Pop Rules from Jim Vallance

Not everyone is writing for the masses, but if you do want to write songs that will be accessible to large groups of people, here are:

Jim Vallance's Succinct Rules for Pop Songwriting

"After listening to the first verse and chorus of a song, there should be no doubt about the song's title. Also, after listening to a song, just once, anyone should be able to hum the chorus melody. If your song doesn't pass either of these tests, then it's probably destined for obscurity. There's nothing wrong with obscure songs, but really, who doesn't want to hear their song on the radio?"

(interviewed in Songwriters Magazine's Summer 2008 issue)

I've noticed something about titles. It's been popular in recent years to have a lyrical hook that, in the old days, would have been the title, but then to call the song something else, often a one or two syllable, highly cryptic word. I suspect some writers do this because it seems more artistic and less pandering.

I also think this is a generational thing. I once tried to be cool like the other kids, calling a song "Last Thursday" even though the lyrical hook was "Call Me Crazy". In the ten years since the song was released, I've never had anyone refer to the song as anything but "Call Me Crazy," ever. So much for being cool.

Anyway, if you don't want to give the song an obvious title, in most cases it is still very wise to have a definite lyrical hook. (And, as per Vallance's advice, the lyrical hook should be clear by the end of chorus one.) If there's any chance the song will wind up on the radio, you might want to at least make the lyrical hook a subtitle, so that you have a snowball's chance of getting the song requested by name.

Or you can just be old school and let the hook be the title. I'm kind of into that. Call me crazy.
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Brendt said...

You mean like PFR's "Me" and "You" (the last two tracks on Disappear)? ;-)

Anonymous said...

For this same reason, Pat Pattison instructs his students to raise their right hand and swear, "Whenever I perform live, I will never, ever, ever, EVER, introduce a song by its title."

Of course, this isn't to say that "art" can't be successful. I mean, Jars of Clay successfully mixes and matches between writing to a title and skirting the issue. It's different when performing your own creations, or writing with the intent for others to record.

Can you share any examples of the difference between your experience as a performing songwriter, and as a staff writer so long ago?


Carolyn Arends said...

Great idea for a blog post Tony -- I'll work on some thoughts on what is unique about writing for others. Thx!