Tried and true refers to anything that is a proven success. In most things in life, you’re doing well to look for a tried and true method. These days we might call it a “life hack.” But no matter what it gets called, tried and true won’t let you down.
Except… it can let you down in the creative arts, including songwriting. Because in the world of songwriting, “tried and true” is another word for “formula.”
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For songwriters trying to be creative with each song they write, formulas can be a problem. Formulas generally happen when something gets done a certain way, enough that it implies a set of steps you should follow.
In songwriting, about the only element where that kind of predictability is acceptable is a chord progression. We tolerate predictable progressions, as long as the lyrics and melody are suitably unique.
If you’re the kind of songwriter who leans a lot on that crutch we call a songwriting formula, you need to look for something new. A new “tried and true.”
Of course, if it’s new, it can’t be tried and true. Can it?
New To You
A tried and true, as long as it is new to you, will often suffice. So yes, borrowing someone else’s tried and true can be a great way to push you out of the creative block you’re enduring.
To borrow someone else’s formula for success means familiarizing yourself with it. For songwriters, that means you need to be constantly replenishing your repertoire of ideas for getting music written.
Replenishing ideas happens when you make listening to good music a daily activity. And not passive listening; I’m talking about active listening, when you make note (literally) of what you like, and why you like it.
In that sense, you’re borrowing someone else’s tried and true. But because you’re a unique individual with your own ideas on what good music should sound like, this “new to you” kind of formula can actually sound fresh and innovative.
The “Sound Like Someone Else” Solution
If you’re stuck and can’t come up with songwriting ideas, try this as a solution: purposely try to sound like someone else – a different songwriter that you admire.
I wrote about that a few years back: “Deliberately Sounding Like Your Songwriting Hero,” and it’s a technique I truly believe in. In the attempt to sound like someone else, you give yourself permission to relinquish all the characteristics that have contributed to your previous songs.
What does that do for you? It allows you to look at the problem of songwriting in a new (i.e., new to you) way.
I know you think it will lead to plagiarism, but it won’t. Not if what you’re trying to copy is the sound of your songwriting hero. You’ll come up with new melodies, new chords and lyrics, and — because you’re who you are — it will be unique and creative.
In that sense, borrowing tried and true songwriting ideas from someone else can be just the thing to jolt you out of your creative malaise and set you off in a new and exciting direction.
In songwriting, a hook is a short, catchy element within a song that gets repeated often, particularly in the chorus. There are many kinds of hooks, however, and if you’d like to read about those, try this article: “Exploring a Deeper Definition of a Song Hook.”
One hook type that that article doesn’t directly address is the lyrical hook. What is it, and how do you create one?
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A typical lyrical hook goes hand-in-hand with whatever instrumental hook sets up the title, and in that sense, the song’s title is often a lyrical hook. Like any other kind of hook, it’s a bit of lyric that gets repeated over and over. It’s fun to say and sing — it kind of “flies off the tongue”, if you will.
Just as with creating an instrumental hook, a lyrical hook is often the product of lots of improvisation, trying word combinations, and working closely with the rhythmic groove of the instrumental backing. A lyrical hook is usually an important ingredient in a chorus hook:
- “Rockin’ Robin (tweet, tweet, tweet)…”
- “Ah, ha, ha, ha, stayin’ alive, stayin’ alive”
- “Because I’m happy (clap along…)”
- “Na na na na na na na, na na na na, Hey Jude”
- “We found love in a hopeless place…”
Songs do just fine without the inclusion of an obvious lyrical hook. But if your song features a chorus hook, it’s likely that it will need to have a catchy lyric associated with it that forms the title.
Here are some tips to keep in mind as you search for words that will grab the audience’s attention:
- Use simple, clear words that are easy to sing. I don’t know of a song called “She Sells Sea Shells.”
- Experiment with alliteration. That means find adjacent (or almost adjacent) words that start with the same sound. “Paved paradise”, “Bye bye blackbird”, “Blue Bayou”, etc.
- Set up a rhythmic groove and improvise word combinations. Making sure that the words have a rhythmic element is crucial to the success of a lyrical hook.
- Be sure the words in a lyrical hook are properly set up by the verse lyrics that precede them. In that sense, a lyrical hook serves as an important focal point for your song’s lyric.
- Make certain that the words of your hook sound right when they’re repeated. Since repetition is an important part of the success of any hook, sing them over and over in order to fine-tune your choice of words.
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You know that there are many songs where verses and choruses are in different keys. When it comes to questions about chord progressions that I receive, the most common kinds of questions relate to that issue: how to get from one key to another in a typical song.
