Murphy’s Law of Songwriting – 19 important articles we share with our readers

Ralph Murhpy


Articles & Advice © Copyright 2004 Ralph Murphy

Current articles by Ralph available to ASCAP members at:

About Ralph Murphy
Born inEngland; raised inCanada, the well-traveled Ralph Murphy has worked extensively on both sides of theAtlantic during his music career. His first #1 song inEurope was “Call My Name” by James Royal (1966). After several years as an artist and producer, Ralph moved toNew York in 1969 to produce the band April Wine (two gold albums; one platinum). In 1971, Ralph had his first Country hit inNashville with “Good Enough To Be Your Wife,” #2 for Jeannie C. Riley. By 1976, Ralph and business partner Roger Cook opened Pic-A-Lic Music inNashville. During the decade of its existence, the company prospered, more of Ralph’s songs became hits (“He Got You” for Ronnie Milsap; “Half the Way” for Crystal Gayle), and Ralph served as president of NSAI. Ralph is now Vice President for ASCAP Nashville.

The following articles are no longer available by clicking on the link. COSMO VP Judy Lamppu received permission to share these past articles with our readers. Members of ASCAP may review all of Raplh’s  articles by joining on the website and logging in at

  1.  A Look At The #1 Country Songs for 2004
  2.  The Song As A Script
  3.  The 7:00 A.M. Rule
  4.  What Publishers Really Want
  5.  Know Your Own Strengths
  6.  Overcoming “Writer’s Assumption”
  7.  Looking Back on What’s to Come
  8.  The Mighty Pronoun: The Little Big Word
  9.  Co-Writing with Established Songwriters
  10. . Making the Most of Your Songwriting Seminar
  11.  Why Not to Sing Your Own Demos
  12.  The Checklist
  13.  Your Demos: Dress Them for Success
  14.  The Realities of Co-Writing
  15.  Drawing Maximum Attention To Your Hook
  16.  More Tips
  17.  The “Nut”
  18.  Your Best Bet for a #1 Song
  19.  A Look At The #1 Songs Of 2002

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#1. A Look at The #1 Country Songs for 2004

Most writers follow their hearts. Only when the song is finished – when they’ve created someone who never existed, in a place that never was, doing something that never happened – do they really begin to think about commercialism and what to pitch to whom. There are other writers, however, who purposefully sit down to “go for the throat;” who hunt for a radio hit and don’t aim at having a #2 song. After all, for most of us, the theory behind joining the world’s second oldest profession (writing for money) is to be the lead dog. Remember if you’re not, the view never changes. Therefore, it’s a good idea to know what propels a song to that most coveted of spots, the one that artists, managers, A&R and promotion people gaze at in rapture . . . numero uno!

Only 46 writers stood in the golden circle in 2004, which means more people were struck by lightning in the U.S. than wrote a #1 Country song. Of those 46 writers, six were artists who recorded the songs they participated in. The good news for non-artists, or “stand alone” writers, is that they were responsible for writing two-thirds of those #1 songs.

What in Common?
Nobody was waltzing at drive time last year as all of the 21 #1 songs were in 4/4 time.

As for time-to-title, the majority of #1s used their titles within 60 seconds, (including an average 15-second intro). As far as repetitions-of-title, less was apparently more, as two-thirds (14 total) had only three-to-seven mentions of the title. At the low end were “In A Real Love” (Vassar/Wiseman) with three uses of title and “Suds In The Bucket” (Jenai/Montana) with four. At the high end was “When The Sun Goes Down” (James) with 32.

Interestingly, the only one getting his heart broken at #1 was Keith Urban with “You’ll Think of Me” (Powell/Urban). I know in “I Hate Everything” (Harrison/Stegall), the main character lost everything and was living in a shoebox on the side of the road, but that wasn’t George Strait. He managed to learn his lesson from the loser in 3 minutes, 30 seconds and called home just in time to save his marriage, which made Keith Urban the king of lonely last year.

If you obeyed the usual A&R requests (Midtempo, Mid-to-Uptempo and Uptempo positive love songs), you had a statistical advantage over your competition, in that those types of songs made up 81 percent of the total #1s for 2004.

A third of the year’s #1 songs were Uptempo (7 of 21) and collectively spent 16 weeks at #1. Midtempos numbered five in all and spent a total of 15 weeks at the top. Mid- to Uptempos likewise numbered five and spent seven weeks at #1.

While ballads comprised only four of the 21 spots, those that reached the top managed to remain there for 18 weeks.

Intros grew slightly from the old standard of 13 seconds to 15 seconds in 2004. Some much shorter than that were “Redneck Woman” (Rich/Wilson) at .05 seconds and “Suds In The Bucket” (Jenai/Montana) at .06 seconds. Much longer intros were “Live Like You Were Dying” (Nichols/Wiseman) at 23 seconds and “Days Go By” (Powell/Urban) at 26 seconds.

Theme and Person
The themes on Country radio last year were exactly what you would expect from a blue-collar team trying to keep their audience between the ditches. For example, we heard love found (“Suds In The Bucket” . “Watch The World Go By”), love celebrated (“Nothing On But The Radio” . “Remember When” . “In A Real Love”), life lessons (“There Goes My Life” . “I Hate Everything”), patriotism (“American Soldier”), love lost (“You’ll Think Of Me”), drinking (“Whiskey Girl”) and good old-fashioned party (“When The Sun Goes Down” . “Some Beach” . “Girls Lie Too”). Nine of the 21 were morality plays/life lessons; 5 were romantic; 5 were party time; 1 was sad and 1 was patriotic. The five songs that held listeners longer than 30 weeks were all Mid- to Uptempo party time/love songs (“Some Beach” . “Nothing On But The Radio” . “In A Real Love” . “Suds In The Bucket” . “Somebody”). Fifteen of the #1s used the first and second persons (I, me, us, you, we), which is consistent with Country songs being conversational.

Chart Longevity
By the way, for those of you doing the math at home, if 2004′s #1s seemed to spend more than 52 weeks at the top, it’s because they did! “There Goes My Life” (Mobley/Thrasher) actually reached #1 at the end of 2003 and “Some Beach” (Feek/Overstreet) extended its stay into 2005.

The records that reached #1 the fastest were “There Goes My Life” (Mobley/Thrasher) in 8 weeks, “When The Sun Goes Down” (James) in 8 weeks and “Live Like You Were Dying” (Nichols/Wiseman) in 6 weeks. (That song spent a huge 19 weeks at #1.)

As for total time spent on the charts, those three songs were not even close to being the longest lived. The records that took the longest time to get to #1 were “Somebody” (Berg/Tate/Wright) in 29 weeks, “In A Real Love” (Vassar/Wiseman) in 27 weeks, “Suds In The Bucket” (Jenai/Montana) in 23 weeks and “Nothing On But The Radio” (Blackmon/Hill/Long) in 23 weeks.

Song Length
About half the chart toppers were longer than 4 minutes, with the other half hovering between 3 to 4 minutes (around 3.30).

Interestingly, the number of records over 4 minutes in length is unusual when you consider radio’s increase in advertising minutes per hour and their assertion that songs are the “filler between the jingles.” You would think that radio would jump up and down for 2-minute records. Whatever the reason, song length appeared to be on the rise as compared to 2003.

Song Form
Since we were born, one way or another, we have been listening to radio. The song structure, form or shape is embedded in the radio listener’s psyche. As a writer, you can lead the listener outside these structures but only if you satisfy that listener.

I have friends who get paid to read movie scripts that have been submitted to major studios. They have told me, that they can tell within three or four pages if a script will make a good film. Introduction of characters, subplots and all the other elements necessary to engage and hold us (the viewers) for two hours and change are craft.

Similarly, engaging and holding radio listeners at drive time is a matter of craft. Of the six forms (or shapes or whatever you wish to call them), the most frequently used in 2004 (10 of the 21 songs) was the Fourth form (verse/lift/chorus/verse/lift/chorus/bridge/instrumental or both/lift/chorus). Next (6 of the 21 songs) came Third form (verse/chorus/verse/chorus/bridge/instrumental/chorus), followed by Second form (verse/chorus/verse/chorus/instrumental/chorus).

It should be noted that the only two songs to step way outside the usual structures at #1 were Alan Jackson’s “Remember When” (Jackson) and Toby Keith’s “American Solider” (Cannon/Keith). “American Soldier” has four similarly structured verses – the first two treated as verses; the second two lifting melodically to almost become channels ( or pre-choruses, lifts or climbs if you prefer); then a chorus, instrumental and reprise. “Remember When” uses chronology, or time passage, through six verses, treating the song like an AABA (or Fifth form) without the “B” section.

