Guitar - Piano

Songwriting Round-Up: 5 Most Common Mistakes to Avoid

Every now and then I clean up my Inbox and give a quick re-read of the emails I’ve received from songwriters for the past while. Those emails serve as a reminder to me of what issues up-and-coming songwriters are dealing with, and the best way to solve them.

Here’s a quick summary, in no particular order, of five of the most recent and common songwriting problems, and some suggestions for how to improve. I wonder which ones you’re dealing with? Hopefully the suggestions below will be a help. And if you have any suggestions of your own for similar problems for which you’ve found your own unique solution, please feel free to share them in the comments section.

paperProblem #1: Lyrics lacking in structure. Lyrics actually progress through a song. So avoid “stream-of-consciousness” writing. If you tend to ramble with lyrics, you will confuse your listeners and leave them bored. SOLUTION: Try to make verse lyrics observational in character, where you describe situations, circumstances and people. Progress to chorus lyrics, which is your opportunity to emote and tell the world how you feel about what’s going on.

Guitar, paper & pencil, smartphoneProblem #2: Instrumental music lacking a solid melody. An instrumental tune is not a song devoid of melody. If that were the case, the best examples of instrumental music – classical music — would have no melodies. In fact, an instrumental needs melodies every bit as much as sung music needs melodies. SOLUTION: Hum your new instrumental to yourself. Better yet, record yourself humming your instrumental, and listen to it. Does it sound like a catchy melody with a good dose of repetition? If not, you need to go back and work out a melody that people will be able to hum to themselves. If they can’t sing it, they likely won’t remember it.

Synth keyboard/band rehearsalProblem #3: Song sections that are too long. And by extension, the related problem: songs that are too long. Remember that one of the challenges of music in the pop genres is that most songs are short – between 3 and 4 minutes. How to get a short piece of music to sound like a complete musical journey… that’s the challenge. SOLUTION: If your song is 5 minutes in length or longer, look at each section and try to see which section is the one that’s too long. It might be that your intro is simply too lengthy for the rest of the song. Or perhaps your verse goes on far too long. Remember that one section should sound like it’s seeking out the next section. If it sounds like it’s simply rambling, find ways to shorten it.

Band - Song introProblem #4: No obvious plan to the song’s musical energy. It’s a principle of songwriting that the energy at the end of the song should be the same or greater than the energy at the beginning. But the normal plan is to have low intensity in the verses, then higher in the choruses. So the song energy is working well if it describes an up-and-down pattern. SOLUTION: Use instrumentation, backing vocals and rhythmic complexity to craft a sensible energy plan for your song. Minimize the energy of verses, and build things up for your choruses.

Singer-songwriter in recording studioProblem # 5: Melodies that all sit in and around the same 3 or 4 notes. Sometimes you’ll notice that the melodies you’ve written for your verse and chorus tend to sit around the same several pitches. Consequently, there’s no real lift or attraction when the verse moves on to the chorus, and the song feels a bit flat. SOLUTION: Look for ways to use higher notes in your chorus. If that’s not possible (due to limitations of your vocal range, for example), look for ways to lower the pitches you use for the verse.

One of the best ways to assess your own songs is to develop the ability to listen objectively. Try listening to your song as if someone has written it and is singing it to you. Sitting with your guitar and playing it may not do it for you; you can often hone your abilities to listen objectively by listening to a recording of yourself.

Objective listening allows you to hear your music the way someone else does. Once you’ve developed your abilities to do that, you start to hear many little problems that you might otherwise have missed, and your songwriting abilities will immediately improve.


Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

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Cream -Sunshine Of Your Love

Changing Key to Keep a Great Melody Going

Let’s say that you’ve got a verse that consists of a short melody and chord progression that repeats several times before it reaches the chorus. That might start to sound boring to you, and I want to suggest a way to alleviate that boring sense of repetition.

