You’ve worked hard at your craft and you know how to write good songs, but the response you’ve been getting from the music industry hasn’t been very encouraging. Music publishers are polite but not really enthusiastic. “It’s a nice song,” they say, “but it’s a little dated.” Or “Sounds like a hit song to me… from the ’80s.” Ouch.
Music publishers and recording artists are looking for songs that will appeal to today’s listeners. Even established artists know they need to expand their audience and keep their careers relevant by staying up-to-date. So, a song that’s in the general ballpark of recent hits has a better chance of getting you in the door with a music publisher or record label than one that sounds like it could have been a hit 30 years ago.
This is not as difficult or limiting as it may seem at first. Many of today’s biggest hits have a strong retro slant to them. (More about that later.) And today’s hit songs are more varied than at any time in the last few decades, with artists like Ed Sheeran, Maroon 5, John Legend, Ariana Grande, Pitbull, Katy Perry, Rihanna, and Passenger rotating through the top spots on the same chart.
So… what does “contemporary” mean? “Contemporary” is just music industry shorthand for what today’s listeners are buying, downloading, streaming, or watching on YouTube. In other words: Contemporary is what listeners like right now.
Why should you write songs in a contemporary style?
THERE ARE MORE OPPORTUNITIES: Radio needs to keep today’s listeners tuned in by playing the kinds of songs they like. Recording artists will rarely cut something with a dated feel because they know it will be harder to get radio airplay. Even if it’s a good song that could have been a hit twenty years ago, it could be hard to market now. A song with a current style and sound has a better chance of appealing to audiences, and therefore to radio programmers, record label execs, music publishers, and artists.
TASTES CHANGE: Just like fashions in clothes, musical tastes change over time. Are you still wearing the big hair, wide ties, and paisley prints of the 1970s? No? Then why would you still write songs that sound like that?
Sure, some styles do make a comeback - a retro ’80s look can be very cool. But there’s usually a new twist; those cool vintage platform shoes are paired with current jeans and jacket. You can do the same with older song styles. Pair them up with some of today’s melodic twists and maybe add a pre-chorus to give them a bigger dynamic build.
SONG USES CHANGE: A decade ago no one thought to use songs as underscore in a TV show. Now there are over 60 primetime TV series using songs. The songs you wrote 20 years ago might not work for these uses. Most TV shows take place in the present and need songs that sound like what you would hear on the radio today.
But how different can it be?
Is there really a big difference between a song that was a hit 20 years ago and a current hit song? Well, listen for yourself. To make it a fair comparison, I chose two hits by the same artist, Tim McGraw. “Not a Moment Too Soon” was his breakthrough single in 1994. “Highway Don’t Care” was a huge hit for him in 2013.
You can listen to both songs on YouTube. Just search by the artist name and song title on YouTube’s website. Listen to both songs as you read about the differences.
How lyrics and melodies have changed over time
LYRICS: Notice how the lyrics in “Not a Moment Too Soon” rely on some familiar images (“rainbow” “pot of gold”) and there are lines that make statements about how the singer feels rather than making listeners feel the emotion themselves: “You touched my heart.” “Your sweet love saved me.” “When you found me I knew I’d found forever.” It’s all a bit general and abstract. Rather than showing listeners what the singer is feeling, the lyric is telling them.
In contrast, “Highway Don’t Care” features vivid details that paint a picture for the listener. “Trying not to let the first tear fall out / Trying not to think about turning around.” Using the cold, impersonal highway to suggest feelings of loneliness and isolation, the opposite of love, gets listeners more involved in the song. They know that feeling, and they can feel it themselves while the song plays.
In short, to create a more current-sounding song, consider updating your lyrics by:
- Using vivid images with emotional associations
- Expressing emotion in physical language and action
- Using authentic, conversational language
- Creating a strong identity for the singer that listeners can identify with
MELODY: Melody styles have also changed since Tim McGraw had his first big hit. Today’s melodies, especially the chorus melodies, create more urgency, energy, and forward momentum by eliminating pauses at the ends of lines and using a greater variety of line lengths.
You can hear this by comparing the choruses of these two songs. Notice where the singer pauses and for how long. Also, check out the lengths of phrases, the mix of long and short lines, and the rhythm patterns of the melody lines. You can give your melodies plenty of contemporary interest by:
- Emphasizing the rhythmic aspect of the melody
- Starting your phrases in unexpected places
- Creating forward momentum by eliminating pauses
You’ll hear these techniques used in all of today’s successful songs, no matter what the style.