For all my time in the music business, it’s always been an artist’s prerogative to break the rules, because it’s his or her career on the line; whereas stand-alone writers have to be content with creatively bending the rules.

Other Items to Note
Detail, humor and irony ruled! She was in the backyard – they say it was a little past nine (“Suds In The Bucket”). I was 18 making minimum wage (“In A Real Love”). Don’t you remember the fizz in a pepper (“Back When”)? How about the 2.7 seconds on a bull named Fu Manchu (“Live Like You Were Dying”)? If your song used detail, with a twist of irony and a dash of humor, your song was a prime candidate for the top spot. Remember troops, the market for country radio is women 25-40 at drive time. Humor, irony and detail appear to be the essential elements in our conversational/story-driven genre. Indeed, the ’04 crop of #1s was almost evenly split (10 conversational / 11 story) and in certain cases they
were both.
Your Best Shot
The bottom line? While being a singer/songwriter generally increases your odds of success, in 2004 only six writer-artists (out of the 46 total writers) had #1s – good news for those other 40 writers and the many stand-alone writers out there. So, based on the numbers, here’s your best shot at hitting #1:

Start with a conversational/story driven love song laden with humor, irony and detail. Introduce your title within 60 seconds and repeat it no more than seven times. Write in first or second person using 4th or 3rd form. Make your songs Mid- to Uptempo, anywhere from three to four minutes in length.

Now of course comes the hard part – getting them recorded and released!

The good news for all writers is that if our songs don’t make it, we have so many people we can blame! (Never ourselves of course . . .)

The #1 Country Songs for 2004 (Billboard magazine Jan. 1 – Dec. 31, 2004):

1-3-04 – There Goes My Life
Performer: Kenny Chesney / Writer(s): Wendell Mobley, Neil Thrasher

2-7-04 – Remember When
Performer: Alan Jackson / Writer(s): Alan Jackson

2-21-04 – American Soldier
Performer: Toby Keith / Writer(s): Chuck Cannon, Toby Keith

3-20-04 – Watch The Wind Blow By
Performer: Tim McGraw / Writer(s): Dylan Altman, Anders Osborne

4-3-04 – When The Sun Goes Down
Performer: Kenny Chesney – Uncle Kracker / Writer(s): Brett James

5-8-04 – You’ll Think Of Me
Performer: Keith Urban / Writer(s): Darrell Brown, Ty Lacy, Dennis Matkosky

5-22-04 – Mayberry
Performer: Rascal Flatts / Writer(s): Arlos Smith

5-29-04 – Redneck Woman
Performer: Gretchen Wilson / Writer(s): John Rich, Gretchen Wilson

7-3-04 – If You Ever Stop Loving Me
Performer:Montgomery Gentry / Writer(s): Bob DiPiero, Rivers Rutherford, Tom Shapiro

7-10-04 – Whiskey Girl
Performer: Toby Keith / Writer(s): Scotty Emerick, Toby Keith

7-17-04 – Live Like You Were Dying
Performer: Tim McGraw / Writer(s): Tim Nichols, Craig Wiseman

8-7-04 – Somebody
Performer: Reba McEntire / Writer(s): Dave Berg, Annie Tate, Sam Tate

9-11-04 – Girls Lie Too
Performer: Terri Clark / Writer(s): Connie Harrington, Kelley Lovelace, Tim Nichols

9-18-04 – Days Go By
Performer: Keith Urban / Writer(s): Monty Powell, Keith Urban

10-16-04 – Suds In The Bucket
Performer: Sara Evans / Writer(s): Jenai, Billy Montana

10-23-04 – I Hate Everything
Performer:GeorgeStrait / Writer(s): Gary Harrison, Keith Stegall

11-6-04 – In A Real Love
Performer: Phil Vassar / Writer(s): Phil Vassar, Craig Wiseman

11-20-04 – Mr. Mom
Performer: Lonestar / Writer(s): Ron Harbin, Richie McDonald, Don Pfrimmer

12-4-04 – Nothin’ On But The Radio
Performer: Gary Allan / Writer(s): Odie Blackmon, Byron Hill, Brice Long

12-18-04 – Back When
Performer: Tim McGraw / Writer(s): Stan Lynch, Stephony Smith, Jeff Stevens

12-25-04 – Some Beach
Performer: Blake Shelton / Writer(s): Rory Lee Feek, Paul Overstreet

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#2. The Song as a Script


Your song is finished.
You were eloquent.
The melody flowed.
You are fulfilled, complete.
You resound with satisfaction.
You said everything you wanted to say.
How could anyone fail to rush to record your song?



Well, not so fast… Your songs may be your little lambs, but when it comes time to send one of them to the market, keep in mind that some people hate lamb chops and others are allergic to wool.

So before you proceed, think back…

back to before you entered the music business;
back to when you were the audience and went to see singers for fun;
back to when you thought those singers were singing songs they had written about their own lives;
back to when you thought you were catching a glimpse of their inner souls. You were unaware that those inner souls had been crafted for them by Bacharach & David or Holland-Dozier-Holland.

Well, just as your favorite TV and movie stars do not write their own scripts, luckily for songwriters, neither do a lot of singers write their own songs.

The major difference between actors and singers however is that most actors can change characters from film to film whereas successful singers rarely depart radically from the image they have chosen.

That presents the songwriter hurdles that require investigation before rushing into pitch mode.

Not only must the song/script be in keeping with the artist’s image but a few music business executives must be persuaded to gamble a million dollars on it. Figuring in the cost of the sessions, (studio, production, musicians, etc) the video, tour support, radio school, stylists and of course radio, you are at a million big ones.

Your script has to function on a lot more levels than just entertaining your friends and family.

It is a script for a performer to stand on stage and have a linear, lyrical conversation with his or her audience (in my case is that audience is women!).

In my opinion, if you are a stand-alone writer – not a performer, not in a band – and you are not writing for women, you are decreasing your chances for success! Our world of entertainment is always ultimately about “The Woman.” With rare exceptions, it is men singing to women and women singing to women. So, the mantra for the songwriter parallels that of the restaurateur. When looking for a restaurant to invest in, there are three factors to consider: location, location, location. Likewise, to be a songwriter, there are three things you should consider: What’s in it for the woman? What’s in it for the woman? What’s in it for the woman?

So, when you see the word LISTENER in any of my articles, mentally substitute the word WOMAN.

So let’s focus on their perception of your song.

Aside from the work being right for the artist, is it a potential hit?

Do you get the listener involved in the song quickly? How quickly? Well, try 60 seconds, including introduction. I call it getting the listener to invest in your song. If I am drawn into a writer’s invention, it requires me to identify with (or ideally become) the hero, victim, winner or loser in the piece.

In order to lure me/the listener in, it’s better that you speak to me, not about me. Though I dealt with the pronoun (the little big word) in a previous column, let me remind you that when it comes to the song as a script, it is the little huge word. You’ll get my attention faster if the song is about You, I, Us or We, because if it’s about Her, Him or Them, it will be much harder to capture and keep my interest. However, if the song is using the first-person pronoun (you, me, I, etc.) and the central figure is too old, too young, not cool enough or just not the image that the artist, management or label wish to project, you might consider changing to the third-person pronoun (even though the odds are higher for your song not being #1). That way, the artist can sing the song (about being homeless a drunk perhaps) without it reflecting personally on him or her.

Next, you must create an expectation and then fulfill that expectation. Pull out some of your favorite songs and look at the titles – pretty average stuff, mostly words or phrases you use every day. However, those titles are the fulfillment of the created expectation. The genius is in the creation of the expectation. Making something commonplace eye-catching – or in the case of the song, ear catching – is your job.

I don’t know how many of you have seen an uncut diamond, but they look remarkably unremarkable, rather boring in fact. Only in the hands of someone who has absorbed the craft and mastered the skill of making the mundane sparkle does the seemingly dull come to life.

So, surprise me with interesting information, by asking a question with a different twist or by describing a condition, place, person or circumstance using words and phrases that make the ordinary extraordinary.

Well, I guess we need to have a checklist for this song that you have chosen to be a script for a specific artist.

High on that list is accessibility. How easy is the song to sing? Are you trying to fit three-syllable words into a one-syllable spot?

Singer/songwriters do it all the time and get away with it because they are the artists. You cannot.

Does its range span three notes or three octaves? Remember that a lot of “artisteests” may have an abundance of charisma, personality and sex appeal but honestly can’t sing very well. Send them the story songs because the more detailed the story, the less melody you need. Remember, the human animal is not very good at hearing more than one moving part at a time and given its preference will always defer to melody.

Now, if you’re pitching to divas or vocally well-endowed males, then be big on melody, heavy on monosyllabic words and open vowel sounds (A-E-I-O-U-Y!) and minimum story.