How much a short melody can or should repeat before moving on to something else is up to you; there are no rules about it. Obviously, you’ll know when that starts to get boring.


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Here’s an idea for dealing with a repeating idea when you don’t know what else you can do: change key and do the same idea in the new key. Let’s say that you’ve got a short melody that you’re singing over a standard progression like: C-Bb-C-Bb

So let’s assume that after a few run-throughs of this you’re ready to try something new. One suggestion would be to immediately jump into a new key and transpose your melody to whatever the new key would be.

There is no theory in place to say what that new key should be, so it’s worth experimenting with it. You might try this, for example — a key change that takes you from the key of C up to Eb major:

C  Bb  C  Bb  C  Bb  C  Bb |Eb  Db  Eb  Db  Eb  Db  Eb  Db

Or you might find that a smaller leap upward might be more in line with what you’re looking for, let’s say from C major to D major:

C  Bb  C  Bb  C  Bb  C  Bb |D  C  D  C  D  C  D  C

When you jump to the new key, you transpose your original chord progression so that the chord relationships are all the same: D-C is the same relationship as C-Bb.

When you change key like this, you have 2 likely options for what you can do after your venture into the new key:

  1. Move back to the original key and “start over.”
  2. Continue to the chorus using your new key, and find a way to modulate back to the original key at the end of the chorus for the start of verse 2.

Take a listen to Cream’s “Sunshine Of Your Love” to get a sense of what this might all sound like. Verse 1 starts in D minor, and this opening melody repeats (with slight variations) several times. This is then transposed to a new key, but only for two run-throughs of the melody. It then gets bumped back down to the original key for the next two. This is followed by a pre-chorus — a section whose main purpose is to build energy to the refrain.

So Cream’s solution to the constantly repeating melody/chords is this:

Original key (D minor) –> Up a 4th to G minor –> Back to original key (D minor)

Changing key is a great way to extend a musical idea when you really like that idea. It sounds to the audience as if you’ve moved on to something new, when in fact you’re really just repeating your old idea in a new key.

I’ve mentioned in a previous post how Sia Furler does this in her song “Soon We’ll Be Found.” I did a video several years ago where I discuss how she structures the melodies of her song to move ever higher, but you can hear in this description how she moves from an original key of C minor, and then repeats the melody by moving up to the key of Eb major. That requires adjustments to the melody, of course, and it’s another option for you: changing from major to minor, or vice versa.

If you took your original progression of C-Bb and moved it up( or down) to G minor, you’d get this:

C  Bb  C  Bb  C  Bb  C  Bb  |Gm  F  Gm  F|C  Bb…

So as you can see, there are many options for repeating a phrase that avoid simply repeating the idea as-is. Use your imagination… there are many possibilities.


Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

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Rod Stewart - Beyond the Sea

Creating Powerful Lyrics With a Great Metaphor

I’ve always felt that humans learn more by connecting to a great metaphor than they do by a more direct (metaphor-less) description of something. Saying to someone, “I’m in love!” is, of course, clear and obvious. Saying “I’m over the moon!” is full of emotion and power, the kind of power that connects strongly to listeners and can build an audience base.

But metaphors can work against you by confusing your listeners if you don’t use them properly. A relatively common problem with lyrics occurs when songwriters use a great metaphor, and then drop it and then use a new metaphor to describe the same thing. The various metaphors pull listeners in different directions, causing them to lose focus on what you’re really trying to say.


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Here’s what I mean: You might describe some aspect of your life as a walk through a forest. But then you switch in the next line to describing a difficult relationship you’re in as being a rope, stretched to the breaking point. In the next verse, you might then describe that relationship as being a fingernail on a chalkboard… You see what I mean. You’re using many metaphors to say the same thing.

The confusion that the listener experiences comes from the lack of connection between those various metaphors. It’s far better to write a lyric that uses a metaphor, and then explores all its various possibilities.

