8 Foundations Of A Great Song



Here are the basics that you need to write a great song in any genre:

1) A recognizable structure – people can get confused if a song does not fit one of the common song structure patterns. We are used to songs being in some variation of the Verse, Chorus, Verse, Chorus, Bridge, Chorus format. Straying too far from that can leave a listener wondering where they are in a song. “Pretty Woman” is a hit song that wandered all over the place. But, most people I have polled can’t sing that song to me. They can sing pieces of it, but they can’t put them together. Song structure is important.

2) A consistent rhyme scheme – the different sections of your song need to have consistent rhyme schemes. All of the verses should have the same rhyme scheme. All choruses should have the same scheme, etc. Changing the rhyme scheme from verse to verse is unsettling for the listener.

3) Singable, catchy melody – by and large, listeners want to sing along with a song they like. If the song is too rangy or too hard to sing, it turns the listener off. They want it to get stuck in their head and they want to sing along.

4) A predictable time frame – most great songs are between 2 and a half minutes long and 3 and a half minutes long. Writing a song much shorter or much longer doesn’t feel right to most listeners.

5) A great opening line – you need to draw the listener in from the first line. You can lose them or keep them with that one line of lyrics.

6) Melody and Lyric that fit well together – writing a happy song with a minor, “down” melody doesn’t usually work. Nor does the reverse. Making your music and your lyric have the same “feel” gives you a strong, consistent message.

7) A lyric that makes sense – I know I’m going to get grief over this one. Yes, I know that “Yakety Yak” was a hit song. But for every hit song you could name that DOESN’T make sense, I could name you ten that DO make good sense. Generally, people want to understand what they are hearing.

8) Touch some universal emotion – if you want to write a great song, you have to tap into some universal human emotion. Not doing that leaves people with a “so what” feeling.

If you write songs with all of those fundamentals in place, I predict that you are writing strong songs.

What are your thoughts? Did I leave any fundamentals out?



Marty Dodson - pro songwriter/instructor - SongTown

Marty Dodson is a multi #1 songwriter and co-founder of SongTown.com

5 thoughts on “8 Foundations Of A Great Song

  1. Awesome advise Marty, though I have written my one obligatory nah nah nah song; after I was finished with it, I on got on with learning how to craft songs that are simular to the 99% of other hit songs….lol…!

  2. While I agree that many “hit” songs might not have a real logical, straight forward meaning, I think Yakety Yak makes perfect sense! Some parent or other authority figure is telling a young person what to do, and he (or she) talks back. That’s the beginnings of rock and roll, right there – the late ’50’s zeitgeist.

    Lieber and Stoller (who wrote this) sure weren’t teenagers then, but they knew what was going on. That’s part of the commercial songwriter’s job. And you want to talk about hooks? How about the little King Curtis sax riffs?


  3. Now that’s a great lesson Marty!

    Structure: A Song must have enough Repetition to supply the function of structure, and enough Change to keep it interesting. The Chorus should be Change, not sounding Melodically like the Verse Melody. A Bridge, if the Song employs one, should also have its own Melody, not sounding exactly like either the Verse or Chorus Melody.

    Listeners ‘learn’ the Melody of the Verse the first time they hear it. They recognize it when it repeats in succeeding Verses. They ‘welcome’ the return of that Melody after hearing the Change of Melody and dynamics of the Chorus. That contrast with what the Chorus did and what the Verse repeats is engaging, keeping listeners engaged. They welcome back the familiarity of the Chorus too, on its first repeat. They ‘learned’ it and now enjoy hearing it again.

    Depending on the Song you may follow the Verse/Chorus, Verse/Chorus, or the Verse, Verse, Chorus, Verse/Chorus, with an Instrumental Bridge, or a Vocal Bridge, to break the risk of monotony of Repetition. How much Repetition/Change is ‘enough’ is a judgment call. Listeners will make that judgment. If it’s just enough to serve the function they’ll know. You, as the first listener, should make that same sort of judgment. Is that ‘enough’ Lyrical Exposition, setting the scene, ‘furnishing’ the stage where the ‘actors’ will play out the story? Is it ‘time’ to move on to the main point, the gist of the story, that summary line that makes sense in the story? The concept of ‘enough’ is elusive. Opinions may vary. Somewhere there YOU have to decide in the writing what YOU think is ‘enough’.

    Rhyme Scheme: Rhyme is a device for making a Lyric ‘memorable’, memorizable, a key for the ‘learning’ of the Lyric as they hear it. It’s why nursery rhymes employ it. Rhyme hits the beat, internally in a line, and at the end of lines. It is a Rhythmic device as well as a word-concept device. Rhyme sets a pattern the listener learns to expect to repeat as the Melody repeats. The same Rhyme-Scheme employed in Verse 1 is expected to repeat in Verse 2 and 3. Same Melody; same Rhyme-Scheme. If Verse 1 Line 1 and Verse 1 Line 2 Rhyme, then Verse 2 should repeat that Scheme, Rhyming lines 1 and 2. If Verse 1 sets a different pattern, Rhyming Verse 1 Line 2 and Verse 1 Line 4, then other Verses should repeat that pattern. It is part of the Structure listeners can relate to, ‘learning’ the Structure as they listen, appreciating the familiarity in Repetition.

