So you’ve been recording your songs and getting them out into the wild world, but even though you’ve been promoting the heck out of them, your targeted audience doesn’t seem at all engaged. You’re not getting any feedback at all – not even negative feedback. What gives?
Are Your Songs Engaging?
Assuming you’ve got some good mixes, you’ve targeted your demographic properly and you’re promoting in all the right places, in all the right ways (a blog for another day), the problem may be that your songs just don’t have any life. They may be missing two or more of the key elements that make a song “engaging”.
Oh, what do you know, Ender? You’ve written about sixty-plus songs and don’t have a hit yourself!
Okay, fair enough… but I never said anything about “hits”. I’m talking about “engaging”. Every hit is engaging, but not every engaging song is (or has to be) a hit.
I can explain. Just hear me out.
Why Do I Need To Think Like A Producer?
One of the first things you have to do when it comes to writing your songs (and actually performing and recording them) is to think like a producer. Not everyone can do that. Some think they can and actually can’t. I would argue that I can but that’s really up for you to decide. And, again, I remind you that I’m not necessarily talking about writing hits here – I’m talking about writing engaging songs. Radiohead, for instance, makes plenty of engaging songs. How many true “hits” do they have? Thinking like a producer gives you a little bit more objectivity. It allows you to really sit back and listen to your work and really determine if it’s got all the elements of a song that people will want to listen to more than once and then share with friends.
That’s essentially what I mean by a song being “engaging” – it’s a song that a person would listen to more than once, and is typically (but not always) one that a person would want to share with friends. It’s addicting. It’s viral. If it’s addicting and viral enough, it could be a hit. But even if you’re not trying to create a hit, you still need your music to be engaging. Otherwise, who cares? Even if you’re not trying to create a chart-topper, you’re still trying to create something that people would listen to, right?
What Is Hook, Line And Drive?
Every songwriter, producer or musician will probably have a different concept or formula for this – and in all fairness they may all be correct in their own ways. I’m not about to suggest that my way is the correct or only way. But it’s the way I do it, and it’s the way I teach it. And I think with all the other promotional and engineering elements at play (the ones I passed by up top) it can be very helpful. Without any variation of this concept applied to your songs, your hard work is truly sunk.
That’s why I call my method “Hook, Line, Drive”, rather than “Hook, Line, Sinker”. The latter would sound very cool, but you’re not looking to make a “sinker”. You’re looking to make something that’s engaging. To do that, you need at least two of the three elements in your songs – Hook, Line, Drive.
Let’s talk about each of these. What are they? How do they work in tandem with each other? Well, let’s talk about each one separately first, and then we’ll get into their relationship.
Hook – This, I think, is rather obvious. When a person says that a song is “catchy”, typically what they’re saying is it has a Hook. I would argue that almost every hit song has a Hook. So do songs that aren’t hits. I actually feel that this is an element you pretty much can’t do without if you want your song to be engaging. It’s the ear candy of your songs. The thing that really makes you want to put them on repeat. What are some examples of Hooks? Sometimes they’re guitar parts, like the intro to Guns & Roses “Sweet Child O’ Mine“; or the sing-along chorus of U2’s “Mysterious Ways“. (As an aside, that song has two Hooks – the intro guitar part and the chorus line “It’s alright, It’s alright…”). Repetitive-phrase sing-along choruses (like “Mysterious Ways”), repetitive-syllable choruses, (like Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off“) and alliterated vocal phrases (like the “Paved paradise and put up a parking lot” in “Big Yellow Taxi” or “Paradise” by Coldplay), are some of the best ear candy Hooks you could possibly create. If you’re having trouble identifying the Hook of a song, the easiest way to do so is to think about what the artist would start with (or what you know they have started with) if the song were to be played live – what’s the thing that the audience notices and goes apeshit over when they recognize it? It’s like the main guitar riff in The Killers’ “Mr. Brightside” or U2’s “Where The Streets Have No Name“. That’s your Hook. As far as I’m concerned, no song can do without it. That means your songs can’t do without it either. (Side Note: A lot of U2’s hits have two Hooks – that’s part of why they have so many of them).
