Songwriting 101: Write Catchier Songs...


Courtesy of Benjamin Samama

Rhythmic motifs make melodies catchy. If you sing a melody once, it doesn't really mean anything. If you sing it two times, people recognize it and like it better...

This time, I want to go over one of my favorite theories that I used as a Berklee professor. This was the one where my students' eyes would open, and I could see a proverbial light bulb turn on over their heads like in the cartoons. I call it: rhythmic motifs. Aka, repeating stuff.


Cautionary warning: it's gonna get a teenie bit academic here. Don't be scared – it's very easy once you get it.

"Latch" by Disclosure
Listen all the way through. It's awesome, right? Kind of complicated, right? Wrong.

Verse
Check out the first line of the verse melody:

You lift my heart up when the rest of me is down

Speak the lyric in rhythm while clapping the beat. Don't think about notes, just the rhythm of it. If you then do this for the second, third, and fourth line in the verse, you'll notice that the rhythm in the melody is repeated verbatim throughout the verse, even though the notes change.

The rhythm in a melody is called melodic rhythm.

You lift my heart up when the rest of me is down A (new rhythmic motif established)
You, you enchant me even when you're not around A (repeat)
If there are boundaries, I will try to knock them down A (repeat)
I’m latching on, babe, now I know what I have found A (repeat)

If we were gonna put a formula to this rhythmic motif setup, it would be: AAAA

Simple, right? Let's go to the pre.


Pre-chorus
Same thing applies. This time, the repeats are a little different, but not different enough. Because people are expecting a new idea in a new section, we will start counting back at A. Note that the pre-chorus A is not the same idea as the verse A.

I feel we're close enough A (new rhythmic motif)
I wanna lock in your love A (repeat)
I feel we’re close enough A (repeat. Riff doesn't count)
Could I lock in your love? A (repeat. "Baby" is an ad-lib. Doesn't count)

Rhythmic motif formula for the pre-chorus: AAAA

Chorus
Same game!

Now I've got you in my space, I won't let go of you A (new rhythmic motif)
Got you shackled in my embrace, I'm latching on to you A (repeat)
Now I've got you in my space, I won't let go of you A (repeat)
Got you shackled in my embrace, I'm latching on to you A (repeat)

Rhythmic motif formula for the chorus: AAAA

Easy peasy, right? There's one original idea, then three repeats. Most songs do this, or a version of this. Don't be afraid to repeat your good ideas.


So, in a sense, we spent the first minute and 50 seconds listening to three unique melodic rhythms. The rest is repeat, repeat, repeat. This goes to show how little original material you have to think of as a songwriter. The earlier you accept this, the faster you'll be able to write catchy songs. Make one thing up, repeat it three times. Boom. Verse! Make up another thing, repeat it three times. Boom. Pre-chorus! You get the idea.

Disclosure's "Latch" was easy. Not a lot of variation. Let's get a little bit more difficult.

"Willing and Able" by Disclosure

Verse
Don't say you want me A (new idea)
Don't say you need me A (repeat)
If you ain't ready, turn around B (new rhythmic motif. It's close to A, but still far enough)
Willing and able A
Cards on the table A
And I believe in what we've found B
Pre-chorus (start counting back at A)
If we can't trust A (new idea)
The love in us A
There'll be no looking back, no looking back, no B (new idea)
If there's enough A
In stuff we touch A
There'll be no looking back, no looking back, no B


Chorus (start counting back at A)
If we're falling in love A (new idea)
We're falling in love A
There'll be nothing above A (riff doesn't count)
And I won't give you up A
No I won't give you up A
If we're falling in love A
If we're falling in love A
We're falling in love A
There'll be nothing above A
And I won't give you up A
No I won't give you up A
If we're falling in love A

In this song, even though the chorus is hyper repetitive, the verse and pre-chorus get one more idea in there, which makes the formula for the verse and pre: AABAAB.

All of a sudden you see the logic, right? Rhythmic motifs make melodies catchy. If you sing a melody once, it doesn't really mean anything. If you sing it two times, people recognize it and like it better.

Again, this doesn't mean you have to sing the same notes twice, just the same melodic rhythm twice.

For example, the chorus to: 
Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah":

Chorus
Hallelujah A (new rhythmic idea)
Hallelujah A (different notes, same rhythm)
Hallelujah A
Hallelujah B (extension of A, but different enough to be a B)

The melody changes, but the melodic rhythm stays the same. This is why this song is so damn catchy, even if it's not considered "pop."



So in a nutshell, the more you repeat your melodic rhythms, the catchier your song will be. You can still move your notes around, but if you think in rhythmic motifs, the world will lay at your feet!

Start picking apart your own songs, and see how many letters you have to use in your rhythmic formula. Chances are, if you get to D or E within a section, you're probably in trouble!

Benjamin Samama taught songwriting at Berklee College of Music from 2013–2015 and currently writes and produces pop music full-time in Los Angeles. His songs have been released by dozens of artists all over the world and enjoyed by millions. Click here to contact Benjamin if you'd like a one-on-one songwriting consultation with him.



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