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April, 2015

How to Write a Hit Song

by Webmaster

I go to a lot of songwriting workshops. I believe that I can always learn something from someone who has had more success in the music business than I have.

"Songwriting is a craft. Writing good songs on a a consistent basis doesn not happen spontaneously. In fact, most of our best songwriters learned to write good songs by writing a lot of not so good ones. Education matters in songwriting, just as it matters for physicists, chemists, doctors, lawyers and MBAs. Education lays the foundation on which to build experience." — Michael Kosser

I also realize that some songwriting workshops are tailored for the presenters specific genre, and the rules that apply to that genre may or may not apply to other genres. So, I put what I learn about how to write a good song to use, add the nuggets I get from a workshop into the songwriting quotes, and let the rest go.

"I say to my students that I can’t teach them how to write a good song, but I can teach you how to write a better song. Talking about this idea of it being a process. By going back and not settling for something and finding a way to step back from your songs–which is a very hard thing to do–but when you’re stuck or you can’t move forward, start doing some polishing." — Andy Wilkinson

Since I live in a area where there are several Nashville Songwriters Association International (NSAI) chapters, I've gone to a lot of NSAI workshops. I've also gone to a lot of workshops by successful songwriters who aren't associated with NSAI and/or who don't write country songs. I've learned a lot from all of the workshops and song critique meetings in the last 20+ years. And, I'm still learning.

"This song sounds like a hit." Translation: "This song sounds like another song." — Translation Guide to a Recording Session

I recently attended a NSAI workshop by Max T. Barnes. He's an excellent songwriter and presents his material clearly. He gave us the formula for writing a successful current country hit in the first few minutes of his workshop, and kept coming back to it, explaining the why and how of each part of that formula, and talking about the music business. It was an extremely informative workshop. I took five pages of notes and started writing a song based on his suggestions. I like where the song is going and I intend to finish it.

"A hit song is a three-minute, positive, up-tempo, love song in the now, with a catchy intro, hooky chorus, unique first line and written in first person. The melody should be limited to an octave plus three notes or less, in 4/4 time. Come out with your big punch in the first minute." — Max T. Barnes

My earliest musical memories were sitting on the piano bench next to my mother as she played and we sang together—Irish songs, Cowboy songs, old songs. My favorites were "When You and I Were Young, Maggie," Tumbling Tumbleweeds," and "Sweet Betsy from Pike." I started listening to songs on the radio in the 1950s, listening to rock 'n' roll that my older sister liked. When I was five, I could sing "Catch a Falling Star" all the way through, and did whenever my parents paraded me out to perform it for their friends. I don't remember a time when we didn't have a TV in the living room, and I was addicted to the show, "Hit Parade." From it, I learned all the words to "The Wayward Wind" by Gogi Grant. As I got older, I saved my allowance to by 45s, single songs that I loved. The first one was Robert Mitchum singing "Thunder Road." By then, my sister was listening to jazz and my mother was playing albums of show tunes on the stereo in the living room. The songs from "Pajama Game," "Sound of Music," "Flower Drum Song," and "West Side Story" still play in my head.

"Most of the really good songs are dead true. ... It had to have happened to have the song be there. Every time I've tried to make stuff up it just kind of falls flat. So the majority of my work is something that happened to me, I saw happen to someone else, or a friend of mine told me happened." — Guy Clark

When I was in junior high and high school, I got interested in folk music. A lot of folk music has the element of dissent in it. Pete Seegar, Woody Guthrie, Joan Baez, and Bob Dylan became my heroes. When other kids were screaming and swooning over the Beatles, I was playing acoustic guitar and singing protest songs—songs protesting war, protesting the destruction of the earth, protesting discrimination. So were my friends. There were a lot of songs, a lot of singers, and a lot of recordings.

But the radio wasn't playing them. The radio was playing love songs and surfing songs and songs about teenagers dying in car wrecks that somehow were still love songs, if a bit creepy. Yes, folk music sneaked onto the radio for a short time. The Beachboys did a great version of "Sloop John B." But the real protest songs didn't make it onto the radio.

