FMRL Songwriting: How to Make Perfect Scrambled Eggs

Introduction

Hi, y'all. I'm an indie Austin songwriter focused on Pop, Country, CCM, and other genres. You can check examples of my songs at fmrlmusic.com and specifically this showreel.

I usually write songs by "toplining" which is putting melody and lyrics on top of an existing music track or "beat." Toplining was very common in the hip hop world and has become more common in pop and country as well more recently. If you are a lyricist and have an interest in collaborating with me you can contact me on IG @HeyItsEphemeral. I'm always looking for new collaborators especially singers and lyricists.

I have collaborated with dozens of lyricists and thought it would be useful to put together a page of tips on how to match new lyrics to an existing melody and the overall songwriting approach.

Note: this is not a beginner's intro to songwriting. For that please see the resources section below.

The Scrambled Eggs Method

The approach I use for songwriting I call the "scrambled eggs" method. One of the most famous and most recorded songs of all time is The Beatles Yesterday. The song did not start as a lyric. It began as a melody. On top of the melody was a placeholder or dummy lyric.

"Scrambled Eggs" by Paul McCartney (with "Yesterday" lyrics to the right):

Scrambled eggs / Yesterday
Oh my baby how I love your legs / All my troubles were so far away
Not as much as I love scrambled eggs / Now it looks as though they're here to stay

Not just Yesterday but a number of other Beatles songs started with different working titles than the final one:

  • Bad Finger Boogie / With a Little Help From My Friends

  • It's Not Too Bad / Strawberry Fields Forever

  • In the Life Of / Day in the Life

  • Why Did It Die / For No One

  • Miss Daisy Hawkins / Elanor Rigby

If it worked for one of the most well-written songs of all time, maybe it can work for us too.

World's Best Scrambled Eggs Recipe

Prep: 1 day
Cook: 1 week
Let Sit: 1 week to several years
Servings: Usually fewer than 10, occasionally millions

Ingredients:

  • 1% inspiration

  • 99% perspiration

  • Killer music track or killer "track person"

  • 1 or more melody writers

  • 1 or more lyricists

Cooking instructions:
Step 1: Create a new melody
Step 2: Create dummy lyrics to fit that melody
Step 3: Replace dummy lyrics with real lyrics
Step 4: Add savory seasonings
Step 4: Conduct taste tests
Step 5: Serve the song.. er eggs to your grateful customers

TLDR: Be More Like Weird Al

Try doing what Weird Al does and write a parody of the dummy lyric, only don't necessarily make it humorous, make it sad, happy or whatever mood you're going for, and voila! A new song is born.

Here is a new song written in less than 1 minute. Syllable counts and stress patterns match.

"Watch TV" sung to the tune of "Row, Row, Your Boat"
Watch, watch, watch TV
Binge until you sleep
Happily, happily, happily, happily you will watch TV

Scrambled Eggs Melodies

There may be some different schools of thought on this, but for pop styles of music, I consider the building block of the melody to be hooks, not notes. It's important that the melody start off as strong as possible to have the best foundation for the song and to make the song worth writing. To test the melody for hookiness, what I do is sing the melody with "na na na" or "la la la" a capella and make sure that it stands on its own. For Choruses, one way to test it is to see if it can be repeated over and over without getting old. "Eyes Blue Like the Atlantic" repeats the chorus 15 times in a row for instance. Another test is to tap out the melody rhythm (for more rhythmic melodies e.g. rap, some pop) as if it were percussion and see if that stands on its own. If all these tests fail, then probably the melody needs to be revised. The melody can also be tested by asking someone to try to hum or tap back your melodies -- it's a good sign if they can. After you're done revising the melody, you should have a melody that could work as a doo-wop or scat song. The game is yours to lose at this point because if the melody is catchy enough even lyrics like "baby shark" could work.

Melody Hook Trick #1: 3 Note Hooks

For pop, pop country and hip hop, many songs are built on melodic hooks that are primarily rhythm-based. Repeating the same rhythm in the melody helps the melody to stick and allows the listener to remember it more easily. Very frequently, these hooks are three notes long. I'm not sure if there's any science for why three-note hooks seem to work so well for melodic hooks, but the pattern is there in many songs. The hooks are often at the beginning or end of the line, but also sometimes in the middle. Sometimes the tones of the melody will be the same, and sometimes they won't but the rhythm will be identical.

Here are examples of 3-Note hooks.

Katy Perry - Firework 3-Note Hook

Cause baby you're a fi -yer -work

1 2 3
Come on, show 'em what you're worth

1 2 3

Imagine Dragons - Believer 3-Note Hooks

Pain!

You made me a, you made me a believer, believer

1 2 3 1 2 3

Pain!

You break me down and build me up, believer, believer

1 2 3 1 2 3

Royal & The Serpent - Overwhelmed 3-Note Hooks

I get overwhelmed so eas -i -ly
1 2 3

My anx -i -et -y creeps in -side of me

1 2 3 1 2 3

Makes it hard to breathe

1 2 3

What's come over me

1 2 3

Feels like I'm some -bod -y else

1 2 3

Luke Combs - Beer Never Broke My Heart 3-Note Hooks

Longneck ice cold beer never broke my heart

1 2 3

Like di -mond rings and football teams have torn this boy apart

1 2 3 1 2 3 1 2 3

Like a neon dream, it just dawned on me, that bars and this guitar

1 2 3 1 2 3 1 2 3

And longneck ice cold beer never broke my heart

1 2 3

There are two different three note rhythms in that song, A (normal) and B (italicized).

Matt Stell - Prayed for You 3-Note Hooks

'Cause every single day, before I knew your name

1 2 3 1 2 3

I couldn't see your face, but I prayed for you

1 2 3 1 2 3

Every heartbreak trail when all hope failed

1 2 3 1 2 3

On the highway to hell, I prayed for you

1 2 3

I kept my faith like that old King James

1 2 3 1 2 3

Said I'm supposed to


It's hard to imagine, bigger than I could fathom


I didn't know you from Adam, but I prayed for you

1 2 3

There are two different three note rhythms in that song, A (normal) and B (italicized).

OneRepublic Rescue Me 3-Note Hooks

Would you rescue me? Would you get my back?

1 2 3 1 2 3

Would you take my call when I start to crack?

1 2 3 1 2 3

Would you rescue me? Ah, would you rescue me?

1 2 3 1 2 3

Would you rescue me when I'm by myself?

1 2 3 1 2 3

When I need your love? If I need your help?

1 2 3 1 2 3

Would you rescue me? Ah, would you rescue me?

1 2 3 1 2 3

More in-depth detail on melodic hooks can be found in Clay Mills melody lessons on songtown.com (subscription required).

Melody Hook Trick #2: Intervals

Another way to make melodies more memorable is through the use of interesting or unexpected intervals between the tones of the melody. Sometimes just a single interval can make the difference in the melody being memorable. After the initial melody is done, it's not a bad idea to experiment with the tones so that you can add interval hooks to the song.

Here are some songs that feature interval hooks:

  • Judy Garland - Somewhere Over the Rainbow - Octave interval on "somewhere"

  • Radiohead - Fake Plastic Trees - 4th interval on "fake pla-astic"

  • Frank Sinatra - The Best is Yet to Come - various intervals

  • Blackpink - "How you like that" - various intervals in the chorus

Verse/Chorus Contrast

It's not enough that your melodies are hooky if they sound too similar from section to section people might get bored. When you get to the chorus, the listener needs to say "Oh, yeah, that's a chorus" and not "Hmmm. Is this verse ever going to end <yawn>"

Ways to build contrast melodically or rhythmically:

  • Verse is long notes and chorus is short notes or vice versa (legato/staccato)

  • Verse is rapped, chorus is sung. Or verse is sung but with rap-like phrasing. (See Ariana Grande 7 Rings for an example).

