Songwriting Part 21 - The Realities of Radio Play

by SaskMusic

July 31, 2009 in Songwriting & Copyright

(Editor's note: We realize that not everyone cares about writing a hit song, and for most people that isn't the point of songwriting. However, you probably do want to engage your listener, and thus may find some of the following points helpful!)

Writing from the Listener's Point of View

You have just written an incredible song!! You have worked hard on it. Everyone who has heard the demo (mostly your family and friends) thinks it is a "hit waiting to happen." You are convinced that your song is as good as or better than most of the songs you hear on the radio. So what is the secret to getting your song played?

Experienced songwriters and artists know that getting radio play can be an extremely dicey deal. There are several realities - both from the creative side and the business side of songwriting - that must be understood before you and your song become "household names."

The first reality is simply that the radio is not primarily about songs - it is about listeners!! While music and songs may be essential ingredients of radio programming, the primary focus of radio stations is to reach and keep listeners. Competition among stations these days is fierce and program directors literally lose sleep trying to come up with new ways to attract listeners and then keep them from changing channels. Ratings are all about the numbers of listeners, and stations with the most listeners lure the best and highest paying advertisers. The bottom line with radio - as with any business - is consumers. Songs and music, therefore, become the means to the end - the way the station can increase its power and ultimately its income.

In the light of this reality, you - the songwriter - have a task before you. Your mission (if you choose to accept it) is not simply to write a song that expresses your own emotions in music, but rather to write a song that will actually communicate to the hearts and minds of millions of listeners. The goal of every songwriter should be that when their song is played, those who hear it will say in their hearts - or to their friends - "That song is me! It expresses exactly what I feel!"

How do you do that? The answer is simple…but not easy. You must learn to think and write from the listener's perspective. Resist the urge to write only for the incredible rush of venting emotions through a song, or to see how many inventive chord progressions you can put together to impress your musical colleagues. While these experiences may be personally satisfying to you as a writer or a performer, they may not even begin to appeal to John Q. Listener who knows nothing about music except whether or not he likes a song. And - remember - it is the millions of John Q. Listeners that the radio is trying to capture. To get a song on the radio, you need to determine what radio audiences like, and then write songs that "hook" them.

How do you learn to think like a listener? First of all, you have to listen! Listen to all kinds of radio. I recommend that you have every button on your car radio set to a different genre of music. Pay attention to which songs are getting the heaviest airplay on which stations. If a station has a Request and Dedication Program at night, pay special attention to the songs the listening audience requests. Keep a log for a month and see which songs are requested most. Then analyze those songs. It is really not that important for this exercise whether or not they appeal to your personal musical taste. If a song is selling millions of copies, there will be something about it that you can learn from. Ask yourself:

What is it about this song that "hooks" people?
What lyrical techniques capture the listener's ear?
What melodic, harmonic and rhythmic elements in this song appeal to listeners?
What universal emotions are being expressed?

A second way to begin thinking and writing from the listener's perspective is to train yourself to objectively examine your own songs from the audience's viewpoint. As a writer, your task is to craft a song so skillfully that the listener will immediately get the point of the song. As you write both the words and the music, keep asking yourself if there are enough musical and lyrical clues to bring the listener to that Eureka Moment that comes with actually understanding the emotions that you, the writer, have been trying to communicate. Be objective. Remember that your listener may be hearing your song for the first and only time. Deliberate carefully over every note and word so that each is doing its part to help the listener arrive at the emotional payoff of the song. One hit songwriter has very wisely said, "If we expect a listener to give us 3-4 minutes of his undivided attention, we certainly should be willing to at least give the song 3-4 months of careful tweaking to make it the best it can be."

Thirdly, after you have polished and honed your song to the very best of your ability, make a simple demo of it. It doesn't have to be a full production - just something you can listen to again and again and again - in your car, in your headset or on your stereo at home. As you listen to the demo, consider every musical and lyrical nuance. Imagine that you are a listener tuning into a station that is playing your song. Would you stay tuned? Be honest. If the answer is, "No," it is time to go back to the drawing board and do some re-writing.