What is the song about? Will this artist’s audience identify him or her with this situation or circumstance? Does the artist use this language? Remember all that changes from genre to genre, aside from attitude, is vocabulary and technology. Vocabulary especially is a bond between the artist and the audience. That, by the way, is a huge obstacle for writers crossing to cultures and genres that they are not intimately connected to or understand personally.

And finally, have you told the whole story – beginning, middle and end? Have you created an expectation from the opening line, fulfilled that expectation in 60 seconds, added information/detail in the next verse, and spiced it up by adding conflict or calming it down? Have you made the listener laugh, cry, question, cheer, feel any (or all) of a whole range of emotions or just plain old fall in love?


Then take it to the artist – job well done!

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#3. The 7:00 A.M. Rule

If you’re ready to stop being “warm and fuzzy,” go for the throat and write a hit — read on, you’re ready for “The 7:00 a.m. Rule.” Everybody already thinks you’re crazy anyway, so you might as well be successful and crazy. It will make your mother and your bank manager happy.

The Road Test

Contrary to popular opinion, songs are not really “sold” in an A&R person’s office at 11:00 a.m., a publisher’s office at 2:00 p.m., a manager’s office at 4:00 p.m., or a coffeehouse, bar, concert or nightclub at 10:00 p.m. After all the work of the creative process – the politics of pitching, the hell of being on hold, the anguish of the recording process, the torment of waiting to be the single – comes the acid test. It’s called “Drive Time.”

Drive time occurs between 6:30 a.m. and 8:30 a.m. on radio stations around the world. It can take the song that your publisher said was a smash, the A&R people said couldn’t miss, the artist hailed as a career maker, and your significant other wept over, and make it just another stain on the great toilet roll of life.

Be The “Fish”

In order to understand what will happen to your work when it is fed to the listener, it’s essential to think like the listener. When you go fishing, think like the fish. A fish does not bite on a hook because it thinks it is a stainless steel hook; the fish has got to believe it has found lunch. If the bait, for any reason, does not behave like lunch, the fish goes looking elsewhere, and so does the listener.

Think about what you want to do at 7:00 a.m. The real answer: nothing. Your car isn’t running right, your kids are driving you crazy, your boss is on your back, you burned your hand on the toaster, and all the while, under a half-dead plant, a collection of transistors and plastic called a radio is relentlessly trying to capture your attention.

Target the Listener

Remember, songwriters, the listener doesn’t care about you: they care about themselves as you see them. The reason you fell in love with songs before you became caught up in the mechanics of writing was because you identified with the song. You didn’t care if the writer was having a good day or a bad day.

Also, the listener is used to receiving information in a certainform. There are definite song structures. The ways that a story isdelivered have been in place longer than any of us have been alive: starting with a killer opening line; having a beginning, middle and end; changing rhyme schemes from verse to chorus; choosing the right pronouns; placing the right metaphor. These and other basic elements of craft are the essential tools of the “hit” writer.

Remember, you are born with the gift of perception, but craft is an acquired skill. At 7:00 a.m., the listener is taking no prisoners. You’re going to need all the craft that every other hit writer is bringing to bear.

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Wanted: Young, yet mature, male or female writer/performer; prolific in lyrics & melody; able to produce & pitch own demos; requires little financial support from publisher; has some track record; lives next door to office.

The above listing might be the typical Want Ad you would expect a publisher to post (if publishers did, indeed, do such things) when searching to find and sign a new songwriter.

Yet, according to a recent Murphy’s Laws survey, the reality is somewhat different. Mark Ford (without whose scrupulous editing and input the Murphy’s Laws column would be a tough read) helped me assemble an informal survey that polled 14Nashvillemusic publishers. Each publisher, within the past twelve months, had placed a hit song on the charts and had signed a new staff writer. The publishers ranked each of the following attributes from 1 to 10 (with 1 being least important and 10 being most important) based on the last writer they signed, not on any particular “wish list.” [Note: averages for each question appear in brackets.]

What least motivates a publisher to put out the Welcome Mat

According to our survey, the following were of minimal importance to publishers:



20. Marital status [1.0]
19. Gender [1.5]
18. Living in or near another major music center (such as New York or Los Angeles) [1.6]
17. Being a producer [1.9]

16. Being recommended by non-publishers (such as lawyers, managers, A&R) [2.7]
15. Already writing with a recording artist [2.9]
14. Age [3.0] (good news for older writers!)
14. Being pursued by other publishers [3.0]
14. Already writing with publisher’s staffers [3.0]

(I was quite surprised to find that being a producer, writing with an artist and being able to pitch one’s own songs ranked so low.)

What somewhat influences a publisher

The mid-range results of our survey bore these responses:


13. Being recommended by other songwriters [4.0]
12. Appearance [4.5]
11. Demo quality [4.6]
10. Track record [4.9]
9. Persistence pursuing the deal [5.1]
8. Living in or near Nashville [5.3]
7. Record deal/artist potential [6.0]
6. Ability to co-write [6.2]
6. Ability to perform songs live [6.2]
5. Affordability (amount of draw) [6.3]


(I was surprised that track record, affordability and record deal did not score higher.)

The Big Four

According to our survey, the following four were the top deal-maker qualities:


4. Ability to write alone [7.5]
3. Ability to write great melodies [8.7]
2. Personality/compatibility with the company [9.0]
1. Ability to write great lyrics [9.6]


The Nutshell

Having examined all of the information in depth, I would like to point out that most of the publishers who responded (all who were asked did so) were not actively looking for writers to sign, and — with the one exception of lyrical ability being the across-the-board, most-desired quality — there were qualities that were a must-have to some that were of no consideration to others.

So, in summation: work particularly on your lyrics, hone the rest of your skills, and pray that there will always be room for the odd frog amongst royalty. Write a hit!

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One of the top ten questions I get asked by newcomers to the industry is, “How do I get heard in the music business?” Before I can answer that, I have to know exactly what they want to be “heard.” When I ask them about their goals — whether they want to be songwriters or recording artists — the most common response is, “Both.”

Listen to the truth

The unfortunate truth of the matter is that, while many of the newcomers I counsel may be gifted as songwriters or as singers, very, very few are equally blessed with both talents. While one ability may come rather naturally, the other often needs significant honing.

The problem is, not everyone wants to hear the truth. Some great singers (who are average songwriters) can make the really average songs they’ve written shine through the sheer power of their vocal ability. They make the phrase “I love you” sound so good that you almost believe they invented it. In equal numbers come the great songwriters (who are average singers) who have been told by family, friends, lovers, and late-night adoring coffeehouse/honky-tonk buffoons that, despite the fact that their tempo, pitch and teeth are bad, they have star quality. And no matter how badly they sing, their songs are still strong enough to survive a mediocre vocal performance and sound like hits. (This is the only reason karaoke manufacturers are not hunted for sport!)

Check your ego at the door

The bottom line is: lose your ego. It’s called “absenting of self.” The person most likely to come between you and your career goal is you. Don’t make the best of your talent a donkey for the least of your talent. Get some unbiased feedback from industry pros (available through a variety of NSAI programs), and if you are indeed weaker in one area, focus on your strength.

If you’re a great singer — but an average writer — don’t be upset if someone loves your voice but wants you to sing someone else’s songs. Go find those great songs while you learn to become a better writer. By the same token, if you’re a great songwriter — but an average singer — don’t be upset if someone wants to record your songs but passes on you as an artist. Remember, this is called the music “business,” and the business end of our industry knows that the majority of the G.A.P. (Great American Public) just wants to hear great records. They don’t lie awake nights wondering who wrote and/or sang the songs they like on the radio.

Be smart

If you have a sneaking suspicion that the preceding law even remotely applies to you, then do yourself this favor: picture the music industry as a large building with an entrance for singers on one side, and an entrance for songwriters on the other. Maybe you can’t go through both doors at the same time, but you can concentrate on getting inside through the door that opens the most easily for you. Who knows? Once you’re inside, you can end up just about anywhere.

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#6. Overcoming “Writer’s Assumption”

I’ve noticed a recurring problem among some of the writers that I’ve been critiquing and teaching lately. I call it “Writer’s Assumption.” Mr. Webster calls it “anything taken for granted; supposition,” and believe me, it can be terminal for any song infected with it.

Listeners Aren’t Mindreaders

If a stranger walked up to you on a busy street and said, “He left her,” would you care? The answer, of course, is no. Well, that’s exactly what happens when you write a lyric that assumes the listener knows all about the people who populate your mind. When you come up with a song idea, characters and situations immediately spring to life in your head. So when your pen hits the page, your tendency may be to describe the RESULT of the situation you’ve just invented in your brain– i.e., “He left her.” Your listeners, however, won’t care about the result because you haven’t created any characters to care about.

