7 Ways to Be a Fascinating Songwriter

3793766742_658d279aff_b-by-natesologuitar_thumbAt some point in your life, you’ve seen a performance so enthralling that the room was spellbound. Nobody was talking, whispering, fidgeting, nothing.

If you’ve ever been onstage during one of these moments, you know it’s a bit eerie–you’re not even sure they’re breathing out there. Every note and syllable you sing resonates in the silent room, filling the empty space completely.

Imagine being able to hold that level of interest for the entirety of a song. And then another. And then another.

Even in today’s noisy, cluttered world where attention is scarce and short-lived, there’s still a way to cut through the noise and be heard. Truly heard.

Actually there are seven ways.

Sally Hogshead’s 7 Triggers of Fascination

Sally Hogshead is the author of Fascinate: Your 7 Triggers to Persuasion and Captivation. Fascinate outlines the seven ways that art, music, trashy TV, song lyrics, or anything else on this planet captures and holds our attention.

Here are Sally’s 7 triggers, each in a very cramped nutshell quoted from Fascinate:

PASSION creates craving for sensory pleasure.

MYSTIQUE lures with unanswered questions.

ALARM threatens with negative consequences.

PRESTIGE earns respect through symbols of achievement.

POWER commands and controls.

REBELLION tempts us with ‘forbidden fruit,’ causing us to rebel against norms.

TRUST comforts us with certainty and reliability.

For the complete lowdown on all of these triggers, check out Sally’s excellent book. For a quick outline of ways songsters can apply each trigger, read on.




Passion is sensory experience: The moan of a cello, the supple and sultry voice of a crooner, intoxicating Latin rhythms, a pulsating bass line you can feel in your soles, the low growl of a distorted guitar, a tenor saxophone screaming and crying the blues… Need I go on?

Music is all about passion.

And so is language itself. Lyrics can pull the Passion trigger just as effectively as music–because spoken language itself is a kind of music. It rises, it falls, it rhymes, it consonates, it echoes, it moves the tongue in rhythm. Any lyricist can trigger passion with rhyme, alliteration, and other pleasing sounds found in language.

Lyric imagery is another powerful way to seduce your listener’s senses. Write a lyric that gives the audience opportunities to hear, see, smell, touch, taste, and otherwise experience the world of the song. Evoke vivid multisensory scenes for them to experience.

Your feet sink into the loam and soft moss
The cool damp settles on your face and arms
Breathe grass and soil at the edge of a field
While a slow breeze stirs the soft-spoken leaves

Wind your way over the roots in the dark
Where fireflies blink in ciphers and codes
A step outside the campfire glow…

–“Step Outside the Campfire Glow




30622339_e2cfb20084-by-ChaToMystique is the subtle art of suggestion. To trigger Mystique, reveal just enough to provoke curiosity and stir the imagination—without telling too much.

Mystique creates the kind of curiosity that encourages us to listen on, to learn more about your songs, to learn more about you.

Musically, the tension inherent to certain melodies and scales can keep us listening, excited to hear what happens next. You use Mystique whenever you write a bridge or a pre-chorus to build anticipation and drama.

You also use Mystique whenever anything about your lyric raises intriguing questions. Whenever you use a subtle, mysterious, or exotic image in your songs without entirely spelling out the deeper meaning, you’re using the Mystique trigger.

Mystique leaves shadowy spaces for each listener to fill in with her own imagination. It can also be used to carefully reveal pieces of the song’s central situation or story as it unfolds.

To master the delicate and subtle Mystique trigger, carefully choose what you reveal–and when.


4807749216_e19d77da41_b-by-Rhys-Asplundh_thumbThe Alarm trigger awakens an audience like a shriek, like a jolt of adrenaline. It makes listeners gasp and shift in their seats. It can startle, shock, horrify, threaten. Alarm compels attention like the wail of a tornado siren (we’ll get to that in a minute).

One of the most obvious uses of Alarm in music is the shock-rock artist with his creepy costumes and horror movie stage props.

But Alarm isn’t always about the anxiety of bodily harm–you can more subtly trigger Alarm by exploring cultural taboos. You can give voice to uncomfortable truths about human nature and society. You can take us to dark places that we’re strangely mesmerized by. You can be deliberately caustic, blasphemous, or retrograde.

By the way, the Alarm trigger doesn’t always just create discomfort for discomfort’s sake—it can also save lives.

In April 2012, over 100 tornadoes occurred in 24 hours in the US. Businesses and homes were damaged, even destroyed. Yet there were only 5 lives lost. Experts credit strong, vivid language in the tornado warnings with saving lives; these warnings described the storms as “catastrophic” and “life-threatening.”

Alarm can also be used to unite an audience with shared values and concerns. If something you value is under attack and you want to spread the word, use Alarm. Spell out the consequences. Remember those tornado warnings.


5950552903_63ef09ff5b_o-by-kubotakePrestige fascinates audiences by inspiring respect and admiration for your music. Use the Prestige trigger to impress audiences with ever-higher standards for the craftsmanship and presentation of your songs.

