Making the Light Go On

by Mary Dawson

There are many "highs" and "lows" in the life of a songwriter, but in my humble opinion one of the lowest moments is when you excitedly premiere a new song for your spouse or a friend -- but instead of his being completely mesmerized by your new masterpiece, a look of total confusion passes over his face. Or even worse -- he starts to watch TV or begin talking to someone else in the room while your song is playing. This song you poured your heart into is obviously NOT making the light go on in his eyes! What happened? Why didn't they hear what you were trying so hard to express?

While writing songs to "express yourself," may be great therapy for you as a songwriter…..the reality is that such expression may never touch anyone else. Hit songs that touch the emotions of millions -- are not so much about expression as they are about communication. There is a vast difference between the two! While expression is simply letting thoughts and feelings freeflow, communication, is the transmission of information, thought or feeling so that it is satisfactorily received or understood by the listeners.

The familiar story of Noah's Ark gives a helpful analogy. You remember how it goes…after forty days of floating around on the endless ocean, Noah sends out a dove to see if there is any sign of vegetation. The first time he sends the dove out, it has to return because there is no place for the bird to put its foot on anything but water. A few days later Noah sends it out again. This time it returns with an olive branch in its mouth indicating that the water is receding. Finally, when Noah lets the dove out for the third time, it doesn't return at all. It is then that Noah knows the flood is almost over.

The listener's mind is much like Noah's dove. It is flying around over a "flood" of thoughts -- family concerns, problems at work, preoccupation with the traffic etc. When your song begins to play, the listener begins to subconsciously search for a place to mentally connect with you in the experience of the song -- a place to "put their foot down" and ride to the end. You as the songwriter must offer "solid ground" for the mind to get attached and stay interested all the way through.

How do you do that? If you can learn to master this art, you will truly be on the way to a place in the Songwriters Hall of Fame. In my opinion, the key to writing a "hit" is to make sure that in both the music and the lyrics…..
  1. your audience understands what you are trying to communicate
  2. that they identify with that message of the song
Accomplishing this goal involves developing a tightrope walker's sense of balance. Musically, the melody and harmonies must be familiar enough so that the expected musical payoffs occur and enable the listener to hum or whistle the melody after the song is over. But, on the other hand, the music must also be fresh enough to surprise and delight the ear. Similarly, the lyrics must be conversational and understandable, but -- at the same time -- stated in a slightly unique and original way to bring home the point of the song. Mega hits usually flow from the pens of artists who write like song craftsmen, but who listen and think like ordinary people.

Great songwriters know what listeners expect to hear and then they craft songs that will meet and exceed those expectations. But not only do great songwriters know their listeners, they also respect them. An audience can tell by the way you write whether you have taken the time to really craft a song they can understand or whether you are simply giving vent to your own personal emotions. They can also tell if you are writing songs in order to sell them a slick and clever product or whether you really have something heartfelt, true and well-crafted to communicate. If you sincerely respect your audience, you will take the time to make sure they "hear your heart" in both your words and music by carefully and meticulously shaping every note and word so that your listeners can receive what you are trying to express. They need to know that you are speaking their language, getting on their wavelength and that you consider yourself "one of them."

Stop and think for a moment about the people who have made the deepest impression on your life -- perhaps a teacher, a parent, a mentor. I would almost bet that they are not people who talk down to you…or talk over your head….or preach at you in a condescending way. Almost always, the greatest impact comes from people who genuinely and honestly share with you until you are able to connect with them and with what they are trying to say. The effective songwriter must approach the task of writing with that same honest and humble spirit.

My third child -- a very responsible and industrious youngster -- used to have a phobia about school tests until a very wise teacher changed her thinking about the whole process. The teacher told my daughter that tests are NOT for the purpose of measuring how smart the student is, but rather to measure how well the teacher has communicated the material. The responsibility lies with the communicator -- not the receiver -- as to whether or not the material is assimilated!

The same principle applies in songwriting: the responsibility for ensuring that listeners stay attentive does not lie with the listeners, but with the songwriter. If you are seeing confused expressions on the faces of the listeners to your songs, it's time to go back to the drawing board until you have created music and lyrics that "make the light go on" in the eyes of your audience and perhaps even produce a few tears.

**From her earliest childhood years writing simple songs and poems with her father, through her twelve years as an overseas missionary, to her present, multi-faceted career as an author, lyricist/songwriter and conference speaker, Mary has always been adept at using words to communicate her heart to others. She is the President of CQK Records & Music of Dallas, Texas, a company which creates and produces songs in a panorama of musical styles for a variety of audiences, She is also the host of "I Write the Songs," a nationally syndicated radio talk show, especially created to inspire and instruct the more than 25 million aspiring songwriters in the U.S. "I Write the Songs" is broadcast over the Internet. Mary is a frequent public speaker and seminar lecturer on songwriting. She is a regular columnist for Independent Songwriter Web Magazine. Mary's commitment to discovering and mentoring talented new songwriters has given her extensive experience in song analysis through adjudicating songwriting competitions and conducting songwriting workshops across the country and around the world. Because of her role as president of an independent music company, she is also well qualified to instruct aspiring songwriters on the various business aspects of the music industry. She is married and a mother of four. She resides in the Dallas area.

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