"Don't let the truth get in the way of a good song." — Heard at an NSAI meeting

I liked those songs. My second 45 was Brenda Lee singing "I Want to Be Wanted." I also liked Joan Baez, The Kingston Trio, Chad and Jeremy, Badfinger, Jefferson Airplane, Jefferson Starship, Crosby Stills and Nash. Uh oh. Back up. The Jefferson Starship actually wrote songs that protested what was going on. "Blows Against the Empire." "A Child is Coming" on "Volunteers" with its line "Let's not tell 'em about him" so he won't be drafted into the war. At the height of the Viet Nam war, there were a lot of protest songs on the radio: Crosby Stills and Nash's "Wooden Ships," Barry McGuire's "Eve of Destruction," Bob Dylan's "Blowin' in the Wind."

And the war became very unpopular, very fast. The government, the Nixon administration, was under pressure for a lot of reasons, not the least of which was to end the war in Viet Nam.

"...the first generation of guys who played rock 'n' roll—who were thrown down. Buddy Holly, Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Carl Perkins, Gene Vincent, Jerry Lee Lewis. They played this type of music that was black and white. Extremely incendiary. Your clothes could catch fire. When I first heard Chuck Berry, I didn't consider that he was black. I thought he was a white hillbilly. Little did I know he was a great poet, too. And there must have been some elitist power that had to get rid of all these guys, to strike down rock 'n' roll for what it was and what it represented—not the least of all it being a black-and-and white thing.

"And that was extremely threatening for the city fathers, I would think. When they finally recognized what it was, they had to dismantle it, which they did starting with payola scandals. The black element was turned into soul music, and the white element was turned into English pop. I think of rock 'n' roll as a combination of country blues and swing band music, not Chicago blues, and modern pop. Real rock 'n' roll hasn't existed since when? 1961, 1962?" — Bob Dylan, quoted by Robert Love in "Bob Dylan Does the American Songbook His Way," AARP The Magazine, February/March 2015

What do you know? Music, popular music, has the power to change the world. If it didn't, why would the "city fathers" want to "dismantle" music?

"A good song is like a good meal—I just want to inhale it and then share a bite with someone else." — Hoda Kotb

So, what do we hear on the radio today? "... a three-minute, positive, up-tempo, love song in the now, with a catchy intro, hooky chorus, unique first line and ... written in first person." What's missing from this description? Could it be true emotion? Could it be content? Could it be meaning?

"The fact is that all the recording science and technology in the world is no substitute for a good song or for real feeling. Music is about feeling and if there isn't any genuine feeling, if the song isn't about anything that anyone gives a damn about, there's nothing you can do. All the technique that exists won't make it any good; it'll just make it technological." — David Crosby

One of our assignments from the workshop was to find a current country song and write five songs just like it. It's a good exercise, so I decided to try it. I had to drive to downtown Colorado Springs, then to northeast Denver and back home again in one day. I dialed in the country stations and listened to country songs. For hours, I listened to country songs, and couldn't remember a single song. No hook stuck in my mind. It was literally mind-numbing. Country music is truly the opiate of the masses.

"It's a well-crafted song." — Barbara Cloyd, defending "Red Solo Cup"

Do you think that's a coincidence? With all that's going on in the world, all you hear on the radio is mind-numbing pap—songs about drinking, songs about partying, songs about meeting the right guy or gal, songs about how great life is, songs about how great life was, songs about how great mama and daddy are or were, songs about tractors and plastic cups. Anyone who has noticed and commented blamed the bean-counters.

"Nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American people." — H. L. Menkin

Corporations have taken over food, television, radio, water, medicine, air, and the government. The foxes are running the hen house. We were sold out: virgins waiting to be slaughtered on the alter of corporate greed. And we're being given food, water, radio, TV, medicines and even the very air we breathe to keep us docile and under control until they're ready to stretch us out and bleed us dry.

"Music can change lives. Whether you are having a good or bad day, the power of music can change one's mood." — Jess Bowen

What would happen if protest songs about the way corporations control our country were heard on the radio?

"I write crappy songs all the time. I just don't finish them." — Chuck Cannon

Several years ago, I had the opportunity to hear Chuck Cannon talk about songwriting. Near the end of his talk, he performed a song that he'd just written. He said he thought it was one of his good songs but he knew it would never get air time on the radio. It was about the corporations. He called it "Greed."

"I'd rather write a good song than write a hit." — Buddy Mondlock

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