A Tip for Hit Songwriting from Larry Butler
By Larry Butler • August 6, 2012
Larry Butler is an ASCAP writer and publisher, but in a past life he was VP Artist Relations for Warner Bros. and Reprise Records, out on tour helping promote the stellar roster of artists on the labels. Two of those artists, Randy Newman and Mark Knopfler, went out on a promo tour of radio and retail with Larry in 1988 in support of Randy’s album Land of Dreams, which Mark had produced. The following story about their secret of hit songwriting is taken from Larry’s new e-book, The Twelve Lessons of Rock ‘N’ Roll (for Your Career and Your Life), available via Amazon Kindle. Mark and Randy, of course, are long-time ASCAP writers (Mark through PRS), but there’s even a third ASCAP member mentioned in the article - Jason Mraz. Read on and see.
Let’s start where the entertainment process generally begins in the music business - the art and craft of songwriting. No one really knows how to write a song that connects with a listener every time, but here’s an inside tip from two guys who have really good averages in that regard - Randy Newman and Mark Knopfler.
Over the course of 20+ years in the Artist Relations Dept. at Warner/Reprise, I spent a good chunk of time out on performance tours; but the real test of mettle was the promo tour. The aforementioned One Easy Tip to Hit Songwriting came out of a promo tour I did with Randy Newman in 1988. Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits had just produced and played on Randy’s about-to-be-released Land of Dreams album. Mark had long admired Randy’s songwriting, particularly the idea of writing as if you were someone else; Mark attributed his own move from the autobiographical to other-personality-driven songwriting to Randy’s inspiration and considered it an honor to be working with Randy.
So we (Warner Bros. Records) thought that since Mark was out on tour with Dire Straits in the U.S. about the same time as Randy’s album release, Randy and I would tag along on the tour and make appearances at radio stations and retail luncheons. This idea resulted in the three of us wandering about towns from station to luncheon to conference room to record store in a rented car. This necessitated the three of us spending A LOT OF TIME in traffic.
Randy Newman and Mark Knopfler “relax” during a promotional tour for Randy’s album Land of Dreams at a record retail dinner at the Portland, OR Broadway Revue restaurant.
On one such day, we were in Portland, OR on our way to Music Millennium from KINK-FM when the subject of songwriting and what makes a great song came up. Usually Mark’s serious, learned discussions were punctuated by Randy’s inherent sarcasm, but this particular subject was approached in all seriousness. After 15 minutes or so of observations and theories, Mark posited a two-pronged theory:
- The success of English as the lingua franca of global popular music is all due to one attribute: the abundance of single syllable words (SSWs). SSWs make the song easier to sing, to rhyme, to set to meter and, most of all, to remember. So when writing song lyrics, given the plethora of word choices in English that all mean the same thing, more than likely one of the word choices will be a SSW, and that word by default would be the best to use in a song.
- Mark thought that the quintessential single syllable song for them was Arthur Alexander’s “You Better Move On” and Randy agreed. For the uninitiated, here’s a link to the song: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AOT7OwcbK-k
Despite the two-syllable word in the title, “You Better Move On” has about 230 words in the song, not counting the fade, 200 of which are SSWs, which is about 87%. Now I haven’t done a word-for-word translation with other languages, but my experience with French, Spanish and German in high school is that there just aren’t that many SSWs in other major languages. Perhaps there’s some Polynesian dialect spoken on some faraway South Pacific atoll made up of only SSWs, but they aren’t teaching it in Ohio and nobody’s buying their records. Only in English could such a feat be accomplished. And that’s what makes a hit song, as Mark and Randy established on that fateful day on a promo tour up the coast.
And it’s not only in such gems as “You Better Move On.” More recently “I’m Yours” by Jason Mraz [ASCAP’s 2010 Pop Song of the Year - Ed.] attained such popularity that it is the longest running song ever on the Billboard Hot 100 Singles Chart (76 weeks), the fourth largest selling download in the digital age, and the only song to go to the #1 position at all four major radio formats (Hot AC, Top 40, AC and AAA). What would have made the song so popular, you might wonder? One answer would be SSWs. Of the 400 or so words sung by Jason in his rendition, 347 are SSWs, which is the same as the SSWs in You Better Move On, 87%.
Songwriters, take note. Class dismissed.
Read more outside-the-box tips from Larry Butler in The Twelve Lessons of Rock ‘N’ Roll (for Your Career and Your Life), available for $2.99 via Amazon. You don’t even need a Kindle to read it!