Line – I know this might be confusing, because I could understand someone thinking the “Line” is a lyric. In my mind, the Line could be made up of a lyric, but it’s actually the melody of the song. While it absolutely helps for a song to have an identifiable melody, I don’t necessarily feel it needs one to make it engaging. Some very popular songs are actually rather ambiguous in that way – and that’s part of their allure – but they have a Hook and Drive to make up for it (I’ll get to Drive in a bit). I would actually almost argue that aside from the main guitar riff of “Mr. Brightside” (which, again, is the Hook), the song has no real melody. Brandon Flowers sings an almost-one-note line throughout the entire tune. But it’s so catchy because it has the Hook and Drive. So what are some good examples of Melody? How about the verse and chorus vocal melodies in “Disarm” by The Smashing Pumpkins? (Side note: the “The killer in me is the killer in you” phrasing is the Hook). Or how about nearly everything by N*Sync or The Backstreet Boys (like them or not – these are well-crafted pop tunes). R.E.M.’s “Everybody Hurts“, or A-Ha’s “Take On Me“, which is a great example of both vocal and instrumentation having Melody, while either could actually double for the Hook (no wonder that song was so huge, right?) There are definitely some other songs out there where the melody is in the instruments, but more often than not you’re going to find this in the vocal – that’s because the vocal is front and center.
But as I noted above, not every song needs a true identifiable Melody. If it doesn’t have one, it needs the Hook, and one more thing:
Drive – This is what propels the song. This is what pushes it forward. It’s the energy in the music. More often than not, this is all about the rhythm. Where the Hook and Melody are almost always the vocals and guitars (in a traditional band), the Drive is all about the rhythm section (drums and bass). In order for a song to have Drive, it has to be pushed forward by the rhythm. Some great examples of songs with Drive: “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” by U2 (notice how the muted, syncopated guitar also accentuates this); “Bullet With Butterfly Wings” by The Smashing Pumpkins. “Oops! I Did It Again” by Britney Spears. If the rhythm isn’t tight, but is instead lazy or lethargic, the music will have no drive, and no matter how much Hook you give it, the listener will get bored – it will feel like the song isn’t going anywhere. It’s all about momentum. Remember “Mr. Brightside” above? The drive in that song isn’t just in the rhythm section – it’s in Brandon’s vocal delivery (even moreso than the drums and bass). Often-times, when the singer isn’t singing a melody, he’s singing a rhythm. In those moments, it’s highly likely that’s where the drive of the song is. Like most rap songs. Or U2’s “Numb“.
I know I’m giving you a lot of U2 but… I know it very well. Humor me.
Slow songs have and need Drive, too. I would suggest that they need it more than a fast song does. Good examples of Drive in slow songs: “With or Without You” by U2; “Drive” by The Cars (how apt); “Heart And Soul” by T’Pau; “Girls Chase Boys” by Ingrid Michaelson (this one you can hear in the chorus vocal – it’s both the driving rhythm and the Hook of the song)… Shame that Shania Twain already spoofed Robert Palmer in “Man! I Feel Like A Woman” though, right?
How Do All Of These Song Elements Come Together?
So now that we understand all of these elements, how exactly is it that they come together in your songs? Though I’ve pointed out the value of each, do they rank in any particular way?
Aside from what I noted above in terms which elements you absolutely need (ie: Hook and Drive) and the elements you can still survive without (ie: Line/Melody), there really isn’t any kind of ranking of importance. Instead, I look at them kind of like a picture. And while it would help to actually have a picture here to show you, I’ll have to go with simply describing what I mean.
First, let’s take the Hook. I see that as the big thing. The really big thing. So write that word down in the middle of an index card in big letters, but leave some space underneath and above. The Hook is the big one because it’s going to come out and grab you – it’s the most important thing people hear when they listen to your songs. It’s the ear candy.
Next, write the word “Drive” underneath, in smaller letters, with an arrow on its right, pointing to the right. Drive is what propels the song forward. It’s the backbone – the engine. It’s what the whole tune runs on. So it needs to be on the bottom of this diagram because it carries everything else.
Last, write the word “Line” (or “Melody”, if that’s easier) above the word Hook, in smaller letters. The Melody, if there is one, rides on top of the Hook and Drive, but isn’t as discernible or as eye-(or ear)-grabbing as the Hook. It might be there, it might not. But either way, it’s being carried by everything else.
In essence, you’ll have something like this:
In one of my next blogs I’ll get into the importance of the actual production, and how a studio recording isn’t anything more than a personal posterity demo if you don’t pay attention to some important concepts.
So, what do you think of the above Hook, Line, Drive concept? Am I way off base? Am I onto something? If you use a different method in your songs (or know of one), what is it? How are they similar? How are they different? Share below!