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The Great Idea: the DNA of a Hit Song
By Mary Dawson - 10/27/2001 - 02:51 PM EDT

Copyright © 2001/ CQK Music - All Rights Reserved

We've all heard the brain-teaser -- Which came first, the chicken or the egg? Well, there is similar question that is often posed to songwriters -- Which comes first, the words or the music? Just as the answer to the "chicken and egg" dilemma varies each time the question is asked, so the "words and music" question varies in answer from songwriter to songwriter. Personally, when I am asked that question I frequently respond, "Neither!" Before you can have either words or music, you must have one essential prerequisite if you hope to write a great song….and that is a Great Idea. It must be an idea that not only speaks to you, the writer, but one that communicates to the listener! Just as DNA is indispensable to the existence of the human cell and the creation of human life, the Great Idea is absolutely necessary for the creation great song!

Let's face it -- not every idea is worthy of a hit song. A good analogy can be found in the world of reading. Some books are packed with facts and information, but they are downright boring to read. Textbooks can be like this -- we almost have to force ourselves to pay attention to what we are reading because textbooks can be so tedious. And then there are the "page turners" -- the thrillers that make the New York Times Best Seller List. You see people everywhere reading them -- on the bus, on the subway, in the doctor's waiting room, in restaurants, on park benches. People simply can't put the "page turner" down. What the difference? Very simple -- the author of the thriller has an idea or plot that has engaged the emotions of the reader. The reader cares what happens to the protagonist and becomes personally involved in the action of the plot. The same chemistry must occur in writing a hit song -- when all is said and done, the song must answer one question for the listener….. So what? If the completed song leaves its audience completely unmoved and uncaring, the song has failed!

Where do ideas for great songs come from? In my opinion there are two major sources which work together to produce that seed idea which will grow into a hit song. The first source is Life. The second is Music.

Each songwriter is a unique composite of all the Life experiences and Musical influences he/she has ever encountered through the years. Think of your mind as a computer which has been programmed with certain Life and Music software. Nothing springs spontaneously from the computer itself. What goes in -- is what will come out -- but each computer will process its own unique data source in a unique way.

Let's look first at Life. Hit songwriter, Don Henley, has wisely said: "You have to live before you can write!" I wholeheartedly concur with that statement! It has been my experience that the great songwriters I have met are people who passionately love Life for the sheer adventure of it and they let Life lead them into Truth. They look beneath joyful experiences and find lessons in difficult ones. They think….they analyze…they incubate….and they try to learn what Life is teaching them right now! Instead of using all their emotional energy to fight against the circumstances they are facing, they let those experiences carry them into new understandings…new sensitivities…and, ultimately, into new creativity.

I often meet aspiring songwriters who are angry and running from unpleasant experiences in their past -- or painful present circumstances. In trying to escape from these difficulties, they may actually be "escaping" from the most fertile song ideas of their lives. Each experience becomes part of the programming that will allow the computer of our minds to create fresh camera angles on universal human emotions. True songwriters face every Life experience from a songwriter's perspective. They know that there are great song ideas humming in the wires of daily living and they will develop a sensitivity which will act as a receiver for these ideas. Superficial people usually don't write great songs -- neither do angry and bitter ones!

The second major source for great song ideas is Music itself. The number of options we have in creating a new song is directly related to the breadth of musical and lyrical data we have received -- either consciously or subconsciously -- over the years. If we only expose ourselves to one genre of music, our options will probably be limited to the techniques and style of that particular genre. If, however, we expose ourselves to a wide variety of genres, harmonies, composing techniques, rhyme schemes and rhythms in the songs we listen to, we will expand our options for creating our own great songs. In my opinion it's essential for every songwriter to become familiar with as many different lyrical and musical influences as possible -- especially the styles of music that are presently "in fashion." We may not personally care for the latest musical craze, but we should be acquainted with it and study it….because what is currently considered "hip" is what is selling millions of records!

In practical terms, broadening ourselves musically simply means listening -- especially listening to the radio! The radio is Songwriting University. Almost all the hit songwriters I have ever met have testified unequivocally that they have learned most of what they know about writing hits from listening to the radio. I recommend having every button on your car radio set to a different genre of music. One button on Pop, another on Country, another on Jazz etc. Keep channel surfing to expose your mind to lots of musical/lyrical stimuli. Soon you will be able to "re-cycle" these elements through your own perspective into a brand new song!

If you are a beginner -- feeling overwhelmed at the challenge of trying to write a great new hit….or if you are an experienced writer who may be wandering through the wasteland of writer's block ….be encouraged. There are ideas floating in the air all around you. Listen to great music….read great literature…. go about the business of living. Train yourself to hear, see and think like a songwriter. And someday, somewhere -- when you least expect it -- the Muse will visit you and suddenly you will have a great idea for a song and the foundation for building a hit!

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