What Makes It A Hit? “When You Say Nothing At All” Written by: Paul Overstreet and Don Schlitz
I have worked in the country music industry for over 30 years. I’ve heard a lot of hit songs, but there are some that just stand out. “When You Say Nothing At All” is one of those songs. It continues to be one of my absolute favorites, and for good reason.
Written by Paul Overstreet and Don Schlitz, “When You Say Nothing At All” has been a hit single 3 times. First, for the late Keith Whitley, who took it to #1 on the charts. Next, by Alison Krauss who took it to #3 on the charts. Her version was from a Keith Whitley tribute project which wasn’t scheduled to be a single, but radio loved it and started playing it. Then, Irish artist Ronan Keating covered it on his debut project. His version was a top-10 record in several European countries.
The subject matter of “When You Say Nothing At All” – the unspoken “love language” between two people - is unique and powerful. I tried to think of another song about the silent love communication between a couple, but couldn’t come up with one in any music format. Finding a clever and different perspective on any situation is half the battle in songwriting. Paul and Don sure nailed this subject with great simplicity and eloquence.
One of the hallmarks of a well-crafted song is the use of an economy of words. The more simply stated, the better. In my opinion, this song does that brilliantly. Every word is carefully placed and there is no “fat” anywhere.
The first line in any well-written song should persuade me to listen to the rest of the song. Let’s take a look at the first line: “It’s amazing how you can speak right to my heart.” That’s a strong first line because it makes me curious to know what the author’s partner does to speak to his heart. The next line, “Without saying a word you light up the dark,” reveals what the heart of the song is all about – this couple’s unspoken “love language.” This makes the song relatable because many people experience that with their significant other, or it reminds the listener that they wish they had it with their significant other, or they wish they had a significant other to experience this kind of unspoken communication. Whichever way, this subject matter sure pulls on the ‘ol heart strings.
The chorus explains how the author’s partner displays this unspoken communication with simple, relatable visuals that lead us to the hook - “You say it best when you say nothing at all.” The entire chorus is profound in its simplicity. That’s great songwriting.
Regarding the second verse, “Old Mr. Webster could never define what’s being said between your heart and mine,” is one of my favorite lines from any song in any format. Of course, the author is referring to Noah Webster, who compiled the well-known Webster’s Dictionary. What a clever way of saying that the unspoken language between this couple just can’t be put in words.
They lyric and melody of “When You Say Nothing At All” were obviously meant for each other. What a match. The verse melody is easy and conversational. The chorus melody contrasts the verse melody by starting higher, which gets the listener’s attention and adds heightened emotional excitement. Starting the chorus melodically higher is common for a hit song – it adds melodic interest which engages the listener even more. A hit song is all about emotionally engaging your listener so that he or she feels some kind of connection. A listener will quickly tire of a song if they feel no emotional connection. Even after all these years, I still feel a connection to this song both lyrically and melodically.
Paul Overstreet and Don Schlitz have long been two of Nashville’s most successful songwriters. Together, they wrote the Randy Travis classic, “Forever and Ever Amen,” and Don Schlitz wrote, “The Gambler.” Both men are also members of the Nashville Songwriters Association Hall of Fame.
When You Say Nothing At All
It's amazing How you can speak Right to my heart Without saying a word, You can light up the dark Try as I may I could never explain What I hear when You don't say a thing Chorus: The smile on your face Lets me know that you need me There's a truth in your eyes Saying you'll never leave me A touch of your hand says You'll catch me if ever I fall You say it best When you say Nothing at all All day long I can hear
People talking out loud
But when you hold me near
You drown out the crowd
Old Mr. Webster could never define
What’s being said between your heart and mine
The smile on your face
Let’s me know that you need me There’s a truth in your eyes Saying you’ll never leave me
A touch of your hand
Says you’ll catch me if ever I fall
You say it best
When you say nothing at all
Songwriters: DON SCHLITZ, PAUL OVERSTREET