A great lyric where you can see this in action is in the song “Beyond the Sea,” (Charles Trenet, English lyrics by Jack Lawrence):

You can see the full lyric here. It starts by painting a picture of a person seemingly standing at the edge of the sea, pining for a distant lover:

Somewhere beyond the sea
Somewhere waiting for me
My lover stands on golden sands
And watches the ships that go sailin’

What happens next is the start of the real magic of this lyric. The next verse includes the lines:

If I could fly like birds on high
Then straight to her arms
I’d go sailing

So as you can see, he’s still talking about “sailing”, but now it’s a bird, not a boat.

The next verse gives us:

It’s far beyond the stars
It’s near beyond the moon

So now we’re talking about love that leaves the bonds of earth, and goes “sailing” beyond the stars and the moon.

It’s a great example of a lyric that takes an initial metaphor — sailing — and develops it beyond its original intended picture. All the possibilities of that metaphor are connected, whether it’s a ship, a bird, a spacecraft… each little change in the initial metaphor builds on the previous one. Each change pulls the listener along in a wonderfully simple, engaging way.

Take a look at your own lyrics, and see what you’ve done regarding your use of metaphor. Are you pulling the listener along and engaging them? Or are you diminishing the power of your initial metaphor by introducing too many unrelated ones?

How to Develop a Metaphor

Try these steps for taking an initial metaphor and developing it into something that really works:

  1. Write down the situation you are trying to describe. Example: My relationship with my child; The sadness I feel over the lack of peace in the world, etc…
  2. Summarize a possible initial metaphor in one or two words. Example: tug-of-war (to describe your relationship with your child), etc.
  3. Write a list of words and phrases that pertain to (and amplify on) your initial metaphor. Example: With “tug-of-war”, you might write: tight; pull; rope; break; sweat; hard; dig in your heels; fall; win; lose, etc… Try to find other words and phrases, not necessarily about tug-of-war, but obliquely related: muscles are sore; Atlas; a string on my finger; thread; and so on.
  4. Try to organize those words and phrases to create a sense of progression or sequence. Example: If you’re writing about a bad relationship that gets better, you might order the words this way: rope; tight; pull; dig in your heels…. all the way to: string, thread, break, win… as a way of describing how the problems between you became less significant until they broke, and you both win.

Every word or phrase you put in the list won’t necessarily make it to your song. In fact, you may only use three or four different developments of your initial metaphor. But it helps the listener to have that kind of connection.

Song lyrics are powerful when they make a clear, emotional connection to the audience. Developing an initial metaphor so that ideas that follow have a relationship to it is a great way to ensure that the connection you’re trying to make really works.


Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter

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Guitar studio recording session

Not Every Good Song Will Be a Hit

Not every good song becomes a hit, and hopefully if you’re a songwriter you know this already. In many ways, what determines whether or not a song becomes a hit has to do with what the industry of the day has to say about it.

Hit songs, regardless of the decade, usually need to adhere to certain characteristics, including:

  1. Brevity. A hit song usually needs to come in under the 5-minute mark, and often under 4 minutes.
  2. Hook. Most hit songs have a chorus that is short, simple, repetitive and catchy, meant to grab audience attention right away.
  3. Simple chord progressions. Most hit songs are designed using a set of simple progressions that use the tonic (key) chord as a strong beacon.
  4. Simple, singable melodies. A hit song usually needs to be hummable or singable by the target audience.
  5. Engaging lyric. A hit song needs to have a lyric that makes a quick and easy emotional connection to the listener.

If you consider yourself to be a hit songwriter, your task is clear; you need to write short, simple songs that use a catchy hook and emotionally engaging lyrics. Not every hit song will do that, of course, but that’s the obvious formula for most of them.

I mention all of this because from time to time it’s important to remind yourself that not every good song will be a hit. And another way of saying that: just because your song doesn’t become (or isn’t the sort that’s likely to become) a hit does not mean that you’ve written a dud.

