An impactful song is one where all the elements work together to form a cohesive, focused expression.
Let’s think about this for a moment. Most of the time, a song is a short form where it just focuses on one feeling. There are longer songs that go through various sections each containing different feelings, but even then, most of the time thematically a song should have a singular focus.
So the first step in writing an impactful song is to identify that emotional focus of the song. Ask “how do you want the listener to feel while and after listening to this song?”
Once that focus is identified, then you go about aligning all the elements to serve the purpose of creating and enhancing that feeling. Keep in mind, though, that it doesn’t necessarily mean you make every single elements focus on that singular feeling. Sometimes a contrast or a diversion deepens the experience — everyone doing the same thing can get boring fast.
I split the elements into two big categories: Fundamental & Production. All songs require a performance, either in a recording or a live setting, in order to be received. Think of it as if you’re making a movie or a play. The Fundamental elements are what go into the script, the blueprint of the song. The Production elements are what go into any particular production/performance of a song. Without the latter no song actually makes any impact — it’s just an idea, a possibility. Production is the delivery of that idea, and has a huge impact on its impactfulness. In fact, all the elements are heavily intertwined, so expect a lot of overlap.
The reason I put this first is because rhythm is the most fundamental element to any piece of music. All music has rhythm, even if it’s intermittent, unpredictable or unrecognizable. The vast majority does have recognizable, predictable rhythm, and it serves as the ground on which you build everything else. The impact of rhythm on our feelings is very primal and instinctive. Generally speaking, the faster the tempo/pulse of the rhythm, more energizing the song is. A song without steady rhythm can feel jarring and unsettling.
The only other element that all songs have is harmony. Even in an unaccompanied melody, harmony is implied from the notes in the melody. Most songwriters realize that harmony is a rich and powerful medium. There are finite number of chords and common combinations of them, yet the art of harmony is deep and vast. It’s an easy place to look if you’re looking for new ways to convey feelings.
If a song has a melody, it most often serves as the focal point of the song. That’s what listeners really pay attention to, and all other elements work to support the melody. Even without the support of other elements, though, a melody by itself can imply other elements — rhythm, harmony, gesture. Sometimes a melody by itself is so well-formed and articulate that it can evoke feelings by itself.
Words are just one element of a song, but since it often is the most articulate or concrete part of the song, a lot of attention goes to it. One of the most commonly missed opportunities with creating impact fulness is a lack of cohesion between the words and the music — when you read the lyrics by itself it doesn’t come across as compatible with the feelings you get from the music.
Now here’s a concept that’s not often considered in songwriting. Gesture is not exactly an element by itself but more an amalgam of other elements — but in the process it becomes an element itself, too. One way to describe gesture is the degree of drama present in the song. Or another way to think about it is — when you imagine the song being performed, does it seem destined for filling up an arena, or does it fit better in a quiet coffeehouse? A song with a big gesture feels over-dramatic and silly in smaller, intimate settings and self-aware performers know this and choose material appropriate for setting, or modify the song to alter its gesture.
Arranging is an art that’s not often discussed analytically, because the possibilities are vast and endless, it’s hard to find patterns and schemes. Yet, best practices do exist — guitars and bass riffing together, for example, is not a songwriting but an arranging technique that creates a certain feel. If the song is a script and performance is acting, arrangements are like set design and lighting. It can totally alter the character of the original song, in both good and bad ways. Even if the song is mediocre, a competent arrangements can bring out the best in it.
Performance is perhaps the single biggest contributor to a song’s impactfulness. In order for a song to go from an idea to an art, there is a performance. Delivery of the song strongly affects its impactfulness because it’s where the performers bring their feelings and inject them into the song. In some ways, it almost doesn’t matter what the song is — a performance has the sheer power to turn a song into whatever the performers want them to be.
Production is the technical aspect of how the performance sounds and comes across. Both live and recording settings involve production. Recording techniques and tools can be used cohesively to the song’s intent to increase its impactfulness. Visual aspects of the stage presentation can do the same. Even a simple thing like how you dress on stage influences a song’s impact. Kiss and Gwar use this aspect to its maximum effect, for example.
As you can see there are myriads of elements that go into writing, then delivering, a song. When there are this many factors involved, though, it’s hard to exercise control over all of them. A writer’s primary domain of influence is the Fundamental Elements. That alone has enough pieces to create a blueprint of an immensely impactful song.
Most writers and performers aren’t even aware, let alone possess the ability to manipulate all the elements. What results then is a song that has missed opportunities, its writing and delivery aren’t as cohesive as they can be. To increase our reach and power as creators/deliverers of songs, then, we’d want to study these elements and analyze their cause & effect relationships, so that we can maximize the number of elements we can subject to our will, our intents. As with everything else in life, it’s common to develop strengths and weaknesses — but songwriting is a deep-enough art that it’s hard to run out of room for improvements. It’s a worthy life-long pursuit.