The fourth and last way to think like a listener is simply to let lots of other people listen to your song. Don't just approach people who will tell you what you want to hear. Go to some "non-partisan" critics who will give you dead-on honest opinions. They don't have to be music professionals - on the contrary, it is much better if they aren't. Remember, you are going for John Q. Listener's opinion - the people with little to no music training that give radio their ratings. One songwriter I correspond with was so eager to have her songs critiqued honestly she took her demo and a tape recorder to the mall, stopped a hundred people and asked them to fill out a questionnaire that would provide her with feedback on her song. That's the kind of spirit it takes to begin thinking like a listener.

Lest you think I am making too much of an issue out of this matter, consider the phenomenal success of the Dixie Chicks. They are a Dallas-based girls group that were active in our community for years before they became the international stars they are today. In Dallas music circles the Chicks were almost a joke at times - they were known for being willing to sing anywhere. They literally started out on street corners in the West End of Dallas. They performed at birthday parties, bar mitzvahs, big gigs, small gigs - it didn't matter. When the event was so low profile that no one else would consider performing, you could bet that the Dixie Chicks would be there. And therein was their genius! They learned to hone their music and their style to what listeners wanted to hear. They studied their audiences and they learned how to communicate with them. When they finally got their shot at a record deal, the Chicks were ready - and everything since has turned to gold for them. Radio loves them because listeners love them, and they NEVER have trouble getting radio play.

It's a matter of perspective. Learn to write songs that communicate to millions of listeners and your songs will find a way to radio…I guarantee it!

The Mystery of the Listener's Mind

Have you ever been sitting in church, listening to a soloist sing a special song when your "pre-lunch, nearly-noon" stomach begins to growl? Suddenly, you begin to think of the roast in the crockpot at home. Your mind then quickly moves to the mashed potatoes, salad, and apple pie that will accompany your meal - and then it drifts into thinking about what you are going to do this afternoon…take a nap, finish that new novel you've been reading or go for a walk. Before you know it, your mind has covered a couple of dozen concepts. You have not missed one word or note of the solo, but chances are that the song probably will not have really touched you on a deeply emotional level. You have heard the song - but it hasn't really connected with your emotions. Some may call this simple daydreaming, but it illustrates a very important principle that a hit songwriter must understand:

The human mind is far faster and more multi-faceted than the human ear, and aided by the power of imagination, the mind can envision almost every thought as soon as it enters consciousness.

This reality is both bad news and good news for the songwriter. If you can understand the mystery of the listener's mind, you can make it work for you to take your songs to a wider audience. If you don't understand and work with this fact, you may find you and your songs relegated to obscurity.

In the previous section, we established that radio is an industry built not primarily upon music, but upon listeners. The only value songs have for a radio station is their ability to "hook" and keep listeners tuned in. Ratings are calculated by the number of listeners a station has. The stations with the most listeners can charge the highest prices for advertising. Songs and music are, therefore, a means to the end:

· Great songs attract large numbers of listeners
· Large numbers of listeners increase the station's ratings
· Ratings determine the station's revenue-generating power and, ultimately, its total income

If you are beginning to realize that the song is the first rung of the ladder for radio to reach its ultimate financial goal, then you will also realize how important it is for you as a songwriter to know your stuff! Writing a hit song is not primarily a matter of personal expression, or even just a matter of writing technique, but of understanding the way the human mind connects with and processes songs. This will determine whether or not the listener's finger does or does not hit another channel.

And this brings us back to the principle above. As a songwriter, you must learn to work with the mind's capacity to imagine and visualize in order to emotionally engage the listener in your song. If your song fails to accomplish this, the listener's mind will still imagine and visualize, but it will begin to drift to other things (like pot roast and apple pie) that take it further and further away from the possibility of connecting with and staying tuned in to your song.

So - the obvious question must be: How the heck do you work with something as high speed and fickle as a listener's mind? The answer to this question lies in understanding that the imagination is not a self-starting device. It is a responsive device that does not act on its own accord, but rather reacts to stimuli. It then triggers an appropriate emotional response in the brain based on previous experiences and perceptions of similar stimuli. That's why you laugh or cry at the movies. Your eyes receive the stimuli of the action on the screen, and immediately your mind begins to respond to that stimuli through imagining how you would feel if you were in the scene. At lightning speed, the imagination then triggers your emotions, which in turn cause you to either grab your Kleenex or hold your sides. As a songwriter, your job is to create a "mental movie" in the mind of the listener using both words and music that will cause the imagination to do its work on your behalf and hook the listener's mind and emotions all the way to the end of the song.

