Writing a song is a mysterious process.
As a songwriter, I was once asked to be in the pilot for a reality TV show. The premise was simple – put three songwriters in a room, ask them to write a song for Kylie Minogue, and see what happens. (No, it was never picked up. And no, you can’t see it.)
Our writing process was apparently so fascinating that – every time we’d strum a chord, yawn out a lyric or take a sip of tea – we provoked a reaction that made us feel like deep-sea creatures in a David Attenborough documentary.
Yes, it made me feel special – but I wasn’t sure this ‘mystery’ transferred to anything else. Outside of the music world, I simply didn’t know how people did their work.
So when I finally grew tired of the drugs, drink, and hotel room trashing* associated with being the rock star that I was, I not only had to find an income, I had to find something that I could be good at. I had to make it stick.
*(more like caffeine, cupcakes, and sleeping on sofa beds.)
My search led me to copywriting. And it soon became clear – much to my relief – how similar the songsmithing and wordsmithing processes actually are.
Tell a story, give it structure.
Anyone with imagination can create a story. But songwriters are also very aware of the importance of structure.
So the first verse might set the scene. The bridge builds tension. The chorus reveals the main message or the resolution. The second verse takes the narrative forward in time.
Just like apparently straightforward copy, songs are more organised than they seem.
Like copywriters, good songwriters are fierce editors – they know the importance of cutting out the “rhubarb” and are good at working within constraints.
Song: I have one verse to convince the listener not to skip to the next track. There are four lines in the verse. Each line has nine syllables. Oh yeah, and it needs to rhyme. And be easy to sing.
Copy: I have enough space for 30 words on a web page – and every word has to justify its place. Here’s the catch – my source material is 500 words long.
The hook is the strapline.
In songwriting terms, a “hook” can be anything repetitive and memorable – melodic or lyrical. If there’s a five-word phrase that’s repeated every chorus, chances are it’s simple, bold and encapsulates the meaning of the song. Sound familiar?
Think about your audience. Find the right voice.
Like copywriters, the most successful songwriters really know their target audience. People buy music because it ‘speaks’ to them, so songwriters talk in a way their listeners will understand.
It doesn’t matter how subversive or commercial they are, musicians create their own ingrained tone of voice guidelines as they develop their writing style – they’re essentially a brand with their own brand language.
Stir emotions, make an impact.
Call me cynical, but commercial songwriting is essentially a form of marketing. Aside from relying on the obvious – gratuitous close-ups of naked flesh, questionable styling, an appearance on The X Factor, etc – making an impact often means softening the stiff upper-lip of the British public with a beautiful, relatable message.
That’s why so many songs are about love – it’s a theme we can all identify with.
Sure, sometimes a track is naturally affecting. But often songsmiths just have to face the music* and write the equivalent of the John Lewis Christmas ad. Either way, there’s a lot of skill involved in provoking such a reaction (with or without the help of penguins).
Strike a chord?* Follow Lark on Twitter for more copy-muso musings from Sophie.
*(Puns unashamedly intended.)