing that particular magic trick, it became necessary to start to refine my process a bit further. In other words, it was no longer enough just to have created a song. Now I had to go back and tweak, edit, fix, and otherwise polish my songs until I was confident I’d exhausted every option to improve them. Here, I’ve put together a list of 10 things for you to examine when critiquing your songs in order to make them both lyrically and melodically stronger.
1. Do you have a strong opening line?
The opening line of your song is the first and best chance to engage your listener in the story you’re about to tell. Strong opening lines explain the where, what, and who of your story and will eventually lead to the “why” the story is being told. Make sure your opening line is designed to start your listener down the road to getting involved in the story you’re telling.
2. Are you using concrete imagery?
One of the best ways to put a listener immediately into the middle of your song’s story is to use strong imagery. I’ve also heard this imagery called “furniture.” These images are the details in a lyric that give your listener things to remember and connect with. Generally speaking, imagery is reserved for the verses where the meat of your story is being told. Choruses are designed to state the main point or theme of your song. Another way to think about imagery is to “show ‘em, not tell ‘em.” What that means is that it’s less effective to say, for example, she was a seductive woman but she was bad news than it is to describe her as “a black heart in a green dress.”
3. Are your lyrics singable?
By the way, it’s not enough to tell a good story with your lyric. It’s equally important to make sure that the words you use are easy to sing and phrase naturally. I’ve also heard this put as making sure your lyric is “conversational.” Lyrics that are awkward or emphasize the wrong syllables pull a listener’s ear in a bad way. There’s a reason the word “baby” is in almost every song ever written ... those long “a” and “e” sounds are great and easy to sing. Another way to put this is that you won’t find the word “Nicaragua” popping up in a lot of hit songs.
4. How effective is your hook?
By way of explanation, the main point and identifier of your song can be referred to as the hook. In other words, it is the part of the lyric that reaches out and grabs the listener. Make sure that along with the story you’re telling, the hook is clear and doing its job. Often the lyrical hook of the song is also its title. It’s that important.
5. Does your chorus have a strong last line?
There are very few places in a song’s lyric more important than the last line of the chorus. This is the place where everything you’ve been leading up to in your verses and the first lines of your chorus pays off. It’s often the place where the hook is and usually leaves the listener satisfied that they understand your message. One important way to make the last line of your chorus count is to set it up with some kind of rhyme in one of the earlier chorus lines. That way, not only are the words important but they complete a rhyme, which adds extra emphasis.
6. Does the overall idea of your song work?
Often when we’ve worked on a lyric for a long time, it’s easy to lose the forest for the trees. In other words, we get so wrapped up in making things rhyme and using imagery that the overall concept of the song loses some of its focus. Make sure after you’ve finished your lyric that the overall message of the song is developed and supported in every line. While you, as the songwriter, already know your song’s story, you need to make doubly sure that a listener who is hearing your song for the first time will know what you’re talking about.
7. Is your verse melody interesting?
Given that the melody of your song is one of the first things people hear and pay attention to (sorry lyricists, but the words come waaaay later), you’ll want to be sure that your verse melody is catchy and unique. This doesn’t mean your melody should be bizarre or uncomfortable but, rather, that it should be distinctive and memorable.
8. Does your chorus melody differ from your verse melody?
So much of what we do as songwriters is about giving the listener clues as to what the most important parts of our songs are. By making sure that your chorus melody is not only strong but differentiates itself from the verse melody, you’ll cue the listener in to the fact that you’ve arrived at the main musical - and lyrical - moment in the song.
9. Does your bridge add to the song?
A bridge is really designed as a moment in the song where you step away from the verses and choruses to make an additional lyrical observation or melodic contribution. If your bridge melody sounds too much like your verse or chorus, even if the lyric is doing something new, the risk is that you’ll miss an opportunity to add something of value to an already strong song. All this to say, be sure that if you have a bridge, it’s musically apart from what you’ve been doing in your song’s other sections.
10. Does your melody flow naturally throughout the song?
Not only should the melody in each section of your song distinguish itself, but your overall melody should flow naturally from section to section. Be careful not to have a melody that is too repetitive. A little repetition is a good thing as it adds to the “hooky” nature of your song, but too much repetition becomes distracting and a bit unpleasant from the listener’s standpoint. And be sure that your melody sits comfortably over the chords you’ve chosen. The harmonic - chordal - decisions you make can serve to either accentuate or hinder your melodic work.
Critiquing your own songs is often a time-consuming and somewhat frustrating experience. That said, it’s essential that you hold your songs up to the highest standard if you’re hoping to have a better chance at commercial success. I do want to remind you, however, that your first - and most important - job is to write the song. Focusing on critiquing your song too early in the process might prevent you from writing something heartfelt and spontaneous. In my experience, it’s always easier to get it all out first and invite your “editor” to the party once you’re done.
Cliff Goldmacher is a songwriter, producer, session musician, engineer, author, and owner of recording studios in Nashville, TN and Sonoma, CA. Cliff’s site, EducatedSongwriter.com, is full of resources for the aspiring songwriter including monthly online webinars. Go to educatedsongwriter.com/webinar/ for the latest schedule.
Cliff’s company, NashvilleStudioLive.com, provides songwriters outside of Nashville with virtual access to Nashville’s best session musicians and singers for their songwriting demos.
You can download a FREE sample of Cliff’s eBook “The Songwriter’s Guide To Recording Professional Demos” by going to EducatedSongwriter.com/ebook.