THE HIT SONG PUZZLE
2001 James Linderman. All Rights Reserved.
Used By Permission.
face it, as songwriters, we are all trying to sort out the pieces
of a huge puzzle. The puzzle represents what it is that publishers
are exactly looking for as they weed through the thousands
of demos they receive, in search of the next big hit. Perhaps
it would help if we were to try to imagine what we might ask them
to create if it was their job to make the art and our job to sell
it. I think we would then begin to look at the music marketplace
as a place where business trends and sociological shifts
meet with creating art and making your mark. This
is where the rubber meets the road if it is a hit song you are after.
we want to climb "inside the head" of a publisher we would find
that they knowingly or intuitively are calculating
the marketable merits of a song based on three main musical principles;
form, style and originality.
is a term that encompasses the musical and lyrical templates, or
moulds, that your original creative content, is poured into. Great
writers study form and often use an established form that has already
been "test driven" on a number of previous hit songs. Amateur writers
have a tendency to create their form as they write their song. This
often causes the song to lack the impact it would have had on the
listener had it been written in a reliable form and therefore dilutes
it's marketability. There should be a law that states, "Do not
attempt to break into the industry with a piece of music that experiments
with form". Musical form, through history, has evolved only
slightly compared to style and so the study and application of form
is time well spent. Form has good shelf life.
is never static and yet, it also never really causes a revolution
as is popularly thought. The notion that there are violent and dramatic
revolutions in style is a contrived exaggeration used by the industry
at large to get us exited about buying products (read "hype").
is in fact constantly in evolution. What we hear on the radio
and get sold in the stores is only incrementally different from
what was "large" three months ago. Music on the radio and
on the front racks seems to turn over seasonally as it evolves constantly.
could be argued that there are moments of revolution that turn the
world on its ear, so to speak. I have heard it said that The
Beatles "Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band" created a revolution.
I have challenged those that have made this claim to give a fresh
listen to "Revolver" and note that in the Beatles preceding
album, they were well on their way to creating in the styles that
emerged full bloom in "Sgt.Pepper". I'm not saying that "Pepper"
is not a pop masterpiece (I do not want to get a mountain of hate
mail), I just want to illustrate that stylistically, your music
should not just spring up out of nowhere with the expectation that
listeners should embrace it without them being brought to that spot
through a cultural process. Great art is created within such a process.
is a dangerous feature in a song because songs are designed
to express common ideas and emotions that as many listeners as possible
will be able to relate to. Originality by definition strives for
uniqueness that is not collective. Original however can also be
defined as meaning "old style" as in original recipe. Great
song writing, therefore, is a balance of unique originality and
original story telling from our common collection of human experiences.
our best chance at finding the most accurate recipe for a
hit song is to have, and implement, a thorough knowledge and understanding
of form and to then marry this to the current trends being displayed
as the style of the moment. Add a touch of originality in the actual
content to make it fresh and uniquely your own, yet socially relevant
and there you have it. Reliable form, popular style and original
content, a piece of cake right?
must agree that this is easier said than done but the more
I get to know some of the people that are in the business of choosing
music for the popular market, the more I am convinced that many
of them know how they need us to write songs for them to be able
to sell them. Even if they cannot articulate this in technical terms,
they have an inner sense of form, style and originality
that is consistent and yet constantly evolving.
Understanding all the things your music needs to be, outside of
what you need it to be, is an essential piece in what we
would all agree is the very big puzzle of the hit song formula.
lives and works at theharmonyhouse,
a music lesson, songwriting and music pre-production facility in Newmarket
Ontario. He has worked as a collaborating songwriter and consultant
for The Toronto Office of Catholic Youth and leads a music workshop
program for Life 100.3 Christian radio. James writes songwriting articles
for The Muse's Muse web magazine, Canadian Musician Magazine and Professional
Musician Magazine. In 2001, James will be producing a national, music
writing, development program for Songwriters of Canada and will be
a guest speaker at The Harvest Worship Leaders Conference at Gateway
Harvest Fellowship in Barrie ON. James has a Canadian University and
American College education in music composition and is the author
of The Christian Contemporary Songwriting Workbook.