Guest Post by Charlotte Yates
KISS (Keep It Simple Stupid) is the ultimate acronym to have tattooed at the front of your songwriting brain. Here’s why.
1. It reminds us that songs are short and they travel in real time.
2. It reminds us that songs are heard. We hear them – and need to understand them quickly.
3. It reminds us of the purpose of songs – they provoke emotion – we should feel something.
4. It reminds us that we, your audience, should be able to remember something about your song after ONE listen. Good songs should be memorable.
5. It reminds us that we should be able to sing along – not necessarily professionally, but at least in the shower, or in the car in a traffic jam, or while we’re vacuuming, or when we’re slumped on the couch heartbroken, sobbing under a blanket.
Oh yes, my friend - keep it simple, stupid!
Simple does not mean shallow or dumbed down.
Simple does not mean easy to write. If it was, everyone would be doing it!
Simple can be two chords: Eleanor Rigby, two words - Anchor Me , or two notes - Born Free.
Simple means one story well told, one emotion well reached, a connection made with an audience.
Simple asks what are you trying to say, and expects an unequivocal answer.
Simple is authentic. Simple is uncomplicated. Simplicity is clarity.
Simple touches your heart and makes you listen. And it’s not just my view… Concision, admittedly, is the essence of pop: its discipline, its challenge, its genius. To tell a story or sum up an attitude in a handful of sung verses or a salvo of hip-hop rhymes, and to unite them with music that lodges those words in memory — and, at best, also summons the feeling behind them — is a songwriter’s job description…. Yet musical or verbal complexity can easily add clutter rather than depth, not to mention idle pretension. That’s why popular music regularly goes through back-to-basics purges like punk (both the 1970s and 1990s editions), electro (with iterations in every decade since the 1970s) and for that matter rock ’n’ roll itself. ~ New York Times
Simplicity cuts out the middle man and cuts to the chase. So you can get to where you want to be, faster. Ah - now we’re really getting somewhere. Remember, songs don’t have long to get anywhere, a mere three to four minutes.
Simplicity helps you, the songwriter, really get to the heart of what is so powerful about this art form. Simplicity is not just you sharing what you have to say, but listening to what the audience actually hears. In other words, it’s not just about you! When an audience truly connects with your song, they can experience intense emotion. You want seriously to cause that.
Simplicity allows you to take your initial idea and stay focused on the end result – the hearts of your audience. It changes your artistic motivation from pure self-expression to dedicated communication. Are you moving folks, or are you a soundtrack they can drink beer and chat to?
Simplicity pushes you to prioritize. If you know what you want your audience to experience immediately, then you can set to actively building that intensity for them. So, how does that change your working day? Here’s how. Look at each of the building blocks of your song and see if you can do things, well, simpler.
The Point. What are you trying to say? What is the point of your song? Is it easy to understand? Can you explain clearly what your song is saying in one sentence? Universal messages of love in all its forms, songs of longing and hope, sorrow, collective anger or outrage or something upbeat and danceable to get you through all have their place. From my experience, this is the bit that most newbie songwriters skip over.
The Lyrics. Do you use everyday conversational language? Can we understand what you’re saying, immediately? Is there at least one image (a picture) that helps us see what you see, clear as day? Do you have the title in the chorus? Does the title tell us the point of your song? Does your story keep reinforcing your song’s purpose?
Structure. Does the shape or form of the song show us where we are going, clearly, like a good map? Are there sections we can easily recognize - verses, a chorus, maybe a bridge, hooks we can latch onto (vocal or instrumental), an intro or outro? Are the components put together in a way we can follow, with a beginning, middle, and an end? Does this map allow the story or purpose of the song to clearly unfold?
Chords. Is the progression strong, maybe even the same throughout the entire song? This is trending in pop songwriting now. It’s what you put on top that creates the shape of the song. "Royals" uses the same three chords throughout and they’re all major. (D/C/G).
Melody. Is the tune easy to sing and easy to learn, in a range that everyone can sing (not more than an octave plus two)? Is the melody made up of a repeated motif (a small group of notes that builds the melody, like how words make a phrase)? "Yesterday" uses a three-note motif made of just two notes. Key professional songwriters like Max Martin start with the melody. (Just saying…)
Rhythm. Does your song have a clear groove or beat? At the same stage - preferably in the chorus - do all the elements in your song hit the first beat of the bar? Can we move some bit of ourselves to it - tap our feet, nod our heads, or shake it all about? There’s a really good reason why musicians talk about the feel of a song!
Unplugged. Does the song works with just you and a guitar, or just you and a piano, or just you singing it? If it does - and people get it, stripped right back - then you’ve got a song. As Richard Rogers once famously said, ‘no one whistles the words’.
Repetition. Do you repeat stuff – the chords, the melodic motif, the title in the chorus, the chorus, the groove? The songs that reached the Billboard top 10 were, on average, lyrically more repetitive than the rest in every year from 1960 to 2015!
Simple means that we can hear and understand each of these building blocks of the song. How all the pieces of the puzzle fit together is what makes the magic!