For the last two years, I was a professor of songwriting at Berklee College of Music. I did this part-time next to my full-time gig of being a songwriter and vocal producer in the pop and EDM world. In those two years, I sold a whole bunch of songs to famous DJs and worked on many projects with up-and-coming artists in Brooklyn.
In 2013, one year after graduating from Berklee, they asked me to join the faculty. This seems pretty unorthodox, but my boss believes that if you want to teach current pop music to college kids, you need someone who is closer to their age and who's living the pop music gig right now. I wasn't gonna argue with her, so I took the job, and quickly realized that teaching songwriting made my own writing a lot better. Sweet deal.
As a professor at Berklee, though, I ended up spending more time trying to convince my students that the rules of songwriting are a huge deal than I actually did teaching them. The general consensus was, "Rules are lame! My favorite indie artist follows no rules! Deez Nuts for president!" And my answer was, and has always will be, "Wrong, bro!"
Rules ain't dirty
What I did with the students, and what I will do in these coming articles, is analyze the bejeezus out of famous pop songs and show you the rules the pros follow: the cheap tricks, the hacks, the cheats, the formulas, whatever you wanna call it. I like to call it craft.
Professional songwriters are not "artists." They are craftsmen. They know the rules and play by them. I understand this might sound a little icky to a lot of people, but remember this one thing: every song that has made a lasting impact on the career of its performing artist has been carefully crafted to have this exact effect.
Most, if not all, of these hit songs are written by, or co-written with, professional songwriters: craftsmen who know the rules inside out. Regardless of style, a good song follows a certain set of guidelines that guarantees its appeal to a larger audience. This applies to Justin Bieber just as much as Leonard Cohen.
Now that that's out of the way, here are two quick examples of universal songwriting rules.
1. Melodic contrast between sections
The most effective songs have clear and defined melodic differences between the verse and the chorus. These differences will look like this:
- Melody is low in the verse and high in the chorus
- Melody is short and rhythmical in the verse and long and epic in the chorus
I'll write a whole article around this idea with some solid examples to make it make more sense, but for now, start checking out your favorite songs and see if they're doing it.
2. Titles that grab
The most effective songs have titles that are unique and make you pay attention in an endless stream of titles in your Spotify playlist. Titles like "I Love You," "Without You," and "You Left Me" are super boring for two reasons:
- There are too many songs out there with these titles. You won't stand out from the crowd with a cliche title.
- Song titles that don't have either an interesting twist or a cool image will fade into the wallpaper. "Titanium" is a cool-ass title, as is "Man, I Feel Like A Woman," or "Gorilla." They reach out to you and make you think, "Hmmmm, what would this be about?"
In the coming months, I'll be sharing a whole bunch of these easy-to-apply songwriting rules on the Sonicbids blog, so keep an eye out for 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
Benjamin Samama taught songwriting at Berklee College of Music from 2013–2015 and currently writes and produces pop music full-time in Los Angeles. His songs have been released by dozens of artists all over the world and enjoyed by millions. Click here to contact Benjamin if you'd like a one-on-one songwriting consultation with him.