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3 Secrets To Writing Great Pop Songs

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How does one explain a creative process that is unexplainable, and largely intuitive? How does one create original work which is both 'art' and product in a multi-billion dollar industry where among its most successful members were a British slave trader who during a violent storm in 1748 had a spiritual epiphany and later on wrote the words, "Amazing grace, how sweet the sound...." Or a singing waiter from the lower east side of Manhattan who wrote the words, "I'm dreaming of a White Christmas...." Both leaders in the field of songwriting, English poet and clergyman John Newton and Irving Berlin had NO formal training whatsoever.

"Fools rush in where angels fear to tread" as they say, and I have been the only songwriting professor for NYU School of Continuing Education and professional studies for the past 15 years. After thousands of students have asked me to write a course textbook about my insights into both the art and science of song creation, I have finally released my first book, Do What You Love: Songwriting.

More than a learn-how-to textbook, it's an inspirational memoir of 7 key life lessons woven like colored threads from the tapestry of a life being happy doing what I love. Some people commit murder and go to prison for life, I committed 'music' back in seventh grade and have been sentenced to a life in music, with no parole. In my own way, while not being an arena headline performer, I've had over 25 gold- and platinum-selling records, made a living doing what I love, and worked with many of the most original, iconic musical artists I admire. The only thing left, after reaching the mountain top of one's dreams, is to lift others up too and assist them to attain their dreams too.

In my classes I compare being a songwriter to being a radio antenna. We pick up a signal and, if smart enough, get out of its way and record it. Songwriters are the humble workers who create the bricks that are the foundation of music.

As part of Do What You Love: Songwriting I've created a series of Pop Secrets. Patterns I've observed which have been used across time that seem to connect with the listeners deep connection to an authentic song. Here are three "Pop Secret" hip tips for writing great songs:

Pop Secret 1
Bittersweet Lyric - Happy Music

It's the contrast of colors that often makes a great piece of art -- the white canvas against whatever color is painted onto its surface. It's this contrarian principle that holds true for many of music's greatest songs: bittersweet words, happy music!

Take for example "I'll Never Fall In Love Again" by Burt Bacharach and Hal David:

"What do you get when you fall in love, you only get lies, and pain, and sorrow, so for at least until tomorrow, I'll never fall in love again."

Or "Hallelujah" by Leonard Cohen:

"It's not a cry you hear at night, it's not somebody who's seen the light, it's a cold and it's a broken Hallelujah."

Gosh, these wretched writers! How we listeners identify with them for writing something so emotionally dark about the shadowy side of love.

Yet both songs are juxtaposed against major sounding chords. The Burt Bacharach/Hal David song is so light and peppy it could be part of a soap commercial.

The opposite is true as well.

We can balance words that express a lot of sunshine by giving them a few musical "clouds." That way, our compositions don't feel so green on green, white on white, red on red, black on... black.

Pop Secret 2
"Don't bore us, start with the chorus!"

A technique many hit songwriters use is starting with some variation of the chorus as the intro. Why wait? Why not subliminally plant the melody, feel, and mood of the chorus into the listener's ear in zero to ten seconds, instead of after a minute?

Just as in The Beatles early hit "She Loves You," it starts rip-roaring full blast with the chorus. We love the song in first three seconds-sold! By the time the verse is finished and we're back into the chorus, we're singing along.

Other composers and producers will offer some tease, a coming attraction of the chorus. On "The Time Of My Life" from the "Dirty Dancing" soundtrack, Bill Medley sings "I've had the time of my life" over the intro that is in half time and his lead vocal is a full octave lower that the main chorus. This way when the beat comes in the verse lifts up, and when the first chorus hits and Mr. Medley sings an octave higher with a full tenor voice, we find ourselves singing along. Hooked by the hook!

Other teaser/coming attraction-type techniques include merely hinting at the melody. An example of this is "You Give Love a Bad Name" by Bon Jovi. It starts with the guitar weaving around the notes of the chorus melody. It hints at what's to come in the chorus. When the chorus arrives, we intuitively feel somehow we know it, and we're on the hook.

Pop Secret 3
Songs From Dreams

True, we can't control this. But it sure feels good knowing about it when the morning comes.

Some of the most famous songs come to their composers during a dream. There are many examples over the years. Keith Richards talks about hearing the guitar riff from "Satisfaction" in a dream, then waking up and recording it, as he mentioned in his amazing memoir Life.

Sting tells the story of hearing "Every Breath You Take" in a dream. The most famous dream story of all is Paul McCartney receiving "Yesterday" in a dream and writing the placeholder lyric "Scrambled Eggs" to it originally.

My own versions of hearing a song idea from a dream, then waking up to figure it out are "Brothers and Sisters" and "Reflexology" from my solo album "Life Is Strange."

Mr Dvoskin has had over 25 gold and platinum selling recordings, Grammy nominations, and worked with a diverse range of iconic stars including Mgmt, Sean Lennon, Sammy Hagar, Robert Plant, Bono, Matchbox 20, Richie Havens, Alec Baldwin, Bad Company, and The Beach Boys. His website is

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