Avoid the “Living Room” Syndrome

There’s a reason why there are so many “living room” hits. When you sing a song to your friends and family about Uncle Fred joining the Navy, you don’t have to explain to them that Fred, who was bitten by a dog, lost his job, and had his foot nailed to the floor by Aunt Martha, who subsequently ran off with an encyclopedia salesman. Because your listeners already know the background of the story, they are prepared to laugh when you sing “Uncle Fred has a hammock for a bed and makes gravy for the Navy.” Any stranger stumbling upon a family laughing hysterically at this ditty would probably consider commitment papers, not publishing contracts.

Your First Verse May Not Be the First Verse

Remember, all songs have a beginning, a middle and an end. Some great old writers beat that into my head 30 years ago. It was the rule then, and it’s the rule now. At least 50 percent of the time, when I sit down to write an idea, I mindlessly write the second verse first. Just as I smile in smug satisfaction at a verse well done, the ghost of one of my old mentors jabs me in the brain with a sharp stick and asks, “Well, Shakespeare, just who are these people, and why are they doing this?” Of course, the ghost is right, so I’ll write another verse that answers those questions, and I’ll make it my new first verse.

A lot of things change in 30 years: vocabulary, idioms, situations and attitudes. The craft does not. Making a living from what you love doing is a wonderful thing. Half of love, however is respect. You’ll earn respect by doing your job properly, and your job is to communicate the WHOLE story…besides, you’ll hate that sharp stick.  Write a hit!

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#7. Looking Back on What’s to Come

I’m straying from our usual format just a bit because I feel the need to speak to you about how to make your songs stronger in the long-term rather than in the short term.

Like most writers starting out in the music business, I was fortunate to have been adopted by several fine veteran writers. Why they took the time to give me a few words of advice, a moment of praise, a hard jab of criticism, or a cold beer of consolation was always a mystery to me. I never quite understood when they told me that a songwriter’s best friend was not an artist, a label, a publisher, or a radio or TV station, but another songwriter.

While I worked on my craft, demoed my songs, hunted for a publisher, relentlessly chased that first recording, and hungered for that first hit, those veteran writers were doing all that and more: they were also working tirelessly to protect their copyrights and receive fair compensation for their work. In so doing, they were also looking after my rights and the rights of all fledgling writers.

At a recent NSAI’s Pro Division, I was talking to some of my contemporaries when it hit me that we had become them; and the sheep had become the shepherds. Just as our mentors had carried on the fight for copyright protection, so have we been continuing that fight through NSAI.

The Next Generation

Now as we look forward to another year, remember that the technology coming down the pike will eclipse anything that we have experienced to date. The technology will have one function — to use, in as many ways as possible, the work that we have dedicated our lives to creating. And if the history has taught us anything, it is that since the 1908 Copyright Law was put into place, users of music have done everything in their power to avoid paying creators for their music.

That’s why it’s important for you as a songwriter and a creator of music to join us in the battle for copyright protection: so that you will be prepared to take the torch and lead the next generation of creators forward in the age where technology will make it increasingly easier for others to rob us of our work.

[To find out more about ASCAP’s work in the field of copyright protection and how you can get involved, please see the Legislative area on the ASCAP site.]

It’s Your Life and Livelihood

Remember your songs are yours for Lifetime Plus 50 Years. So, long after you’re gone — if you have done your job well — your great, great grandchild may be able to afford an operation, a car, or a college education, compliments of you. When you earn your first gold record, you’ll find that it comes with something else — a sword and a shield. PROTECT your hit!

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#8. The Mighty Pronoun: The Little Big Word

Many times, in trying to get the listener’s attention, writers will fixate on song-crafting devices such as story, story development, metaphor, alliteration and imagery, while forgetting to pay attention to the little personal pronouns. HE, SHE, IT, THEY, THEM, US, WE, I, YOU, and ME may not look like much, but they define who does what to whom. They also can affect the writer’s marketablity and, therefore the value of his or her work.

First- and Second-Person: The Favorites

When seized by an idea, most male writers, upon sitting down to sketch out a scenario for a song, almost automatically start off with “She did or said this or that.” For women, it is often “He did this or that.” Once the character and the type of relationship evolve, it often becomes necessary to change the pronoun. For instance, if the song describes an intense, one-on-one relationship between the singer and another person, the pronouns used are a first- and second-person: YOU, I, ME, US and WE. This frees the third-person pronouns HE, SHE, IT, THEY, THEM to be used as outside influences that compliment or come between, YOU, I, ME, US, and WE. For an example, “I love YOU, but THEY say that we can’t make it.” The song becomes more personal when YOU and I are used.

Third-Person Is Best In Some Cases

Remember that songs are vehicles for singers who want to communicate with their audiences. When an artist leans over the footlights, and sings “I love her” — who cares? But if the message is “I love YOU” — a rapport is established.

Some exceptions to the rule are as follows:

  1. If the song is about a total loser, it will definitely be third-person: HE or SHE. No star is going to stand on stage and describe him or herself as a jerk unless it is so tongue-in-cheek that the listeners know that it’s a joke.
  2. At seminars or new writers nights, I often hear songs in which the singer is supposed to be a grandparent. Wrong! If you want to get a song like that recorded, it has to be third-person: “Good old Grandpa, HE was… ” or “Good old Grandma, SHE did… ” In the business of grooming artists, image is everything. The words “youthful” to “mature” are used to describe performers with a record deal. You only become old when you get cold and no major label will touch you with a barge pole.
  3. When a relationship is really over forever, the pronoun is third person. HE or SHE. For an example, “SHE’s about as gone as a girl can get.” If any love or hope lingers, however, then the pronoun will be second person: YOU. For an example, “I know YOU’re gone forever, but in MY heart… ” (I refer to this as the “Bozo Finds Love And Won’t Let Go” Syndrome. It has been observed that Bozo the Clown and people in love sometimes have a lot in common.)
  4. When the singer performing the song is using the audience as a confidante or is telling a friend about a great relationship, it’s third-person: SHE or HE. For an example, “He’s so wonderful.”
  5. When one of the characters in a HE or SHE song has a conversation with someone within the song, the pronoun can switch to second-person: YOU. For an example, in John Ims’ “She’s In Love with the Boy,” Mama says in the third verse: “My Daddy said YOU wasn’t worth a lick.” In The Beatles’ “She’s Leaving Home,” they go to “WE gave HER all of our love.”

Fight to Avoid Switching

The only really major no-no in the use of pronouns occurs when the characters are third-person (HE or SHE) in the verse then suddenly switch to first- or second- person (YOU, I or ME) in the chorus, or vice versa. I would imagine that any writer worth his or her salt would have seen that information written in block letters three feet tall and underlined in red, so I won’t go into that any further.

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#9. Co-Writing with Established Songwriters

I was having lunch recently with a new writer just signed to his first major publishing deal. He told me that his publisher had been setting up co-writing appointments for him with established writers, and that he had some questions on how to approach writing on such a different level. I thought addressing his two biggest questions here might be useful to writers in similar situations.


1. “Why does my publisher set me up to write with some established writers and not others?”

A good publisher has four functions: administrator, banker, promoter, and nurturer. While wearing his nurturer hat, the publisher may target three or four hit writers as co-writers, but may be reluctant to follow through on that writer’s request to work with some other major writers. It’s not that the publisher isn’t being thorough, or that his faith in his new writer is half-hearted. It’s actually a matter of balance. A publisher signs a writer for his strengths (lyrics, music, assembly) and works to develop that writer in areas where he or she may fall a little short of the mark. Using his knowledge of the writers community, the publisher puts the new writer together with someone whose strengths are complementary. It’s pointless, and frustrating, for two great lyricists to sit in a room together trying to find a great melody; likewise, it is equally pointless for two great melody writers to sit waiting for pearls of wisdom to drop from each other’s lips. No one benefits.

2. “Why am I almost always expected to be the one to provide the hook (title) and a large portion of the song when I co-write with established writers?”

Bear in mind that co-writing requires an understanding of each others’ approach to writing. The established writer knows almost nothing about his or her new co-writer; whereas the novice generally is very aware of the experienced writer’s form (lyrical and melodic), language, and approach to the hook from radio, video, records, etc. The only way for the established writer to find out about the new co-writer is to walk with him/her through the thought processes which got him from point A to point B.

Remember that successful collaboration doesn’t mean that you necessarily have to be best friends. The only important thing is the quality of the song, and if the partnership doesn’t work, don’t worry. There are 800 #1 songwriters in Nashville. Keep trying, there is room for 801. Write a hit!