    Melody: I hear Songs I think are unsingable. The Melody, being sung by the writer, or a famous artist, is beyond the grasp of my ear. I couldn’t repeat the Song without study. It doesn’t get into my head and have me singing along by the end of the Song. Some of these are recordings by people whose names you’d know. They’re excellent singers, and they had to record something, and, apparently they or whoever makes the decisions settled on these Songs, but I, amateur singer, listener, layman, Forgive me Father for I know not what I do, cannot sing the Song. I don’t get it. I’d have to study the specific Song to know why, but I know I’ve heard them and, if they retained my attention long enough to make the observation, I did, and that was my conclusion. The Melody is unsingable. And yet there the writer or famous artist is, singing it.

    Time Frame: Be thinking of two places where the Song will be heard. #1. Live: where some audiences won’t mind if you go on for four or five or fifteen minutes, if the sound is entertaining. That audience will listen to the recorded version that long too. #2. Radio: Where the only reason they’re playing it is to keep you tuned in until they can get back to paying the bills with commercial advertising. Radio is probably the number one Royalty revenue-generating venue. DJ’s in the old days, physically ‘jockeying’ vinyl discs onto turntables to play each Song broadcast liked the occasional long Song because it gave them time to go to the restroom. Commercially though, the leadership decision-makers of radio want short Songs to hook you and more time to air ads. Feel free to write us another “Hotel California” with its nearly one minute Introductory Movement, or another “Stairway To Heaven”, but, if you want airplay, 2 and 1/2 to 3 and 1/2 minutes, with good Structure, Melody, and Rhyme-Scheme, and you may have a hit.

    Opening Line: As the Songwriter YOU are the first listener. You should be ‘hooked’ by that first line the same way you hope other listeners will be. That line should make you curious about who the Singer-Character is, and where his tale is going. Do you perceive the Singer-Character in that first line? Or do you see an anonymous narrator, philosophizing not about his personal circumstances but a generic ideology for the common man? What do you think listeners will perceive when they hear it? If you’re not hooked they probably won’t be either. If YOU are…

    Melody and Lyric: These are the two elements you ‘register’ when you submit a work to the U. S. Library of Congress Register of Copyrights http://www.copyright.gov . When you ‘register’ with a Performance Rights Organization to collect Royalties for the Songwriter and Publisher all you ‘register’ is the title of the Song, and who the Songwriter(s) and Publisher(s) are. A good ‘marriage’ of Lyric and Melody means the listener hears the emotion in both word meanings and Melody. Cindy Lauper’s “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” pops into my head. Mercer and Mancini’s “Moon River”. Examine some Songs. See if you find ones you think do it well, or do it wrong. And, if they get it wrong, does it still work?

    Makes sense: I’m always looking for a logical conversation, a logical story that moves from the Expositional setup of the Verse to THE Hook/title. It’s nice if the story continues logically, with a Verse 2 serving the function of an Act II in a play, advancing the storyline. If the writer can find a Verse 3 with a satisfactory denoument’, a final ‘act’ in the ‘play’, I’m super-satisfied. They hooked me, they reeled me in, they landed me. It was a good day for fisherman and fish. Someone posted what they purported to be the Lyric to Pharell Williams’ “Happy” and I was stunned at how empty the Lyric was, just Rhyming in the Rhythm, going through the Structure of Change and Repetition, and ending in a matter of minutes. If the Lyric as given was accurate, then everything else in the Production is what carried it. It was a huge hit in terms of airplay. So it did something right.

    Universal Emotion: Starting with that first line, having a sense of someone, the singer, or Singer-Character, who feels they have to or just want to tell YOU a story about some reality they’re living, is a start in the Universal Emotion idea. I seem to recall someone recommending asking yourself ‘So what?’ after every line. Is it meaningful? Does it add to the story? Or just Rhyme? When the Singer-Character is talking about what’s going on does it sound like something you would experience, maybe have experienced, something that you would get, or have gotten emotional about? That may also be part of the advice to make your Lyric conversational. The lines can sound like someone talking directly to you, or to someone else, but in a very real way, like real people talk to each other. Philosophical speaking sometimes doesn’t sound that way. Poetry sometimes doesn’t sound that way. A conversational style, like real people talking about real things to other real people, even if its a fictional story, can touch that Universal Emotion and engage listeners. Successful fiction, it is said, gets readers to ‘suspend their disbelief’, to stop thinking this is fiction and start thinking this is a reality. Again, study some Songs. See if you can perceive what they do right in this and all the other items Marty so astutely lists. If you can perceive it in other Songs you can write it in your own Songs.

  4. I sure could have used this when I was first getting serious about my songwriting. I looked at my songs and some had inconsistent rhyme schemes. Since learning from you and SongTown, I have gone back and worked on the older ones to fix these and other errors and made sure my new ones don’t suffer from these fixable issues.

    Very helpful, as usual, Marty.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *