by John Braheny
I'm not big on rules. Successful writers break them all the time. Some break them by accident and are accidentally successful. Those writers may be "one hit wonders" because they don't understand why it worked on the first one. Some understand why the rules were made and break them consciously, knowing the principles behind them. I believe that if you know some of the basic principles that make songs work, that make them communicate, you can make use of alternate techniques to compensate for the rules you break. For example, a "rule" is that you don't go more than two verses before the chorus and repeat the chorus at least three times. The Kenny Rogers hit, "The Gambler," and the Eagles' "Lyin' Eyes" both broke that rule. They compensated with compelling lyrics that held your attention for three verses before the chorus. The Clay Walker hit, "The Chain of Love," is AABAABA (verse-verse-chorus-verse-verse-chorus-verse) with only two choruses, ending with a verse—a triple rule-breaker by having two verses after the first chorus, only two choruses, and ending with a verse. But the concept and great story line held our attention and were ultimately more important to the success of the song than the rules it broke.
I won't talk in terms of emotional content at this point. We all know soulful "heart" songs and soulless but well-crafted songs that are just as successful. Something that speaks to my heart may leave you cold. So I'll limit this to principles that work for all songs, both hits and album cuts, though you'll have a little more latitude as an album artist if you have a distinctive and appealing sound.
Here are the basic, underlying principles:
Maintain a balance between predictability and surprise.
If your song is too predictable, listeners get bored with it and tune out. If it's too complex, listeners don't feel comfortable and tune out.
Make it easy for listeners to remember your song.
Easily remembered melodies, lyrics, concepts, and hooks (anything you remember after the record is over) help your song to stay in your listeners' consciousness.
Hold the attention of your audience.
The tools needed to do the above include a mix of repetition, rhythm, rhyme, placement of hooks, title line, dynamics, and structure.
Does all popular music need to adhere to these principles?
Not at all. Just the Pop radio-oriented songs you want your audience to remember. These principles work for album-oriented songs, too, but may not need to be used in the same concentrated way because fans listen to albums differently than they listen to "hit"-oriented records. They buy albums because they're already committed to liking the artist or the artist's sound. Exceptions are dance club music, which doesn't need to rely on the same techniques and structures as Pop music because it already has your attention in a dance club, and musical theater, which, as a visual medium, already has your attention. As I mentioned in Chapter 3 of my book, The Craft and Business of Songwriting, Hip-Hop and Rap today work somewhere between Pop and dance music and are predominantly a producer's medium. If you're not a producer and are writing songs for someone else to record, you need to team up with a producer to make it happen.
We often listen to music on the radio while we're doing something else—driving, working, exercising—so radio hits need to break through all that to capture your attention and hold it. That's why these principles, though they're important for all styles of songs both in live performance and on recordings, work especially well for radio hits.