Whether you want to write a chart topping hit song, a song that resonates deeper with your audience, or reaches a wider one, I think we could all agree that it’s relatively easy to write a good song, it is not so easy to write a great one.
What makes a song resonate with people on a large scale? What are the components of a chart-topping song or the equivalent? While there are several factors, including a great vocal and production and the budget to market them, the song bones themselves need to be comprised of the right materials or no production or marketing can rescue them.
Producer, songwriter, label owner (and prior artist), Linda Perry says “When making any record, a producer has a list of things you hope an artist brings to the studio. Songs that are strong enough without the bells and whistles.” ~Linda Perry
And let’s take it a step further by taking a look at writing that hit song from an artist’s perspective versus a career songwriter, because there are distinctions there that are also important. Writing as a career writer will still need the approach mentioned below, but general songwriting tips for songwriters versus artists can be slightly different as artists have a little more poetic and artistic license with their choices. Especially if they have a following or are already well known (however in some cases it causes more pressure to produce material to top what you have already put out.)
When comparing songs other artists have written to yours, pay more attention to the songs that broke them through to the public stage. Those are the songs that were strong enough to catapult them onto that bigger stage and are worth examining more thoroughly than songs they put once they were already there.
Here are my Top 15 Songwriting Tips for How to Write a Chart-Topping Hit Song That Resonates With You and Your Audience
You can do these in whatever order feels right for you. After decades of writing songs, this is the process that I find usually yields the best results.
1. Tap the Vein
Songs that make it all the way to the top of the charts have that “it factor”. Those special ingredients that make it exceptional and stand out above all the other awesome songs. We know that these are the songs that touch us more than other songs.
Start by tapping an idea that is not just any old idea you land on, but that taps a vein of something vital that you have to say. Something important that you haven’t quite said yet. The more it is deeply emotional to you, the better. Don’t be afraid of that. Your vulnerability in songwriting is your superpower. There is a way to say it without being “literal”.
Writing songs that are not infused with enough “energy” and “intent” from the songwriter generally fizzle.
Here’s what Clive Davis said to me in a letter about some songs I submitted to him many years ago as an aspiring artist:
“We listened to the cassette of Cari and feel that her songs fall short. They show potential, as does she as an artist, but they are not yet at the point where I think they could get any significant radio play. I feel also that the music needs more work than the lyrics; it does not quite have the energy that is needed to break a new artist at this time.
I wish I could be more affirmative, but I know you would want the straight scoop.”
Best regards, Clive
Obviously while that is not the news I wanted, I did appreciate the straight scoop. And I learned so much from it. Songs require an energy if they are going to breakthrough. Energy that is both lyrical and musical. That starts with what you are saying and the message you are relaying to your audience. Make it count.
2. Choose a Theme
Choosing what to write about can be at tough thing. Sometimes we are so close to it that we literally don’t see it! It can be on the tip of our tongue but we don’t know it. Modern life can keep us distracted and not in touch with what we are feeling on the deeper layers of our consciousness.
One thing that helps is to keep a Songwriting Journal where you jot down lyrics and ideas but even more importantly form them into Song Concepts.
We have a process we use to help flesh this out more. We call it our Signature Songwriting A&R System and we guide artists through it in our Signature Songwriting Circle. It starts with the Song Concept – “a song about….” and then we have you dial out the actual backstory or real life circumstance that led to it. Songs are more powerful and carry more “energy” and “intent” when they mean something to you – really mean something. This is a good place to start.
3. Look for the Unique Angle
Once you have your Song Concept and Backstory, look for the unique angle. The first place I look is – where is the conflict or contrast in the concept? Songs usually come about in reaction to something that happened. Just like an actor is looking for the motivation that comes from the moments just before their lines occur, a song needs to look there as well.
What is making you write the song? What happened that those lyrics sprung from?
Song Concept: A song about when you lose someone you love.
Backstory: When I was xx years old I lost my best friend to cancer.
Unique angle: While I was devastated and terribly sad, I had this conflicting emotion of anger. I was so angry at her for leaving me in this world without her, but didn’t feel a right to that feeling. I buried it instead.
How to use it in the song: The main point of the song is being loss and being devastated to lose someone you love. But interwoven through the song is your deeper feelings of anger. You can use them to play out in a way of talking about how life betrayed you instead of pointed at her.
Song Concept: A song about falling in love and being on top of the world.
Backstory: When I was xx years old, I fell in love with the love of my life.
Unique Angle or Conflict/Contrast: Some people think a happy song is harder to write, but not really once you understand the contrast. The reason falling in love means so much, is because it usually comes after a long while of not finding the one. So the starting point of the unique angle would be: falling in love after being alone for many years. Then look for the conflict which in this case might be: thinking it may never happen to you.
