Hit Songwriting Secrets (not!)

I spend a lot of time perusing the internet for other songwriting news, tips, ideas, etc., in part for my own curiosity, and also because of the articles I write for Muse’s Muse and those I post here.

American country musician Taylor Swift perform...
American country musician Taylor Swift performing live. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One phrase that always makes me laugh is “songwriting secrets”…whether they are pitching a book or some kind of one-on-one session with you as a songwriter, or maybe they’re just trying to get you to sign up to their website so that they have your email address so they can spam with you with stuff later on;  the idea that there are secrets to songwriting that no one else knows is FALSE!

Why?  Because the songs that are successful are not secrets at all!  They are out there on the radio, on iTunes, on videos and CDs for you to listen to, analyze, reverse engineer and learn from.  If your ambition is to write a hit song, you have literally hundreds of thousands of hit songs out there at your disposal to teach you, they are not secret at all.

So how do you learn from them?  This is the the real “secret”.  What is it about a song that makes it successful?  Studying different hit songs, what they are comprised of and how every part works together, you will get a better sense of what makes it successful.

So let’s get to the songwriting first.  Some will tell you that there’s a secret “formula” to hit songwriting…for instance, always have a particular number of verses, always keep the intro short, always write in the first person, come up with a title first…etc., etc.  Don’t “always” do anything;  each song has its own personality and if you’ve already written a few of them, you know what I mean.  Do you use the same chords every time?  The same form or subject matter?  Of course not.  The only formula you need is to make it good, and “good” is a very subjective thing.  If you listen to the top ten pop hits right now on Billboard, (or country, or any other chart for that matter) you’ll discover a few things.

They don’t necessarily conform to any one key or song form (although as far as subject matter, when I checked Billboard for the most recent top 10 pop hits they were pretty much all about love/lust or breakups/relationships!), but they do use certain techniques to keep the listener hanging on.  Sometimes those elements are simply the recording and production itself, sometimes they are the way the verses and chorus (and/or pre-chorus) relate to each other, sometimes the lyrics and/or music are really catchy.  And often it’s simply the artist or band that has such a huge following, almost anything they do will become a hit.  If your ambition is to write a hit song, then your job is to study what’s out there and come up with something better!   Easier said than done, I know.

But lets back off the actually writing for a bit and consider what else makes a song a hit.  First of all, many songs that you hear are not necessarily “great”, but they make it to the charts because of the artist or band, as I mentioned earlier.  If these artists and bands don’t write their own material, who does?  A lot of them get their songs from their record label, who may have their own writers or have a publishing branch.  Quite often, the same circle of songwriters write a lot of the songs you hear…particularly in country and pop.   You can find out yourself by checking out the BMI or ASCAP records (or whichever performing rights organization exists in your country).  These P.R.O.’s have search able records online, so there’s no secret there either.

So, okay, a lot of it is who you know, in which case, part of your job as a potential hit songwriter, after you’ve come up with some great songs, is getting to know people.   Go to music centres like Nashville or Los Angeles or New York, research publishers who might be interested in your style of writing.  Join organizations that can help you like N.S.A.I. or songwriting associations that give workshops in all areas of the craft and business.  Be prepared to keep learning, learning, learning.  Hang on to your day job and save money for these ventures.  When you meet people who can help you, be polite, don’t shove your CD in their pocket, ASK first.

You also need to be patient.  I met a guy once who wrote his first ten songs and immediately went to Nashville to pitch them.  He was so sure that’s all he had to do…but when he got there he learned pretty quickly that he had spent nowhere near enough time on the writing part before he did the pitching part.  It was a huge reality check. That’s a true story. So remember to use your head and do everything in the right order!

The recent stories about Taylor Swift’s success are interesting because on her earlier releases she co-wrote a lot of material,  but on her most recent release “Speak Now” she wrote every single song herself.  She’s young and she’s smart, getting the experience she needed under her belt first by co-writing.  Co-writing is a “given” in the pro songwriting community…a lot of the songs you hear are written by more than one person, so you should consider doing that yourself too.  Chances are that if you get anywhere near working for a record label, you’ll be thrown into situations where you’ll have to write with someone you don’t know.  And if you’re a singer/songwriter and hoping to make it as an artist, you might take a cue from Taylor.  Don’t assume you know everything…you don’t!

There are no secrets to hit songwriting any more than there are secrets to any kind of success.  It comes down to the same things, whether you want to be a great chef, a successful financier or a best-selling author:  hard work, determination, patience, some talent and a little luck.  Shhhh…don’t tell anybody! 🙂


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