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#10. Making the Most of Your Songwriting Seminar

The next time you attend a songwriting seminar, take advantage of some of the tips I’ve discovered — and a few pet peeves I’ve encountered — along the way:

1. Arrive fully prepared.

Be ready to take notes. Buy a small, lined, book that does not have removable pages. Also bring two pens or two pencils or both. (The other Murphy’s Law will prevail and at least one of the two won’t work.)

2. Be sociable.

It’s important to get to know your fellow participants. There is usually time for coffee and conversation before or after the sessions and during breaks. Remember, these songwriters are your peer group; networking and making contacts with them is essential. Professionals make it part of their lives, you should, too.

3. Hold that thought during panels.

You will have at least one burning question ranging from contracts to demo quality. Don’t ask until some part of seminar touches on it. Throwing in a question on publishing when the focus is song crafting will break the momentum and flow that the panel is trying to establish. If your burning question has not been answered at the end of the session, there’s usually a question and answer period provided for just that reason.

4. Take your best shot.

Bring your most recent and best shot to the critique session. The mistakes you were making five years ago aren’t as relevant as the ones you are making today. Also, if you had a chance to pitch a song to a major-label artist, I doubt you would choose your second-best or third-best song, so why do so with other professionals?

5. Don’t bail out early.

Once your song has been critiqued, don’t just get up and leave. Chances are pretty high that during the session, you will hear a variety of problems similar to the ones you’ve encountered in songs other than the one you had critiqued. Now’s your chance to hear professionals address, and remedy, those mistakes.

6. Be courteous to your critiquers.

Once your song has been critiqued, do not give another one to the professionals involved with your group. They have given of their time and expertise to help you, and to expect them to critique another song and correspond with you — especially after they’ve given up a day or weekend that they could have used for at least a dozen other projects — is unreasonable and impolite. Believe me, this a definite “No-No.” Write a hit!

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#11. Why Not to Sing Your Own Demos

After performing at a songwriters’ showcase recently, an A&R person I’d known for years asked me why — as I obviously sang reasonably well — she had never heard my voice on any of the song demos I’d pitched to her. Here are the four reasons I gave — think about them:

1. Confusion

The question will be asked: “Are you looking for an artist deal, or is this just to pitch the artist on the roster?” Bearing in mind that the function of an A&R person is to reject the bulk of what he or she hears, chances are if they don’t like your voice, your song might go down with you.

2. Association

Garth Brooks, T. Graham Brown, Kathy Mattea and many more all sang song demos when they first came to town. If they had sung one of your songs when they were starting out, your work and name just might ring a bell when you submit them a song later on their careers. When you are competing with every writer on the planet for attention from a major artist, every edge helps.

3. Insurance

Once you are in the studio and the track is going down, listen to how easily the singer locks into the lyric. If at any point, he stumbles on a word or a phrase — re-write immediately. The word “irreconcilable” may be a wonderful word, but there’s probably a better way to say “it’s over.” Remember, if the hot demo singer you are using has a problem with the lyric, so will the artist you are aiming the song at.

4. Personal Preference

I hate the sound of my own voice.  Write a hit!

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#12. The Checklist

In the last Murphy’s Law, I discussed assembling your demo for presentation; however, before you dress up your song and walk it out in public, take a long, hard look to make sure you’ve given it the full benefit of your craft. Here is a limited checklist:

Check your Checklist:

  • Have you kept your pronouns consistent? If it’s “she” in the verse, it should not be “you” in the chorus (unless you left “she” for “you”).
  • Have you varied your rhyme scheme from the verse to the chorus to subtly alert the listeners that something (the hook) is coming their way?
  • Is there a significant change in the melody from the verse to the chorus?
  • Do the opening couple of lines of the first verse set the stage for the story that follows?
  • Is the hook in the right place? With rare exceptions, the title/hook is placed at the end of the chorus, not somewhere in the verse or the backyard.
  • Is the language you use to tell your story contemporary, i.e. would you hear it in normal day-to-day conversation?

Don’t Forget:

There are several more items on the checklist, but because of restricting space here, I leave you with what I consider the most important point:

Is the song satisfying?
Does it have a beginning, a middle and a end?

If the answer to all of the above is yes, demo on.  Write a hit!

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#13. Your Demos: Dress Them for Success

Every time a writer (or writers) finishes a song, the inevitable question comes up: How should this piece of work be demoed? Let’s start by defining what we are taking about. Demo is short for “demonstration,” which Webster’s Dictionary tells us means “an explanation by example, a practical showing of how something works or is used.”

So, step back from your song and take a long, hard look at it. What are its strong points, and what is the simplest, most eloquent way to show it off, i.e. to demo it?

Start Simply

Start with a simple guitar/vocal presentation and apply some logic. If you feel that simple will be enough, then fine. But make sure the guitar playing is excellent, the vocal is solid and well performed (by solid, I mean in tune and in character with the song), and the basic quality of the recording is good — no pops or hiss or dropouts.

Embellish When Necessary

If the major part of the song is a big chorus, add a harmony part and perhaps a piano. If it’s up-tempo and rhythmic, add an electric guitar and maybe some percussion. Now, there are songs that are great vehicles for records, but need a full demo to show them off. So, take out that second mortgage!

Look the Part

And finally, aside from clear labeling (the title, your name, telephone number, address, and the copyright notice) and a neatly typed lyric sheet (in upper-case letters), use a good quality cassette when you pitch your song. Don’t put a million dollar dream on a ten-cent tape.

Your song is copyrighted for your lifetime plus 50 years, so remember for at least 50 years, the demo you make today will be the only representation of how you really intended your sing to be dressed. Make sure it’s dressed for success.  Write a hit!

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#14. The Realities of Co-Writing

Figure out where you’re going

You are going to co-write with someone you have never worked with before, so do your homework.

Ask them to give you a tape of 2 or 3 of their songs that they are excited about. This applies even to a hit writer, because past hits may not necessarily reflect his or her current attitude toward writing.

If the co-writer is an artist, get a copy of his or her latest recorded work. Ask them if they loved or hated it, because either way, you will have a sense of direction when you sit down to write with them.

Be prepared

Now, most important of all, bring at least two covered dishes to the picnic: if they don’t like your potato salad, they may love your fried chicken. In other words, your co-writer may not be into a big ballad that day, but may really get off on a foot-stomper. If you both bring a couple of ideas to the session, odds are that out of the four ideas, one will appeal to both of you.

Don’t force it

If none of the ideas work out, go have lunch or dinner. Talk about the weather or golf or knitting or fishing (not religion or politics) and then book another time a few days down the road to try to write again. If you repeat the process, and it still doesn’t work, you may be better off as good friends than frustrated co-writers.  Write a hit!

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#15. Drawing Maximum Attention to Your Hook

As you go through your song’s story and the verses, check your rhyme scheme. Whatever it is — change it in your chorus. For instance, change an A B A B rhyme scheme to A B C B.

The reason you do this is to subtly alert listeners that something important is coming. A change in rhyme scheme combined with the change in melody going into the chorus should have them ready for the hook.

A couple of effective ways to get the most out of your hook (90 percent of the time, your title is the final line or hook) are to:

1. Put an internal rhyme immediately preceding the hook line

For an example,

“I love you, you love me too,
But we can’t make it”

“I hate your dog, he ate my frog,
And now I hate you.”

“And now I hate you” and “But we can’t make it” are the lines you intended to emphasize (i.e your hooks).

2. Don’t rhyme your hook with anything

A great example of this can be found in Larry Henley’s and Jeff Silbar’s “Wind Beneath My Wings.” In their chorus, except for a very subtle implied rhyme with the word “everything,” which is tucked in the middle of the second line (“and everything I’d like to be”), the title stands alone. It’s also, on examination, made very singable by the use of alliteration. The W’s in “Wind Beneath My Wings” really make it soar. (I hope “soar” is spelled right!).  Write a hit!

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#16. More Tips

After the obvious “Don’t give up your regular job,” there are more tips on songwriting than a golfer has excuses. A few that come to mind are:

1. Make sure you’ve told the whole story.

A song should have a beginning, a middle and an end. For an example — you did that, I did this, and now we’re doing that and (INSERT YOUR HOOK HERE.)

A hook is the main idea of a song, and usually, but not always, is the song’s title. Your job as the songwriter is to lead the listeners step by step through the story and deliver them to the hook — totally involved and completely satisfied. Remember that songs generally are either a dialogue between two people or a narrative simply told. After you’ve written your song, look at it all. If you wouldn’t have said it naturally to a lover, friend or enemy the way it’s written, then it probably should be rewritten. Poems make very boring songs.

2. When you’re stuck, try another angle.

For those of you locked in what professional writers know as “second verse hell,” I will pass on a tip that a wily old writer told me some years ago. If you’ve completed your first verse and chorus, and there seems to be nowhere else to go because you’ve said everything you wanted to say, make the first verse your second verse and write a new verse (to explain how you got to the second verse). This tip works often enough to make it one of the most valuable tips ever given to me.

3. Know when to quit.

Finally, never overwrite. After you’ve told your story, hit your hook and get out. Too much will always be too much.

So, on those notes, I’m out of here…

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#17. THE “NUT”
The conclusion, the point, the message, the result of the story or action

For a song to be a living thing – sought out by singers, entertaining in elevators, delighting dancers or making people sing it for 50 years after you’re dead – it’s important to remember that it must be in perfect balance. A major part of this balance is the ratio of imagery or emotion or story to result. The reason for this Murphy’s Law dealing solely with the “Nut” is that I go through about a hundred songs a week.At clubs, as I listen to writers in the round or on the half-shell, prepare new writers for their first publishing deal or help hit writers search for their next publishing deal, I am up to my ears in imagery, emotion and story. What is missing 90 percent of the time is the essence, the substance, the correct conclusion, the very thing from which mighty oak trees grow … the Nut.

Origins of the Nut

To put a historical perspective on this process, and to understand the emergence of today’s songwriter, let’s go back to the dawn of society. There were the hunters, the gatherers, the teachers, the healers, the traders – group after group scrambling to guarantee its place in the community, its spot near the comfort of the fire. From a distance, watching the triumphs and failures of humankind, were the storytellers. They were charged with re-creating, bringing to life, with word or gesture, the profound, profane or comic events of society around them. In order to justify their warm place by the fire, they had to entertain, as well as inform. After all, any fool could come back from the hunt and say, “We killed the Woolly Mastodon,” but the first one to say, “It was a dark and stormy night as the beast towered above us!” had the audience by the . . . ears. The best of these storytellers, scribes and minstrels became minor celebrities welcome at every fire. Striking the perfect balance between imagery and information, fluff and fact, they generally prospered, thriving on the phrase, “Never let the truth stand in the way of a good story.” That information was passed on from the first songwriter on earth to the second songwriter on earth, who passed it on to Harlan Howard . . . at least that’s Harlan’s story!

Lead the listener to the Nut

When I’m asked to critique a song, no matter how explicit an idea may appear as I read the lyric or listen to the melody, I always ask the writer one question: “What is this REALLY about?” At least half the time,the answer the writer gives me does not appear anywhere in the song to which I have just listened. Therefore, when crafting your songs, make sure you lead the listener to the Nut (the point you’re trying to make), which, many times, is the hook or title of the song. For example:

  • After references to “It must have been cold there in my shadow” and “You always walked a step behind,” Larry Henley and Jeff Silbar lead the listener to the conclusion “If I can fly higher than an eagle / You Are TheWind Beneath My Wings.” In this case, the title could be the Nut, but it could also be stated as “your selflessness makes my achievements possible.”
  • After references to “When I heard that old familiar music start” and “It was like a dam had broken in my heart,” Hugh Prestwood leads the listener to “After I’d forgotten all about us / The Song Remembers When.” In this case, the title could be the Nut, but it could also be stated as “certain songs can trigger certain emotions and memories to make you re-live moments in your life.”
  • After references to “She could telephone, tell a friend, tell a lie about where she’s been” and “Send a pigeon, send a fax, write it on a Post-It pad,” Phil Barnhart, Sam Hogin and Mark D. Sanders lead the listener to “I’d prefer a bad excuse to No News.” In this case, the Nut could be stated as “any type of communication from my loved one would be better than none at all.”

(It’s important not to confuse the Nut with the theme. For me, the theme is best expressed in general terms regarding a struggle on a grand scale, such as right vs. wrong, old vs. young, virtue vs. venal, etc. The Nut, however, is the resolution of that struggle.)

In addition to being monster hits, each of these songs – as in 99 percent of all hit songs – contains an easily identifiable Nut. In fact, the only exception I can think of is a song like “Unchained Melody,” in which the phrase “unchained melody” occurs nowhere in the song, and the title has no relevance to the song!

Locating the Nut

When searching for the Nut in your own songs, co-writing makes the process easier. To make sure your song is on target, read the lyric aloud and ask your co-writer, “What is this song REALLY about?” At that point, if his or her answer is not clear – re-write. When writing by yourself, finish your song, then on a separate piece of paper, write out the Nut in one sentence. Then, the first time you play the song for someone else, ask what he or she thinks the Nut is. If it doesn’t coincide with your assessment, you are wrong. Remember, the listener is always right!

Strive for the “Oow” Factor

Judge your songs by what I call the “Oow” factor. Simply put, it means that it’s not just a GOOD song; it’s SO GOOD that, when you play it for people, they say “OOW!” At that point, you have a perfect song that is in total balance. It uses enough insightful detail to make the situation and the character(s) come to life, but never forgets to perfectly position the Nut: for example, it could be all the reasons that “you are the wind beneath my wings” or that “the song remembers when” or the fact that you can ask anyone you want, but there’s still “no news.” Once you isolate – and clearly communicate – the “Nut,” you’ll be welcome at any fire in any cave in the world.

So, on those notes, I’m out of here…

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#18. Your Best Bet for a #1 Song

For a small business owner such as a songwriter/publisher, knowing the market is vital. Budgeting for success means looking at income (when it decides to come in!) and making informed decisions about how to spend it most effectively. Up near the top of the list of expenditures (almost right next to eating) are demo costs. The financial outlay for demonstration recordings has risen to $750 – $1,000 per song. So, if you write 30 songs a year and only have $10,000 in your demo budget, you’re going to have to make some hard choices.

The Truth about Dogs and Chickens

Let’s say you’ve written this song about a Chicken. You love it! Your mom loves it! The special person in your life loves it! However. . Radio is only playing Dog songs. Fortunately, you’ve also written 4 Dog songs, which everybody loves.  Your dilemma? You only have enough money to produce a 3-song demo, but you have 5 songs (4 Dog songs and 1 Chicken song). What do you do? Now, unfortunately, I have suitcases full of demoed Chicken songs, so I know what the songwriter side of me says; however, I noticed early on in life that food is a good thing and that eating makes me happy. So, while grumbling and complaining about how radio should be playing more Chicken songs, I demo three of my four Dog songs so I can continue to support my nasty food habit! In the frustrating war between art and commerce, commerce wins.

Let’s be honest. Though it shouldn’t, radio drives the “commercial” aspect of the songwriting process. (Did I already mention that I like to eat?) It affects just about every decision we make creatively. In March, 1999, country radio did something seismic in nature, which impacted songwriters and publishers dramatically. As an experiment to maintain listenership, Country radio decided to slow the progress of records going up and down the charts in hopes of breeding the kind of familiarity that keeps listeners coming back for more – commercials, that is.

As a result, I became curious and decided to try an experiment of my own. I started by researching the Billboard Country chart for 1999 and found that a total of 18 songs reached #1. Taking a closer look, I began to wonder: what type of song is reaching the top in this brave new world of radio? A world in which, though yet another ripple effect of deregulation, big radio chains have been allowed to buy up and homogenize most of the “mom and pop” country stations resulting in:

  • Country songs being slotted between jingles and musical links that sound like they’re written and performed by Metallica;
  • on-air personalities who, with rare exceptions, really don’t know (or care) about country music, and
  • an increase in the amount of commercial time that effectively gets rid of two or three records per hour.

But, I digress! What we began to see on the chart before March is that records did indeed start taking longer to climb and began to linger longer, that is, taking longer to fall off completely. Before March, the total average time a song spent on the chart was 26.5 weeks. After the March changeover, that time increased to 32 weeks – adding more than a month to the life of a song! (In fact, Lonestar’s “Amazed” was on the chart for more than a year.) What kinds of songs enjoyed success? Let’s look at a few dynamics . . . .

Anything in common?

Common characteristics for the 18 #1s were that all of them were contemporary pop/country; 4/4 in tempo; romantic, primarily humorous, sad, and heartfelt. Half were stories; half were conversations. The average intro was 13.2 seconds.


Let’s examine the producer/A&R, mantra – “We are looking for mid to up-tempo positive love songs.” Yes, you can say it in your sleep!

Surprisingly, though, ballads accounted for 50% of 1999′s chart toppers, followed by up-tempos at 33% and mid-tempos at 17%. Now, before you crown ballads king, let’s look at the amount of time spent at #1. Even though more ballads made it to #1, they tended to fall off quicker. In fact, up-tempos spent 49% of the year at #1, followed by ballads at 31% and mid-tempos at 20%. So, even though mid- and up-tempos combined accounted for only half of the #1s, they spent a combined 69% of the year in the top spot.

Strangely enough, you had a slightly better chance of having a #1 with a ballad, but spent significantly less time at #1 and on the chart.


