Between The Rhymes: Writing Universal Songs

One of the biggest challenges any songwriter faces is how to turn their own story into a universal story that an artist and millions of his or her fans will like.  Most of us find it relatively easy to write OUR story, but much more challenging to write our truth in that universal way.

Early in my career, I wrote a song that I thought I crafted very well.  It was called “She Stopped Livin’ The Day He Died”.  It was the sad but true story of my grandmother who was so dependent on my grandfather that, when he passed away at age 51, just spent the next 25 years of her life in a sad place. 

I painted beautiful pictures of their life together before he passed away.  I described his job at the factory and her life as a homemaker.  I even used their real names in the song.  When I played it for my family, they cried.  I thought I had a masterpiece.

So, I confidently walked in to my publisher’s office and told him I “thought I had one”.   That’s what we said when we thought we really nailed a song.  He listened carefully to my song all the way to the end.  I was ready for the “Way to go!!!  Garth will love this!!”

It never came.  Instead, his response was “That’s the saddest crap I ever heard.”  He wasn’t one for sugar-coating anything.  I was so upset.  I couldn’t imagine why he didn’t love my song.

I asked him what was wrong with the song and he simply said “Garth doesn’t want to tell his audience YOUR grandmother’s sad story night after night.”  He went on to explain that the key to writing a hit song was telling MY story in a way that millions of people relate it to THEIR story.

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It took a while to sink in, but I finally realized that there is a difference in a great, well written song and a great, well written hit song.  What’s the difference?  Universal emotion.

My publisher challenged me to take my song about my grandmother and find the universal emotion behind it.  So, I spent weeks playing and studying that song until I finally thought I had it figured out.

The universal idea or emotion behind my song was that losing someone sometimes makes us feel like a part of us died.  So, I started working on song ideas that would express that feeling in a more universal and less personal way.

First, I decided that writing about someone dying might limit my chances.  Not many artists are searching for songs about death.  There’s no better way to bring a crowd down at a concert than to start singing a good death song.  That idea led me to a more universal (and positive) thought.

I realized that losing someone you love doesn’t have to be talking about dying.  In fact, more people would relate if I wrote a song about losing a love interest just because the relationship ended.  Armed with that knowledge, I looked through my title database and found the perfect title! 

It just so happened I was headed to my publisher’s cabin to write with him (Kim Williams) and Danny Wells.  Both Kim and Danny already had hits.  I did not!  So, I came armed with a bunch of strong ideas.  The first one I threw out was “While You Loved Me”.  Here’s the lyric we wrote.

While You Loved Me
If I ever write the story of my life,
Don’t be surprised if you’re where it begins
Girl I’d have to dedicate every line on every page
To the memories we made while you loved me

CHORUS:
I was born the day you kissed me
And I died inside the night you left me
But I lived, oh how I lived
While you loved me

I’d start with chapter one, love innocent and young
As the morning sun on a new day
Even though I know the end, I’d do it all again
‘Cause I got a lifetime in while you loved me

CHORUS:
I was born the day you kissed me
And I died inside the night you left me
But I lived, oh how I lived
While you loved me

Copyright 2000 Sony/ATV Music

That song expresses the same universal emotion as my song about my grandmother, but in a MUCH more universal way.  Almost everyone can relate to being broken up with by someone you love.  Only my family can relate to my grandmother’s story.

Rascal Flatts cut an amazing record, “While You Loved Me” went on to sell a million records and it became my first top ten hit, landing at #7 on the Billboard chart.  And, it was inspired by the story of my grandmother. 

All of that to say, the key to writing a hit is finding YOUR truth and then finding the UNIVERSAL truth behind it.  That universal truth is the ticket to success as a songwriter.

All the best,
Marty Dodson

Marty Dodson is a seven-time, No. 1 hit songwriter who has had songs recorded in country, rock, pop, bluegrass, K-Pop, J-Pop and musical theatre.  His greatest songwriting achievement is knocking Psy out of the #1 spot in South Korea with his song “Bounce”.  He co-founded SongTown, the world’s leading songwriter education site, with fellow hit writer Clay Mills and is passionate about teaching people to write better songs. Visit SongTown.com for 10 free videos!

2 Comments

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  1. I write songs for a film/tv library and am often asked what the “key to success” is, and my rhetorical response is always “universal themes”. This was a great article and is great advise to any songwriter! It truly applies to all contemporary markets.

  2. Thanks Marty, that was great insight in being persistent in songwriting. I have been more diligent in fine tuning my songwriting in the past couple of years. Believe that the rewriting & not being so attached to 1st takes has improved my songs. Having a trusted sounding board is also a great resource.

    Eddie DeRocher

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