They say the best things come in threes:
The Hanson brothers. The Little Shop of Horrors backup singers. The examples in this paragraph.
And songwriting has its own Holy Trinity too: idea, style and hook.
I’ll explain, but first let’s be clear on what the three of these things are.
A song’s idea is what the frick the song is about. Maybe the idea is ‘Love song’ or ‘Breakup song’ or ‘I just wanted to tell you you’re cool Song’. Or maybe the idea is ‘Dance track’ or ‘Summer anthem’ or ‘Novelty song’.
I’m talking about the big idea of the song. The ‘elevator pitch’ if you like: the sentence you’d say to a co-writer or a producer or your Great Aunt to describe what the song is.
The style of the song is the musical world it sits in. I’m not talking about specific harmonies or sounds, even if they play a part in making up the style – I’m talking about the overall mood, emotion or world the song’s music conjures up.
An upbeat dance track has a different style to an emotional power ballad. A jazz song has a different feel to an R&B song. You get the idea.
A song’s hook is a word or phrase that forms the backbone of its lyric. (Yes, the word ‘hook’ is sometimes used to describe a catchy bit of music usually somewhere near the start. That’s a different kind of hook for another time.)
Hooks you’ll know already include ‘Yesterday’ or ‘Happy Birthday’ or ‘I’m Sexy and I Know It’. They’re anything from a single word to a complete sentence that is repeated over and over in a lyric to give it shape and focus. More often than not, this hook is also the song’s title – though I use the word hook not title as sometimes the two things are different.
And the big thing about art is that there is no right and wrong. There are no song ideas that are categorically better than others. Depending on the genre you write in, there are song ideas that are more popular than others, but there are no song ideas that, in themselves, are a better idea than others. Ditto with musical styles and lyrical hooks.
But here’s the thing: art isn’t just a free for all.
You can pick whatever idea, style and hook you like, but the art of great songwriting is the art of picking an idea, style and hook that work well together.
Just pause for a moment if you need to un-pretzel your brain. Because that’s a fundamental idea that’s at the heart of great songwriting.
In songwriting, you can do anything you want. But whatever you do, you want all the parts of your song to fit and work well together.
So that means, in general, you want to choose a lyrical hook that expresses your song’s big idea.
And in general, you want to choose a musical style that supports your song’s big idea.
I’ll give you an example. If you want to create a pumping dance track, you might pick a hook that’s something like ‘Everybody on the dancefloor’ or ‘C’mon, let’s get it on’. And you’d pick a musical style that makes people want to dance – probably a tempo of at least 120 bpm and a drum track that’s pretty driving.
You wouldn’t pick a slow tempo like 60 bpm. And you probably wouldn’t create a track that had no drums or percussion at all.
There are a billion different ways to use this idea. Some aren’t as literal as the example I gave you here. Occasionally you find songs that deliberately mismatch a song’s idea, style and hook and idea to create a specific effect. But in general, in the most effective songs you’ll find these three things working together somehow.
I could give you a handful of examples of this concept in action, but since it’s at work in most songs, I’m going to let you go out and find your own.
Think about some of your favorite songs. How would you summarize their main idea? What is it about their musical style that fits well with that? How does the song’s lyrical hook express something that fits with that main idea?
As always, the more you apply this idea to the songs you love, the better you’ll get at understanding how they work and the more techniques you’ll pick up to use in your own songs.
And if you discover any particularly interesting examples of this idea in action, feel free to share them in the comments below.