It’s not unusual for a song to change key somewhere, but keep in mind that the most common situation is actually to start and end in the same key. And some songs, like the enormously successful “Uptown Funk” (Mark Ronson, Jeff Bhasker, et al), key of D minor (D Dorian, actually), keep it very simple, featuring only two chords: Dm and G, from the beginning to the end.
For songs that do change key, the most common key change is the minor-to-major switch. That is, a song that starts with a minor key verse, then switches to the relative major for the chorus. If the song uses a bridge, you’ll find that more often than not it will start in the relative minor, but quickly (by the 5th or 6th bar of that bridge) start wandering back to major for those final chorus repeats:
That kind of shifting key, from C major to A minor and back again, is a wonderful way to allow musical energy to ebb and flow. There’s a brightness that comes when the listener hears that shift from minor to major, and the relative major-minor relationship is probably the most common way to achieve that.
So a song using that plan might use the following chord progressions:
- VERSE: Am G F Em |Am G F Em |Dm F G F |Dm F G____|| (optional repeat)
- CHORUS: C F Dm G |D F Dm G| Am Em F C |Am Em F G|| (optional repeat)
- BRIDGE: Am Em F Dm |Am EM F Dm |Am G F Am Bb F G____||
There are other relationships to consider, like keeping the verse and chorus in the same key, but moving to the ii-chord as a key centre in the bridge, as John Lennon does in “Real Love”:
- VERSE: E G#m/D# C#m B+ |A F#m B E A E|
- CHORUS: E Am E Am…
- BRIDGE (Instrumental break): F#m C# F#m Bsus4 B Bsus4 B
In any case, the benefit of a key change is that the audience experiences the pleasant tension of feeling the music wander away from the home key, and then the comfort of eventually hearing the home key return.
So how do you make sure that moving from one key to another is done smoothly and without any kind of unpleasant “hiccup”? Your most important responsibility there is to look at the final chord or two of one section, and then be sure that they move smoothly to the new key.
It’s common for the beginning of a bridge to use a so-called abrupt modulation, in which the switch to minor isn’t hinted at. You’ll hear that at the start of the instrumental bridge for “Real Love” is in F# minor, but there was no indication at the end of the chorus that a key change was coming.
But for switching from minor verse to major chorus, you’ll often hear a more considered preparation of the new key. In the “TYPICAL EXAMPLE” shown above, notice that even though the progression is in A minor, the end of the progression looks more and more like C major, paving the way for an easy transition to that key.
If you’re considering other kinds of key relationships in your songwriting, remember the following:
- Smoother transitions are always safer than abrupt ones.
- Don’t always play it safe. 😉
- Minor to major (verse to chorus) is far more common, and often more successful, than major to minor.
- For songs that use the same progression in the verse and chorus (or for any kind of refreshing moment in a song), consider bumping the chorus up into a new, higher key. Moving to a lower chorus key can work as well, as long as the melody moves higher. (Example: “Penny Lane”, which moves from a B major verse to an A major chorus).
- For songs where verse and chorus are in the same key, definitely consider switching to a new key for a bridge.
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I mentioned cadences in my last post. A cadence is the end of a musical phrase — the end of a line of music or lyric. Sometimes that cadence sounds temporary, when the lyric sounds like the a pause in the middle of a sentence (at a comma), and sometimes much more final, like the end of a verse, chorus, or other major section.
Using music theory terminology, we say that a cadence that sounds temporary is, more often than not, a half cadence, while a more permanent-sounding cadence is usually a so-called authentic cadence.
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The actual chord you use at a cadence point is the main way of identifying what kind of cadence it is. If your song is in the key of C major, a half cadence will usually end on a V-chord, like this one:
C F Dm F C/E D7 G (I IV ii IV I6 V7/V V)
As you can hear if you play through that progression, it sounds incomplete, as if it needs to keep going. It’s easy to see why it sounds this way: it ends on the dominant chord (V), and not the tonic chord (I).
If you put a C at the end of that progression, you’ll hear how much more final it sounds. In fact, you can play through the entire progression twice, once with an ending on the V-chord (a half cadence), and again with a tonic chord finisher (an authentic cadence), and you’ve got the kind of progression that might serve as a verse or chorus progression in most pop genres, like the following mid-tempo country ballad mock-up:
C F Dm F C/E D7 G | C F Dm F C/E D7 G C
Using a Deceptive Cadence
A deceptive cadence means that the entire progression ended on a chord that was unexpected. By unexpected, we mean that it moves onto a chord that was not the typical end for that kind of progression.
The most common type of deceptive cadence is to end on a vi chord, like this:
C F Dm F C/E D7 G |Am Em…
As you can see, it adds a lot of interest to a chord progression because it moves into a new key area, and now sounds as though you might continue your song, at least temporarily, in the key of A minor.