75% of up-tempos went from a linear melody in the verse to a soaring melody in the chorus. Which means, basically, the listener got a story [linear - very little motion, few chord changes] and something to hum at the supermarket [soaring - significant motion and chord changes] in the same song and apparently liked that a lot!

It is almost impossible to tell a story over a soaring melody because the human animal can only hear one moving part at a time and, given choice, will always defer to melody. So, wherever the writer wants to tell a story, the melody is kept to a minimum.

As for ballads, five of the nine went from linear to soaring.


Since you were born, radio has given you songs in any one of 6 variations.

As the writer leads listeners through a song, he or she creates an expectation in the audience’s mind that they are being led through the story to a hook (conclusion) in a way that they are familiar with. The writer can alter the format slightly only as long as the listeners feel informed, included and satisfied (once delivered to the hook/conclusion). If that effect is not achieved, the listeners simply reach for the dial and tune out. The writer has failed structurally.

That being said, the 18 #1 records in 1999 used only 3 of the 6 forms:

2nd Form: Verse-(Verse Opt.)-Chorus-Verse-Chorus-Instrument-Chorus-Etc.
3rd Form: Verse-(Verse Opt.)-Chorus-Verse-Chorus-Bridge-Instrument-Chorus-Out
4th Form: Verse-Lift-Chorus-Verse-Lift-Chorus-Instrumental-(Lift

5 of the 6 up-tempos and 50% of all #1s were written in 3rd form. The exception to this in up-tempo was Terri Clark’s “You’re Easy On The Eyes,” which was in 2nd form. This is significant because 3rd form is known as the most forgiving form because you can have a weak line or two in a verse but still have a huge chorus to save you. Plus, there’s a bridge to add information or show the listener the other side of the coin. With mid-tempos, all the forms were equally represented. As far as ballads go, we find that 4 of the 9 ballads were 3rd Form, followed by 3 in 2nd Form and 2 in 4th Form.

Person and tense

100% of up-tempos were written in first person (I/Me/My).

Additionally, 72% included the second person (You/Your) and 39% used the third person, generally as a device for conflict. As far as tense goes, 83% of up-tempos were set in the present, with 27% in the past and only 15% in the future.

As for ballads, 89% used the first person, 89% included the 2nd, and 33% added the third person.

The artist

Let’s add one more dynamic to this mix. Six of the 18 #1s were written or co-written by the artist, with five of the six being ballads. So the old A&R belief that ballads are artist-driven gains some credence given this information.

Your best shot

So, you have Dog songs and you have Chicken songs. Where do you spend your demo dollar?

Your best shot for getting a #1 record is to write:

  • mid- to up-tempo
  • romantic/humorous or sad/heartfelt theme
  • 4/4 time
  • contemporary pop/country style
  • story or conversation
  • 1st person or 2nd person
  • 3rd form
  • linear melody with a story to a soaring chorus
  • 13 second intro

So much for Chicken songs!

I would like to acknowledge the invaluable assistance of Phil Goldberg and Chad Green indulging my “need to know” in helping research the above information. Most importantly, thank you, Mark Ford, for massaging and editing my lunatic fringe ramblings into a coherent form.

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#19. A Look At The #1 Songs Of 2002

You are the smallest business inAmerica. Your product is a vital part of many of the largest businesses in the world (radio, TV, film, restaurants, clubs, hotels, supermarkets, etc.). The only reason they use your product is to make money. They grudgingly pay you a small portion of what you earn them, and you must raise a family, pay bills and create more product on that money. Demos are not cheap; opportunities to pitch your work are few.

This article is researched knowing that as a creator you write what you want, about what you want, how you choose to write it. However, when you have completed your song, you MUST change hats and become a small business person who understands what big business wants.

I am constantly asked why, when doing my research, I only check out the songs that get to #1 on the charts. I am reminded that there are many wonderful songs that only go Top 5 or even Top 10. Well, back in the early ’70s, my first Country hit (“Good Enough To Be Your Wife” by Jeannie C. Riley) went to #2 and sat under “I Never Promised You A Rose Garden” by Lynn Anderson for a while before slipping back down the charts. Consoled by friends (who put another drink on my tab) that #2 was just as good as #1, I was haunted by the wise words of an old dog sled driver I used to know: “If you ain’t the lead dog, the view never changes.” So with those thoughts in mind, let’s look at what worked for radio at #1 in Country music in the year 2002.

Anything in common?

About the only thing that all 21 #1s had in common was the time signature(all were 4/4). I guess that means not a lot of people are waltzing out there — at least not during “drive time.” Something else these songs had in common was their race to the first use of the title. 19 of 21 used the title within the first 60 seconds (including intro!). While we’re on the topic of title use, let’s check out the number of repetitions of the title. The variance (including fades) went from 1.5 repetitions (“These Days” – Robson/Steele/Wells) to 14 repetitions (“Blessed” – James/Lindsey/Verges) with 8 of 21 having five or fewer repetitions, 9 of 21 having six to 10 repetitions and 4 of 21 having 10 or more repetitions of the title. 10 of 21 had five or six repetitions of the title.

Tempo and Intro

Uptempo songs held 12 of the 21 top spots with mid-tempos at 3 of 21 and ballads at 6 of 21. We have been told since the dawn of radio that 13 seconds is the perfect amount of intro. But, among the total of 21 songs that reached #1 in 2002, the length of intro averaged 14.2 seconds. However, if you remove the exceedingly long intros of “Who’s Your Daddy” — Keith and “The Long Goodbye” — Brady/Keating — whose combined intros totaled 57 seconds — the average intro time was — drum roll, ta-da, 13 seconds!

Theme & Person

The themes at #1 Country were a blue-collar mix of Love Found (“Somebody Like You” — Urban/Shanks * “Good Morning Beautiful” — Cerney/Lyle * ” Beautiful Mess” — LeMaire/Mills/Minor), Love Celebrated (“Blessed” – James/Lindsey/Verges * “The Good Stuff” — Collins/Wiseman), Love Lost (“I Miss My Friend” — Martin/Nesler/Shapiro * “Bring On The Rain” — Darling/Montana), Patriotism (“Where Were You (When The World Stopped Turning)” — Jackson * “Courtesy Of The Red, White And Blue (The Angry American)” — Keith), Drinking (“Ten Rounds With Jose Cuervo” — Beathard/Cannon-Goodman/Heeney) and Fishing (“I’m Gonna Miss Her (The Fishin’ Song)” — Paisley/Rogers). Hey, wait a minute. Love found, love celebrated, love lost, patriotism, drinking, fishing, maybe we’re getting back to real Country mus . . — oops, sorry, lost my head there for a minute. Anyway, the largest percentage of 2002 #1s were about love/relationships. In addition, 16 of all 21 #1s used the first-person pronouns (I, me, you, us) in line with Country songs being conversational and personal.

Chart Longevity

Radio’s core audience (women 25-40) did allow themselves to be distracted from the love theme for a little patriotism (“Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)” — Jackson * “Courtesy Of The Red, White And Blue (The Angry American)” — Keith), but only briefly. Both songs were on and off the chart in fewer than 20 weeks. Women also tolerated one of their own finishing second to a bass boat (“I’m Gonna Miss Her (The Fishin’ Song)” — Paisley/Rogers) and letting a man behave badly (“Ten Rounds With Jose Cuervo” — Beathard/Cannon-Goodman/Heeney) for 31 weeks, probably secure in the knowledge that after 10 rounds of tequila, the ? would really feel bad. The other songs that kept the listeners’ attention for 30 or more weeks were all love songs, whether lost, found or celebrated individually or as a family. These 30-plus-week songs totaled 9 of 21.

Song Length

One noteworthy observation is that there was only one #1 single under 3 minutes (“She’ll Leave You With A Smile” — Blackmon/Knowles) — in fact, 4 were 4 minutes or longer! A full 12 out of 21 #1s on the chart were longer than 3 minutes 30 seconds. Although the dean of Nashville songwriters, Harlan Howard, always said, “Only a dumbass takes more than 3 minutes to tell anything,” in defense of the songwriters, a large number of these songs could have been 3 minutes or much shorter. Some of the fades were a minute or more in length!

Song Form

Other than the larger number of topics writers were allowed to talk about in 2002, there was other good news. The 6th Form or “Rondeau” (or “Rondo” as W.O. Smith called it or “Honky Tonk Form” as Harlan Howard affectionately labeled it) reappeared at #1. (The basic Rondeau is Chorus-Verse-Chorus- Instrumental-Bridge-Chorus.) “Good Morning Beautiful” — Cerney/Lyle, written in Rondeau, held the listener for 26 weeks to get to #1, kept them singing along for six weeks at #1 and entertained them for a further 8 weeks after that in its most perfect structure for a whopping 40 weeks on the chart!

