Anatomy of a Hit: Draw the Listener into the Action

hook-anatomyOver the years I have listened to a lot of people talk about songwriting. One of the voices that keeps me engaged is Robin Frederick. She’s smart, intuitive, and encouraging. I was reading one of her posts recently and noticed what I wrote about in Anatomy of a Hit: It Bears Repeating. Listen to the hook of Not a Moment too Soon (about 48 seconds in). It was a hit nearly 20 years ago. It is very melodic. It has a lot of melodic movement, because it uses the compositional device antecendent and consequence. When you hear the musical question, you expect a logical, musical answer. There is very little tension in this song, and it develops relatively slowly. Remember, that is from 20 years ago. Some of the elements of this song will be coming around again very soon, but that’s a subject for another post…

Now, listen to the 2013 hit, Highway Don’t Care. About 52 seconds in, you hear a familiar Taylor Swift melody and lyric delivery. She uses this device in most of her songs. She parks on a pitch and uses natural speech rhythms to drive towards the end of the phrase, much like opera does in the use of recitative. You can hear this same device in Love Story and We are Never Ever Getting Back Together.

So, what does this repeated note do? It creates tension and it makes you listen to the lyric. It also feels more like spoken dialog than a song. The listener heard a love letter in Not a Moment too Soon, but isn’t as passive in Highway Don’t Care. In that song they are pulled directly into the action. If we go a little deeper, Taylor Swift’s voice in the prechorus is meant to sound like a song on the radio. This voice speaks for both the male and female leads, “I can’t live without you, Baby.” The male lead also acts as the narrator, commenting on what is happening with the other lead in the verses. The chorus then makes the male lead’s feelings known, he loves her.

This type of dramatic writing pulls on the listener, and plays on the feeling so many have had after a fight — when someone leaves, when every song on the radio feels like direct communication. This is powerful writing. In my introduction to myself, I wrote about the time Bill Kloefkorn transformed a mediocre poem into a great one, simply by putting it in the present tense. This song is a beautiful illustration of that. The listener is there, in the action. We get that ascending roller coaster feeling when the tension feels like it’s going to be too much. The drums feel like the rhythm of the road. The natural speech rhythms in a limited range, makes us listen to the story. Like opera, this song is all about pulling the audience into the drama. Songwriting is becoming as much about writing a script as it is about writing music.

Now, how do you do that? First, see the action in your own mind. Watch and listen to what is happening between the characters. List everything you notice, everything that is said. Focus on those parts that make you feel something. That’s your song. Everything else is simply there to support it.

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