How to Write Songs That Sound Contemporary

Red ArrowHas anyone ever told you that your songs “sound a little dated,” or “need to be more cutting edge,” or “have a kinda ’80s vibe”?  If so, then maybe it’s time to update your songwriting style. There are times when it’s cool to write in a vintage genre, but if you want to pitch your songs to music publishers and film & TV music supervisors they’ll be looking for current-sounding songs most of the time. 

What does “contemporary” mean?
“Contemporary” is just music industry shorthand for what today’s listeners are buying, downloading, streaming, or watching on Youtube. In other words: Contemporary is what listeners like right now.

Why should you write songs in a contemporary style?
THERE ARE MORE OPPORTUNITIES:  Today’s recording artists are looking for current-sounding songs. They will rarely cut something with a dated feel because they know it will be harder to get radio airplay. Even if it’s a good song that could have been a hit twenty years ago, it will be hard to market now. Radio needs to keep today’s  listeners tuned in by playing the kinds of songs they like.

Consider updating your lyrics to add more vivid images and powerful action words. Update your melodies to add more forward momentum to your chorus. In the video examples and song analysis that follow, I’ll tell you more about how to do that.

TASTES CHANGE: Just like fashions in clothes, musical tastes change over time. Are you still wearing the big hair, wide ties, and paisley prints of the 1970s? No? Then why would you still write songs that sound like the ’70s?

Sure, some fashion styles do make a comeback – a retro ’70s look can be very cool. But there’s usually a new twist; those cool vintage platform shoes are paired with current jeans and jacket. You can do the same with older song styles. Pair them up with some of today’s melodic twists and maybe add a pre-chorus to give them a bigger dynamic build.

SONG USES CHANGE: A decade ago no one thought to use songs as underscore in a TV show. Now there are over 60 prime time TV series using songs. The songs you wrote ten years ago might not work for these uses. Many shows take place in the present and need songs that sound like what you would hear on the radio today.

Find out more about writing songs for film and television.

“But I hate everything on the radio!”
Truth is, you may not hate what’s on the radio, you may just hate radio itself. I do. The chattering DJs, endless ads, inane contests, and having to listen to songs I hate to get to the ones I like – it’s just too time consuming and irritating.

Then don’t listen to the radio!
Instead, look through the music charts for current songs. You can find charts at www.Billboard.com (Click on Genres or All Charts in the top menu bar.) or www.BDSradio.com. (Click on Select Format and choose from the drop-down menu.)

Look for the genre you’re writing in or explore freely until you find something that looks interesting. Make a list of songs and artists, then listen wherever you buy or stream music. You’ll probably find a lot of songs you don’t like before you find a few that you love, ones that are current and inspiring. It takes times and patience but it’s worth it.

But how different can it be?
Is there really a big difference between a song that was a hit twenty years ago and a current hit song? Well, listen for yourself. To make it a fair comparison, I chose two hits by the same artist, Tim McGraw. “Not a Moment Too Soon” was his breakthrough single from 1994. “Highway Don’t Care” was a hit for him in 2013.

See if you can hear differences in the style of the lyrics, melody, and song structure – not to mention production – as you listen to these two songs.

Tim McGraw then and now…

NOT A MOMENT TOO SOON (1994)

HIGHWAY DON’T CARE (2013)

How have the lyrics and melodies changed over time?
LYRICS: Notice how the lyrics in “Not a Moment Too Soon” are leaning on some over-used images (“rainbow” “pot of gold”) and there are lines that make statements about how the singer feels rather than making us feel the emotion ourselves.

“Highway Don’t Care” features vivid details and pictures. Using the cold, impersonal highway to suggest feelings of loneliness and isolation – the opposite of love – gets listeners more involved in the song. They can feel what the singer is feeling.

Learn more about using images to add emotion to your song.

MELODY: Melodies have also changed since Tim McGraw had his first hit. Today’s melodies, especially the chorus melodies create more urgency, energy, and forward momentum by eliminating pauses at the ends of lines and using a greater variety of line lengths. You can hear this by comparing the choruses of these two songs.

Read more on writing contemporary melodies in my Songwriting Blog.

Studying recent hit songs is the BEST way to learn contemporary songwriting techniques, tools, and ideas. Join me and read along as I take a look inside today’s top hits in all genres.

But my songs are already recorded!
If you have master recordings from the ’60s, ’70s, or ’80s you can pitch them to period TV shows and films like Boardwalk Empire or Mad Men. Check out a music library like Wild Whirled which specializes in vintage masters. TAXI.com, the pitch service, frequently runs listings for music supervisors and music libraries looking for vintage masters. Just be sure your recording is good quality. Don’t use a poor cassette copy as your master.

Here’s another idea: Songs that work well for the Film & TV market are often those with a barebones, stripped-down approach to production. An acoustic guitar or piano and vocal track, with a little bass and percussion to add dynamic build, can work just fine for this use. Consider recording “unplugged” versions of your songs. Update the melody a little. Add more emotion and edge to the lyric. Next thing you know, you’re sounding contemporary yet timeless.

by Robin Frederick

All rights reserved. Reprints by permission.

This post is based on my songwriting books: Shortcuts to Hit Songwriting, Shortcuts to Songwriting for Film & TV, Study the Hits, and The 30-Minute Songwriter. Find out more about all of my print and eBooks on my Author page at Amazon. In each book you’ll find dozens of useful, real-world shortcuts that will show you how to craft songs that work for today’s music market, plus dozens of hands-on exercises to get your creative ideas flowing.