Welcome to “The Music Lab,” a new column powered by SongTown and featured in American Songwriter every month.
Hey! It’s a pleasure to have you read another installment of the Music Lab today. As a songwriter, I have been blessed with both a career I never dreamed possible and a chance to help hundreds of talented writers at SongTown level-up up their songwriting. I especially love delving into vocal melodies.
Every January, I give my Melody Masterclass their first week’s assignment: Inspired Listening. This involves listening while suspending long-engrained “opinions” and listening for elements of melody that inspire, which they can use in their future writing. I ask my students to spend a few days simply listening to music and taking notes on anything they find interesting about the melodies. Invariably a large number of students return to class with comments like:
“I love how the background singers come in the second half of the verse.”
Or, “I love the finger snaps in the verses of the song.”
Or, the more savvy studio types will say something like “I really dig that retro tremolo sound on the guitar with the dotted 8th delay.”
These are all cool elements for sure but have little to do with the melody or the bones of the song itself. Instead, they are production techniques. While a great production can make or break a record, they are the “clothing” wrapped around the song. For me, I like to think of a song as the body and the production as the clothes it wears.
If we listen to what’s happening underneath the production, we find the core elements that make up the body of the song:
2. Melody note, rhythms, patterns, and lines
3. Contrasting elements of melody and rhythm between sections
4. Pace and arc of the melody and lyric
Good questions to ask:
5. Is the vocal melody higher or lower in the chorus?
6. Does the bridge (if there is one) go somewhere different musically?
Etc., etc., etc…
Great songs have so many of these core song elements working in synergy that a singer can stand alone onstage in a stadium and sing a cappella—and 30,000 people will sing along! To do that, a song needs one hell of a body!
Production is fashion.
Fashions change quickly. Today, mainstream records don’t sound like they did five, ten, fifteen, or twenty years ago. However, a great song can be produced in multiple styles over multiple decades and still be a great song.
If you’ve watched television over the last five years, you will have heard a plethora of old hits and obscure album cuts redone completely as new cover versions. A bouncy, fully produced radio hit of yesterday changes into an ethereal moody piece with only a synth and vocal.
This happened to one of my own songs, “Fall,” a Top 5 single for country superstar Clay Walker. A few years after he released it, pop artist Kimberley Locke discovered the song and recorded a dance club version of it. The dance version of “Fall” gyrated to #1 on the charts. From country to the club! Kimberley also sang a more pop-sounding version on American Idol. All three recordings were adorned with completely different production values, but the song underneath the fashion was the same core song.
Strive for greatness.
My personal bar for writing a great song has always been to write a song that stands the test of time—one that will hold up in any circumstance, whether it’s played on an acoustic guitar in a coffee shop or receiving the full production treatment for radio. I strive for a well-built song that can wear any style of production, yet still evoke a strong emotional response from the audience.
My challenge to you.
As you listen to music this week, focus on the vocal melodies of the singers. Notice how a verse melody will have melodic/rhythmic patterns that are completely different than the song chorus. Does the chorus go higher? Does it get busier in notes? Or, is the verse wordy while the chorus stretches out into longer held notes? Is there a pre-chorus, or does it roll right into the chorus? Is there a bridge?
To put it simply: learn to separate the production elements from the melody and lyrics.
If you want to improve your production skills, my Inspired Listening exercise will also help you better understand what production techniques work best for different types of songs. Remember, when done well, the body and fashion are connected and should feel like one.
Songs in all genres from classical to country to dance to R&B often have melodic and rhythmic elements in common. You expand your understanding of what makes a great song by listening for these common elements across a variety of styles. Training your ear to hear the difference between song bones and production clothes will help you write songs that are both hooky and timeless. We all want to write songs that will resonate with the audience, no matter the current trend.
Until next time, write on!
Clay Mills is a six-time No.1 hitmaker and multi-Grammy nominated songwriter/producer. His songs have been recorded by major artists in country, pop, rock, dance, bluegrass, and gospel. His voice and songs have found their way into national ad campaigns and movie soundtracks. He co-founded SongTown.com, the world’s leading songwriter education site, with fellow hit writer Marty Dodson. Clay is as passionate about teaching songwriting as he is about writing himself.