Back in the early days of progressive rock, for instance, there was little to no intention on the part of the groups writing and playing their songs that they’d be hits. Writing a song with broad commercial appeal was almost a clear sign that you were “selling out”, as they say.

So progressive rock songs were generally not short, not necessarily hook-based, using complex chords and melodies with a lyric that was at times hard to decipher.

And those songs were often the kind that would grow on you, so that you loved them more each time you heard them, because with each listening you were generally discovering more and more about the structure that made it work.

AM radio (and whatever medium has replaced it these days) has little interest in any song over a certain length, so there is a world of gems out there that many haven’t heard. As in any art form, some are musically deficient, but many are wonderful.

You may be the kind of songwriter that wants to write hits, and I say more power to you. There’s nothing wrong with that ambition. But it is worth reminding you that a hit song need not be your aim.

You can write good music – excellent music – that never gets media attention. If the melodies are good, if the structure is sound, and if the musical journey works, you’ve got the potential to build a fan base for what you do. You may build it more slowly, but there’s nothing wrong with that, either.


Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter

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Songwriting, creativity and boredom

How to Use Boredom to Become a Better Songwriter

A year or so ago, I wrote a post about the power of boredom to songwriters. In short, the research is showing that people who are bored score higher in creativity tests. This morning I was listening to a program on CBC Radio 1 called “Ripple Effect.” Part of the show was devoted to the detrimental effects that cell phones (i.e., smartphones) are having on our creative abilities.

You can listen to a podcast of that show here, though it may be limited to Canadian listeners; I’m not sure. In discussing the negative effects that phones have on us, the program referred to research being conducted by M.I.T. professor Sherry Turkle:

“…the overuse of smartphones is making us lose empathy for each other and Turkle is on a mission to reclaim face-to-face conversation in our over-connected age.”

What was also said in the show was that the fact that we’re never without our phones means that we’re never bored. As soon as boredom becomes a possibility, out come our phones, and we get busy with something: texting, Facebook, news sites… they all keep us focused and doing something.


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The research is showing that boredom is an important first step in developing creative and innovative ideas.

Our society generally has a negative view of boredom, and I suspect that’s mainly because boredom and laziness are considered to be two sides of the same coin. But to creative people, boredom gets the brain seeking out brain-based ways to become less bored.

You’ll read in that article I previously wrote that experiments have shown this to be true. People will find more creative solutions to problems if they start the creative process with boring tasks.

In light of the fact that it’s hard to force yourself to “get bored,” here are some ideas for preparing your mind for a songwriting session that gets you thinking creatively:

  1. Start songwriting with “quiet time”. Sit down, relax, and try to empty your mind of the days activities and responsibilities. It’s tempting to whip out the phone and start texting, but resist!
  2. Go for a walk. A slow walk through your neighbourhood might be all you need to slow your thinking down to the point where you’re ready for something more creative.
  3. Take breaks as you write. Writing songs can raise frustration levels as you work to get something sounding right. Fill your songwriting sessions with more down time as a way to keep negativity from creeping in.
  4. Try “quasi-creative” non-music activities to incite a bit of boredom. If you do find yourself feeling frustrated, simply sitting and thinking about your songwriting problems may make things worse. Try sketching, colouring, paint-by-numbers, or any other activity that doesn’t require your specific creative input.
  5. Reorganize your life if necessary. Sometimes, our busy lives make it difficult to develop a strong sense of creativity. If it’s possible, find ways to give yourself time away from your daily responsibilities and commitments. That may mean coming up with a new schedule for yourself, one that you need to write down and stick to. Do whatever it takes to give you solid chunks of free time.

We’re conditioned to think of boredom as a bad thing, so the first step in all of this might be to rethink the way you evaluate free time. Boredom isn’t a bad thing; in fact, it’s a necessary part of creating music that connects to others.


Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter

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Hi, 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.

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