  • Verse uses small intervals, chorus uses some large intervals

  • Chorus melody goes up (maybe by an entire octave)

Other (non-melodic) ways to build contrast between verse and chorus:

  • Adding vocal harmonies only to the chorus

  • Adding other vocal processing in the chorus such as stereo widening or doubling

Sometimes a song works well even if the verse and chorus melodies are similar. For instance, Prince - Let's Go Crazy and Prince - I Wanna Be Your Lover have the same basic melody in the verse and the chorus. Worth noting that in both of these songs the prechoruses have huge contrast which makes it harder to notice these melodies are similar.

How to Write Dummy Lyrics

Although I'm calling this "scrambled eggs" which is a funny lyric, I find it's better to write lyrics which are meaningful and demonstrate a consistent rhyme scheme.

Some of the goals of the dummy lyric:

  • The location and syllable count of the title in the melody. Any extra syllables within words can be written out so the syllable count is clear. Instead of baby, ba-a-a-a-a-a-by.

  • Syllable count per line. This can be written to the right of the line.

  • The stress pattern of the syllables (DA dum DA dum DA DA dum). One suggestion is to uppercase only the stressed syllables and lowercase everything else even words like "I".

  • Rhyme scheme - liberal use of end rhymes and internal rhymes even more than a real lyric would have. Build ear candy into the lyric.

  • Melodic phrases mapped to lyrical phrases

  • Imagery - build compelling imagery - draw the listener into the story

    • Emotion, drama and attitude - especially for lines that are something the singer is saying, build plenty of drama into it

  • In writing this initial dummy song, the main goal is to provide a template for the real lyrics as well as serve as a proof of concept that the melody can support a good song.

Advantages of the Scrambled Eggs Method

This makes melody the priority. It depends somewhat on the song, but a strong melody can carry a song and make it memorable. With that as the foundation of the song, it's a lot harder to go wrong. For instance, many 50s doo-wop songs have brilliant melodies and largely nonsense lyrics and still work. There are many other notable examples where much of the lyric is hard to make out or in another language or nonsensical but the song still works. Even without the backing music, the melody can imply harmony and rhythm so it's a core element of the song. In the context of toplining, this method also offers an advantage that the lyric and melody will adhere to a commercial song format (e.g. chorus within the first 30-60 seconds). If the song starts with lyrics, the structure may not fit the commercial styles and become more of a folk song.

Disadvantages of the Scrambled Eggs Method

The main disadvantage is that writing the lyrics to a melody requires more time and patience than writing lyrics/poetry without any constraints. Also, the message or story of the lyrics might be a bit compromised as opposed to writing lyrics first. This is always true though that taking a story and compressing it into a song will lose some detail.

Why toplining?

Toplining is writing melody and lyrics on top of existing music. It is a new-ish term, but the practice is not new. For instance, countless songs in the 1950s used the same chord progression as Earth Angel (I–vi–IV–V), but were given different lyrics and melody (and rhythm). Toplining is basically an extension of writing on top of a chord progression but writing on top of a produced track. It has advantages and disadvantages, but the advantages appear to be winning out in many genres.

Advantages:

  • The track is usually structured in a commercially viable format e.g. the time to the first chorus is under 1 minute, it may follow the popular verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus structure.

  • The track usually contains popular and proven chord progressions and beats.

  • The track may inspire the songwriter to write in new genres and current styles. Without this, there is a strong tendency to write only ballads (Hold on... make sure you have a cigarette lighter to hold up in the air before I play you my new song).

  • Cost - one track can be the foundation for dozens or hundreds of new songs (sometimes with the addition of some production or slight changes in structure), so the cost per use is much lower than a from-scratch demo.

  • Time - a broadcast quality recording can be completed in as little as a week because only vocals are required.

Disadvantages

  • Extremely hard to use for pre-written lyrics

  • Usually isn't applicable to nontraditional structures like Bohemian Rhapsody.

  • Usually isn't applicable if the melody was written prior to the chord progression

  • For licensed/leased tracks - you'll be using the same track as some other songs (likely you will never hear the other songs though unless they are hits).

Bottom line, it's been estimated that 90% of commercial songwriting for pop genre is toplining. It appears to be growing in pop country as well. It is also standard in hip hop and R&B. Surprisingly many songwriting books don't discuss it at all.

Can you really topline different songs on the same music? Won't they all sound the same?

Yes, you can and these songs (melody+lyrics) can sound nothing alike, though the instrumentals sound similar.

Examples:

  • Alicia Keys Fallin uses music from James Brown It's A Man's Man's Man's World

  • Vanilla Ice - Ice Ice Baby uses music from David Bowie & Queen Under Pressure.

  • Simply Red - Sunrise uses music from Hall & Oats - I Can't Go for That

  • Warren G - Regulate uses music from Michael McDonald - I Keep Forgettin

  • MC Hammer U Can't Touch This uses music from Rick James - Superfreak

Where do you get tracks?

Some resources for tracks include:

  • beatstars.com

  • jetracks.com

  • soundbetter.com

It's also common for songwriters to work directly with "track people" aka producers/beatmakers.

Pitfall - for licensed tracks take a look at the license agreements statements about performance royalties. In many cases the producer requires a performance royalty split. For "royalty-free" tracks the agreement actually precludes performance royalties making the tracks only useful for self-release.

Prioritization for Songwriting

If you're like most songwriters, you'll be working on a lot of songs at the same time, and actually, you're working on something called song starts -- just the beginnings of songs. Here is the sequence I like to follow to make sure the song is going to be worth building at every step of the way. The process may seem somewhat backward because the hook is completed before the setup, but this is typical for most songwriting.

  1. Chorus melody

  2. Title/Hook (Chorus)

  3. Chorus Lyric

  4. Pre-chorus Melody/Lyric (When applicable)

  5. Post-chorus Melody/Lyric (When applicable)

  6. Verse 1/Lyric

  7. Verse 2 Melody/Lyric

  8. Bridge Melory/Lyric

In some cases, I have completed only sets of choruses. I try to prioritize the songs with the strongest chorus to invest more time in completing them. If you have a whole song built and then hoping you'll find that killer chorus, you may be disappointed when it doesn't materialize.

Adding Lyrics to your Omelette

Is this poetry?

With a starting dummy lyric, writing the real lyrics can be more of a poetry/verbal exercise than a musical one. This is an excellent option for lyricists who come from a poetry background. In other words, the actual notes and rhythm of the melody don't matter here. What matters is the number of syllables and stress patterns. One word of caution - song lyrics are usually more conversational than poetic in terms of language.

How does that sound?

One difference between lyrics and poetry is obviously lyrics are sung. The sounds of the words and particularly the vowel sounds can play a role in how well the lyrics work and how they sound is as important as what they mean. I'm not aware of much science explaining how this works, so it seems to be more trial and error on what sounds good.

Max Martin (Swedish songwriter on 23 #1 billboard hits) summarized this: “I grew up on Elton John and the Beatles and I had no idea what they were saying, it was just gibberish. If we come to a place in a writing session where one word might be better sense but the other option sounds cool, I will always pick the one that sounds appealing to me. [If you] say something meaningful with the right sort of phonetics, then you’re golden."

Outline Your Lyric

One way to write lyrics:

  1. Brainstorm your titles and pick one. Find one that matches the mood of the music and melody. If you're a new songwriter catchy titles are considered the "ad" for your song. There are way too many songs submitted to A&R for anyone to ever listen to so this is one way to stand out. Some lyricists keep a "hook book" of all of their (potentially thousands of) title ideas that can be useful for this.

  2. Outline of the song's sections (verse 1, prechorus, chorus, verse 2, bridge). The verses, bridge and chorus need to be written to the title. The title is like a seed that grows the song tree. The main idea of each section of the song it's good to know ahead of time. A common temptation is to write the second verse with the same idea as the first.