Next came good old 2nd Form
(Verse-Chorus-Verse-Chorus-Instrumental-Chorus). This form has been used for decades by Country writers, Rockers and Folkies to tell stories because of its flexibility — you can add verses to tell the whole story if you feel you need them. It therefore comes as no surprise that the patriotic themes of “Where Were You (When The World Stopped Turning)” — Jackson and ” Courtesy Of The Red, White And Blue (The Angry American)” – Keith were best told without the frills of bridges, middle 8ths, lifts, channels, pre-choruses, etc.

Another solid, well-used form that seldom gets to #1 made three appearances. The 5th Form had its time in the sun, well represented by ” Somebody Like You” — Urban/Shanks, “The Cowboy In Me” –Anderson/Steele/Wiseman and “She’ll Leave You With A Smile” — Blackmon/Knowles. (The 5th Form’s major distinction is that there is no chorus; its verses have an AABA structure with the first or last line of the verse being the title/hook.) What “Somebody” and “Cowboy” shared was the addition of an extra verse. The fun thing in any craft is learning the rules and then breaking them — ask Picasso! Some of my personal favorite songs are written in 5th Form –”The Song Remembers When,” “Brown Eyed Girl,” “Somewhere In My Broken Heart” and so many more. I guess they don’t fit the needs of the drive time listener all the time but, hey . . .

The lion’s share of #1s were written in drive time’s best friends 3rd Form and 4th Form. 3rd Form at its most basic is Verse-(Verse Optional) -Chorus-Verse-Chorus-Bridge-Instrumental-Chorus. 4th Form is Verse-Lift-Chorus-Verse-Lift-Chorus-(Bridge Optional)-Instrumental-(Lift Optional)-Chorus. Just to illustrate, the most pristine examples of these forms are “I Breathe In, I Breathe Out” — Cagle/Robbin (3rd Form) and ” Living And Living Well” — Martin/Nesler/Shapiro (4th Form). I confess that it’s great to see writers stretch and bend these forms. For instance, a couple of the 4th Form songs left out second verses entirely (“I’m Gonna Miss Her (The Fishin’ Song)” — Paisley/Rogers and “Who’s Your Daddy?” — Keith) yet still satisfied the listener and allowed the writer some freedom to have fun.

Other items to note

Speaking of fun, HUMOR and IRONY are huge factors in a big radio song. Compound humor and irony with image-inducing detail (“under an old brass paperweight” / “feet on a hardwood floor” / “electric choke”), and you have all these wonderful ear-catching mini-hooks that expertly lead the listener to the real “hook” or logical conclusion. By creating an expectation and then so satisfactorily fulfilling it, the writer delivers.

Your best shot

I could ramble on for pages about how much fun it is to watch writers exercise their craft, but it’s time to cut to the chase. Based on last year’s numbers, what’s your best shot for getting a #1 record this year? As always, it helps to be the artist or to write with the artist, but considering the fact that two-thirds of the #1s in 2002 were not written or co-written by the artist, roll up your sleeves, look at your work and start by selecting love songs with an average length of three minutes to three minutes and thirty seconds, leaning toward mid- to up-tempo, in 4/4 time and in 3rd or 4th Form, using conversational first-person, heavy on humor and irony, packed with ear-catching details. Throw in a 13-second introduction, get your listener to the title in 60 seconds (or less) with the title repeating no more than seven times, and you’re in the running! Remember, when it comes to radio, your job is to hold the listener from the car commercial to the soda jingle through multiple daily repetitions for a minimum of five months (or in the case of “Good Morning Beautiful” — Cerney/Lyle, 10 months!). You must create something so simple that the listener gets it immediately yet so complex that it holds his or her attention for a lifetime. That’s the easy part! Now try getting an artist to record it . . . [Thanks to Mark Ford for massaging and editing my lunatic fringe ramblings into a coherent form!]

The #1 Songs for 2002 (Billboard magazine Jan. 1 – Dec. 31, 2002)

Where Were You (When The World Stopped Turning)
Performer: Alan Jackson / Writer: Alan Jackson

Good Morning Beautiful
Performer: Steve Holy / Writers: Zack Lyle, Todd Cerney

Bring On The Rain
Performer: Jo Dee Messina / Writers: Billy Montana, Helen Darling

The Cowboy In Me
Performer: Tim McGraw / Writers: Craig Wiseman, Jeffrey Steele, Al Anderson

The Long Goodbye
Performer: Brooks & Dunn / Writers: Paul Brady, Ronan Keating

Performer: Martina McBride / Writers: Hillary Lindsey,Troy Verges, Brett James

I Breathe In, I Breathe Out
Performer: Chris Cagle / Writers: Chris Cagle, Jon Robbin

My List
Performer: Toby Keith / Writers: Rand Bishop, Tim James

Drive (For Daddy Gene)
Performer: Alan Jackson / Writer: Alan Jackson

Living And Living Well
Performer:GeorgeStrait / Writers: Tony Martin, Mark Nesler, Tom Shapiro

I’m Gonna Miss Her (The Fishin’ Song)
Performer: Brad Paisley / Writers: Brad Paisley, Frank Rogers

Courtesy Of The Red, White And Blue (The Angry American)
Performer: Toby Keith / Writer: Toby Keith

The Good Stuff
Performer: Kenny Chesney / Writers: Jim Collins, Craig Wiseman

Performer: Tim McGraw / Writers: Holly Lamar, Annie Roboff

I Miss My Friend
Performer: Darryl Worley / Writers: Tony Martin, Mark Nesler, Tom Shapiro

Beautiful Mess
Performer: DiamondRio / Writers: Sonny LeMaire, Clay Mills, Shane Minor

Ten Rounds With Jose Cuervo
Performer: Tracy Byrd / Writers: Casey Beathard, Michael Heeney, Marla Cannon-Goodman

Somebody Like You
Performer: Keith Urban / Writers: Keith Urban, John Shanks

These Days
Performer: Rascal Flatts / Writers: Stephen Paul Robson, Jeffrey Steele, Danny Mark Wells

Who’s Your Daddy?
Performer: Toby Keith / Writer: Toby Keith

She’ll Leave You With A Smile
Performer:GeorgeStrait / Writers: Odie Blackmon, Jay Knowles

Write a hit! 

Ralph Murphy Receives CMA’s

Jo Walker Meador International Award

During the annual CMA International Reception held on Nov. 7 as part of festivities around “The 45th Annual CMA Awards,” Ralph Murphy, songwriter, producer and VP of ASCAP Nashville, was given the 2011 Jo Walker-Meador International Award. The Award was presented by CMA CEO Steve Moore. “The industry has been more than generous with all the Irish, the Canadians, the Norwegians, the Australians, the Dutch, the Germans – everyone who’s come here to play Country Music,” said Murphy. “And it’s always been more than generous with me. You can’t ask for more in life than a chance and an opportunity of someone being fair with you.” The Jo Walker-Meador International Award recognizes outstanding achievement by an individual or company in advocating and supporting Country Music’s marketing development in territories outside the United States. It was named in honor of former CMA Executive Director (1959-1991) and Country Music Hall of Fame member Jo Walker-Meador

Listen to “Word on Words”

Hit songwriter, publisher, author and former President of the Nashville Songwriters Association International, Ralph Murphy was the featured guest on Nashville Public Television’s production of Word on Words. Hosted by John Seigenthaler, renowned defender of First Amendment Rights, former publisher of the Nashville Tennessean and founding editorial director of USA Today. John and Ralph will discuss his recently published book Murphy’s Laws of Songwriting, THE BOOK! In easy to grasp terms, Ralph talks about helping arm the songwriter for success by demystifying the process and opening the door to serious professional songwriting.

You can listen to the entire program (mp3) by clicking here:


About the book

Achieving “hit writer” status has always been a formidable goal for any songwriter. Never more so however than in the 21st century. Catching the ear of the monumentally distracted, fragmented listener has never been more difficult. Getting their attention, inviting them in to your song and keeping them there for long enough for your song to become “their song” requires more than being just a “good” songwriter. Murphy’s Laws of Songwriting “The Book” arms the songwriter for sucess by demystifying the process and opening the door to serious professional songwriting. Hall of fame songwriter Paul Williams said in his review of the book “If there was a hit songwriters secret handshake Da Murphy would probably have included it.” From The Author This book represents a voyage of discovery. As a child, watching the joy/solace/comfort/pure pleasure people took in singing songs, I wanted to write the words and music that became “their song.” I wanted to hear those songs sung in the clubs, on the street, in the car, and in grocery stores. I wanted people dancing, falling in love, falling out of love, skating, or doing dishes to them. In other words, I wanted “hits.” Not just hits but big hits…hits that would last.

- Ralph Murphy