Commercial Songwriting - Part 2: How to Write a Song to Sell

Find out what elements of a song publishers and record labels look for and/or require. Learn tricks to make your song stand out from the crowd.

There are several critical points you must be aware of in writing and preparing a song for submission to a publisher or record label.

  • You will probably only have ten seconds of the reviewer's time, and if you don't catch their interest in that space, most likely your submission will be sent to the "round file".  When you write the song, keep this in mind; and when you sit down with your producer at the time of recording, be sure to address this and follow your producer's advice.  A great chorus will never be heard without a great beginning to keep the listener listening.
  • Musically, you must have an original "hook".  This is the musical phrase that the audience will keep humming, over and over, long after the song has finished.  A great example of a terrific intro and unforgettable musical "hook" is found in the song, "Pretty Woman".  When you hear those four drum hits and an ascending scale, within 4 seconds you know what song is coming, and you can hardly wait.   The hook usually comes in the first line (and/or in the last line) of the Chorus of the song, so make those two aspects (introduction and first/last line of the chorus) correspond.  If you are having trouble coming up with this engaging musical novelty, consult with a pianist or lead guitarist about your song.  Tell them you need some help, and you might be surprised what a fresh pair of ears and an experienced musician will produce spontaneously for you.
  • Lyrically, you must have a hook, as well.  How many different ways can you talk about love in a song?  I love you.  I don't know why I love you.  I don't know why you love me.  Why don't you love me?  You're so easy to love.  I love you because ... Well, you get the idea.  Why does one love song hit big and another die on the recording-room floor?  The songwriter has to find a new and unexpected way to say the same old thing.  Don't say 'She's so sweet" - say "She's as sweet as Tupelo Honey".   Don't say, "I can't listen to our song anymore", say "Please, Mister, Please - Don't play B-17".  Don't say "You've made me so sad I'm going to go get drunk", say "Pop a top again".  Start looking for a brand new approach to what you have to say.  I suggest you sit down in a quiet spot with a pen and paper, and then free-associate from your original idea of the song.  Write down every word and phrase that comes to you.  Don't explain them or get lengthy, just jot quick and fleeting impressions as they come.  Take the thoughts out to lengths you might consider crazy or unrelated, if that's what comes to you.  Don't look back at the list until you are finished with it -- keep going forward with your ideas.  You will be surprised what ideas and novelties that list will generate for you.
  • You want to write a song that other people can relate to.  Describe a place they've been emotionally.  Give the story your own fresh perspective, and describe it through your unique eyes and heart, but keep the message relevant to the masses.  Take your listener for a ride on a memory you can share.
  • Make it rhyme.  Don't cheat.  You can do it.  "That" doesn't rhyme with "What".  Sure, there are lots of popular songs out there with "near-rhymes", but you can do better than that.  If you can't find a word in the second line to rhyme with the first line, think about changing the first line.  Or consider using two words; or stringing a word out and rhyming the middle of it.  Each line doesn't have to be a complete sentence.  For example:  One thought is that life is a jewel  Give it wings, and suddenly you'll ...    Near-rhymes are a subtle interruption to the listener's attention.  It takes their subconscious mind off the message for a brief moment.  You don't want to do that, so be better than the rest.  Work the lyrics until you find a true rhyme.  If you have to use the word "orange" in the song, use it in the middle of a phrase, not at the end where you have to try and find an impossible rhyme for it.   You can rhyme the first and third lines of your four-line verse or chorus. OR you can rhyme the second and fourth lines, or you can rhyme them all.  Whatever you do, pattern-wise, make the entire song consistent.  Don't rhyme the second and fourth lines in the verses, and the first and third in the chorus.  And please please please make the words correspond with the notes of the song so that they are sung in the same meter they would normally be spoken.  In fact, once you've written the lyrics, speak them out loud, like a poem, and see if they sound like something you would say in natural conversation with a friend.  If they don't, they will be distracting to the listener, and this is one of the most blatent signs of an amateur writer.
  • In country music, I am sorry to tell you that you must use only one verse before you get to your chorus.  You have to tell the story that makes your listener understand where the Chorus is coming fromVERY quickly.  Current country music is all about the chorus.  Big, building, with both a lyrical and musical hook, repeated over and over and over and ..well, you get the idea.  Difficult to write with complex meaning, of course, but commercial.  Write in the following structure:  Verse, Chorus, Verse, Chorus, Instrumental Verse, Bridge.  The bridge is a section that's usually two lines long, musically new but related, and that builds from the instrumental section to rush the listener back over the mountain cliff and into the Chorus again.  You can repeat the Chorus after the bridge, but the bridge is only heard once during the son.  Then you can "tag" the song by repeating the last line of the Chorus, or fade it out if that seems more appropriate to you.
  • In pop music, you have much more leeway, and as long as you have a repeated, great hook, you can work the rest of the song around it.  Just remember to make the first ten seconds impressive.  Pop music also requires a whole new level of lyrical hook.  Use analogies and be much more poetically vague -- You can get away with it here, and this makes it possible for many more listeners to find a way to relate the song to their own lives.

Express a common idea in a new way, through your own unique eyes.  Use the music to infuse the emotionalism, and use the lyrics to engage the hopes, dreams and memories of your listeners.  Make the lyrics tell a complete story or express a complete thought.  It must be self-contained, with a beginning, an explanation or set-up, a build, a climax, and a conclusion.  The words must match the musical notes assigned to them so they are in the same meter as if they were spoken, and you have about twelve lines (maximum 14, if you use a bridge) to accomplish all of this.  It's hard work to do it well, but if you have the brilliant inspiration, it shouldn't surprise you that hard work will be required to justify the gift you've been given.

Ah, yes, the final rule which the music industry will impose:  'She who must be obeyed' commands that this all be accomplished in three minutes.  It is a rare song that goes beyond 3 minutes and 30 seconds and still makes the commercial cut.  Work with your producer to extend or make cuts to get your song within these time parameters.  No pushing the envelope here; It's THE RULE.  Aim for 3 minutes and 15 seconds.

Now get out there and free-associate yourself into oblivion so you can start putting together the next number one hit!


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Mitch Page
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Posted on Jan 30, 2011
Danny Hauger
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Posted on Jan 29, 2011