What makes a song “work?” What makes a song resonate with people?
Musical artists have been trying to capture that idea for centuries, and yet it still seems like it’s more luck than anything. Sometimes you just have a wonderful idea, not a winning formula.
As a longtime poet, composer, and songwriter (since the age of 12), I’ve written a lot of songs that either just don’t captivate me or don’t get a whole lot of response, even though they have a lot to say. Then, I’ve written songs that other people absolutely love and enjoy. Studying my “better” songs versus the less-popular ones has brought me to understand something about music that I never really thought about before.
Songs people enjoy are ones they can relate to best.
Seems too simple, right? I thought so, too. But as I thought about how I listen to music, and what kind of music I like, I realized more and more it was right. As a songwriter, you have to make your song relatable to others, and to do that, you have to balance between being too personal and too generic. So, I came up with lists of what makes a song too personal (as in, I can’t really listen to it because there’s so much detail I don’t relate to), or too generic (as in, it doesn’t have a point and/or doesn’t feel like it’s saying much of anything relatable to my life).
Note: Even though I ain’t professional yet and am not formally trained in “songwriting,” I have had a lot of experience playing, writing, rewriting, reworking, and eventually performing my songs.
You know your song is too personal when…
- Your lyrics are cluttered with many specific place and people references, like a diary entry
- You’re having trouble stretching your melody to fit around all these specific place names and friend names
- There doesn’t seem to be enough room within the “2-verses, 2-choruses, 1-bridge, final chorus” song template to say all you want to say about the situation
I’ve fallen into the “too-personal” trap a good bit with my own songs. When others hear lyrics that are more about you than about how your situation parallels theirs, they can find it hard to relate to your song. Personal details flesh out the story you’re telling or the imagery you’re crafting, but don’t load the song up with tons of personal details that are too specific to you. It’s hard to sing along when you don’t know the story and can’t imagine it!
You know your song is too generic when…
- The verses seem “empty” when you sing them, like there are too few words, but there are plenty in there
- You’re not sure anymore which episode in your life you’re drawing inspiration from for the song
- It seems like you’ve heard something similar on the radio, somewhere along the line
While trying to come up with an awesome new song for my church, I was falling into this trap over and over again. Everything I wrote felt forced, trite, and stupid–I kept thinking, “This verse could have been written by anybody! It sounds good, but it’s…not me, and it’s not about me. Grr!” I was trying too hard to write something people would like, and I was going too generic to do it. When audiences hear a song that’s too generic, the usual comment is that it feels like it’s been done before. And it likely has been!
So What Makes a “Relatable” Song, Anyway?
I believe it’s all about being just personal enough and yet appealing to all listeners’ emotions. (Good songwriters know how to strike that over and over; I hope I’ll get there one day, though many people have already told me they hear themselves in my songs just as much as they hear me. But not every one I write is a hit, and I have to remember that–it’s a balance you have to recalibrate every time.)
The following list of tips are the ones I follow when I’m writing a new song. To make this list, I thought, “What makes ME love a new song?”. The resulting list seems to work well and cover all the bases. (It’s more about crafting lyrics than melody, but there’s ways in which crafting one definitively influences the other.)
A Relatable Song…
- …References emotions/repercussions coming from a specific event, rather than referencing the whole event itself
- …Describes a state of being, even a transitional or transformational state of being (like coming to terms with death, entering a new relationship, etc.)
- …Uses visual imagery to describe a place, intertwined with feelings that the place evokes
- …Matches the mood of the melody (bouncy, somber, peaceful, tormented) with the mood and tone of the lyrics
- …Contains the main emotional idea of the song within the chorus, and expands upon the main idea (and how it came about) in the verses
Though writing a “good” song may not always be quantifiable, I think we can weed out some of the too-personal/too-generic problems that hurt many beginning songwriters. It’s not about trying to “market” something, but trying to make something that others genuinely respond to. When I weep or laugh aloud at the end of the first playthrough of my song, I know it’s pretty good. When others weep or laugh aloud at the end of the first performance, because they have felt that way before and know exactly what I’m singing about, I know it’s really good.