One reference for how to outline songs (also known as Song Blueprinting or Song Mapping) is Marty Dodson's Book "Song Building."

Matching Lyrical Phrases to Melodic Phrases

A melodic phrase is a set of notes that go together usually without a long pause. It can be thought of like a musical sentence. Usually, lyrical phrases (e.g. lines of the lyrics) correspond to the melodic phrases. With dummy lyrics, this is automatic because the dummy lyrics were ware actual phrases that were based on the melodic phrases. One other usual pattern is that words are not broken up in the melody - they do not have a long rest in their melody.

For instance, the song Yesterday has lyrical phrases that perfectly correspond to the melodic phrases.

Yesterday
All my troubles seem so far away
Now it looks as though they're here to stay
Oh I believe in yesterday

Matching Stress Pattern and Syllable Count

To match the new lyrics to the old, usually the syllable count and stress pattern will need to match. Noting the stresses with uppercase and syllable count to the right is helpful for this.

SCRAM bled EGGS 3
YES ter DAY 3

OH my BAB y HOW i LOVE your LEGS 9
ALL
my TROUB les WERE so FAR a WAY 9

Matching stress pattern involves a couple of concerns:

1) Is this a multiple syllable word - does the stress in the melody match the stress in the word

2) If it's not a multiple syllable word does it affect the meaning to stress that particular word?

Sometimes the stresses affect the meaning as well, though often it doesn't appear to matter in songs.

  • I didn't kick my dog

  • i DIDN'T kick my dog

  • i didn't KICK my dog

  • i didn't kick MY dog

  • i didn't kick my DOG

Revise, revise, revise

The lyrics may go through a lot of revisions along the way. I find it useful to write mediocre lines as placeholders in the lyrics and keep making more passes singing the lyric and improving it each time you go through it. At any revision, the melody should be matched very well.

Melody Matching Tricks

Unsurprisingly, the lyrics won't automatically line up to the melody at all in terms of stress pattern and syllable count. So, there is a bag of tricks to help get the job done.

MM Trick #1: Stuttering (Su-su-sudio)

It's possible to add notes by stuttering. This can actually sound very catchy and can be the basis of some of the hooks. Probably not good to do this all over the place but just when it's needed.

Taylor Swift ME! Stuttering Example

Me-he-he
Bay-ay-bee
But I will never bore you, bay-ay-bee

MM Trick #2: Filler words (I got you babe)

You can add syllables using these filler words. In some cases, these might be temporary fixes as the final lyric is being worked on.

Filler word examples: baby, babe, girl, boy, just, no, kinda

MM Trick #3: Yeah, baby, I got your Nonsense Syllables (or if y'all wanna be fancier: Non-lexical vocables)

Putting in nonsense words can also sometimes help complete the syllable count and match the melody.

Nonsense word examples: oh, ah, oooh, yeah, uh huh

Example: DNCE Cake by the Ocean

Walk for me, baby (walk for me now)
I'll be Diddy, you'll be Naomi, whoa-oh <-- nonsense syllables
Let's lose our minds and go crazy crazy
Ah ya ya ya ya <-- nonsense syllables

MM Trick #4 Made Up Words (Can I get a nice tall glass of Tutti Frutti, please?)

Made up words can sometimes be used as well. This is very common in doo wop.

Example Phil Collins Sussudio:
Now she don't even know my name
But I think she likes me just the same
Su-Sussudio <-- Hook is a stutter and a made up word
Woah oh <-- Nonsense syllables

MM Trick #5 Melisma (And IIIIIII will always love you-ou-ou-ou)

So if there's a really nice melody, it's possible to forget about matching syllables at all and stretch out one syllable into multiple notes. Usually, it helps to use this consistently in the same place rather than using melisma to squeeze in an extra note on a line where the syllable count is wrong.

One example of melisma is the yodeling part of Last Hurrah.

Example: Bebe Rexha - Last Hurrah Melisma

Last Hurrah-ah-ah-ah-ah-ah

MM Trick #6 Ain't y'all gon' love it? Elision, Contractions, Informal English

A good example is also Bebe Rehxa - Last Hurrah. I changed the pronoun to help with the example of why informal English helps. See the syllable count options you have with the same sentence once you use elision (removing syllables in the middle of words and informal English).

  1. She is not going to stop until she goes too far 13

  2. She ain't going to stop until she goes too far 12

  3. She ain't gonna stop until she goes too far 11

  4. She ain't gon' stop until she goes too far 10

  5. She ain't gon' stop 'til she goes too far 9

DCNE - Cake by the Ocean

You should be roln with me (rolling)
You should be roln will me

Luke Combs - Better Together

Some things just go better together and prob'ly always will

Olivia Rodrigo - Drivers License

And I know we weren't perfect but I've never felt this way for no one (for anyone)

MM Trick #7 Repeating Words and Phrases

Sometimes just repeating the phrase or word over more than once does the trick and the repetition makes it hooky too.

Jason Derulo - Savage Love

Savage love
Did somebody, did somebody
Break your heart?

Justin Bieber - Holy

That the way you hold me, hold me, hold me, hold me, hold me
Feels so holy, holy, holy, holy, holy

Zara Larsson - Wow

Make your jaw drop-drop
Saying, my, drop-drop-drop
Make you say "Oh my god"
My, drop-drop
Make your jaw drop

Melody Matching Cheats

Some techniques go beyond tricks and into the realm of cheats. Sometimes it pays off to break the rules to get the job done.

MM Cheat #1: Changing the melody to fit more or fewer syllables in the line

It's possible to add or remove syllables to shoehorn more words into the lyric. I find this to be more common in story-oriented songs (think Boy Named Sue) than in pop or pop country. It's safest to do this in the verse. Doing this can risk losing your hooks altogether. Hooks require strict repetition. The song is king though and if it serves the song to do this (e.g if this is a killer line and worth compromising your melody), it can work.

Warning: try not to ruin your melody and hooks by cramming lyrics into it that don't fit right

MM Cheat #2: Putting the accENT on the wrong syllAble

Sometimes a particular lyric is so meaningful and powerful for what it says that it's okay that the accents are wrong. Or... the song is good enough that it doesn't make or break it. In the below examples, I'm bolding the cases where a syllable is accented differently than the normal pronunciation. Even this occurs frequently in the title itself.

Example: Blake Shelton God's Country
I SAW the LIGHT in the sunRISE
SIT
tin' BACK in a FORTy on the MUDdy riverSIDE
GET
tin' bapTIZED in HOLy watER and 'SHINE
WITH
the DOGS runnIN
SAVED
by the SOUND of the BEEN FOUND
DIX
ie WHIStled in the WIND, that'll GET you HEAVen BOUND
t
he DEVil went DOWN to GEORgia BUT he DIDn't STICK aROUND
THIS
is GOD'S countrY

Example: Adele - Someone Like You
we were BORN AND RAISED IN a summER HAZE

Example: Imagine Dragons - "Bad Liar
I'M a BAD liAR"

Example: Taylor Swift - Cardigan
Sequin smile, black lipSTICK
SENsuAL POLitICS
WHEN you are YOUNG, they assUME you know NOTHing

Sometimes it's actually pretty unique and catchy to accent the wrong syllable.