The next question, of course, is: Specifically, what should the songwriter do to effectively stimulate and hold the imagination so that it triggers appropriate emotions in the listener's mind? The songwriter has two "guns in his holster" to accomplish this goal: the lyrics and the music. Let's look at the lyrics first.

Many songwriters mistakenly try to "instruct" the imagination by telling it how it should feel. Songs with lyrics that simply state how the singer is feeling in abstract concepts do not stimulate the imagination. Abstractions are not effective because they do not create immediate stimuli for the imagination. They sort of "float around" unspecifically and the imagination really doesn't know what to do with them. Contrast the following two examples expressing the same thought:

I am so happy and optimistic lately; I think the reason must be that you are here

- OR -

I'm on the top of the world looking down on creation
And the only explanation I can find
Is the love that I've found ever since you've been around
Your love put me at the top of the world

The first option uses abstract descriptions in words that everyone understands but that do nothing to trigger an emotional response. The listener may be happy for the person who is expressing these positive feelings, but does not share or participate in those feelings because the lyrics are instructive rather than stimulative. In the second option, we immediately have a "scene" - a word picture that causes the listener's imagination to respond. Instantly, the imagination sets up a fanciful scene in which we see ourselves "on top of the world looking down on creation." The first option states a fact...the second triggers an emotional response.

I like to think of effective lyrics as Word Snapshots…lyrics that are so visual and suggest such clear images that the mind can't help but see them. Such snapshots do not require complete sentences or explanations - just enough to trigger the imagination. First lines are extremely important for placing these little photos in the listener's mind. Here's an example of first lines from one of my songs:

Candles and ivory lace
Our faces aglow
Memories of promises made long ago

Notice that none of these three lines is lengthy or even a complete sentence…just enough to prompt the imagination. If I "pulled it off' well, you should have begun to visualize and imagine a wedding scene and perhaps even your own wedding with its many emotions and memories.

Word snapshots must also have "action" in them. Still life images only go so far in holding the listener's interest. Remember this is a "mind movie" that we hope to create. It has to keep rolling for the listener's imagination to continue creating new images and maintain the emotional connection to the end of the song.

The music of the song can also be a very effective stimulus when used correctly. Even before the first word is sung, the intro will begin to cue the imagination as to which emotions it should trigger. Slow, melancholy music in minor keys will start programming the imagination toward a sad or introspective emotional response, while happy, upbeat music like the melody for Top of the World (quoted above) creates a buoyant, positive reaction. It is the task of the songwriter to make every note and every word work together to signal the imagination appropriately. If the lyrics of your song are prompting the imagination to create one emotion while the music has a different feel altogether, the listener's mind will become confused and immediately begin to drift.

Here are some guidelines to help you as you craft your song so that it works with the listener's mind:

1) Do the first notes of music in the introduction begin to set the mood correctly?
2) Do the first lyrics immediately create a visual image for the listener's mind?
3) Are the words and music combined appropriately all through the song to convey the subject or idea?
4) Are the words creating simple, specific visual snapshots?
5) Is there action in the lyrics? Are we going somewhere interesting?

I often compare the listener's mind to Noah's dove. After forty days of floating around on a water wasteland, Noah wanted to find out if the flood was receding, so he sent out a dove. The dove flew around and around looking for a place to land, but had to come back to the ark because there was no solid ground for it to put its foot down. The listener's mind is very much the same. It is flying around over a flood of both internal and external stimuli - all vying for its attention. Your job as a hit songwriter is to provide a "place to land" for the imagination so that it can ride with you all the way to the end of the song.

For more information on Mary Dawson or CQK Music visit, or contact or 972-317-2760. ©2002 CQK Music. All rights reserved, used by permission.

By Mary Dawson (CQK Music). Originally published February 2003.

These archive versions of The Session Feature Articles are posted as initially published. Deadlines, contacts and links have not been updated. Please keep this in mind when using this resource. In some cases, updates can be found in a more recent editions of The Session.