The Realities of Radioplay: Part II

by Mary Dawson

The Mystery of the Listener's Mind

Have you ever been sitting in church, listening to a soloist sing a special song when your "pre-lunch, nearly-noon" stomach begins to growl? Suddenly, you begin to think of the roast in the crockpot at home. Your mind then quickly moves to the mashed potatoes, salad, and apple pie that will accompany your meal -- and then it drifts into thinking about what you are going to do this afternoon...take a nap, finish that new novel you've been reading or go for a walk. Before you know it, your mind has covered a couple of dozen concepts. You have not missed one word or note of the solo, but chances are that the song probably will not have really "touched you" on a deeply emotional level. You have heard the song -- but it hasn't really connected with your emotions. Some may call this simple daydreaming, but it illustrates a very important principle that a hit songwriter must understand:

The human mind is far faster and more multi-faceted than the human ear, and aided by the power of imagination, the mind can envision almost every thought as soon as it enters consciousness.

This reality is both bad news and good news for the songwriter. If you can understand the mystery of the listener's mind, you can make it work for you to take your songs to a wider audience. If you don't understand and work with this fact, you may find you and your songs relegated to obscurity.

In my first article on radioplay we established that radio is an industry built not primarily upon music but upon listeners. The only value songs have for a radio station is their ability to "hook" and keep listeners tuned in. Ratings are calculated by the number of listeners a station has. The stations with the most listeners can charge the highest prices for advertising. Songs and music are, therefore, a means to the end : If you are beginning to realize that the song is the first rung of the ladder for radio to reach its ultimate financial goal, then you will also realize how important it is for you as a songwriter to know your stuff! Writing a hit song is not primarily a matter of personal expression, or even just a matter of writing technique, but of understanding the way the human mind connects with and processes songs. This will determine whether or not the listener's finger does or does not hit another channel.

And this brings us back to the principle above. As a songwriter, you must learn to work with the mind's capacity to imagine and visualize in order to emotionally engage the listener in your song. If your song fails to accomplish this, the listener's mind will still imagine and visualize, but it will begin to drift to other things (like pot roast and apple pie) that take it further and further away from the possibility of connecting with and staying tuned in to your song.

So - the obvious question must be: How the heck do you work with something as high speed and fickle as a listener's mind? The answer to this question lies in understanding that the imagination is not a self-starting device. It is a responsive device that does not act on its own accord, but rather reacts to stimuli. It then triggers an appropriate emotional response in the brain based on previous experiences and perceptions of similar stimuli. That's why you laugh or cry at the movies. Your eyes receive the stimuli of the action on the screen, and immediately your mind begins to respond to that stimuli through imagining how you would feel if you were in the scene. At lightning speed, the imagination then triggers your emotions which, in turn, cause you to either grab your Kleenex or hold your sides. As a songwriter, your job is to create a "mental movie" on the mind of the listener using both words and music that will cause the imagination to do its work on your behalf and hook the listener's mind and emotions all the way to the end of the song.

The next question, of course, is: Specifically, what should the songwriter do to effectively stimulate and hold the imagination so that it triggers appropriate emotions in the listener's mind? The songwriter has two "guns in his holster" to accomplish this goal -- the lyrics and the music. Let's look at the lyrics first.

Many songwriters mistakenly try to "instruct" the imagination by telling it how it should feel. Songs with lyrics that simply state how the singer is feeling in abstract concepts do NOT stimulate the imagination. Abstractions are not effective because they do not create immediate stimuli for the imagination. They sort of "float around" unspecifically and the imagination really doesn't know what to do with them. Contrast the following two examples expressing the same thought:
I am so happy and optimistic lately; I think the reason must be that you are here

-- OR --

I'm on the top of the world looking down on creation
And the only explanation I can find
Is the love that I've found ever since you've been around
Your love put me at the top of the world1
The first option uses abstract descriptions in words that everyone understands but that do nothing to trigger an emotional response. The listener may be happy for the person who is expressing these positive feelings, but does not share or participate in those feelings because the lyrics are instructive rather than stimulative. In the second option, we immediately have a "scene" -- a word picture that causes the listener's imagination to respond. Instantly, the imagination sets up a fanciful scene in which we see ourselves "on top of the world looking down on creation." The first option states a fact...the second triggers an emotional response.

I like to think of effective lyrics as Word Snapshots...lyrics that are so visual and suggest such clear images that the mind can't help but "see them." Such snapshots do not require complete sentences or explanations -- just enough to trigger the imagination. First lines are extremely important for placing these little "photos" in the listener's mind. Here's an example of first lines from one of my songs:
Candles and ivory lace
Our faces aglow
Memories of promises made long ago2
Notice that none of these three lines is lengthy or even a complete sentence...just enough to prompt the imagination. If I "pulled it off" well, you should have begun to visualize and imagine a wedding scene and perhaps even your own wedding with its many emotions and memories.

Word snapshots must also have "action" in them. Still life images only go so far in holding the listener's interest. Remember this is a "mind movie" that we hope to create. It has to keep rolling for the listener's imagination to continue creating new images that will maintain that emotional connection to the end of the song.

The music of the song can also be a very effective stimulus when used correctly. Even before the first word of the song is sung, the intro music will begin to cue the imagination as to which emotions it should trigger. Slow, melancholy music in minor keys will start programming the imagination toward a sad or introspective emotional response, while happy, upbeat music like the melody for Top of the World (quoted above) creates a buoyant, positive reaction. It is the task of the songwriter to make every note and every word work together to signal the imagination appropriately. If the lyrics of your song are prompting the imagination to create one emotion while the music has a different "feel" altogether, the listener's mind will become confused and immediately begin to "drift."

Here are some guidelines to help you as you craft your song so that it works with the listener's mind:
  1. Do the first notes of music in the introduction begin to set the mood correctly?
  2. Do the first lyrics immediately create a visual image for the listener' mind?
  3. Are the words and music combined appropriately all through the song to convey the subject or idea?
  4. Are the words creating simple, specific visual snapshots?
  5. Is there action in the lyrics? Are we going somewhere interesting?
I often compare the listener's mind to Noah's Dove. You remember that story. After forty days of floating around on a water wasteland, Noah wanted to find out if the flood was receding so he sent out a dove. The dove flew around and around looking for a place to land, but had to come back to the ark because there was no solid ground for it to put its foot down. The listener's mind is very much the same. It is flying around over a flood of both internal and external stimuli -- all vying for its attention. Your job as a hit songwriter is to provide a "place to land" for the imagination so that it can ride with you all the way to the end of the song.

1Top of the World (R. Carpenter / J. Bettis), 1972 Almo Music & Hammer and Nails Music (ASCAP)
2Living Out the Vows (M. Dawson / B. Greer, 1992 CQK Music (ASCAP)

**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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