Example: Trevor Daniel Falling
my LAST made me FEEL like I WOULD NEVer try aAGAIN
b
ut WHEN i SAW you, I felt SOMEthing i NEVer FELT
COME
closER, give you ALL my LOVE
if you TREAT me RIGHT, BABy, i'll GIVE you EV'ryTHING

Example: Alicia Keys - Fallin'
i KEEP on FALlin'
IN
and OUT of LOVE WI-ith YOU
I-i-i NEVer LOVED someONE
t
he WAY that I LO-ove YOU

Example: Old Dominion - Never Be Sorry
sorrY the SKY fell DOWN
s
orrY I DON'T know WHY
a
ll WE do is ApoloGIZE

Example: Justin Bieber & Ed Sheeran - I Don't Care
i'm AT a PARty I don't WANna be AT
and i don't EVer wear a SUIT and TIE, YEAH
wonder
IN if I could SNEAK out the BACK

Coldplay - Something Like This

i've been READing BOOKS of OLD
the LEgends AND the MYTHS
aCHILLes AND his GOLD
her
CUles AND his GIFTS

Side note on accenting syllables. It's a common Southern (American) accent to stress the first syllable on many words: INsurance, JUly, Tv, UMbrella, THANKSgiving, ADDress, CEment, DEEtroit. Some country songs are sung in that accent. "Strawberry Wine" has an example where July is stressed this way (JUly) for instance.

MM Cheat #3: Breaking Up a Word

Although most songs try to connect the melody up to the lyrics so that multi-syllable words do not have a "rest" inside them, some songs actually build a hook out of doing just that. This may be because it creates something unpredictable.

Drake - Tootsie Slide
Don't you wanna dance with me? No?
I could dance like Michael Jack......son
<== Breaking Up a Word
I could give you thug passion
It's a Thriller in the trap where we from

Anson Seabra - Wonderland
Dancing through a dream underneath the stars
Laughing 'til the morning comes
Everyone that leaves has a heavy heart
Oh, Won.......derland I love
<== Breaking Up a Word

Seasoning your Omelet: Engaging the Listener

Many songwriters say that songs need a lot of "furniture" (e.g. imagery), but you may notice many great songs have very little furniture at all (Unbreak my Heart is one example). What's going on? I'm going to go out on a limb that the goal of lyrics is to engage the listener, not to impress them with all the furniture you own.

Engaging the Listener: Ear Candy

Ear candy can add a sweet addition to your song and keep the lyric from becoming boring. One point here - most of us can remember nursery rhymes from our childhood even though they may not have a melody. This is because they contain ear candy that makes them hooky (or memorable). Now, if the lyric on its own is really memorable, and the melody is really memorable, it's impossible for the song not to be extremely memorable.

Ear Candy #1: Rhymes

Rhyming operates like punctuation in your song. Without rhymes, listeners do not recognize when one line starts or ends. At the same time, perfect rhymes usually lead to clichés. Looser rhymes lead to fresher lyrics.

One note for poets - in singing rhymes are sometimes only on the vowels.

Also, rhyming on vowels is not the only option. One example of a "consonant rhyme" is in Khalid - Talk.

Khalid - Talk:

I've never felt like this before
I apologize if I'm movin' too far

Resources for rhyming

  • Masterwriter.com: this is the best songwriting rhyming dictionary I've seen. In fact, it is the only one that seems to understand that lyrical rhyming is not the same as poetic rhyming. There is a subscription cost to this, but if you're serious about writing excellent lyrics it's worth it.

  • Pat Pattison's Songwriting: Essential Guide to Rhyming: A Step-by-Step Guide to Better Rhyming for Poets and Lyricists

    • Covers types of perfect and imperfect rhymes and how to methodically generate lists of rhymes

Finding Rhymes: A Word List

Rhymes are usually on end vowels. American English has the following 20 vowel sounds. This list can be used to brainstorm potential rhymes.

love, say, kit, toe, pry, trap, new, dress, strut, foot, sea, lot, boy, cow, fair, near, four, cure, car, word

Rhyming Cheats: Adding Syllables

In some cases adding a syllable to words (U.S. Southern style) can help make a word rhyme that otherwise wouldn't.


Imagine Dragons - Zero

Hello, hello
Let me tell you what it's like to be a zero, zero
Let me show you what it's like to always fee-yull, fee-yull (feel, feel)
Like I’m empty and there's nothing really ree-yull, ree-yull (real, real)


Ring of Fire pronounces "Fire" two different ways to match melody and complete a rhyme


Johnny Cash - Ring of Fire

I fell into a burning ring of fi-yer
I went down, down, down and the flames went higher
And it burns burns burns, the ring of
fi-yer
The ring of
fire

Rhyming Cheats: Altering Pronunciation

Bears special mention that you can easily end up making your lyrics pretty lame using only perfect rhymes. Some songs have used clever cheats by altering the pronunciation to make the rhyme work.

Justin Bieber - Holy

On God
Runnin' to the altar like a track stah (star)

Eli Young Band - Love Ain't

Come over, let me show you what he cain't (can't)
'Cause he can only show you what love ain't

Imagine Dragons - Natural

You gotta be so cold
Yeah, you're a nach - eh - roll (natural)

Eminem - Lose Yourself

Make me king, as we move torda, new world orda (as we move toward a new world order)
A normal life is borin', but super stardom's close to post mortem

Leonhard Cohen - Hallelujah

I've heard there was a secret chord
That David played and it pleased the Lord
But you don't really care for music, do ya? <-- Using "ya" instead of "you" to help rhyme
Well it goes like this: the fourth, the fifth
The minor fall, the major lift
The baffled king composing Hallelujah

Clean Bandit and Mabel - Tick Tock

My body wants you night and day
I'm losing all control of may (me) <-- altering "me" to "may" to rhyme with day

Redfoo - New Thang

I heard it's your birthday
Grab a drink if you thirstay (thirsty)

Rhyming Cheats: Forced Rhymes

A forced rhyme is when you change the normal structure of a phrase so that the phrase rhymes. Uncommon, but some songs do use them without much of an issue.

Amy Winehouse - Losing Game
For you, I was a flame <-- Forced rhyme
Love is a losing game
Five-storey fire as you came
Love is a losing game

Alec Benjamin - Let Me Down Slowly
Could you find a way to let me down slowly?
A little sympathy, I hope you can show me <-- Forced rhyme
If you wanna go then I'll be so lonely
If you're leavin', baby, let me down slowly

Rhyming Cheats: Rhyming with a Nonsense Syllable

Just about any sound can be used in a non-sense syllable. In "I'll Stand By You" this is used to rhyme the beginning of two lines.

The Pretenders - I'll Stand By You
Oh, why you look so sad?
Tears are in your eyes
Come on and come to me now
Don't be ashamed to cry
Let me see you through
'Cause I've seen the dark side too

Maroon 5 - Girls Like You
I spent last night on the last flight to
you
Took a whole day up trying to get way up,
ooh

Ear Candy #2: Listeners Like Alliteration a Lot

Alliteration is the repetition of the same sound at the beginning of words. This can sweeten up the tune quite a bit. Related to this are consonance (repetition of a consonant sound anywhere) and assonance (repetition of a vowel sound anywhere).

  • Peter Piper Picked a Peck of Pickled Peppers

  • Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer

Along with inner rhymes, alliteration is a key way to make the lyrics catchier.

Engaging the Listener: Word Painting

Word painting is when the lyrics reflect the music or vice versa. For instance as the singer sings "low", the melody might go lower. Similar to "fast", "slow" and other words that might describe the music. In these examples below, it's hard to imagine the melody going in the opposite direction than the word implies.

Traditional - Swing Low
Swing low sweet chariot <-- word painting on "low"
Coming forth to carry me home

Tal Bachman - She's So High

'Cause she's so high <-- word painting on "high"
High above me, she's so lovely
She's so high
Like Cleopatra, Joan of Arc, or Aphrodite
Da-da-da, da-da
She's so high <--- word painting on "high"
High above me

Engaging the Listener: Wordplay

Engaging the Listener with Wordplay: Inventing New Words

So if you can break a heart, could you unbreak it? If hurt was done, could it be undone?

