Beyoncé - Halo

Toplining: Which Principles of Songwriting Apply?

These days, many or most songs that are produced for broad commercial appeal (i.e., hit songs in the pop genres) use melodies written by “topliners.” A typical scenario might be that a producer sends out a pre-made instrumental track to musicians who can create melodies over these tracks. Someone comes up with melodies and lyrics to the producer’s liking, and a hit song is born.

If this concept is new to you, you can get a good idea of how this would work by checking out AppleBeam’s competition for topliners from a few years ago. Interested topliners were to take one of the tracks they were offering and create a “song” — a melody with lyrics. The winning entry is on that page.

In that sense, songwriting in the 21st century has branched to encompass several different possible definitions. You might be the kind of writer who writes traditionally: pen and paper, guitar in hand, creating a song from scratch and in a very rough form to begin with. Or you might be producing instrumental tracks waiting for someone to add the lyrics and melody. Or you could be the melody and lyric writer exclusively — the topliner.

If you’re a topliner, your main musical gifts are your ability to

  1. write catchy melodies;
  2. add good lyrics, and then
  3. sing well.

Does this change any of the fundamental principles of songwriting? My feeling is that topliners would do well to become as proficient at as many aspects of songwriting as possible. The more you know about the principles of songwriting, the better you are.

But specifically what should a topliner know in order to create good melodies? At least these:

  1. Melodies should start low and move higher. Beyoncé’s “Halo” (created as a topline over a produced instrumental track) starts low in her range, and moves higher and higher, peaking in the chorus.
  2. Verse lyrics should set the scene, and chorus lyrics should express an emotional reaction.
  3. The rhythms of verse lyrics can be more complex or involved, but chorus lyrics can be more effective if there is a solidification of rhythm. “Halo” doesn’t necessarily show this trait, but Jack Garratt’s “Breathe Life” shows this transition by switching from syncopated triplets (“Tell her I owe it to her…“) and other rhythmic devices, to something more patterned and predictable (“Oh, won’t you breathe life into these dead lungs…”)
  4. It’s another common trait in pop songwriting to elongate the rhythms involved in singing the track title. In Garratt’s “Breathe Life”, you can hear how he stretches out the rhythms of those words, and doing so adds a shot of emotion that works well in a chorus.
  5. Repetition of melodic ideas works well. Simply singing a long line of notes where nothing repeats, and no patterns are perceivable, creates a melody that’s hard to remember and hard to sing. So just as with traditional songwriting, repetition plays an important role.

Toplining isn’t for everyone, and I would certainly hesitate to say that it’s taking the place of traditional songwriting. But it’s a reflection of today’s new technological possibilities. Done well, it can result in catchy songs that are fulfilling to write.

The principles of songwriting are actually the principles of good music, and have been around for centuries. The new way of creating songs doesn’t really change the structure of good music.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter

“The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” 10-eBook BundleThousands of songwriters have been using “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” eBooks to polish their technique and improve their songwriting skills. Get a free eBook, “Creative Chord Progressions” if you buy the bundle today. READ MORE

Posted in Melody, songwriting and tagged , , , , , , , , , .
Music - lyrics - imagery

Imagery: Painting a Complete Picture With Few Words

In a lyric, imagery refers to any line that touches on and stimulates our senses. Used well, imagery is able to paint a picture in our minds that fills in many parts of a story with a bare minimum of words.

An example might be something like this: Let’s say you wanted to convey the following scene/impression about your boss:

She has a way of taking the simplest comment I make, and turn it into an argument that seems to last all day.

ad_4_2016You might convey that with this line:

She breathes in ice and breathes out fire.

or maybe you’ll tap into a different part of her personality with this:

She looks for glass she can walk on..

or even

She shackles me to her treadmill of pain…

It’s not just that the line is shorter, although using imagery often does that. It’s more that you can actually see something. The notion of your boss trying to create arguments with you isn’t really something that begs much of an image. But breathing out fire? You see it, feel it, and you might even hear it.

Where does imagery belong?

Imagery belongs anywhere. There’s no one section of a song that doesn’t use it. Because imagery gives us an immediate picture with a minimum of words, it’s often associated with a heightening of emotions, and so you might think it more belongs in a chorus.

But the fact is that imagery simply tries to tell a fuller picture while allowing you to economize your verbiage. Imagery has a way of offering a picture in a rather immediate splash.

Is there ever too much imagery?

That depends. Like any poetic device, or indeed any musical technique, too much of something can become trite, predictable, confusing or boring. Imagery for imagery’s sake is immediately noticeable.

But there are times when layers of lyrics loaded with abstract images can give us an impression of a scene or a person, even if we don’t know specifically what is being said. Perhaps the most famous example of this is John Lennon’s “I Am the Walrus”, which contains line after line of gibberish. But even though the words were never meant to be parsed too carefully, we still manage to get a feeling — an attitude, so to speak — that would not be otherwise easy to convey.

