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So you wanna be in a rock band?: Creating music with mass appeal

Rose Cora Perry | Interrobang | Lifestyles | November 20th, 2006



I'm sure by the very title of this piece that some of you are rolling your eyes at the concept of me providing you with guidelines about how to write sellable music. I will give you this: there is no one-to-ten detailed instructional manual outlining how to write the perfect song.

For that matter, I feel that songwriting is an art form requiring a great deal of skill that cannot be mastered by everyone. However, songs that have been able to cross generations, cultures, and time barriers do share some commonalities, which I don't believe is mere coincidence.

The tunes that make an impact and continue to maintain their popularity 20 years later are memorable for more than just their catchy melodies. The songs to which I'm referring have been repeatedly listed in the Top 100 lists year after year. Though these songs are dissimilar in genre and methodology, what makes each and every one of them able to claim “greatness” is this: simply put, they are extremely well-written, and therefore have mass appeal.

For starters, the lyrical content of sad songs tends to prey on social and/or political mentalities/issues that drive a solid point home with the listener. But, the message of each of these songs is presented in such a fashion that it is accessible to even the status quo. Nothing too complicated. Nothing too convoluted.

When John Lennon asked us to “Imagine” a world without violence, poverty, hunger, and religion, he painted a crystal clear picture. He blatantly probed listeners to question their existence, and rethink the structure of society. He ended on a hopeful note stating that he knows others like himself are out there, and he looks forward to the day in which everyone in the world, despite their differences, will learn to “live as one.” The purpose of his song is self-evident: to make listeners question that which is presented to them, rather than just accepting things as they are.

Another strategy of writing strong lyrics is delving into concepts that are relatable on a personal level. Everyone has had a point in their life in which they've felt like Mick Jagger: unable to get any “Satisfaction.” Though Jagger is referring to satisfaction in the sexual sense, a listener does not have to interpret the song in that manner because the lyrics remain open-ended enough to suggest otherwise.

Audiences appreciate the opportunity to take a song and apply it to their personal situation. As a consequence, most often songs that encompass complex metaphors don't become hit singles, because audiences can't get a grasp of what the songwriter is trying to say.

I've found that the best songs out there cover issues that are common and easy to understand. Hence, the reasons as to why we have so many popular cliché love songs. Everyone experiences love, romance, bad breakups, and broken hearts (hopefully not always in that order).

Next, comes the melody.

Writing a song that gets stuck in a listener's head may seem like an easy task, however you want your melody to be unforgettable because it's well structured, not because it's extremely annoying.

I can count several instances in which I've had Britney Spears'(sorry to pick on her again, but it's just so easy) songs stuck in my head on repeat, but it's not as though it was an enjoyable experience. No one likes a broken record. Although Spears' songwriters manage to write her material that is “catchy,” it's not always catchy in a good way. There is a difference between good and bad catchy.

Good catchiness makes a listener want to sing along with the track after hearing only a few short moments, and without knowledge of the majority of the lyrics. Good catchiness also tends to stimulate movement; whether it be head bobbing, toe tapping, air guitaring, or drumming on the nearest object. These are the songs that you listen to loud and proud while cruising down the highway with all the windows open; songs such as ACDC's “Back in Black” or Queen's “We Will Rock You.” They are more than just an auditory experience.

And by melody, I'm not just referring to the vocal line. All of the instruments play a crucial part in writing a well-structured song. A great singer needs a strong band to back him/her, just as a talented musical act needs a charismatic vocalist to front them. Therefore, dynamics are of the utmost importance. A band needs to know when to go all out, and when to draw back depending upon what the lyrics suggest. Different dynamics constitute different emotional reactions. Thus, the instrumentation and the lyrics need to be in synch with each other in order to maximize the impact of your message...

to be continued next week....
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