The Hit Songwriting Formula

A cutting edge fast track to writing great songs

Keeping People Listening to Your Songs

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Last week, I wrote about earworm melodies, and how chords (specifically open cadences) can play an important role in keeping a melody rolling around in a listener’s mind. That got me thinking about songs in general: What keeps people listening to your songs?

I’m not talking about the larger topic of what keeps people coming back to you, and wanting to hear your songs again. I’m talking about what keeps someone, once they’ve clicked on “Play”, to keep listening to that song?

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It’s usually a combination of factors, and it needs a better answer than “it’s got great lyrics…”; or “it has a really great tune…” Great poetry, for example, can make for a lousy song lyric, because the structure of that poem may not match the requirements set up by the rest of your song.

The factor that plays the most important role is anticipation. Having heard the first little bit of your song, listeners feel compelled to hear more. Depending on the musical element you’re talking about (melody, chords, lyrics, etc.), that sense of anticipation is built in any number of ways.

Here are some ideas to keep in mind as you work to make your music more enticing to an audience:

  1. Keep emotion moving up and down throughout a song. A song that is all emotion all the time isn’t nearly as alluring as music that starts at a low ebb emotionally, and then becomes more exciting, then less, then more… and so on. This is done chiefly through the lyric, so be sure that your verses minimize emotional power, and then move to choruses that display greater emotion. As music becomes temporarily less emotional, listeners learn to expect and want to hear when things ramp up.
  2. Move your melodies up and down to match the emotional content of the lyric. A verse melody should sit lower in pitch, matching the lower intensity of emotion. At the chorus, as the lyric becomes more emotional, match that with a melody that moves into a higher range.
  3. Move your chords back and forth from longer and more complex, to shorter and simpler. The longer, more complex progressions work well in a verse, and then the switch to something simpler and stronger in the chorus will entice the listener to keep listening. As they hear the switch back to complexity for Verse 2, they subconsciously want to hear the eventual change back to simplicity in the next chorus.
  4. Build your instrumentation carefully. Keep instrumentation thinner and more transparent in the verse, and then build it in the chorus. Use backing vocals more as lyrics intensify (usually in the chorus).
  5. Use contrasting dynamics (volume) to build a sense of energy and surprise. Songs that sit at one level of loudness for their entire length can become boring and predictable. Listen to Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Sprit” to hear how they carefully use dynamics to create a thoroughly engaging performance:

Keeping a listener listening to your song isn’t so much about how good it is at this moment, but has much more to do with what the listener thinks is going to happen. In that sense, you encourage your audience to be constantly (though subconsciously) thinking about the immediate future.

How you get an audience to think in that way relies mainly on moving back and forth, juxtaposing opposites (loud/soft, up/down, emotional/descriptive, etc.) Those kinds of contrasts keep listeners engaged and wanting to hear what happens next.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter

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