Practice Creating Imagery

Here are some scenarios that could serve as a scene you might try to describe in your lyric. Try writing a short line that offers a powerful image relating to something in the scenario. Feel free to share your creations in the comments below.

  1. I took a walk through the woods today, and I encountered beautiful smells that reminded me of my childhood. (Example: “I breathed a memory“)
  2. Every time I get together with my friends, I quickly tire of all the chatter, and really just want to be alone.
  3. My grandmother passed away, and I find myself thinking about how fragile life seems to be: here one minute, gone the next.
  4. I love being busy! I’m a multi-tasker at heart, and I like that everything I do keeps me working with lots of people!
  5. I’m so grateful for my friends. Every time I feel stressed or sad, I can count on them to make me feel better.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter

“The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” 10-eBook BundleThousands of songwriters are using “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” eBook bundle to polish their songwriting technique. Every aspect of how to make a song better is covered. Stop wasting time — take your songwriting technique to a new level TODAY. Ten eBooks, plus a free one: $37 USD (Immediate download) READ MORE

Posted in lyrics and tagged , , , , , , , , .
Guitarist - songwriter

Musical Energy as a Songwriting Concept

Musical energy is a term that a lot of musicians use but find hard to define. You might use the word energy in a very nebulous sort of way, where it’s synonymous with intensity. With that usage of the word, most listeners of music would know what you mean if you said, “I really like the energy of this song.” They would take that to mean that the music is probably loud, rhythmically active, and is the kind of music that gets the blood pumping.

If you’re a songwriter, you can use a more sophisticated concept of energy to ensure that you captivate listeners, and keep them listening right to the end of your song. But specifically how?

Here’s a list of various elements we use as the building blocks of songs, and how they relate to musical energy:

  1. Loudness (volume) and instrumentation. This is the one everyone knows. Generally speaking, as a song gets louder, musical energy builds. An audience usually has a very positive reaction to this, and so it’s a common production technique: most songs are louder at the end than they are at the beginning.
  2. Lyrics. How does the term energy apply to lyrics? Lyrical intensity or energy rises when words express stronger emotions. Verses tend to use lyrics that are observational, and not so emotional. Choruses use lyrics that are more intensely emotional, and so lyrical energy rises. Throughout a song, therefore, you’ll usually experience the intensity or energy of lyrics rising and falling several times.
  3. Melody. Because melodies are usually conveyed via the human voice unless the song is an instrumental, the energy we perceive in music will increase as a melody rises. That’s because the human voice needs to be stronger as it moves higher. This usually goes hand-in-hand with lyrics.
  4. Chords. As chords move further and further away from the tonic chord, we feel a diminishing of musical energy or intensity. (Example: C  Am  F  G  Am  Bb  F…) Then, as the progression switches direction so that it moves back toward the tonic chord, musical energy intensifies. (Example:…Dm  C/E  F  Gsus4  G  C). Verses often use the I-chord as a kind of home base, wandering away from that chord. Chorus progressions are shorter, and target the tonic chord as an important endpoint.
  5. Rhythmic activity. Usually, the more actively an instrument plays, the more energy we perceive. In choruses, it’s not unusual for instruments to become more rhythmically active, and then scaling back for the return of the verse.

It’s fair to say, therefore, that musical energy is cyclical. Most of the elements within a song — lyrics, melody, chords, etc. — move up and down in intensity. Some of those elements will partner easily with other elements, and move up and down together, such as melodies and lyrics.

But others might move up and down in intensity in their own way. For example, volume might increase slowly over the entire length of a song, even as it moves from verse to chorus and back to verse again.

As a songwriter, it’s important that you find ways to allow the energy peaks of the various elements to coincide at various optimal times. This gives your song pleasant energy spikes. For example, you might find that you want a punchy sound to excite the audience at the beginning of your chorus. Therefore, you’ll want to have your chorus start with all instruments playing fairly loudly, the melody jumping up to a high note, and the lyrics to be highly emotional.

And in general (and this is an important songwriting principle), the energy we experience at the end of a song is usually more intense than the energy we experience at the beginning.

Musical energy is something you should think about as you write your song, but as you can see, there’s a lot you can do at the production level as well. You should use your time as a songwriter to craft melodies that move upward toward the chorus, write chorus lyrics that are more highly emotive, and chorus chords that focus on the tonic chord.

Then, as you begin the recording process, think about ways to enhance the instrumental approach to your song so that you support the energy you’ve already built into the song’s structure.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter

Essential Secrets of Songwriting Bundle“The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” eBook packages describe 11 different guiding principles of songwriting. Knowledge of those principles are what will determine your ability as a songwriter. Right now, get the DISCOUNT PRICE on the Deluxe Bundle. In high-quality PDF format, for your iPad, desktop, laptop, or any other PDF-reading device.

