By Niels Falch
As a British pop music fan, I felt ashamed hearing James Newman’s “Embers” as the British entry for the Eurovision Song Contest 2021. What a disappointing song and night for the UK. Everything that could go wrong with a song went wrong. So I wonder, how could this happen?
Where are the times of Lennon & McCartney, Ray Davies, Elton John, Andrew Lloyd Webber, Tony Hatch, Elvis Costello, 10CC, Supertramp, and Stock, Aitken and Waterman? Have the British forgotten all those great Eurovision entries such as “Congratulations” (1968) by Cliff Richard, “Boom Bang-a-Bang” (1969) by Lulu, “Beg Steal or Borrow” (1972) by the New Seekers, Safe Your Kisses for Me (1976) by the Brotherhood of Man, and of course “Love Shine a Light” (1997) by Katrina & the Waves?
In the past decennia, the UK used to have such an excellent reputation for writing a continuous stream of catchy popular songs. I can’t imagine that with Brexit the musical well has run dry. So you may be comforted with a little help from a Dutch friend. Although I realize it’s not polite to stick my nose into another country’s affairs, I would like to provide some tips and tricks to avoid a similar failure next year.
So, here are the twelve tips for writing a Eurovision Song Contest tune:
- A short stand-alone intro (four bars max.) that immediately draws you into the song, or start singing straight away. The intro has to stand out from the other entries and could return after the second chorus. Pay attention to this because it is the first introduction to the song.
- A catchy chorus hook that supports the song title, whereby the melody is higher than the verse and consists of many repetitions. Do not place the title suddenly at the end for the first time. Make it clear what you want to say.
- Make sure to alternate between minor and major keys.
- Use a lot of vowels in your lyrics such as “You’ll never walk alone”.
- A good song fits into any arrangement. Select carefully which arrangement would be the best for this occasion in this place and time. Pop, rock, swing, ballad, classic, folk, disco, Eurodance or combinations of music styles.
- Can you whistle the melody? Then you’re in luck. Try to make the song an earworm.
- The PISS principle instead of KISS. PISS is an acronym that stands for “pretend it’s simple, stupid.” It is a myth to believe that only “simple” step-by-step melodies and tonic, subdominant, dominant harmonies create success at the Eurovision Song Contest. So, think of Bach and Bacharach and explore what’s in the music theory toolkit such as the minor sixth interval, a diminished chord, and the secondary dominant.
- Modulation provides variety and a certain tension within the song. Learn the circle of fifths by heart. A clever songwriter knows how to modulate several times in the bridge.
- A bridge after the second chorus provides variation, substantiates your claim, and can lead you to a climax. Use another key than the chorus.
- Work towards a climax near the last part of the song. This is the part where it all comes together. Give the people what they came for and throw out some high notes.
- Incorporate a sing-along part in the three-minute song. This could be in the chorus, or when you repeat the intro, or as a variation of a part of the chorus. It doesn’t have to be the usual oh-oh’s, la-la’s, or hey-hey’s. You can also stretch a word, statement, or song title.
- Take care of the goodbye, outro, or coda at the end. Don’t let it go to waste. Majestically say goodbye increases your winning chances.
Disclaimer. These twelve points do not guarantee instant success and there are many more musical tricks. Be original. If you still want to steal an existing melody or chord progression, do it cleverly so that in the end you come up with a brand new song. However, it is always good to be inspired by existing successes. Besides, there will always be influences from the outside such as strange performances, weird arrangements, anti-songs, viruses, the predictions of the bookmakers, and the betting odds that determine the score. Otherwise, Italy could have never won the Eurovision Song Contest this year. As a Led Zeppelin fan and an electric guitar player, I’m not afraid of some noise. However, you can hardly consider Italy’s “Zitte e Buoni” as a decent song. Has no one noticed the similarities with Jack White’s “Seven Nation Army” guitar riff which is often sung during football games?
I wish the UK strength and wisdom with this loss and I hope to be able to celebrate the Eurovision Song Contest 2023 in London. And if you can’t work it out, I would be delighted to give a workshop about the Eurovision song.
About Niels Falch
Niels Falch is a research fellow in songwriting and popular music at the Arts, Culture and Media department part of the University of Groningen in the Netherlands. In his youth, Niels played guitar and keyboards in symphonic rock and jazz-rock bands. After studying at the conservatories in Amsterdam and Enschede, Falch then worked as a sound engineer, music producer, music compiler, songwriter, and music teacher.