Beyond the obvious variety that this kind of deceptive cadence offers, it’s also valuable for another reason: a lot of pop songs use a minor verse and a major chorus. If that’s the way you’ve designed your song, you’ll find that you can use a deceptive cadence at the end of your major chorus to get back into the minor key of your verse.
The sample deceptive cadence above is what is called a melded cadence, which means that the end of one phrase (the Am chord) is the start of a new phrase.
Though my example above moved to Am (vi), you can use any chord other than where our ears (and the rules of harmony) thought the progression might move. Some other good choices to experiment with might be the ii-chord (Dm), or the flat-VI (Ab).
To summarize, a deceptive cadence simply means that you took the chord at the end of a phrase and changed it to something less typical — less expected. It’s a great way to take your chord progression in a new direction.
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By “resting point”, I’m talking about spots in a melody, usually the end of a musical phrase, where the note is usually longer than the ones that precede it. In music theory terminology, a resting point is synonymous with the cadence.
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So let’s define things a bit more precisely. A phrase is a line of music. You’ll find that in many songs, the end of every line (or at least most lines) of lyric is the end of a musical phrase. Sometimes that phrase can sound incomplete, needing more to make it sound finished, like the end of the first line of lyric:
“Load up on guns, bring your friends” (“Smells Like Teen Sprit” – Nirvana)
Other phrases sound more complete, as if you could actually end the song then and there. You’ll notice these more complete-sounding phrases at the end of a chorus, for example:
“I’m on the right track, baby, I was born this way” (“Born This Way” – Lady Gaga)
Verse Melodies, and Resting Points
When you compare a verse and chorus melody, you’ll notice a couple of important differences:
- Even though both verse and chorus melodies feature a lot of repetition, the verse melody has more of a wandering quality, moving up and down in an attempt to partner up with the various moods of the verse lyric.
- Verse melodies usually give us the song’s lowest pitches, sometimes then moving higher as it seeks to connect smoothly the chorus.
And then there is another important difference:
Verse melodies often avoid the tonic note, while the chorus tends to feature it a bit more.
A tonic note is the note that represents the key of the song. So if your song is in E major, E is the tonic note. There is a sense of finality that comes from that note and chord. When you hear the tonic, whether it’s the tonic note or tonic chord, you’ll find that it offers a strong sense of “home.”
That sense of arriving at home is great in a chorus, particularly at the end, but often less great in a verse. Why? In a verse melody, you want a lot of forward motion — momentum — so that your audience wants to keep listening.
So the more you use the tonic note in a verse, the greater the danger that you’re going to sap the forward motion out of your music. The tonic note and chord makes the melody sound like it’s trying to end.
Now, let’s look at those resting spots I mentioned earlier. Every song melody is comprised of phrases, all or most of which end on a long note. If you’ve just written a new song, check your verse melody, and the end of each line of lyric (i.e., the ends of phrases) for the following characteristics:
- The end of each phrase in your verse melody should, more often than not, end on a non-tonic note. If your song is in C major, most of the time you want your melody at the end of each phrase to not be the note C.
- If any of your verse phrases end on a tonic note, you’ll want to accompany that note with a non-tonic chord.
Some examples to study:
- In “Born This Way” (key of F# major), the melody note at the end of the first phrase is F# – the tonic. But it’s accompanied by a IV-chord (B), and so gives a necessary sense of forward motion.
- In “Locked Out of Heaven” – Bruno Mars (key of D minor verse, and F major chorus), the end of every line of verse lyric ends on G, always giving us the sense that the music must continue to give us eventually something more final.
- In “Royals” – Lorde (key of D major), each line of verse lyric ends on a non-tonic note, until the final phrase (“No postcode envy”). The last note of the chorus finally gives us a clear tonic note-tonic chord finisher.
If you find in your own songs that the verse never seems to be able to get going, or at least never gives you the sense of energy and forward motion that you’re hoping for, it’s time to do a bit of analysis. Check the long, resting notes that happen in your verse.
If you find you’re overusing the tonic note, find ways to change the chord progression so that it doesn’t coincide with the tonic chord. That may be all the change that’s needed to keep motion in the music.
You’ll be amazed what a bit of music theory knowledge will do for your songwriting. If you’ve been scared away from theory because it’s boring, it’s time to check out “Easy Music Theory by Gary Ewer.” Twenty-five enjoyable video-based lessons, complete with worksheets, quizzes and answer sheets, so you don’t even need a teacher. Starts at the very beginning, and progresses through to reading complete musical scores!
I’m Gary Ewer. This blog has been my labour of love since 2008. You’ll find the five most recent songwriting articles right here on this page, and if you want to browse through the more than 1500 posts in the archive, scroll to the bottom of the page.
Please feel free to leave a comment at the end of any article. I love reading what others are thinking about music.
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