Toni Braxton/Diane Warren: Unbreak my Heart

Un-break my heart
Say you'll love me again
Undo this hurt you caused
When you walked out the door
And walked out of my life
Un-cry these tears
I cried so many nights
Un-break my heart
My heart

Engaging the Listener with Wordplay: Old Cliches Learning New Tricks

Particularly common in country song titles, a new meaning to an old cliche or a play on words with a well-known cliches can be catchy in a lyric.

Florida Georgia Line - Talk You Out of It

And now you're lookin' like a line from a Vandross song
I'm lookin' at that fine little dress you got on
Don't get me wrong, girl, I love it
Now I just wanna talk you out of it <-- repurposing a cliche

Sam Hunt - Take Your Time

I don't wanna wreck your Friday
I ain't gonna waste my lines
I don't have to take your heart
I just wanna take your time <-- repurposing a cliche

Sam Hunt - Hard to Forget

So much for so long, out of sight, out of mind
Girl you're lookin' so good, it's drivin' me out of mine
Oh, you're breakin' my heart
Baby, you're playin' hard to forget <-- play on the well-known phrase "playing hard to get"

It's not just Country using this approach. This song by Sam Smith is to die for.

Sam Smith - To Die For

Pink lemonade sipping on a Sunday
Couples holding hands on a runway
They're all posing in a picture frame whilst my world's crashing down
Solo shadow on a sidewalk
Just want somebody to die for <-- repurposing a cliche
Sunshine living on a perfect day while my world's crashing down
I just want somebody to die for <-- repurposing a cliche

Miranda Lambert - Bluebird

And if love keeps giving me lemons <-- Play on "life gives you lemons"
I'll just mix 'em in my drink

Engaging the Listener with Wordplay: Paradoxes/Oxymorons/Contradictions

Sometimes an interesting contradiction can pique interest:

John Legend - All of Me

'Cause all of me
Loves all of you
Love your curves and all your edges
All your perfect imperfections <== oxymoron

Sam Hunt - Body Like a Back Road

Body like a back road, drivin' with my eyes closed
I know every curve like the back of my hand
Doin' fifteen in a thirty, I ain't in no hurry
I'ma take it slow just as fast as I can <-- paradox

Engaging the Listener: The Fakeout

Some lyrics misdirect the listener in some way either with the title or a line in the song where the meaning is the opposite of what you'd expect. This is extremely common in country lyrics.

Russel Dickenson - Love You Like I used To

Girl, I've always loved you, oh, but something's changed
Blame it on time, the road or the ride
But it ain't the same
It's a different kind of feeling, not the one I knew
From the sweet of your lips, to how your hand in mine fits
Girl, I've always loved you but
I don't love you like I used to <--- Fakeout
This gets better every time you kiss me like this
It's stronger the longer I'm with you
More than every single day before
Didn't know I could ever love you more than I did
But, baby, I do
I don't love you like I used to

Hardy - Boyfriend

I don't wanna be your boyfriend anymore <-- Fakeout
I'm tired of talkin' 'bout babies and diamond rings
And I'm so sick of driving clear across town every night from my place to yours, girl
I don't wanna be your boyfriend anymore <-- Fakeout
Yeah, I been thinkin' a lot
'Bout goin' all-in on what we got
I got my eye on a twenty-acre spot
With a fence in the dirt, yeah, but first, girl
I wanna call up your dad
Spend all of my coffee can cash
And ask you, "What's it gon' be?"
Puttin' one knee on the floor
'Cause I don't wanna be your boyfriend anymore

Engaging the Listener: The Tease

"Back to Black" goes through two choruses hinting that teasing that she's going back to black, but in each case, the lyric goes back to something else. This goes against the usual thinking that repeating the hook more times is always better.

Amy Winehouse - Back to Black

Chorus 1:
We only said goodbye with words
I died a hundred times
You go back to her
And I go back to
I go back to ... us

Chorus 2
We only said goodbye with words
I died a hundred times
You go back to her
And I go back to ...

Chorus 3:
We only said goodbye with words
I died a hundred times
You go back to her
And I go back to ... black

Harry Styles - Watermelon Sugar

Breathe me in
Breathe me out
I don't know if I could ever go without <== The Tease
I'm just thinking out loud
I don't know if I could ever go without
Watermelon sugar high

Engaging the Listener: The Twist - Two Stories for the Price of One

"I Hope" is telling two stories with the same line, one is what she hopes happens to him and the other is what already happened to her. Keeping the story hidden until the end of the chorus packs a huge punch in the song.

I Hope: Gaby Barrett

I hope you both feel the sparks by the end of the drive
I hope you know she's the one by the end of the night
I hope you never ever felt more free
Tell your friends that you're so happy
I hope she comes along and wrecks every one of your plans
I hope you spend your last dime to put a rock on her hand
I hope she's wilder than your wildest dreams
She's everything you're ever gonna need
And then I hope she cheats
Like you did on me
And then I hope she cheats
Like you did on me

Lyrics with innuendos also often have two stories going in parallel, one being told and the other being implied.

Engaging the Listener: One Word, Multiple Meanings

Another approach to engaging the listener is through repetition of the same word, but using different meanings

Brett Young: Catch

I thought that I'd catch a buzz, catch a game
Catch up with the boys, the same old thing
Catch a cab back to my place
But then I saw your face
Now you got me tryna
Catch your eye, catch your name
Catch a spark and start a flame
The way you smile and I can't help myself
Girl, you got me tryna catch my breath
You got me tryna catch my breath, yeah

Engaging the Listener: Realistic Dialogue

"Die from a Broken Heart" creatively uses a verse that appears to be irrelevant to the song but in fact serves as a realistic conversation trying to distract herself from her real concern.

Maddie & Tae - Die from a Broken Heart

Hey, mama, how do you get a red-wine stain
Out of your favorite dress?
Black mascara off a pillow case
Cure a one-too-many headache
Mama, can I come and maybe stay a few days?
This weekend or next
And hey, how do you get a red-wine stain
Out of your favorite dress?
How does he sleep at night?
Mama, the nerve of this guy
To leave me so easy
Am I gonna be alright?
I wanna kick myself for fallin' so hard
Mama, can you die from a broken heart?

Engaging the Listener: Senses

Sensory lyrics include sight, taste, smell, sound and touch. Sensory language can do more than describe a situation, it can actually let a listener experience the story similar to watching a movie.

Example: Deana Carter - Strawberry Wine (sensory language in bold)

He was working through college on my grandpa's farm
I was thirsting for knowledge and he had a car
I was caught somewhere between a woman and a child
When one restless summer we found love growing wild
On the banks of the river on a well-beaten path
It's funny how those memories they last
Like strawberry wine and seventeen
The hot July moon saw everything
My first taste of love oh bittersweet
Green on the vine
Like strawberry wine

Engaging the Listener: Welcome to a Brand New Phrase

Rather than using the same old tired phrases, a lot of lyrics use unique phrases that either are original or sound original and new. These are also examples that show possible ways to revise a bland line into a spicy one. It's easy to imagine the draft lyrics reading more like the less original lines.

Jason Aldean - Rearview Town
Instead of: "my old town"
Says: "rearview town"

Blake Shelton - God's Country
Instead of: "with nothin' around"
Says: "whole lotta nothin'"

Keith Urban - We Were
Instead of: "beautiful skyline"
Says: "water tower skyline"

Jon Pardi - Heartache Medication
Instead of: that drink after my work week
Says: same old end-of-the-workweek drink

Luke Combs - Beer Never Broke My Heart
Instead of: like a lightbulb that shined on me
Says: like a neon dream it just dawned on me


Engage the Listener: I'm just gonna list this out for ya

Most songs lyrics tell a story in the verse and a big emotional idea in the chorus. It's also possible to treat the song as a list instead and give interesting examples of the big idea of the song. Sometimes these are referred to as "list songs." In some cases there is little difference lyrically between the verse and chorus content: they are both listing examples. The examples might have very little relationship to one another.

