Image: Wikimedia Comnmons/Martin NH
A songwriting veteran offers essential songwriting advice based on analyzing traits that top songs share.
By Ralph Murphy
Vice President, ASCAP
[The following was first published on Taxi in a slightly different form.]
For a small business owner such as a songwriter/publisher, knowing the market is vital. Budgeting for success means looking at income (when it decides to come in!) and making informed decisions about how to spend it most effectively. Up near the top of the list of expenditures (almost right next to eating) are demo costs. The financial outlay for demonstration recordings has risen to $750 - $1,000 per song. So, if you write 30 songs a year and only have $10,000 in your demo budget, you're going to have to make some hard choices.
Let's say you've written this song about a Chicken. You love it! Your mom loves it! The special person in your life loves it! However . . Radio is only playing Dog songs. Fortunately, you've also written four Dog songs, which everybody loves. Your dilemma? You only have enough money to produce a three-song demo, but you have five songs (four Dog songs and one Chicken song). What do you do? Now, unfortunately, I have suitcases full of demoed Chicken songs, so I know what the songwriter side of me says; however, I noticed early on in life that food is a good thing and that eating makes me happy. So, while grumbling and complaining about how radio should be playing more Chicken songs, I demo three of my four Dog songs so I can continue to support my nasty food habit! In the frustrating war between art and commerce, commerce wins.
Let's be honest. Though it shouldn't, radio drives the "commercial" aspect of the songwriting process. (Did I already mention that I like to eat?) It affects just about every decision we make creatively. In March, 1999, country radio did something seismic in nature, which impacted songwriters and publishers dramatically. As an experiment to maintain listenership, Country radio decided to slow the progress of records going up and down the charts in hopes of breeding the kind of familiarity that keeps listeners coming back for more--commercials, that is. As a result, I became curious and decided to try an experiment of my own. I started by researching the Billboard Country chart for 1999 and found that a total of 18 songs reached #1. Taking a closer look, I began to wonder: what type of song is reaching the top in this brave new world of radio? A world in which, through yet another ripple effect of deregulation, big radio chains have been allowed to buy up and homogenize most of the "mom and pop" country stations resulting in:
- Country songs being slotted between jingles and musical links that sound like they're written and performed by Metallica;
- on-air personalities who, with rare exceptions, really don't know (or care) about country music, and
- an increase in the amount of commercial time that effectively gets rid of two or three records per hour.
But, I digress! What we began to see on the chart before March is that records did indeed start taking longer to climb and began to linger longer, that is, taking longer to fall off completely. Before March, the total average time a song spent on the chart was 26.5 weeks. After the March changeover, that time increased to 32 weeks—adding more than a month to the life of a song! (In fact, Lonestar's "Amazed" was on the chart for more than a year.) What kinds of songs enjoyed success? Let's look at a few dynamics …
Anything in common?
Common characteristics for the 18 #1s were that all of them were contemporary pop/country; 4/4 in tempo; romantic, primarily humorous, sad, and heartfelt. Half were stories; half were conversations. The average intro was 13.2 seconds.
Let's examine the producer/A&R, mantra—"We are looking for mid to up-tempo positive love songs." Yes, you can say it in your sleep! Surprisingly, though, ballads accounted for 50% of 1999's chart toppers, followed by up-tempos at 33% and mid-tempos at 17%. Now, before you crown ballads king, let's look at the amount of time spent at #1. Even though more ballads made it to #1, they tended to fall off quicker. In fact, up-tempos spent 49% of the year at #1, followed by ballads at 31% and mid-tempos at 20%. So, even though mid- and up-tempos combined accounted for only half of the #1s, they spent a combined 69% of the year in the top spot. Strangely enough, you had a slightly better chance of having a #1 with a ballad, but spent significantly less time at #1 and on the chart.
75% of up-tempos went from a linear melody in the verse to a soaring melody in the chorus. Which means, basically, the listener got a story [linear--very little motion, few chord changes] and something to hum at the supermarket [soaring - significant motion and chord changes] in the same song and apparently liked that a lot! It is almost impossible to tell a story over a soaring melody because the human animal can only hear one moving part at a time and, given choice, will always defer to melody. So, wherever the writer wants to tell a story, the melody is kept to a minimum. As for ballads, five of the nine went from linear to soaring.
Since you were born, radio has given you songs in any one of six variations. As the writer leads listeners through a song, he or she creates an expectation in the audience's mind that they are being led through the story to a hook (conclusion) in a way that they are familiar with. The writer can alter the format slightly only as long as the listeners feel informed, included and satisfied (once delivered to the hook/conclusion). If that effect is not achieved, the listeners simply reach for the dial and tune out. The writer has failed structurally. That being said, the 18 #1 records in 1999 used only three of the six forms:
2nd Form: Verse-(Verse Opt.)-Chorus-Verse-Chorus-Instrument-Chorus-Etc.
3rd Form: Verse-(Verse Opt.)-Chorus-Verse-Chorus-Bridge-Instrument-Chorus-Out
4th Form: Verse-Lift-Chorus-Verse-Lift-Chorus-Instrumental-(Lift Opt.)-Chorus
Five of the six up-tempos and 50% of all #1s were written in 3rd form. The exception to this in up-tempo was Terri Clark's "You're Easy On The Eyes," which was in 2nd form. This is significant because 3rd form is known as the most forgiving form because you can have a weak line or two in a verse but still have a huge chorus to save you. Plus, there's a bridge to add information or show the listener the other side of the coin. With mid-tempos, all the forms were equally represented. As far as ballads go, we find that four of the nine ballads were 3rd Form, followed by three in 2nd Form and two in 4th Form.
Person and tense
100% of up-tempos were written in first person (I/Me/My). Additionally, 72% included the second person (You/Your) and 39% used the third person, generally as a device for conflict. As far as tense goes, 83% of up-tempos were set in the present, with 27% in the past and only 15% in the future. As for ballads, 89% used the first person, 89% included the 2nd, and 33% added the third person.
Let's add one more dynamic to this mix. Six of the 18 #1s were written or co-written by the artist, with five of the six being ballads. So the old A&R belief that ballads are artist-driven gains some credence given this information.
Your best shot
So. you have Dog songs and you have Chicken songs. Where do you spend your demo dollar? Your best shot for getting a #1 record is to write:
- mid- to up-tempo
- romantic/humorous or sad/heartfelt theme
- 4/4 time
- contemporary pop/country style
- story or conversation
- 1st person or 2nd person
- 3rd form
- linear melody with a story to a soaring chorus
- 13 second intro
So much for Chicken songs!
I would like to acknowledge the invaluable assistance of Phil Goldberg and Chad Green indulging my "need to know" in helping research the above information. Most importantly thank you Mark Ford for massaging and editing my lunatic fringe ramblings into a coherent form.
Ralph Murphy's songwriting credits include Ronnie Milsap's "He Got You," Crystal Gayle's "Half The Way" and Kathy Mattea's "Seeds." Ralph is a veteran songwriter/publisher/producer, is an instructor for NSAI's Song Camps, and is Assistant Vice President for ASCAP Nashville.
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