You may not always agree with the 20 million people who get a song to the top spot, but that’s irrelevant in this craft. One man who should know is Ralph Murphy. He has written hits for decades – not top tens, not number twos but number one hits (because who ever threw a number two party?) In this feature, he distils what it takes into nine golden rules.
Talk to your listener within 60 seconds
The listener has to find something to identify with in your song within one minute. If they don’t, they’re gone forever. So find a way to talk to them. And remember, your song needs to be worth investing in (a major record label may invest between £0.5-2m).
The listener is predisposed to hate you
The listener has no interest in your hopes, dreams or fears. They don’t care if you were bullied at school, if your heart’s been broken, or how many emotional dysfunctions you’re carrying from childhood. Songwriting may be cathartic for you but that won’t engage the listener. Don’t whine, preach or vent – unless done with a justifiable amount of good humour and irony.
The brain listens out for patterns
People don’t consciously choose whether or not to like a song. Rather they’re following a habit and reacting to cues that will get them singing, or changing the channel. The brain is designed to seek auditory patterns that follow what it’s previously heard – this is how it manages to hear without being distracted by all the other everyday sounds.
The rule of accessibility
Make your words easy to say and, most importantly, sing. Most song lyrics don’t go over two syllables – for example, “We’ve only just begun”. Songs are intended to be linear lyrical conversations, rather than your finest work of poetry. Remember how easy it was to sing Old Macdonald had a Farm? This could be why Bob Dylan has won a Nobel literature prize, but never reached number one.
You’re a scriptwriter, not an artist.
Use your words carefully. The first four lines must set the premise that the song title promises to fulfil. And that title needs to be delivered within 60 seconds. Every number one hit of last year followed this rule. If you go back into the archives, just some of the hits that keep this promise are – The Spice Girls’ Wannabe, Abba’s Dancing Queen, Culture Club’s Do You Really Want to Hurt Me? and Madness’ House of Fun. A good song, as with any good film, will also tell a story with a beginning, middle and end.
Don’t hand your singer a script that makes your singer look like a loser. If you write negative lyrics switch to the third person – for example – “she’s losing her mind”.
Play the ‘you’ card
‘You’ is a very important pronoun that invites the listener in. If your first verse is me-orientated then your second verse needs ‘you’ or ‘we’. It’s worth considering – would Pink Floyd’s Another Brick in the Wall have made it to the top spot with the lyrics, “I don’t need no education?”
Surprise the listener
Get to the bridge or middle eight within two minutes – the listener always anticipates a contrast or something different, otherwise boredom sets in.
Trick the listener into hearing the song again
A dead-end finish to your song encourages the listener to play it again. Remember, you’re writing a single, rather than a piece that fits within an entire album.
Don’t let the truth get in the way of a good song
Never be a loser, over 30, or have kids. At least, not in your song anyway.
Born in England and raised in Canada, Ralph Murphy is a hugely successful songwriter and producer. Now based in Nashville, Ralph has written hit songs for the likes of Shania Twain, Cliff Richard, Randy Travis, Ray Price and Kathy Mattea. He has worked with The American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) for the past 14 years to facilitate workshops for songwriters, and help protect songwriters’ rights. You can read more about the craft of hit writing in Ralph’s book Murphy’s Law of Songwriting – The Book
Originally published in The Works in 2017