Eli Young Band - Love Ain't: lists the things that love ain't
Verse:
Hotels are made for two night stays / Checking in and out
Meeting strangers in the lobby / Waking up and leaving town
The next day / But love ain't
Chorus:
Love ain't you on a sidewalk in your new dress all alone
Love ain't you calling me 'cause he ain't picking up his phone
The way you're talking sounds like he's somebody you should hate
I may not know what love is girl, but I know what love ain't
Come over, let me show you what he can't
'Cause he can only show you what love ain't

Riley Green - I Wish Grandpas Never Died
Verse:
I wish girls you loved never gave back diamond rings
I wish every porch had a swing
Wish kids still learned to say "sir" and "ma'am", how to shake a hand
I wish every state had a Birmingham[...]
Chorus:
[...]
And back road drinkin' kids never got caught
And I wish the price of gas was low and cotton was high
I wish honky tonks didn't have no closing time
And I wish grandpas never died

Frank Sinatra/Various - The Lady is a Tramp
Verse:
She gets too hungry for dinner at eight
She likes the theatre and never comes late
She never bothers with people she'd hate
That's why the lady is a tramp [...]
Chorus:
She likes the free fresh wind in her hair
Life without care
She's broke and it's oke
Hates California, it's cold and it's damp
That's why the lady is a tramp

Keith Urban - We Were
Verse:
We were just a couple years short of the age
By my name on a fake ID
And still 'bout a hundred away from the day
Your daddy said you could run with me
We were a couple of line steppers
Who just couldn't wait to step over the line
Never thinkin' we wouldn't last
I was your first and you were mine
Chorus:
And we were leather jackets hangin' onto a Harley
Two heartbeats in the moonlight
We were both feet hangin' out over the edge
Of a water tower skyline
At least there's a little bit of sweet in the bitter
Though a part of me is always gonna miss it
I am who I am, I just miss who I was when we were
Mm-mm

Luke Combs - Better Together
Verse:
A 40 HP Johnson
On a flat bottom metal boat
Coke cans and BB guns
Barbed wire and old fence posts
8-point bucks in autumn
And freshly cut corn fields
One arm out the window
And one hand on the wheel
Chorus:
Some things just go better together
And probably always will
Like a cup of coffee and a sunrise
Sunday drives and time to kill
What's the point of this old guitar
If it ain't got no strings
Or pouring your heart into a song
That you ain't gonna sing?
It's a match made up in heaven
Like good ole boys and beer
And me, as long as you're right here

Shawn Mendes - Wonder
Verse:
I wonder if I'm being real
Do I speak my truth or do I filter how I feel?
I wonder, wouldn't it be nice
To live inside a world that isn't black and white?
I wonder what it's like to be my friends
Hope that they don't think I'll forget about them
I wonder, I wonder
Chorus:
Right before I close my eyes
The only thing that's on my mind
Been dreamin' that you feel it too
I wonder what it's like to be loved by you, Yeah
I wonder what it's like
I wonder what it's like to be loved by

Lee Ann Womack - I Hope You Dance
Verse:
I hope you never lose your sense of wonder,
You get your fill to eat but always keep that hunger,
May you never take one single breath for granted,
God forbid love ever leave you empty handed,
I hope you still feel small when you stand beside the ocean,
Whenever one door closes I hope one more opens,
Promise me that you'll give faith a fighting chance,
And when you get the choice to sit it out or dance.
Chorus:
I hope you dance... I hope you dance...

Engaging the Listener: Emotion, Drama, Swagger

Adding feeling language directly (aka using "telling" language) can also help the listener experience some of the emotions of the song.

Justin Bieber - Lonely

What if you had it all
But nobody to call?
Maybe then, you'd know me
'Cause I've had everything
But no one's listening
And that's just ***** lonely
I'm so lonely
Lonely

George Michael - One More Try

Cause teacher
There are things that I don't want to learn
And the last one I had
Made me cry
So I don't want to learn to
Hold you, touch you
Think that you're mine
Because it ain't no joy
For an uptown boy
Whose teacher has told him goodbye, goodbye, goodbye

Sam Smith - I'm Not the Only One

Verse:
You and me, we made a vow
For better or for worse
I can't believe you let me down
But the proof is in the way it hurts
For months on end I've had my doubts
Denying every tear
I wish this would be over now
But I know that I still need you here
Chorus:
You say I'm crazy
'Cause you don't think I know what you've done
But when you call me baby
I know I'm not the only one
Verse:
You've been so unavailable
Now sadly I know why
Your heart is unobtainable
Even though Lord knows you kept mine
Bridge:
I have loved you for many years
Maybe I am just not enough
You've made me realize my deepest fear
By lying and tearing us up

Lyrics Non-rules

As you get peer feedback on your songs, you'll notice that some people are not listening with an open mind and giving the song a chance, but instead are trying to find what "rule" the song breaks so they can promptly notify you. You may notice that many successful songs break these rules, so maybe they're really non-rules.

Non-Rule #1: No cliches

Cliches can be useful in some lyrics. They are a conversational way to communicate. Many successful songs have cliches (too many for it to be an exception), therefore, this is a non-rule.

Non-Rule #2: Needs more furniture

Songs are often claimed to not have enough furniture e.g. specifics about the story. Listeners are looking for engagement, not specifically furniture.

Non-Rule #3: Show and not Tell

You can show, you can tell. Either way you need to do it creatively and engage the listener.

Non-Rule #4: Use as much sensory language as possible

It's not conversational to use so much sensory language. Sensory language is only one tool to engage the listener.

Non-Rule #5: Don't use the hook in the verse

Countless examples where this works just fine, although it's true you don't want to give a punchline in the middle of a joke if the hook works as a twist.

  • Keith Urban - We Were

  • Shawn Mendes - Wonder

  • Alicia Keys - Fallin

  • Eli Young Band - Love Ain't

  • Brett Young - Mercy

  • Gabby Barret - I Hope

  • Hardy - Boyfriend

  • Beatles - Hey Jude

  • Amy Winehouse - Back to Black

The Taste Test

It's useful to self-critique the song to see if it's as good as it can be. One way to get better at this is through critiquing other songs. Building the skill to critique other songs can help you critique your own.

Of course, songs aren't for analyzing, they're for making a listener feel something. Are you on the right track with the song? Here are some of the signs you are on the right track:

  • You get goosebumps on your arm from the melody

  • You cannot help but dance to the song

  • You have tears in your eyes at the end of the song

The song should not just make you think something - you should feel something and likely react to it in one of those ways. If it's not doing that, the song may need to be revised. One caveat - sometimes songs do lose their impact on us the more we listen to them, so at some point, you may need to rely on others for feedback.

Ester Dean (credits: Katy Perry, Rihanna) said: “I go into the booth and I scream and I sing and I yell, and sometimes it’s words but most time it’s not. And I just see when I get this little chill, here [on my arm] and then I’m, like, ‘Yeah, that’s the hook.’ ”

But I heard this terrible song on the radio... I can even write better than that. They literally used copied and pasted text messages as their lyrics.

Sometimes a film does okay at the box office and it's not actually a great film. It just happens to have Robert DeNiro in it (just a random example that doesn't reflect reality /s). Similarly, when you hear a mediocre song become a hit it is usually a song written by or with a major artist who already has a large fanbase. Check the credits to see. Songs written with an artist are called "inside songs." Inside songs don't have as high of a bar for quality or craft as "outside songs" which were written by songwriters independent of the artist the song is being placed with.

Revising Your Song with the Song Scorecard

One way to do a detailed evaluation of your song is to take the lyrics and place them into a song scorecard spreadsheet. I have developed this template to help songwriters (including myself) to have a way of comparing their song quality in detail to that of hit songs. The scores can give clues about what lines in the lyrics and melody need to be looked at again.

