Let’s say you’re a hard rockin’ band out there working the club circuit. You’d like to get a record deal but can’t seem to interest a label. Your fans love you. You put on a killer live show and tour like crazy, so why won’t the the music industry sign you up?
You may have everything going for you except one thing — you need at least one or two songs that sound like they could get radio airplay either on the big commercial radio stations or on major college radio stations. Record labels know that getting radio airplay is the key to rapid career growth; it will be a key part of their marketing campaign for any group or artist.
So, what’s the difference between a good song that energizes fans at a live performance and a song that can get radio airplay? Let’s take a look at Shinedown’s hit “Sound of Madness,” a powerhouse of a rock song with huge radio appeal, a strong lyric theme, and an unusual but very memorable, contemporary melody.
Recorded by Shinedown
Written by Brent Smith, Dave Bassett
Read the lyrics here.
This song opens with three verses. The first one acts as a kind of intro. It’s sung an octave lower than the rest of the verses and sets up the situation in the song. After the intro, there are double verses before the first and second choruses. Here’s the structure:
VERSE 1 (intro) / VERSE 2 / VERSE 3 / CHORUS
VERSE 4 / VERSE 5 / CHORUS
INSTRUMENTAL BRIDGE / CHORUS / CHORUS
In genres like Pop and Country, Verse 3 and 5 would be pre-choruses. The Rock genre goes for a more straight ahead style that leans more on repetition to make its point.
The double verses in this song give the singer a chance to say what he wants to say. The lyrics are vivid, filled with powerful language and images.
Opening line: The song opens with an attention-grabbing line – “Yeah, I get it, you’re an outcast.” The phrase “Yeah, I get it,” sounds like the singer is expressing contempt and yet an “outcast” is the kind of person that Rock songs usually praise. So the line is interesting to listeners. They want to know who the singer is talking to and why he said that. Try starting your lyric with a line that makes an interesting statement or asks a question. Get your audience involved in the song right from the top.
Verses 2 & 3: The next lyric lines need to follow up with answers to the questions raised in the opening line. If they don’t, listeners might feel frustrated. Sure enough, in the next lines we learn that this character is a whiner (“another loose canon gone bi-polar”) and the singer tells him “take your medicine.” The language is conversational, direct, honest, and communicates plenty of information and emotion.
Chorus: The chorus lyric sums up the heart of this song, which is what chorus should do. The singer tells us he’s been there and survived, he’s paid his dues so he has the right to say these things. (“Wrote the book on pain / somehow I’m still here”). These insights into who the singer is and why he’s saying these things allow us to feel as if we know him, creating an essential link between the song and the listener.
Be sure you bring your listeners inside the song. Connect with them by giving them enough information to understand who is singing and what he’s feeling. Here are tips on how to do that.
Payoff line: The last line of the chorus is often called the payoff line. It’s a line that listeners remember so give them something strong here, something that wraps up the emotional message of the song. This song does it really well. The chorus ends with “When you gonna wake up and fight… for yourself?”
This is the line the songwriters want us to remember when the song is over. It’s the theme of the song: Don’t sit around and whine. Fight to make things better. Make sure the payoff line of your chorus is one that leaves a strong impression on your listeners. It will make them want to come back and listen again
Rhymes: There are a lot of rhyming lines in this song but it never feels like a line has was bent out of shape just to add a rhyme. Don’t force a rhyme. Listeners will notice it and you’ll lose credibility. Keep the word order natural and conversational and look for words that rhyme loosely (called “near rhymes”). The rhymes in this song are fresh and interesting but never feel forced: outcast/last/ass, bi-polar/lower, believe/disease.
For bands who say that Rock lyrics don’t have to make sense, songs like this one make it clear that radio-ready Mainstream Rock hits DO need to give listeners an honest, authentic lyric. Sure, album cuts can be more obscure, appealing to serious fans, but radio singles need to reach out to a broader audience. Give listeners a lyric they can follow and relate to.
This is a very current-sounding melody with lots of rhythmic twists. The lines start on a variety of beats, including upbeats (the “and” between beats). In this arrangement it’s easy to tell where the downbeats and upbeats are. At the start of the song, the kick drum is hitting the downbeats, the guitar is playing the upbeats. Count along with this song and notice where the phrases start. Here are a few things to look for.
The opening line of verse 1 comes right in on a strong downbeat – Beat 1. (“Yeah, I got it…”) but the next three short phrases all begin on the “and” after Beat 1 (“always under attack / always coming in last / bringing up the past”). By switching to the upbeats, the melody does something listeners don’t expect. It’s interesting.
The melody in Verses 2 & 3 keeps on emphasizing strong and weak beats, creating a syncopated feel that owes something to the Rap genre. You can hear it in the variety of lines lengths and unusual beat emphasis. It’s especially noticeable in Verse 2.
Chorus melody: The melody uses contrast to make it plain that we’re in a different section, lengthening the notes to create a smoother feel than the choppy verse melody, using a fresh chord at the beginning that we haven’t heard before.
The melody phrases include a variety of lengths. The third line has been stretched out so that the rhyming word (“explain”) occurs later than we expect. Nice trick! It has the effect of pulling the listener forward, right into the next line.
Give yourself more writing choices
So… were the songwriters thinking about things like phrase lengths and upbeats while they were writing the melody? Probably not. More likely these ideas occurred to them as spontaneous choices during the writing process. So, how do you get some of these cutting-edge melodic choices to happen for you?
First, embed these ideas by learning to play and sing a song like this. Play it over and over until you feel comfortable with it. Here’s the guitar tab for Sound of Madness. Then, try writing a lyric and melody of your own to this rhythm groove. See if you can…
– Add some syncopation by starting a phrase on an upbeat.
– Use different line lengths.
– Lengthen a phrase until it runs into the next.
Look for other successful songs in the Rock genre that you like and learn to play and sing them. Look for songwriting techniques these songs are using that you can apply to your own songs. You’re not trying to copy, just learn. You probably did something like this when you were first learning to play guitar, copying the licks and strums you liked then learning how to make them your own.
To find out more about the techniques used in Shinedown’s “Sound of Madness” check out the following…
In Shortcuts to Hit Songwriting:
Shortcut 48: Write a Hook That Sticks
Shortcut 51: Define Your Title and Theme in the Chorus
Shortcut 52: Verses: Take Us Deep Inside the Situation
Shortcut 81: Contrast in Pace Keeps Listeners Tuned In
Shortcut 89: Use Syncopation
by Robin Frederick