Virtuosic technique invokes Prestige. Bear in mind that it’s entirely possible (and sometimes necessary) to be prestigious in one area at the cost of others. Leonard Cohen may not be a prestigious singer, but he’s certainly a prestigious lyricist. Before he ever released an album he was an accomplished, published poet and novelist. How many songwriters are that literate?

Prestige involves spending hours, days, and months of your life training to deliver just three minutes of song–but those three minutes are sublime.


3554002238_82d837de73_o-by-Marco-RaaphorstThe Power trigger is perhaps the most lightly used of all the triggers in music, but it’s still present. Whenever a listener cranks your music on her car stereo until the windows rattle, she’s voluntarily turning up the Power trigger.

The band Sunn O))) uses sheer volume so powerful that you can feel it like a punch to the solar plexus. Their guitars rumble the floor under your feet. This is musical Power taken to its logical conclusion—not just heard, but physically felt.

But Power isn’t necessarily brute force. It can also mean control. The conductor of an orchestra or the leader of a band fascinates by guiding and controlling the other players.

Most subtly, Power can also mean general influence. Anytime you get onstage, or otherwise address a large fanbase, you have a chance to influence the thoughts and actions of everyone present. If you speak with conviction and self-assurance, you can become influential in ways that extend well beyond the borders of your music.

So there’s a very real opportunity to wield the Power trigger to influence your listeners–by inspiring them to be their best, perhaps, or to support a good cause.

Or maybe your relationship to your audience is more dominant, more challenging. Your call…



3793766742_658d279aff_b-by-natesologuitarRebellion is all about finding new, creative, even subversive ways to do things. A songster who regularly uses the Rebellion trigger will surprise fans and keep them guessing.

To use the Rebellion trigger, burn clichés for kindling. Reach beyond the usual topics and attitudes and find new material that’s uniquely your own. Say the wrong thing. Play it the “wrong” way. Give your listeners experiences totally different from what they were expecting. In short: change the game. Give them something they never knew they wanted.

Improvise. Ad lib. Rewrite familiar songs to give them strange new mutations. Invent new genres. Study jazz and punk innovators. Go indie. Through every bar of music and line of lyric, show us your creative mind at work.


288491653_a9b6251477_b-by-rpongsajTrust reliably delivers.

To evoke the Trust trigger, some artists play familiar songs and play them true to their original versions. Or they write original songs that use familiar chords, progressions, and lyrical imagery–most songs, even very innovative ones, use at least some familiar cues.

On a broader, longer-term scale, you can evoke Trust by staying true to certain core tenets of the art you make. Sunn O))), mentioned above, brings some surprises to every album. But the fundamental idea–slow, droning, atmospheric music–is always present, stringing all their albums together on the same thread.

Trust doesn’t necessarily have to mean predictability. The composer John Zorn is notorious for doing the unexpected. Fans are willing to buy eight John Zorn releases a year to hear the man constantly reinvent his work.

Finally, a dead simple way to earn trust: let the brushstrokes show. If you’re a songwriter sitting at home recording on a tape deck, you may not be able to compete on sound quality–but with a little luck, it’ll sound authentic and handmade.

Just as an unexpected time signature like 5/4 starts to sound predictable with repetition, even a seemingly erratic element of your music can trigger Trust by recurring over time. If the music itself isn’t predictable, perhaps the quality of execution (Prestige) or the cleverness of ideas (Rebellion) will build Trust.

In Conclusion

Ms. Hogshead’s framework helps us sort out why vastly different songs and artists can all be successful. It also gives us a nice set of terms we can use to cut to the essence of what makes our own music fascinating.

As review, here are Sally’s 7 Triggers of Fascination one more time:

PASSION creates craving for sensory pleasure.
MYSTIQUE lures with unanswered questions.
ALARM threatens with negative consequences.
PRESTIGE earns respect through symbols of achievement.
POWER commands and controls.
REBELLION tempts us with ‘forbidden fruit,’ causing us to rebel against norms.
TRUST comforts us with certainty and reliability.

I’ve only scratched the surface here. For a more in-depth look at each trigger and its potential uses, check out Fascinate.


Which two triggers are most common in your own music? How might you explore these triggers more deeply? I’d love to hear your ideas.

More posts on songwriting:

Hat tip to: photojenni, Tatiana12, ChaTo, Rhys Asplundh, Kubotake, Marco Raaphorst, natesologuitar, and rpongsaj. Thanks fo r generously allowing me to use your rockin’ photos. 🙂 And of course a big shout-out to the Mistress of Fascination herself, Sally Hogshead.

Posted on April 17, 2012

2 Responses to 7 Ways to Be a Fascinating Songwriter

  1. Sally Hogshead April 20, 2012 at 00:03 #

    Well, what can I say. I’m fascinated.

    This is a spectacular and gorgeous post about being fascinating. And Nicholas, you’ve perfectly embodied the spirit of the system.

    So proud to read this, and so delighted to see your brilliant interpretation.


    • Nicholas Tozier April 20, 2012 at 23:10 #

      Hi Sally!

      Thanks for crashing the party. I do hope I’ve done justice to the triggers–they’ve been an amazingly useful mental framework.

      More to come. Stay tuned 😉