The question is not: "is this good?" the question is: "can we beat this?" If some of the lines or melodies are easy to beat, then the song isn't done.

Rating system:
1: Cringe-worthy
3: Beginner quality
5: Average
7: Excellent
10: Stellar, a classic

Rate each line on these elements:

  • Lyrics

    • Catchiness(1-10): when you just speak the line, how catchy does it sound? Is it memorable? Does it have inner rhymes? Alliteration?

    • Freshness(1-10): does it sound like a line from a thousand other songs or something original and/or current?

      • Red flag #1: You used an obvious rhyme (This sadness makes me cry. I feel like I could..mmm... die?)

      • Red flag #2: You used a forced rhyme (When I look at you I feel love. I saw something flying, it was a dove? )

    • Emotion(1-10): when spoken out load (potentially acted out), how much emotional weight does the line carry?

    • Can beat it?: Unlikely/Maybe/Probably - how likely are you to find a better line?

  • Melody

    • Catchiness(1-10): how memorable is it? Does it use any unique rhythms or hooks?

    • Freshness(1-10): does it sound current? does it sound like it could be from 30 years ago?

    • Emotion(1-10): when you sing the melody with "la la la" does the melody alone convey the mood of the song?

    • Can beat it?: Unlikely/Maybe/Probably - how likely is it you can come up with a better melody for that line?

  • Averages (Optional)

    • Average score for the lyric

    • Average score for the melody

    • Average score for the line

These ratings are subjective, however, similar to subjective scores in the Olympics, many people will agree on whether a line is strong or weak.

What do I do with this scorecard?

The scorecard is to help self-critique the song. The numbers aren't scientific but can give clues on where work is needed to get the song up to a commercial standard. It also helps a songwriter to be honest with themselves. Creating a new song can be so exciting that judgment gets clouded about how much the song has to be revised to get the quality to the right level. It also may be useful to compare to songs in the style you're going for. Genres may have different tendencies. For instance, country may have stronger lyric scores and pop may have stronger melody scores. Going through this approach with a few of your favorite hit songs can also help show that all 10s across the board is probably not common/possible for any song, but having nothing stand out lyrically or melodically is also not common.

Is the song worth continuing?

If across the scorecard you find there aren't many lines with strong melody or lyrics, the song may be very hard to revise into a great one.

Instrumental Melodies

This scorecard is mainly looking at lyrics and melody. In some cases, important parts of the melody are instrumental (sometimes synth or guitar solo) and maybe even more important than the vocal melody. Examples include Kane Brown - One Thing Right and Chainsmokers - Something Just Like This. Those songs have choruses that are mainly instrumental melodies. These can be rated too by writing something like <instrumental melody> as a row.

Example Song Scorecard for Russell Dickerson "Yours"

Country singer Russell Dickerson had his breakout song Yours in 2017. This was a career changing song for him and hit #1 on the Country Airplay billboard chart. I populated this scorecard with my subjective ratings for different elements of that te song. To make a long story short, there are no throwaway lines in the song and each line has some strength either lyrically or melodically or both.

Using the Song Scorecard Google Sheet

1.Open Song Scorecard Spreadsheet

2. File -> Make a Copy

3. Copy and paste your lyric text into the first column

Revising: How lyrics can go from "bleh!" to "yeah!"

The following lyrics came from top 10 country songs and top 10 pop songs of 2020 (when this web page was first created). I'm purposefully not including the titles or hooks in this list because it is almost a given those will be interesting. This is meant to serve as examples of how revising a bland line could make the difference.

Finishing Your Scrambled Eggs and Leaving the Diner: The Demo

One saying in the songwriting community is that great songs are not written, they are rewritten. Leonard Cohen was reported to write 80 verses for Hallelujah and only kept the very best four in the song. Nonetheless, another useful saying in the songwriting community and art community in general is "art is never finished, only abandoned." So while the song will never be perfect, at some point it's good to actually complete the song and consider it "good enough."

For completed songs the way they're finished is in the form of a demo. In my experience, a good song can have a boring or bad demo due to these reasons and it's useful to try to diagnose what's going on. If the song sounds good in your head, but not in the recording, it's probably missing something.

Does the demo matter? Does the singer matter? Basically, yes. In various forums, I've been surprised that the "best song" often gets awarded to what is actually just the best vocal performance. People feel a song before they judge the song. Songs are evaluated with emotions. If the song makes them feel something, they don't care that much about judging it or finding petty nitpicks. If there's nothing broken, why fix it?

Potential fixes to a boring demo for a song that sounds good in your head:

  • Try a new singer. Common reason. I think of singers like actors that only play certain roles effectively. It's useful to imagine what type of famous artist would sound good on the song and use a singer who can do a similar style. One other note - sometimes the singer's first take doesn't go that well and the next take is better. Sometimes you need to change the key for the singer.

  • Problem: chorus didn't sound big

    • Possibly the verse was too "big" so the chorus didn't sound as big. Oldest trick is to have the verse much lower than the chorus, though current pop music a lot of times has the verse and chorus around the same range.

    • More layers/harmonies of vocals = bigger chorus. Billie Eilish - Ocean Eyes has 20+ vocal tracks. Think about how big a choir sounds.

    • More stereo width in the chorus

  • Increase the tempo.

  • Put vocal ad-libs in various parts of the song to keep the interest going.

  • Experiment with adding more syncopation and unpredictable rhythms to the vocal phrasing.

In the end, a combination of revising of the song itself and production can help to make your demo as good as possible.

How to improve the song:

  • Get listener feedback from friends, family and cowriters

  • Warning: do not change your song just because of one person's opinion. Songs can become an incoherent mess this way. Change it only if you absolutely agree with the suggestion AND it is the BEST fix for the problem. Note that non-pro reviewers are most likely to confuse the strength of the performance with the strength of the song itself and will recommend e.g. fixing the melody or lyrics when really that's not the issue.

I consider a song to be "done" when it has a demo that at least one professional (e.g. hit) songwriter deems it to be a "ready to pitch" song. This can be achieved through songwriting evaluation and critique services like songtown.com and NSAI. "Ready to pitch" is a minimum bar and still does not mean the song is competitive.

Wait... I thought a song was just melody and lyrics. I'm not a music producer.

Traditional songwriting is melody and lyrics and the arrangement (now: "the track") was thought to be a separate component. More often than not the expectation today is that a song is melody, lyrics and some level of production/arrangement. Songwriting can be viewed as a part of production. In some cases, the demo tracks are so polished that they are actually used in the final recording. Bottom line - in order to get a competitive demo, you need to either understand some production or work with someone who does. The song demo should be offering proof that the song will work when fully produced. The more that is done at the demo stage the less work there is left to do for anyone picking up the song.

Improving the Song through Interpretation

A great demo singer can bring more than a good voice to a song. They can also provide an interpretation of the song that is better than what was on the worktape by improving the phrasing of the melody and embellishing the melody with ad libs and runs. If an artist records, the artist can use some of the ideas from the demo and improve upon them with their own interpretation and style. By that time the song has been through three interpretations: the songwriter worktape, the demo singer and the artist. This is similar to the Jazz tradition of improving standards over time, breathing new life into the song with each interpretation.

How the song Fly Me to the Moon evolved over the year through interpretations:

  • 1954 Kaye Ballard "In Other Words"

  • 1960 Peggy Lee "Fly Me to the Moon"

  • 1962 Nat King Cole "Fly Me to the Moon"

  • 1964 Frank Sinatra "Fly Me to the Moon"

So, if the worktape has some issues with phrasing and interpretation, in some cases a good demo singer can smooth out the interpretation to give a good foundation for the song. Sometimes in my own experience, sending the song to a number of demo singers for a sample can give a good idea of who might be the right singer to take the song to the next level.

