I once heard the word fanatic defined as follows:
A fanatic is someone who has lost sight of the objective, and has re-doubled his efforts.
By that definition, I’m afraid that we songwriters can often become a bit fanatic when it comes to our craft. Many of us are not even aware that songwriting has any kind of objective at all. We simply fall in love with the exhilarating process of expressing our emotions through words and melody. This creative high can become so addictive that we do, in fact, “re-double our efforts,” going from one writing session to another convincing ourselves, as we do, that we are gifted and prolific songwriters. I would suggest, however, that unless we become aware of the objective or goal behind our songwriting, we will consistently be disappointed in the results. As someone has wisely said: If you aim at nothing, you are sure to hit it!
Whether we realize it or not, all songwriting has some kind of objective. Perhaps we pick up our guitar or sit down at the piano just to let off a little steam at the end of a hard day—and that’s the only goal. The song we write may never get further than our living room, but if the process has helped us to unwind and feel better, that particular songwriting objective has been fulfilled. The song is a success!
If, however, we hope to write a hit song—a song that sells millions of copies—there is another objective involved. The objective of hit songs in any style is emotional communication. What do I mean by that? Here’s a simple definition:
Emotional communication takes place when the feelings and thoughts of the songwriter touch the feelings and thoughts of the listener through the language of lyrics and music.
The key word in the above definition is language. Great songwriters must learn to convey universal ideas in the emotional language of lyrics and music in a way that average listeners can understand and respond to. As with any other language, study and skill are required to use it well!
Think about the great orators of history…speakers like Dr. Martin Luther King, for example. Think about his amazing gifts and accomplishments. Dr. King was an individual who had clearly defined his goal. He had a message of supreme importance to communicate and many natural gifts of spirit and intellect to help him achieve his objective. But I venture to say that if Dr. King had not spent many years studying the rules of grammar…if he had not been well-read in great literature and poetry…if he had not worked diligently to polish and hone his command of the English language, he never would have been able to deliver his message of freedom with the power and conviction needed to change the world.
Consider what might have happened had Dr. King depended on his natural talent only. He may have seen the injustice in the world and may even have been able to identify the solution, but if he had used improper English—filled with slang and coarse language—his important message would have been relegated to obscurity and insignificance.
Too often I meet aspiring songwriters who mistakenly think crafting a worldwide hit will somehow require less effort and study than that invested by an orator like Dr. King. We want to depend on inspiration only—writing song after mediocre song hoping to dazzle the world with the sheer volume of our creative work. I would suggest, however, that unless we stop and master the language of songwriting, our ever-expanding catalog of inferior work will never accomplish our goal.
So what exactly do I mean by learning the languageof songwriting? Whether music lovers realize it or not, they have learned to hear songs presented within certain perameters of song structure and song development. They subconsciously expect a clear melodic/lyrical hook, clear contrast at the chorus and bridge, logical development of the idea and an emotional payoff both musically and lyrically. Balance between these underlying expectations and some fresh, new splashes of musical and lyrical color will communicate the idea behind the song in a way that will attract listeners’ interest while simultaneously allowing them to understand the message behind the song.
Learning these skills takes time and discipline. It means that we may have to slow down a little and actually study the craft of songwriting. We may (perish the thought) have to re-visit some of our previous “masterpieces” and face the fact that they actually need re-writing! It will require persistence and determination. But if we are willing to pay our dues and learn the language, we will begin to produce a catalog of better-and-better songs that truly do communicate our message to the hearts of those who hear them. Those kinds of songs are called Hits, and the writers who create them are definitely NOT fanatics!