by Douglas Romanow, Producer/Engineer
Most people know that a magician’s Rule Number One is, “Never tell the secret,” but did you know what Rule Number Two is? Never perform the same trick twice for the same audience. This rule exists because, the second time around, the audience will no longer be engaged by the magician’s patter and will be watching for the secret. If the magician loses the element of surprise, he/she is unable to produce the “magic.” Think about it. If you’ve seen the magician pull a rabbit from her hat, the next time she presents her top hat, will you be looking in the hat? No, you’ll be looking everywhere BUT her hat to figure out how she gets the rabbit in there.In my role as a producer, I look for a number of ways for songs to deliver satisfaction and surprise. The groove needs to FEEL good. The music needs to SOUND good. The instrumental elements should BALANCE themselves in their interchanges throughout a song’s trajectory. But melodically, structurally, and thematically, I increasingly look to be SURPRISED. We know that audiences are interested in being moved, but we must recognize that they have been over-saturated with songs. To move listeners, you need to satisfy their desire for feel/sound/balance/comfort, but also provide enough unexpected content to keep them engaged.Thematically, songs that surprise us are not easy to find. Here are a few songs I feel have surprising plot lines and developments:
- Viva La Vida: Coldplay (for it’s non-traditional theme)
- The Walrus: The Beatles (for its sheer innovation)
- Umbrella: Rihanna (for its playful wording)
Each of these songs is successful partially because it delights and entertains [satisfies] and stands out as a unique and memorable work. Each contains the element of surprise. As a writer, how do you arrive at surprise? What are your processes for interrupting your patterns in your writing? Here are a few suggestions:
- Read lyrics and poetry.
- Read widely, not only in your own song-writing genre.
- Co-write with new writers
- Write with a specific artist in mind
- Play games: Decide on a specific and complex rhyme scheme before you start writing, decide to use alliteration instead of a rhyme scheme, decide to use metaphors or hyperbole or any poetic device that you don’t ordinarily use.
- Write in a different setting or with a different instrument—this might be gimmicky but it could shake you out of your patterns.
- Take a meaningful family story and turn it into a narrative song.
- Take your drafts of two songs that are not working well and combine them into one song. See what happens.