I could never crack the code of songwriting when I was a kid in high school. Talent may have been the main culprit, that is, a lack of it. Some take to it quite naturally but that was never the case for me. I labored over each piece of a song and thought for some time that I had developed the sort of tortured soul it takes to make beautiful sounds. I was achieving Nirvana! The band, not a transcendental state.
That’s probably because the music was about feelings to me when I was younger, and nothing captured my moods like punk rock which is true for so many other folks. Calling up a few friends and plugging some semi-working guitars into even sketchier amplifiers to jam my heart out at full volume gave me the rockstar vibes I wanted and probably saved my parents a bunch of money on counseling. I tried using that logic to get a raised allowance. You can guess how that went.
But music is more than feeling, right? I mean, the feeling you get from losing yourself in a good tune is real. It’s the result of the song, though. There’s actual work that goes into the craft of songwriting and leads to a feeling. What I did was effectively buy my way to the front of the line when trying to write. Starting with a feeling is pretty much like being dropped into the middle of Disneyland for the first time without a map. There’s so much to look at and experience, but no direction to go on.
The key is to get the map. The problem is that I never knew there was such a thing as a songwriting map to get me from a song to a feeling. Instead, I would bash out power chords in my bedroom. If I could just find a catchy riff, then I could drop some words on top of it, turn up the volume, and be an awesome musician. That’s the alluring trap of arranging angsty chords supported by volume: anyone can do that shit. Maybe that’s why so many try to do it but never take it past puberty.
So, what’s the true North Star of a song? Tom Petty says it’s all about the melody:
I think the melody really defines the song. And the chords you find, and the rhythm you find, they’re all really there to support that melody. Though, sometimes writing, we might work the exact opposite way. Have a chord progression, and then find a melody. But they must support the melody. It’s very important.Tom Petty, Conversations With Tom Petty (page 157)
That really hooked me when I read it. After the music, once the last chord rings completely out, what’s left of the song? It’s the lingering impression and the feeling it gives you. And how is that represented in your mind? The melody! That’s the darn reason that something like the Doublemint Gum jingle gets stuck in your head.
Interestingly enough, a melody doesn’t have to be linear. Petty continues by elaborating on Roy Orbison’s songwriting:
When I wrote songs with Roy Orbison, he had a completely different way of doing it, which was really unique, and really fascinating to me. He didn’t really care about things being modular at all. He might not ever return to where he started. He was all about melody. And you just move the chords to follow the singing.Tom Petty, Conversations With Tom Petty (page 318). Emphasis mine.
So, there you go. If you’re impressed with a certain song, it’s likely because of something more than the chord progression, some technicality, a production trick, or even the structure of it all. Sure, those will influence your overall opinion, but they live in servitude to the melody. If content is king on the web, then the melody is the top boss when it comes to songwriting.