Styles: Genres and Types

Unless the goal is to create a new style of music entirely, I usually find it's best to write within a particular genre, subgenre and type, not to say you can't combine elements together for something new. Also, keep in mind if you are writing outside songs and not for yourself as an artist, the song likely needs to be in the style of an artist you hope would record it. This is also called "casting" a song similar to casting a part for an actor.

Tracks and beats are usually styled around a particular genre, subgenre and (usually) artist-type style. I think of "-type" beats as a sub-sub-genre.

Bottom line, if a particular artist style is being followed, the melody and lyrics should sound similar to something that artist would release. Now, for most songwriters, it's a long shot that the actual artist will release the song, but many smaller artists and indie artists are happy to perform in a similar style to the major artists.

One way to learn a style of melody is to assemble a playlist of songs that are in a similar style and try to hear patterns to how the songs work. Some patterns to pick up would be e.g. which sections of the song have a melody that is choppy vs connected (staccato/legato).

For lyrics, you can also use a playlist. For example, if you have a country wedding song lyric, you might use a current year country wedding song playlist to hear what themes and word choices are common.

Example style playlist: Ariana Grande, Justin Bieber Stuck on You Style Playlist (6/8 time signature with similar arpeggio/progression/tempo)

  • Meghan Trainor - Like I'm Gonna Lose You

  • Rihanna - Love On the Brain

  • Madison Beer - Teenager in Love

  • Bruno Mars - If I Knew

  • Ed Sheeran - She

  • Al Green - How Can You Mend a Broken Heart

When I begin a new song I find it helpful to list two or three reference songs that demonstrate the style.

Writing in a target style isn't just for songwriters, this is also common for artists as well. Some example songs and the potential reference artists and songs that may have been used:

Inspiration vs Crafting

Inspiration is what creates the start of a new song. That being said, in my experience, inspiration does not complete the song. The song gets completed through careful crafting and decision making, going through different options and alternatives to find out what works best. It's tempting to let inspiration guide the entire process, but I've found a more deliberate approach works better. In the end, the song will need to be carefully polished to make it shine. This is a laborious process of rewriting the lyrics and sometimes the melody, adding ad-libs and hooks, harmonies. Sometimes it even means rewriting the entire lyric to a different song idea. It's often easier to fix the flaws than to keep starting over again and again hoping that inspiration alone will get the song to a competitive level (without the sweat).

Staying Current

I've found very few requests for retro music, and even when they occur, they are usually within the context of recordings that were made in that time period or when that style is trending (e.g. in 2020, 80s style music is having a revival). 99% of requests are for songs that are trendy. It's useful to keep your ears trained on current styles of melody and lyrics to stay fresh. Listening to more current trendy music for fun can help with this.

Some resources:

  • Spotify: Tik Tok Playlists

  • Spotify: Country Rising Playlist

  • Spotify: Top 100 Playlists

Cowriting

The singer-songwriter tradition brought the idea of a one-person band -- that one person needs to do most of everything on a recording or song and the singer needs to have written the song by themselves. However, most successful songs these days are created by a team. As of 2017, an average hit song has 4+ listed songwriters. There's a temptation to try to do it all, but it's swimming upstream. Rather than do that, it's good to find your niche and use teamwork to build the songs. Your strength could be creating tracks, singing, writing melodies or writing lyrics -- or some combination of these. For me, I had to dabble in all of these areas (yes, all of them) before I found melody writing as my strength.

Writing a song as a team is called cowriting and is a different skill than songwriting. I have met some people who do excellent songwriting but don't operate that well in cowriting. I have also seen examples where the opposite is true.

Here are some advantages and disadvantages of cowriting.

Advantages

  • Two heads are better than one - can result in much higher quality songs

  • Songs can be completed much faster.

  • Build more connections with people in different parts of the industry

  • Allows you to learn to write with (e.g. indie) artists. Cowriting with artists is an easy way to place songs when you get the opportunity and if you haven't built the skills earlier it might not work out.

  • You can focus on becoming an expert at one particular craft e.g. huge chorus melodies or wordsmithing the lyrics

Disadvantages

  • The song is more likely to get "stuck" trying to get everyone to agree

  • Lower percentage ownership of the song

If it's more incentive, cowriting can also lead to long-term collaborations with pro/signed songwriters or artists who have more chances of getting songs cut.

The Song is King

One of the perils of cowrites is everyone has their own vision for how the song should be and those visions rarely line up. The arbiter for this is the song itself. I think of the song as a separate cowriter in the room. Serving the song means making changes that make the song better, forgetting about our own vision of what we expected the song to do. If this approach doesn't resolve things, professional song feedback is useful as well.

But... I write the songs...

Cowriting can become more than a songwriting exercise. It is actually a partnership. Cowriters are co-owners in intellectual property. Offering more than just writing can help open up some opportunities.

Here are some of the non-songwriting skills a cowriter could offer:

  • Professional quality vocals of their own

  • Building tracks

  • Managing the production of a master recording, working with sound engineers and vocalists

  • Pitching the songs to signed artists and to TV/Film opportunities

  • Pitching the songs to indie artists

  • Existing relationships to publishers and artists

"This is too hard"

If you are a beginning songwriting, you may find it's one of the hardest things you've ever done. In fact, you may not even be able to write a song that your mother likes for the first hundred songs you write. If you persist, you'll build your craft where you will be able to write songs you're proud of and that people enjoy listening to, maybe even other songwriters, maybe even artists.

Ed Sheeran has written 10+ UK #1 hit songs. Some of his advice is to keep on plowing through so you can get past the bad songs that everyone has to write. Listen to this short interview explaining it.

Have Fun and Learn

99% of songs are not going to be cut, and even for the best songwriters, probably a majority of songs are not going to be cut or placed. Even of the ones that do get placed or cut, most don't get a lot of listens.

When I'm writing songs I recognize that probably this song is going to do this:

  1. Teach me new skills to be a better songwriter

  2. Let me enjoy the writing process

  3. Build new relationships through cowriting

  4. Accomplish something artistically

  5. Help me build my songwriting portfolio

  6. Have fun

Most songs, even truly great ones, are not going to be cut or placed. That's good to keep in mind also to ease the pressure of a particular song being "the one." Instead, it's good to focus on your craft rather than trying to write the best song ever written.

Top 10 Billboard Hits Analysis

I've compiled this spreadsheet on tempo, time signature and some aspects of lyrics of top 10 hits of 2020. This seeks to answer questions such as how common are bridges in the songs, how soon should the chorus come in.

Billboard 2020 Hits Data

Resources

To improve your craft, here are the resources I recommend:

  1. Songtown.com - contains countless exclusive lessons and videos from pros

  2. masterwriter.com - best songwriting rhyming dictionary

  3. Pat Pattison's Songwriting: Essential Guide to Rhyming: A Step-by-Step Guide to Better Rhyming for Poets and Lyricists

  4. Marty Dodson's Song Building: covers essential structure of lyrics

  5. Songland TV Show - this show highlights seemingly finished songs getting reworked almost completely so they become competitive.

  6. Max Martin Masterclass - one of the few interviews he ever gave to my knowledge

This is the End

Or is it? Some songs take on a life of their own long after they were written.

Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah started as a folk song, was covered by Jeff Buckley and later featured in Shrek, each with a different performance.

Tears for Fears "Mad World" was covered for the film Donnie Darko by Gary Jules and became a #1 UK hit 18 years after its first release.

So maybe your song will take on a life of its own.

Feedback

If you made it this far, I hope you enjoyed the scrambled eggs songwriting method. I would love to hear any tips you have on songwriting and what's working for you. I would love to add them to the list here. You can send these to me at IG @HeyItsEphemeral

Write on!