The toughest critiques I do when I teach my workshops are those that require my telling the writers and artists that they have written a perfectly crafted song; that there is nothing wrong and nothing to fix. I tell them to pat themselves on the back because few writers will ever master the craft so successfully. Then comes the hard part, when I say that there is nothing “wow”—no elements that would compel a decision-maker to choose this song or performance over the equally well-crafted competition.
This reminds me of a milestone early in my songwriting journey. For several years, I brought every new song I wrote to a publisher who summarily rejected each and every one. Then I brought in a song I had written with a writer who was coming off a recent hit. It was the first time I had collaborated with a pro. This song was light years better than my previous work and so was the production, which included the talents of top session-players and an in-demand vocalist.
I was certain the publisher would jump on this one. He listened and I waited, heart pounding, expecting to be offered a single-song contract and maybe even the staff-writing deal I craved. Instead, the publisher congratulated me on finally writing what he called a staff-writer song—one that was as good as those his signed writers regularly turned in. He burst my balloon by saying my song was good, but not any better than thousands of others in his catalog. I was initially devastated, but in retrospect, I see that this song represented a huge leap for me.
The advise that follows is my prescription for those who are writing good songs – but not exceptional ones. Let the song marinate for several days; then revisit it. This will provide a window through which you can experience your work with more objectivity. Print a copy of the lyric and review it one line at a time, asking if you have used the tools and techniques listed below that can help separate the “good” songs from the “wow” ones.
- Have I grabbed attention with an opening line that makes this song jump out of the pile and rise above the competition? For an example of an exceptional opening line of lyric, listen to Lizzo’s “Truth Hurts” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P00HMxdsVZI (written by Lizzo, Eric Frederic, Jesse St. John, Steven “Tele” Cheung, and Mina Lioness).
- Have I included lines unique enough to make a music publisher say, ‘I have to represent this?’ For an example of lyrics that command attention check out Drake’s “Moment 4 Life” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D7GW8TYCEG4 (written by Drake, Tanya Maraj, Shankar Seethram, Tyler Williams).
- Is this song built on a concept that is so fresh it would compel an artist to bump his or her own song to include yours?
- If my hope is that my audience will understand the lyric, have I communicated in a way that will allow the listeners to grasp the meaning that I intended? Or are the lyrics so abstract and obscure that only I know what they mean?
Now, it’s time to put our melody under a proverbial microscope by asking:
- Have I differentiated my song’s sections by giving them rhythms that vary from each other—or do the verses sound similar to the pre-choruses (if applicable); and do the verses and choruses employ significantly different rhythms from each other?
- If verses are wordy with lots of syllables, we can announce the arrival of our chorus by using fewer words and long, held-out notes, such as half notes or whole notes. Similarly, a verse comprised of few words and legato, elongated notes might best be followed by a more rhythmic chorus that includes more words, accompanied by quarter notes or eight notes. If there is a bridge this should also introduce melodic elements that vary from the song’s other sections.
- Have I used higher or lower notes in my chorus than those in the verses to make my chorus jump out?
- Have I included a signature lick—an instantly recognizable instrumental hook that is heard during the song’s intro, as well as throughout the song? “What Hurts the Most” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7qH4qyi1-Ys (written by Jeffrey Steele and Stephen Robson; recorded by artists including Rascal Flatts and Cascada) beautifully incorporates this, as well as the two melodic techniques described above.
- Have I included what I define as a magic moment in my book 6 Steps to Songwriting Success (Billboard Books/Penguin Random House)—an unexpected chord or note—that propels the song to a next level? It is hard to imagine a better example of this than the low note that accompanies the word “low” in Garth Brook’s signature song, “Friends In Low Places” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mvCgSqPZ4EM (written by Earl “Bud” Lee and Dewayne Blackwell).
- Have I used a groove that sets my song apart, such as the retro, disco, Chic-inspired “Say So?” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pok8H_KF1FA (written by Doja Cat, David Sprecher, Lydia Asrat, and Dr. Luke; recorded by Doja Cat.)
It can be tough to objectively assess whether we have written a memorable, exceptional melody. We have heard our melody repeatedly and it is likely seared in our brain. Getting trusted professional feedback can help determine whether our melody is as fresh and memorable as we would hope.
If you are a recording artist you can also ask:
- Have I showcased and amplified a unique element of my vocal that will make it instantly identifiable?
- Is my song consistent with—and supporting—the identity I hope to project?
- Does my production and choice of instrumentation set my song and my recording apart from the competition? Playing it safe can be the most dangerous thing to do. By asking ourselves some tough questions, getting trusted feedback, pushing the creative envelope, and staying open to revision, we can create songs and recordings that go beyond “good” and “perfectly crafted” to WOW!
Jason Blume is the author of 6 Steps to Songwriting Success, This Business of Songwriting, and Inside Songwriting (Billboard Books). His latest book, Happy Tails—Life Lessons from Rescued Cats and Kittens (SPS/Blue Mountain Arts) combines his love of photography and cats. Jason’s songs are on Grammy-nominated albums and have sold more than 50,000,000 copies. A guest lecturer at the Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts (co-founded by Sir Paul McCartney) and at the Berklee School of Music, he has been interviewed as a songwriting expert for CNN, NPR, the BBC, Rolling Stone, and the New York Times. To receive a free video, “3 Things You MUST Do for Success” and weekly tips to enhance creativity click on https://tinyurl.com/yckat6fc. Join Songwriting With Jason Blume on Facebook for free events and song critiques. For information about his workshops, webinars, additional articles, and more, visit www.jasonblume.com.