There are exceptions, of course, but there are very few hit songs that are too smart for their own good. What do I mean by that? Well, I mean too smart for the average listener. Unless you're going for a specific crowd – political songs, college coffee house songs, songs written to display an intimate knowledge of the nuances of music theory, etc. — music that's "too smart" is probably not going to be broadly popular.
Songs need to be universal – or at least mostly universal – to become hits. That means everybody needs to understand it, from the smartest person in the room to the kid in middle school. Here are some ways to tell if your song is missing its mark.
1. The crowd doesn't get it
I'll be honest. I used to write cerebral music. My lyrics had multiple layers of meaning, my song structures were deliberately unusual, and you actually had to sit with the lyrics and process them to understand the song. Suffice it to say, these songs did not come off well at live shows. When I played these songs, I noticed the crowd would disengage – looking at their phones (or walking away to check out vendors if it was a festival type of situation) or looking distant and confused.
There was always a bit too long of a pause before applause broke in (which it did eventually do). These were dead giveaways to me that my audience wasn't “getting” my song.
Invariably, the positive feedback I did get was from songs that were a lot more straightforward – those were the songs the crowd got into, or came up to me afterwards asking if they could get an MP3 of it. This rarely happened with my “smart” songs (though it was gratifying when it did).
This goes back to my earlier comment about being universal. Based purely on crowd reaction alone, it was obvious which type of song was more popular.
If you aim your writing at a slightly lower comprehension level – again, going back to the middle school example – the smart people will get it and the rest of the audience will get it too. Yes, you might lose some of the intellectuals and music critics, but they don't move the market. Teens and pre-teens do.
And if you want to be successful – at least on a popularity level – that's what you need to gear your music towards.
2. Your lyrics aren't conversational
There was a time when prose was "in fashion" for songs, but for the last 20 or so years, that hasn't been the case. The rule of thumb I use is, “Would a listener say this? Would I say this? Could I hear an artist saying this?” If the answer is no, the line needs to be changed.
It might be too shmaltzy, or wordy, or cheesy – I may even love it. But if I'm going for commercial songwriting, it's not likely to have any place in the song. This doesn't mean that cheeseball '80s power-ballad lyrics won't make a comeback or that you can't sneak a sappy line in your song.
It just means that you need to be aware when you do – people want to sing along and assume the role of the singer. If it's not a sentiment they would say, or the way they would say it, they'll be a lot less likely to.
3. Your melodies aren't singable
While some writers struggle with creating good melodies, that's not what I'm talking about here. Maybe your melodies are great, just overly complicated. Maybe you're using highly unusual chords or chord changes and it throws people off.
The rule of thumb is: people want something they're mostly familiar with that still gives them a little something fresh and different. I like to think of it as something like 90 percent old, 10 percent new.
To put it another way, human brains prefer ordered patterns. When you give you number out, you have a certain system or communicating it – usually three, three, four. If you were to give the same number out in a different pattern – say, two, three, five – the person you're reading it to may struggle to understand.
Music – which, at its root is a form of communication – is the same way. Simple melodies are best, and although it's almost a cliché, three to five chords. If it starts to sound complicated – and longer melodic patterns certainly can – it may not be the hit material you're looking for.
In writing down my perspective, my hope is not to discourage anyone from being creative – quite the opposite. I simply want to lay out a few points to help you judge whether your song fits the mold of most popular songs. It may be that you decide to go another, more experimental direction, or completely buck the system by writing unusual pop music. Regardless, it helps to know what the rules are before you choose to follow them – or break them!
- 5 Exercises to Write More Creative Lyrics
- When, How, and Why to Break the Rules of Songwriting
- 7 Easy Things You Can Do Right Now to Get Out of a Songwriting Rut
- How to Write Songs That Get Stuck in People's Heads
- How to Find Co-Writers
Daniel Reifsnyder is a Nashville-based, Grammy-nominated songwriter, having started his musical journey at the age of three. In addition to being an accomplished commercial actor, his voice can be heard on The Magic School Bus theme song and in Home Alone 2. Throughout his career, he has had the honor of working with the likes of Michael Jackson and Little Richard among many others. He is a regular contributor to several music-related blogs, including his own.