Five Things Every Songwriter Needs to Know
Ever wonder what it is that makes people love certain songs? Why do some songs seem to stick with you long after you’ve heard them, even years later? Are there certain things about them you can learn and use to make your songs sticky?
In fact, hit songwriters have known for years that there are at least five things you need to make your songs sticky. They are memorability, emotion, universality, imagery, and simplicity.
While some songwriters just hope to luck up on a great song, the pros know that sticky songwriting is a deliberate process.
It looks a bit like this:
A great idea + a great hook + a great lyric + a great melody = a sticky song.
That looks easy enough, right?
Oddly enough, many songwriters aren’t scoping for sticky ideas to start with, so they never get to the sticky hook part, much less the rest of the sticky process. They just want to sit down at the keys or grab their guitar and emote, thinking their feelings will somehow produce a sticky song.
It just doesn’t happen that way, unless your feelings are channeled into the skills that can produce a great song on the spot.
Once you’ve decided you have an idea worth spending your energy on, developing a sticky hook is the next most important task. Some ideas show up in full-grown hooks, like when someone accidentally says something so amazing it just screams to be a song.
Most often, though, a sticky hook has to be teased out of an idea.
That’s when crafting the hook becomes important to make sure it’s got the highest stickiness factor. Let’s look briefly at the five things you need to make your songs permanently adhere to the hearts and minds of your listeners.
All of the elements here help make the song memorable, but approaching your title, or hook, with this goal in mind is key.
Start asking better questions about your hook before you write the song, such as, “Is this title unique? Is it too long? Is there anything original here that stands out from a million other songs? Have I used overly-familiar phrases, ideas, or words? How can it get stickier?”
Spend more time crafting a sticky hook from a great idea. Ask better questions and you’ll write better songs.
Here we are back to feelings. I didn’t say they weren’t important, it’s just that sticky songwriting only starts there. Feelings have to be channeled or they water down the glue. Psychologists study why we respond emotionally to music, but suffice it to say that the stickiest songs evoke an emotion that is usually right in the title.
How sticky do you think these songs are?
You’ve Got a Friend (Carole King)
In Christ Alone (Townend/Getty)
Amazing Grace (Newton)
How Great Is Our God (Tomlin, Cash, Reeves)
Each of these titles have emotion attached to them, making them call up and stick to the emotions of the listener.
Carole King captured the feeling of tenderness in friendship that has stuck to us all since the moment we heard JT sing it. Townend/Getty’s anthem is so sticky it will be sung for centuries, as the Lord tarries. Newton’s classic has stuck since 1779 and is the most recorded Christian song of all time. Tomlin/Cash/Reeves’ incredible chorus is permanently adhered to the hearts of believers. Sticky stuff indeed.
Identify the emotion you want your listener to feel in your song and make it sticky.
The stickiest titles capture something universally felt, known, or believed.
The phrase “How Great Is Our God” (Tomlin, Cash, Reeves) states so beautifully the universally felt and believed truth about our God. Not only is it a praise-filled statement, it actually evokes praise in our hearts and minds, unifying us with the possessive pronoun “our.” It wouldn’t be the same song titled “How Great Is God.” It’s still true, but you can easily see the power of one strategically placed word.
Lord, I Need You (Nockels, Carson, Reeves, Stanfill, Maher) for another example, borrows from a well-loved hymn to tap into our universally felt need of depending on the Lord. Using seriously sticky language, these writers nailed our common belief, “With You I fall apart/You’re the One who guides my heart.”
Find a sticky phrase that the highest number of listeners can identify with to grow your audience.
The mind might think in words, but the heart thinks in pictures.
Our memories are stored in pictures, like snapshots or mental movies, and never in words. Songs are much stickier when images are attached, whether they’re story songs or worship songs.
Again, back to How Great Is Our God (Tomlin, Cash, Reeves), the writers used pictures, images like “The splendor of a king/Clothed in majesty,” and “He wraps Himself in light/And darkness tries to hide/And trembles at His voice.”
In sales training they say, “Facts tell, stories sell.” In songwriting we say, “Show–don’t tell.”
Use imagery to make your songs stick with your audience.
All sticky songs have deceptively simple hooks. Stop in the Name of Love (Holland, Dozier, Holland), Good Good Father (Brown/Barrett), Amazing Grace (Newton), and What a Beautiful Name (Fielding/Ligertwood) all have simple hooks that have stuck to a lot of people.
The more complicated an idea, the greater the need for simplicity.
Use simplicity to make your songs sticky.
Popular speaker, author, and Atlanta-based pastor, Andy Stanley, breaks his sermons into bullet points, punch phrases, that are memorable, emotional, universal, imagistic, and simple. Then, he gets the audience repeating those sticky phrases with him for all the same reasons we want listeners and worshipers repeating our sticky phrases with us.
It takes effort to make your songs sticky, but it’s always worth it. Use these five ways to raise the stickiness factor and your songs will be unforgettable.
About John Chisum
John Chisum is a veteran songwriter, publisher, and worship leader. He was VP of Publishing for Star Song Media and Director of Song Development & Copyright for Integrity Music. He is currently Managing Partner for Nashville Christian Songwriters. He has been married to Donna for 39 years and they have one daughter, Aly.