First, the most important thing.
Don’t buy a book on how to create an unforgettable song.
Chances are, majority of the authors of these books have never come close to creating the shadow of a hit tune (even a minor one) in their lives.
So no surprise, there isn’t a single “golden book” that skilled songwriters embrace as THE source of guidance and divine inspiration.
In other endeavors, something akin to a “bible” exists.
Books on “positioning” or “how to advertise” – for example – for the advertising industry.
And there’s Syd Field’s iconic books for screenwriters eager to be bestowed that elusive green light.
But expert songwriting?
Zilch. Nada. Zero. Wala.
The best source of information on how to craft unforgettable songs?
People who have crafted unforgettable songs.
Or musicmakers like me who attack the activity with amazing perseverance. (I have been writing songs since God wore short pants.)
With hundreds of hits and misses, I have learned that there are things you can do to minimize the misses.
I now propose to impart this knowledge to songwriters (veterans, as well as ‘would be’) who genuinely want to improve their craft.
If you learn something from my discourse… that’s great.
If you don’t… at least, you’ve been given a starting point to correct or improve any flawed theory.
The magical mystery tour is waiting to take you away…
- A song is a 3-minute movie. It should have a beginning, a middle and an ending. And like all good movies, the story should be riveting.
If you write a song about waking up in the morning… taking breakfast… and watching TV, it may interest you. And you alone. Ho-hum.
If you merely string nice rhymes together… but have a generic, wallpaper, worn-out topic… you’ll lose everyone’s attention faster than you can say “boring”.
Like all good movies, a song should be endowed with conflict – something that gets in the way of a character achieving something… whether it’s a guy much handsomer than you who’s getting all the attention of your ‘crush’… or a bully in school who’s tormenting you like crazy… or a girl who will only entertain suitors from La Salle.
In my song “Pers Lab”, the listener experiences the excruciating pain of a young woman who falls for a guy who doesn’t even know she existed.
In this heart-wrenching song “Makita Ka Lang Muli”, listeners are slowly conditioned to sympathize with the main characters who are now ‘attached’ but desperately yearn to link up with someone new (or a loved one from the past, perhaps) who may have unintentionally ignited the proverbial flame: “Wala sa plano ko ang umibig sa iyo… may nauna na sa puso ko”.
Then the conflict is introduced: “Pero bakit ganito ang puso ko? Sinisigaw ang pangalan mo…”. Shades of ‘it’s complicated’.
So we learn that what we have has progressed beyond infatuation… it has grown into an obsession.
- The title of the song is the summation of the story. If crafted well, the title is the AUTOMATIC takeaway of the listener after hearing the song for the very first time.
To make sure this happens, I normally situate the title of the song in the chorus part. Something that can be repeated (but in moderation please). In this case, “Makita ka lang muli… makapiling ng sandali… ang laking saya ko… makita ka lang muli”.
Now that wasn’t annoying at all… but quickly summarized the “movie” and etched the title of the song in the listener’s mind.
Reserve the best and most memorable melody of your masterpiece for the title. You will be amply rewarded by people humming the song. In great numbers. “Bongga Ka, ‘day… Bongga Ka, ‘day… Sige lang… Sige lang… Itaas ang kilay”.
- Write the way you talk. Your song will seem more real, more sincere.
And be inventive.
Scratch the phrase “it’s never been done before” from your vocabulary. (Using “tagyawat” and “behh buti nga” in a song was never done before… but I took a little risk and it paid off… handsomely. I have since added “labatiba” to the list despite the mild protestations of a singer.)
Instead of merely saying “I can’t forget you” in our featured tune… I opted to declare: “Pangalan mo’y sa aking labi… magdamag binubulong – kahit ito’y mali”. So the “cannot- forget-you” part was established but the added dimension of a tinge of guilt was introduced as well. It makes for song characters that are more fragile, more human… more “like us”.
- Disarm and charm. “Marami na akong nahalikan… marami pang labing matitikman.” Be as unpredictable as possible… put twists and turns a’la Hitchcock in your song.
One of my unreleased songs talks about a young girl’s love for her much, much older boyfriend. Her litany goes, “I love you… kahit mas bagay ka sa mommy ko… isang mama ka na noong hindi pa ako tao… I love you… I love you… I love you PO”.
Just one two-lettered word spelled the difference between just another song… and a blazing ‘don’t-you-wish-you-wrote-that’ homerun.
- Putting the ‘loved one’ on a pedestal. This has got to be the easiest, most popular route to success in songwriting.
Most of the songs the world loves follow this path. For example: “Just the Way You are”, “You are the Sunshine of my Life”, “Ikaw ang Miss Universe ng Buhay Ko”, “My Cherie Amour”, “My Love”, “Thank You For Your Love”… and I can go on forever.
Your tune should never be shy about showering positive and glowing thoughts about the person the song is pertaining to.
The listener almost ALWAYS subliminally puts himself/herself in the place of the singer’s object of affection. So it’s a big turn on when the singer professes something as romantic as this: “mga mata’y ipipikit… didilat nang saglit… sasaya ng husto… makita ka lang muli”.
6 . If you ain’t got a good melody, you ain’t got a song.
Everything we’ve talked about so far are of no consequence… if your melody sucks. If you have a melody in mind, give it the third degree. Listen to it again and again and again – at least fifty times.
If you don’t get tired of listening to it… if you can whistle it effortlessly… if it gets better with every replay and minor tweaking… you have got a hit in your hands.
The best melodies are simple and heartwarming… but never sophomoric or moronic. Like most Beatle songs, they have the uncanny ability to haunt you in a good way.
Never force a complicated, hard-to-remember tune to become nice and likeable. It will never happen. Ever.
7 . Finally, be unhappy. Trash your initial drafts. Write and rewrite. Tune and retune your melody.
And practice, practice, practice.
A great songwriter never stops honing his skills and perfecting his craft.
Think of it this way: you want to be a champion driver like Schumacher… but you only drive on Sundays – when there’s no traffic. In your village.
That’s like putting a huge unmissable sign in front of your dreams.