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Destination Songwriting
By Mary Dawson - 02/25/2002 - 01:20 AM EST

Let’s go on a road trip! It's Spring and I've got a brand new car that's itching to be driven. What do we do first? I would suggest that the first question we have to answer is: Where are we going? If we have lots of time and simply want to see the sights, we may plan a more scenic drive. Or if we are on our way to a business appointment, we may have to stick to the interstate and take a more direct route. But whatever our time frame….we have to head somewhere! A trip with no destination may be fun at first, but it will soon become extremely confusing and boring. No matter how beautiful or new the automobile, driving for the sake of driving soon gets very old.

If you have been following my recent articles, you will know that we have identified the Great Idea as the essential DNA of a Hit Song and the Hook/Title as the equally essential RNA. These two indispensable elements are the core of every Hit Song and comprise its thesis or main point. Using our analogy above, the Great Idea and the Hook it is “hanging on,” are the destination of our song. Unless we have these clearly in mind, and unless we plan the rest of the song to conclude at the destination, we will be on a road trip with no arrival that will bore and confuse our listeners.

The single greatest weakness that I encounter in consulting with aspiring songwriters and critiquing their songs is lack of focus. Most writers have absolutely no idea where their song is headed when they begin to write. The song just evolves in proportion to their often very limited musical and lyrical vocabulary. Beginning or intermediate writers often mistake this "evolution" process for genuine inspiration and are therefore very shocked when they realize that their listeners have become completely lost and are not "getting" the message of the song at all.

Since our mission as songwriters is to communicate our Great Idea and Hook to our listeners, it is vital that we understand what the listener expects. An ordinary music lover may not even know what a Hook is by definition, but years and years of listening to pop music on the radio has subconsciously planted a musical expectation to hear that payoff Hook at certain points throughout the song. When it appears where it is expected, a real “moment of satisfaction” occurs which makes the listener connect with and remember the song. If the Hook containing the core idea of the song does not appear when expected, the listener’s mind tends to wander and disconnect.

So….the next logical question would be……Where do you place the Hook so that it really pays off for the listener? The answer to that question will depend to a great extent on the Song Form that you are using. If you have been following my column, you will no doubt remember that we took quite a bit of time to investigate the three major commercial song forms. They are the AAA Song, the AABA Song and the Verse-Chorus. (See my series on Songwriting Elegance through Song Form) Again, most listeners would not be consciously aware that there is such a discipline as Song Form, but subconsciously they immediately “tune into” and relate to the song – expecting the Hook to appear in certain key places. Let’s take a look at how we can effectively place our Hook/Title in each of the three commercial Song Forms.

As you will recall, the AAA Song Form is the simplest of the three – comprised of a series of verses connected like links in a chain. Each verse is complete in itself musically and lyrically. Nursery rhymes, campfire songs and folk songs frequently use the AAA Song Form. Although this Song Form does not have a chorus, it usually has a refrain which occurs either at the beginning or the end of each verse and usually contains the Hook/Title. Bob Dylan’s classic, Blowin’ in the Wind, is a wonderful example of the payoff Hook appearing and repeating in the refrain of an AAA Song. Each A Section or verse of the song begins with a series of questions which are a very effective way of “setting up” the Hook to really deliver the answer. Each series of questions concludes with that mystical refrain that contains the core idea and the Hook of the song – The answer, my friend, is Blowin’ in the Wind. The answer is Blowin’ in the Wind.

Notice that the Hook appears in the same place in each A section and has the same musical and lyrical content. The listener expects to hear that familiar line at the end of each verse and is subconsciously satisfied when it occurs. If the writer had placed the Hook at different places in each verse, it would have disoriented and confused the listener and would not have been nearly as effective.

As with the AAA Song, the AABA Song Form contains a series of verses with the same music but different lyrics. The only difference in this case is that the second and third verses are separated by a contrasting B or Bridge Section which adds drama and returns the listener to one more repetition of the now-familiar message and music of the final A Section. Again, the most effective placement of the Hook in this song form is in the first or last lines of each A Section. Think of the wonderful song, Somewhere Over the Rainbow (which, by the way, was declared the Song of the Twentieth Century by the Radio Industry Association of America and the National Endowment for the Arts). Each A Section begins with the Hook/Title – Somewhere Over the Rainbow. The only section that does not (and should not) contain the Hook is the contrasting B or Bridge section which has completely different music and lyrics. Or….an AABA Songwriter may choose to place the Hook/Title at the end of each A Section. Some great examples of this placement are Walkin’ My Baby Back Home by Fred Ahlert and Roy Turk or Collin Raye’s recent hit, Love Remains, written by Tom Douglas Jim Daddario.

Now we come to the Verse-Chorus Song – that amazing, exuberant Song Form that dominates so much of popular music in every genre. While there are many techniques for placing the Hook effectively in this Song Form, the prevailing guideline is that the Hook/Title should appear in the first and/or last line of the chorus and be the definite arrival point of each of the verses. While the verses can contain allusions to the Hook, they should not contain the Hook itself. Remember, the Hook is the payoff – the punchline of the joke – so the verses must set up the idea and the melody of that all-important, diamond-on-velvet line that the listeners will expect to hear and will remember hours and days later. Almost every Barry Manilow song of the 1970’s – Even Now, Daybreak, Mandy, and so many more -- are textbook examples of the effective payoff placement of the Hook in the Verse-Chorus song. Today, some thirty years after their initial success, Baby Boomers can still sing and remember those incredible Barry Manilow Hooks.

Most effective writers of every Song Form will begin by outlining what each verse will say and how it will conclude with the Great Idea of the Hook. As each verse adds new thoughts to the Great Idea, the Hook concludes those thoughts and burns itself into the hearts and minds of the listeners. Whether you are planning a road trip or writing a song, try starting with the destination first. Then you can plan the most satisfying route to the arrival point – and when you get there, the view from the top will be worth every moment of the journey.

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