4. Select a Tempo or Groove
Once you have an idea of what you want to write about, select a tempo or groove. First, what tempo does that story or emotion feel like? Keep in mind that you might want to use Contrasting tempos. Sometimes a heavy subject sounds good with a lighter more mid or uptempo beat (contrast). Contrast can help. Or maybe take a happy song and use a BPM in the 80’s? Rihanna’s entire album “ANTI” was written with tempos in the 80 BPM range.
Listen to other songs that sound like you want yours to, and grab the tempo and set your metronome to the BPM as you write. This is particularly helpful to break you out of using the same tempos when you sit down at your guitar or piano.
5. Play Some Chord Progressions
Playing chords will inspire your melody. Once you’ve got the metronome going, grab your guitar or sit at the piano and noodle. Play with different chord progressions while you mumble lyrics or hum notes.
Trick: You can always grab some chords from a favorite song and play them backwards or change the order :).
For those of you who write all the time, throw in an interesting or unexpected chord here and there. Or use different voicings to bring out more interesting choices in your melody.
6. Sing or Mumble Some Words + Melody Over the Music
Singing, humming, mumbling while you play helps bring out your melody. At the end of the day, you’re looking for the best melodic choices that inspire you and sound the best.
7. Write Your Heart Inside Out
To write music that really reaches people in their hearts, it has to reach yours first. The only way you’re going to get there and stay there is to give something real, something true, from your heart – in a way that people can FEEL, not just what you feel.
Write inside out. I said it earlier, I’ll say it again, vulnerability is your superpower as a songwriter. Say stuff that is hard to say. Make it count.
8. Create a Verse, Pre and Chorus
At the first writing session, your goal is to flesh out the first verse, pre-chorus and chorus. We
call it getting the skeleton or basic structure and content of the song down. Go further if you can, but be sure to at least churn out this much in order to have a song of substance. I like to leave as much time as possible for this first writing session as I need the body of the song to be delivered. It’s hard to go back and try to accomplish this when you’re not in the same state of mind or emotions.
9. Write Out the Storyline
Sometimes as you write, it’s easy for the song to morph into something different as you go. Occasionally it’s a good thing, but mostly it’s because you got distracted and weren’t able to deliver the original storyline. When a song starts morphing too much, go back to the original idea and infuse it with your best effort. Write out the storyline section by section. Works wonders!
10. Construct Verse 2 and the Bridge
Usually written at a follow up session, but sometimes you get these sections at the first session, Verse 2 and the Bridge are not always the easiest to write. It can help to take a step back from lyrics and write out what you want to say in each section. Then go back to lyric writing. It is also helpful to write the bridge from a “new perspective” lyrically and musically.
11. Record a Demo
I always recommend to record a demo as soon after the writing is complete as possible. It tends to capture the emotional essence of the song more when it’s closer to the time you write. Also demoing your song well helps you to solve any remaining songwriting queries as well as preps the song to be heard in a lineup of potential songs to release. It’s also important to hear the song back (rather than playing it live) which gives you more perspective on your writing.
12. Put It Away For a Few Days
Ear fatigue is REAL. Perspective is your ally.
Our CCVM Team Songwriter AMES says: “Ear fatigue is the worst!! and usually happens to me every two to three hours. Instead of listening to music sometimes I’ll turn on a tv show with the volume low so my ears go to a completely different listening place. Different things work for different people! Classical music also helps to cleanse the pallet in my experience.”
Listening with fresh ears is the ultimate Litmus test!
13. Decide If It Is Strong Enough To Be Added to Your “Potentials” List
Not every song you write will make your “Potentials List” and that’s okay. If you are putting every single song on your Potentials List, you are in love with your songs and we all know how love works right? It is often blind! Practice having perspective on your work. It doesn’t mean you give up on them, it just means it goes into the “maybe one day” pile. It’s important that you learn to focus on your best songs and leave the ones that aren’t your strongest.
14. Keep It Up on Your Writing Desk Until Final Recording
If it does make your Potentials list, then keep it up on your writing desk until the final recording. I am often tweaking my Potentials list right up until the day of recording – or at the actual recording session!
15. Create a Song Catalog Masterlist with all of your songs on a spreadsheet.
Put your releases (song by song) at the top followed by songs you are working on. Have lyrics and private song links for anyone you are working with to listen (create a private Soundcloud playlist – but remember to put lyrics in the description – ALWAYS). We recommend working with a team who has your best interest at heart.