In the beginning. . .
When I first started writing songs, my strategy was basically this: come up with really cool lines, give it a unique melody, string the lines together and when it’s done, give the song a name. Now for some genres – where songs don’t necessarily need to completely make sense – this is a perfectly acceptable way of writing.
But if there is one thing being a songwriter in Nashville has taught me, it’s that hooks carry a song, lyric is king and songs need to make sense.
I learned this the hard way – by sitting in rooms with pro writers, throwing out lines that I thought were genius and getting either silence or a comment like “But that doesn’t make any sense.” That’s not something you want to hear from a pro writer you are trying to impress!
Roughly 150 songs or so later, I noticed a pattern with pro writers – questions they would ask and would want to be clear on before we would even start writing. As I began to apply these techniques, my writing career took off and suddenly I was getting a lot of interest from publishers and A&R.
Here’s the secret sauce:
1. Pro Songwriters Ask, ‘Who Will This Song Matter To?’
Before pro writers start a song, they ask, ‘Who cares?’
I can remember a song I sent to my publisher. My feedback was, “This song is really well written, but the bulk of the country market is women 23-45 and this isn’t something they want to hear at all.” To be clear, the song wasn’t bashing women in any way, it was about a guy with commitment issues, the type of guy most women probably wouldn’t like.
But the point is, pro writers know their audience and they think about what their audience wants to say. My buddy says it best – as songwriters, we are writing the soundtracks for people’s weddings, first kisses, dances, hard times, good times; the sounds tracks to their life. So if we want our songs to have a large audience, we have to make it matter to that audience.
2. Pro Songwriters Target Artist(s) For Their Song
Now, if there is disagreement on any of these three, it’s probably this one. Some people might argue that you just say what’s in your heart, follow the song and believe that there’s an artist that wants to sing it.
There’s certainly validity to that point.
But I can’t tell you how many times I’ve written songs and gotten the feedback, “I don’t know who would release this, but it’s great, I love it!” Then it sits in a pile and never gets pitched.
If you’re goal is getting your song cut, then targeting an artist(s) is going to increase your chances. Every artist has certain things they would say, and things they wouldn’t say. They have melodies they would sing, and melodies they wouldn’t sing. By targeting the artist, you are putting a laser focus on the types of songs that artist releases.
3. Pro Songwriters Decide On A Hook & Have A Plan For Getting To The Hook
It’s all about the hook. The hook is the element of the song (usually the title) that everyone will remember, so it has to be unique and catchy. Think of the smash hit “Unbreak My Heart”. The message of the song is the same as a million other songs: you left me, I’m lonely, please come back. BUT “Unbreak My Heart” is a surprising and unique way to communicate a common idea. Those are the types of hooks we want.
Pro songwriters decide the hook first, then build the song in such a way that everything points to the hook. When pro writers hear a cool line, they are not asking themselves whether this line is cool enough, they are asking does this get us to the hook. If it doesn’t, then no matter how genius the line is, it’s not meant for the song. Once they decide on the hook, it becomes the filter for every line after.
Next time you start a song, try starting with these three steps. It can be a little tough at first, but over time, I think you’ll notice magic start to happen with your songs.