When “retro” can be a good thing
Now hang on just a minute. What about all those recent radio hit songs that sound suspiciously like big hits from back in the day? Ed Sheeran channels Van Morrison in “Thinking Out Loud.” Bruno Mars evokes The Police in “Locked Out of Heaven.” No doubt about it, the music industry has been having a lot of success with throwback styles lately. Hits by Mark Ronson (“Uptown Funk”), Neon Trees (“Everybody Talks”), The Black Keys (“Lonely Boy”), Pharrell Williams (“Happy”), MKTO (“Classic”), and many more offer a fun, creative blend of old and new.
If you’re already a master of Motown or New Wave styles, you’ve got a big advantage here. But you need to add the modern edge that makes these songs competitive with today’s hits. Sometimes a little rewriting of the melody, chord progression, or production can give it the edge needed. Take a look at the list of melody and lyric techniques I just gave you and see if you can apply some of these to your older songs to add a current vibe.
If your older songs are already recorded
If you have masters recorded prior to 1990 you can pitch them to period TV shows and films like Mad Men, Fresh Off the Boat, or Boardwalk Empire. There are also flashback scenes that use vintage songs in series like Cold Case. Just be sure your original recording is good quality and is authentic to the period. Your songs should sound like radio-ready recordings from the era.
If your older recordings can’t be salvaged, consider giving those songs a makeover, recording stripped-down “unplugged” versions. Update the melody. Add more emotion and attitude to the lyric. Next thing you know, you’re sounding current, yet timeless. A makeover like this doesn’t have to cost much. Songs that work well for the Film & TV market often have a barebones, minimalist approach to production. An acoustic guitar or piano and vocal track can work well for this use if the song is strong and performance is solid.
Study a Hit
Let’s take a look at one of these retro-blend hits right now. We can pull it apart to see what makes it tick then you can try some of the techniques in your own songs. Here’s one of my favorites.
“Everybody Talks” - Neon Trees
Writers: Tyler Glenn and Tim Pagnotta
If you love the classic Rock sound of Eddie Cochran, Buddy Holly, or the British Invasion hits of the early ’60s, then this song is for you. Its throwback elements recall the energy and drive of the classic Rock era and the Pop melodies of the mid-Sixties. Combine that with a few compelling modern twists and you end up with double platinum sales and a top ten hit.
The song’s lyrics are available online and the official video is on YouTube. It’s a good idea to have those handy while we study the song.
The genre is Power Pop. The theme and vocal pay their respects to Rock and Pop hits of the late ’50s and early ’60s while the production, lyrics, and melody all blend classic with current to create a driving sound that keeps today’s listeners tuned in.
The TV market gave this song a boost when it was featured in a national TV commercial for Buick that introduced the band to a wide audience. It’s also been used in TV series Hawaii Five-0, Homeland, and more.
The song structure is:
VERSE 1 / PRE-CHORUS / CHORUS
VERSE 2 / PRE-CHORUS / CHORUS
BRIDGE / INSTRUMENTAL BREAK
VERSE 3 (short) / CHORUS
VERSES: Verse 1 starts with an invitation - “Hey, baby, won’t you look my way.” It’s a line that drops the audience right into the middle of the action. TIP: If you want to grab listeners, try an opening line that puts them inside the situation. Verse 2 begins “Hey, honey, you could be my drug.”
PRE-CHORUS: The pre-choruses consist of just one line: “I found out that everybody talks, everybody talks, everybody talks.” It changes slightly the second time we hear it and isn’t used after the third verse.
CHORUS: The choruses take off like a rocket with a big melodic jump on the lyric line “It started with a whisper.”
BRIDGE: The opening line of the bridge section is “Never thought I’d live to see the day.” This two-line section is followed by an instrumental break. Today’s hits rarely feature instrumental sections, but classic Rock and British Invasion songs did. So here’s one of those throwback elements.
INTRO: There’s a short intro before the first verse kicks in, officially starting the song. The Doo-Wop style, three-note harmony part is a nod to the Isley Brothers and The Beatles versions of “Twist and Shout.” TIP: It’s cute but after a few listens it can get old, so be sparing with this stuff.
TRANSITIONS: The musical transition from pre-chorus to chorus uses that old standby, the V chord. This is so familiar to listeners that it can sound like a cliché if you’re not careful. The melody gives it a fresh twist by keeping a syncopated, repetitive line going right through it, one that emphasizes a note that doesn’t resolve (the flat 7). Then the song drops abruptly into the chorus. TIP: It’s a great idea to use the rhythm of the melody to update a familiar turnaround.
