There are two important people involved in every song: You and the Listener. You may be strangers or best friends. You may be staring across a concert stage or a living room rug. Or you may be a disembodied voice on a radio and the listener only an ear you’re not even sure is out there. Wherever you are, the two of you are linked together by the experience of your song.
Let the listener in!
Writing with the listener in mind can be tricky. You need to be true to your own emotional expression, but the listener needs to feel included. There’s nothing worse than standing on the outside trying to look into a room through a shuttered window. If you want listeners, you need to let them inside.
Bedroom songwriting – the first draft
Many songs (probably most) are written because the songwriter needed to get those feelings out. In fact, a good song should start with honest emotion or it will never be compelling and truthful. At this early stage, the listener is an intruder. The song is all about YOU for now. Stay focused on that during the first draft of your song. Say what you need to say for yourself. Get it all out. It’s just you alone in your bedroom.
The second draft
Once you have that first draft together, record a rough version. Maybe it’s just a vocal and a few chords. Put it aside and keep it. Don’t record over it. This is yours and you can always come back to it.
Now, decide whether you want to take this song out into the world and introduce it to listeners. If you do, then get to work on a second draft with the listener in mind. Here’s a checklist of questions that will help you reach out to your listeners and get them involved.
Open up the lyric
1. Answer the listener’s questions. Imagine yourself talking to a stranger, telling him or her about your feelings. What questions would they have? Did you answer them in the song?
2. Make listeners feel what you feel. Did you make listeners FEEL what you felt? Or did you just tell them about it? Paint a vivid picture of the emotion using images and sensations. Use action words that add energy. Describe the emotion in physical terms – what did it do to your body, how did it feel? Listeners will respond by seeing pictures in their minds and feeling a physical reaction. That’s what you want! Get them involved!
3. Keep it focused. Did you raise any unanswered questions in your song? Get sidetracked? Start singing about something else? Be sure you keep your lyric focused on a single idea so listeners can stick with you. If you wander off, they’ll lose interest and you’ll have to get them back again. If you’re trying to say two things in one song, you’ll end up with a weak song. Choose one and save the other for another song.
4. Support your title. What is the strongest line in your song? If it’s not the title, why isn’t it? Does every line in the song support and lead back to your strongest line? Listeners like to feel that the song has a point and you need to let them know what it is. Don’t make them have to work at figuring it out.
Structure & melody also connect with the listener
We use structure to help listeners feel “grounded” in a song – they want to feel something solid under their feet. If there are too many sections each with a different melody and lyric, listeners may feel the song is too chaotic; they won’t want to get involved. On the other hand, if a song has too much repetition of the same section, they’ll get bored.
For many of today’s listeners, the right balance of repetition and variation in a song structure seems to be:
VRS / CHO / VRS / CHO / BRIDGE / CHO.
Give listeners a clear song structure by creating contrast between sections. Move the melody to a different note range, change the length of your phrases, change the chord palette, or change the pace of the notes and words. Listeners feel more comfortable when they know where they are, so don’t be afraid to let your melody say, “Hey, this is the chorus!”
In melody, as in song structure, listeners respond to a mix of repetition and variation. If a melody is wandering here and there with little form or purpose, the listener will tune out. There are examples of melody patterns that appeal to listeners in both of my books and you can hear them in every hit song on the radio! Notice the number of times a melodic phrase is repeated, how it is varied to keep it interesting, and when there’s is a change to a different pattern (often at a new song section).
YOU are a listener!
Notice your own reactions when you listen to songs that are not your own. How did the song keep you involved? How did it make you feel? Could you tell when you were listening to the chorus and when you were in the verse? How did the song let you know? Where did you find yourself getting interested or losing interest? Use that experience when you write!
Be your own listener
When you’re working on your own songs, there are no listeners around. You can’t ask them what they think. So, you have to pretend to be the listener, that person who will eventually hear your song for the first time, in one smooth sweep, in real time. But how can you do that when you’ve just been sweating over a single line for half a day? Listeners NEVER do that! (They shouldn’t even suspect that YOU do it!)
You can’t be a listener when you’re too close to your song. Make yourself take a break. Record whatever you’ve been working on just as it is, then walk away. Come back in an hour or two… or the next day. Listen to something else. ?Give yourself enough time to get the song out of your head. Then come back with fresh ears and experience the song as your listener would. Did it move you? Did it feel too complicated? Where did your energy drop out? Where did it intensify? Make notes while you listen, then go in and make changes. Record it and take another break. Do this a few times while you work and you’ll tune up your song for the listener’s ears.
Write for BOTH of you
Cynthia Weil defines a successful songwriter as someone who “is able to say what other people have felt but are unable to say.” It doesn’t matter if you have ten listeners or ten million. Each listener is just one person, one who is intimately experiencing your song, listening to you say something that they have felt. The two of you are more alike than you might think. You’ve both felt happiness, loneliness, wanted to be in love, ached when love was lost. Your listener can’t put it into a song… but you can.
by Robin Frederick