Updated: Jun 28, 2019
I am privileged to work with dozens of artists, and hundreds of songs. Whatever the style or the purpose of the song being written and recorded, we have the same desired outcome: to move, and entertain our audience. I’ve written down 5 of the things I think go into making a great song. Adapt them to your given genre and assess some of your song writing against this list.
What is the distinguishing feature of your song? Is it the guitar riff? The melody? The lyrics? The groove? Or maybe something different. Try writing your song around this feature. Use chords that support it, use instruments, and an arrangement that supports it. This might mean having ‘less’ during that section so that it pops out a bit more (the whole band doesn’t need to be playing the whole time) think about what’s happening right before your distinguishing feature? does it draw the listener into it? Listen to your favourite artist, what is it in their songs that jumps out at you? and what have they done around that part to emphasise it?
Think about the feel of your songs. Because the vocalist has a certain range, most songs need to be written around the same chords. So we want to make sure they aren’t also written around the same tempo, and the same groove. Try to mix it up a bit whilst still staying true to your flavour. Listen to a full album of your favourite artist, try and notice the different feels in each different song.
Because we’re surrounded by great songs all the time, it’s really hard to get something bland to stand out. I think a huge contributor to a bland song, is structure. Commonly, we write a chorus, and then a verse to support it. But it’s very hard to pull off an engaging song that is simply structured; verse, chorus, verse, chorus (well written ballads are the exception here) even harder if it’s verse, chorus, verse, chorus, verse, chorus. Try to give your songs at least three sections, make that third section a bridge (with a different chord structure, feel, or melody) or a breakdown, or instrument solo or something. Just make sure it breaks the song up a bit, but still leads powerfully into the following chorus. Reference your favourite artists again, jot down the different sections they’re putting in their songs.
How can you add colour to your track? Think about a black and white picture, they usually look great! However, when you add one stroke of colour to that picture, that colour jumps off the page. So how can you give your songs a bit of colour? I think if you’ve thought about, and implemented all of the above aspects you’re already going to have quite a colourful song, however, one big aspect of a great song that we haven’t talked about yet, is dynamics. This is louds & softs, intense sections & relaxed sections, full sections & empty sections. Whichever of these work within your genre or flavour. Dynamics bring movement to your track, and allows it to breathe and flow. Maybe your bridge has more or less instrumentation, or the 2nd verse has maybe less of the groove accents, or a final chorus drops to just bass and drums. It doesn’t matter what it is, dynamics will give your songs the ability to breathe, and keeps everybody interested. Again, how are your favourite artists doing this?
It's unfortunate for all us musos but the reality is, a huge percentage of our listeners will only ever hear our vocals. So we need to make sure we’re doing a great job when writing these. Hopefully you’re clever when it comes to stringing words together, and lyrically your songs flow and take the listener on a journey. But what can we do with our melodies to make sure they’re resonating with our listeners? I tend to find a huge difference between a new writer and an experienced writer is how the melodies flow. I think you want to try and avoid writing in blocks, that is; phrase, gap. phrase, gap, phrase, gap, etc.. this can become a bit repetitive and dry. To get a better flow and a more unique sound, you want to be trying to flow some of your phrases together with melody (just like a good guitar riff). This isn’t a blanket rule obviously, there are some really great vocal hooks that are written in blocks, and you want these to be repetitive! another good thing to think about, is to make sure your chorus have lift! Coming from your verse or pre-chorus, you want the chorus to take you to the next place! Your melody is the easiest way to achieve this. If the melody line doesn’t naturally lift the song, you’ll have to get creative in making the music lift significantly while the melody either stays the same or drops down.
There are no rules when it come to songwriting, and sadly, no magic formula either. This is a simple list of things I have noticed while recording hundreds of songs over the years. These can really add to a song, and create interest for your audience, which ultimately is our goal as writers. Keep listening, and keep learning.