Also notice that even though there’s an instrumental break after the bridge, like the hits of previous decades, there’s no instrumental break at the ends of the choruses. The song jumps from the end of Chorus 1 right into Verse 2, and from the end of Chorus 2 straight into the bridge. A vintage song would have had instrumental breaks in those spots. TIP: Eliminating the instrumental breaks between song sections increases a song’s momentum.
Try It Now
Listen to this song and identify each of the song sections: verses, chorus, bridge, and instrumentals. Check out the transitions between sections, too.
USE A CLASSIC THEME WITH A TWIST: The lyric theme is rooted in the vintage heart of this song. Here’s a girl who’s worried about her reputation. You can almost see those poodle-skirted girls and crew-cut guys passing the gossip around. Back in the day, these songs were usually sung from the girl’s point of view. Here we have a fresh angle: the guy’s frustration over all the gossip that’s driving her away. Love it! TIP: Look for a fresh twist that will engage today’s audience.
HAVE FUN WITH RHYMES: Ditch those tired, familiar rhymes. No love/above or you/true. Check out the multi-syllable, creative approach here:
- whisper/kissed her/lips hurt
- chit-chat/love shack/backtrack
Some rhymes occur in unexpected places. In the fourth line of the chorus, we would expect to hear something that rhymes with “lips hurt.” Instead, the lyric starts a new set of rhymes with “I can hear the chit-chat.” TIP: The melody pattern suggests one thing; the rhymes do another. This is a clever idea to try in an upbeat song. It’s unexpected, so it grabs attention. A lyric like this gives the song a fun flavor and erases any hint of staleness.
Try It Now
Look for a lyric theme with a vintage feel - Hint: watch a few old TV shows - then add a modern twist. Try another point of view or a different cause or outcome.
Make a list of phrases today’s singer would use. Avoid dated language; you’re not trying to recreate an oldie. Include ideas, images, and opinions that are universal. Once you have a list of phrases, look for unexpected rhymes, “accidental” rhymes, vowel rhymes that are sort of close, or just happened. See if you can nudge a few phrases in a rhyming direction while maintaining a casual, conversational word flow.
The simple I-IV-V chord progression could lock this melody into a basic Rock feel, but when you take a closer look, you realize it’s quite a different animal.
VARY THE PHRASE STARTS: Count along with the song. Just count 1-2-3-4 along with the underlying, steady beat of the track. Once you get comfortable, start listening to the melody as you count. You’ll hear phrases that begin on Beat 2 in the verse, then phrases that start on the upbeat after Beat 2 and on Beat 3 in the chorus. TIP: Switching the starting point of phrases between verse and chorus can add interest and a fresh sound to a melody.
USE SYNCOPATION: Syncopation means emphasizing weak or unexpected beats. Just before the chorus, listen for that series of short, repeated “everybody talks” phrases. Each two-word phase begins on a different beat; some begin on beats in between beats 1-2-3-4. These are called the “upbeats.” This creates a rhythmically ear-catching section just before the song jumps into the chorus. TIP: Syncopation is a great way to pump up your melody.
ADD MOMENTUM: Momentum can be created by eliminating pauses where we expect them, especially at the ends of lines. In the verse, pairs of lines run into each other. (“Hey, baby, won’t you look my way. / I could be your new addiction.”) This creates one long phrase and eliminates the usual pause between lines. That great series of short “everybody talks” phrases - no pauses there, either. Then there’s barely a beat to grab a breath before the chorus roars in.
In the chorus, the singer holds out the last note of each phrase, running it nearly into the next. He doesn’t have to do that, he could stop to breathe for a couple beats but that would undermine the energy he’s been building up. TIP: Eliminating pauses keeps the melody rolling forward, taking listeners right along with it.
Try It Now
Choose a song you’ve already written, one with a melody you’d like to rewrite. Try some of these techniques and see what happens. If you don’t like the result, go back to what you started with and try something else.
When you’ve got something you like, consider making a broadcast quality recording with electric guitar, bass, and a barebones drum kit. A stripped-down recording like that works great in this style because that’s where it all originated. Rehearse the parts thoroughly before recording, then focus on the energy. Add a solid vocal performance and you’re ready to rock and roll in one of today’s hottest genres!
Robin Frederick is the author of four popular songwriting books, Shortcuts to Hit Songwriting, Shortcuts to Songwriting for Film & TV, Study the Hits, and The 30-Minute Songwriter. All her books are available at Amazon.com.
Robin is a former Director of A&R for Rhino Records and executive producer of more than 60 albums. She has written and produced hundreds of songs for television, records, theater, and audio products. She is also former Vice President of the Los Angeles Chapter of the Recording Academy (the Grammy organization) and former President of Los Angeles Women in Music. Visit her website at RobinFrederick.com to sign up for her Songwriting Tips email.