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Writing A One Hit Wonder

Aug 20, 2007
Writing a song is, in many ways, like baking a cake. Almost anyone can do it. On the surface it appears to be merely a matter of selecting the proper ingredients and putting them together according to some prescribed recipe. Songwriting however is not quite as simple as all that. Just as two people can use the same materials, follow the same formula and yet obtain different results, so also in the songwriting field, the same melodic and lyric ideas may be combined to produce either a palatable hit, or a tasteless concoction.

The fact is, that while writing a song is comparatively simple, writing a good song is an accomplishment that only a few can master. Each year thousands of songs are copyrighted and thousands more are written but never sent to the copyright office. Of this wealth of creative material, only an amazingly small percentage is ever published, and an even smaller percentage ever becomes hits.

To meet this competition successfully, the new songwriter must have some natural talent in devising lyric or melodic ideas, he must be able to develop these ideas into a technically perfect song, he must be willing to seek, accept and apply honest criticism, and he must have sufficient stamina and self confidence to take rejections in his stride and to keep on producing songs.

The successful songwriter - the man or woman who turns out a steady run of published numbers and who bats out a regular average of hits - has, through trial and error, evolved a formula which has proved successful and which can be depended upon to produce songs that meet or surpass the required standards. This does not mean that the songwriter employs the same melodic or lyric idea in every song he writes, although in many cases a definite "signature" may be detected.

More particularly, such a formula consists merely of a combination of working habits which has proven, through experience, to produce the desired results. The formula is highly individual in character. For example, one songwriter may find that he achieves better results by first writing the tune and then the lyrics; another, by just the reverse methods; another, by using certain melodic or harmonic combinations, etc. These formulas are not arrived at overnight. Based upon experience and consistent hard work, they are achieved only when the actual technique of songwriting has been thoroughly mastered and assimilated.

Although the popular song stems back to the old English folk song, the form, as we know it today, is less than a century old. In fact, it was only in the early 1900's, when public dancing first became popular, that the popular song form was finally standardized. During the past forty years, precedence and popular taste have established certain standards and requirements which a popular song must meet before it can be considered commercial. These requirements may be summarized in the following ten cardinal rules:

The song must be in dance tempo.
The melody must be based on a short theme.
The melodic theme must conform to one of several patterns.
The melody should be simple enough to be sung, played and remembered by the average person.
The lyric idea should appeal to the majority of people.
The title should be short, catchy and up-to-date.
The lyric pattern should follow the melodic pattern.
The lyric "story" should build up the title.
The lyric and melody should be in the same mood.
Treatment of both lyric and melody should be original and novel.

These ten points represent, in brief, the formula for a successful song. On the surface, they seem to call for a good deal of ingenuity and skill upon the part of the songwriter. In actual practice, most of these factors dovetail so naturally that, with a little experience and practice, the songwriter can soon meet all the requirements with little conscious effort.
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