Posted in songwriting and tagged , , , , , , , , , .
Singer - songwriter

Songwriting Tips For Writing Melodies… If You Can’t Sing

It’s fair to make the assumption that most songwriters are singers, but that’s not exclusively true. So if you’re trying your hand at writing songs and you aren’t a singer, how do you write melodies?

The inability to sing usually means the inability to sing well. In other words, you may be able to manage to grunt out a melody, even if no one wants to hear you do it! Most songwriters can manage to sing more-or-less in tune, even if their voice is shaky, or the tuning isn’t spot-on.

If you don’t consider yourself a singer, here are the ways in which your voice tends to let you down when you try to use it. Some or all of these might apply to you:

  1. You find it hard to locate and sing the first note of a melody.
  2. Even if you can locate and sing the first note, you find it hard to keep a melody in tune.
  3. You have a constricted usable range. (i.e., the spread between your highest note and your lowest note is small, perhaps only a 5th (e.g., from C to G) or so.)
  4. The quality of your singing voice is feeble, breathy, or quiet.

“The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” eBook Bundle: DreamingFor years I taught sight-singing at Dalhousie University. Some of those classes were for non-music majors who were picking up an extra credit trying to improve their ear and their ability to sing in tune. It was clear to me that most of the students who couldn’t sing in tune were dealing with a technical issue, not a musical one. In other words, the reasons they couldn’t sing in tune had nothing to do with their level of musicianship, but more because they lacked technique. That probably describes you as well.

So let’s deal with this issue in two stages. I want to start by giving you some ideas for how to write song melodies even if your voice feels weak or otherwise unusable. Then I want to give you some advice for how to deal with your lousy voice in the long term.

WRITING MELODIES – Tips for Bad Singers

If you find it hard to rely on your voice to the extent that you can’t trust it enough to write a song melody, try the following:

  1. Learn to rely on an instrument as a first step. Try to get some ability to play either a piano or guitar melodically. To improve your abilities, try the following:
    1. Using your guitar, or the right hand on a piano, play melodies from well-known songs. If you’re playing a piano or other keyboard instrument, learn to use several fingers on your right hand — don’t just “hunt & peck”.
    2. Hum the melodies as you play them. Don’t worry so much at first if your tuning isn’t strong. Eventually, your voice will lock in to what your fingers are doing. Humming you play is a powerful teacher in the long-term. Be patient. Abilities will come.
  2. Compose simple melodies, and play them as you sing:
    1. Compose a short progression, such as C  Am  Dm  G. Record and loop that progression so that it plays over and over again. Choose a slow tempo. When you do the next steps, a slower tempo will allow your voice time to settle in and find the notes you’re looking for.
    2. Improvise a melody by starting on a note in your mid-range, one that’s usually reliable.
    3. Sing that one note over and over again, using a rhythm that results in you singing long and short notes. Change the pitch as the chord dictates. Keep things simple.
    4. Now change progressions to something new (perhaps C  Bb  F  G), and improvise a new melody. If you find it hard to play and sing at the same time, try just playing for a minute or two, and then echo what you just did by singing. Over the days that follow, you’ll find your abilities to do both at the same time will improve.
    5. As you gain confidence, start working on progressions you really like, ones that will lead to a song you’re going to want to keep. Work slowly. Create melodies with a wider range. If the melody you like moves too high for your voice, try switching into your falsetto voice. That’s when you can make your voice “break” to find much higher notes. Many pop singers make use of their falsetto voice to reach higher notes than their range normally allows for.

As long as you’re singing more or less in tune, your voice will be good enough to compose melodies. You might actually find that you’ve been singing in tune all along, and that you simply don’t like the sound of your voice. Fair enough; but practically any voice can be used to compose melodies.


In the long term, it will be useful to improve the quality of your singing voice, particularly if you want to be singing backing vocals with your band, or composing more interesting melodies. In that regard, here’s some advice:

  1. Contact your local university or college, and seek out voice students who offer lessons. A student will often be able to teach for a lower fee than a professional, and it’s great experience for them.
  2. Join a local choir. True, many vocal groups will require you to sing an audition. But most of the time, they’re simply checking that you can sing in tune; the beauty of your voice is not usually a big concern. If you tell a choir director that your main motivation is to learn to sing reliably in tune, and if the choir is a large one (100 voices or so), they can sit you next to a good singer, someone who can help you stay locked in and in tune.
  3. Record, then sing along to, simple melodies. Record yourself singing a simple tune, either one you’ve written or a favourite one you’ve known for a long time. Then play the recording back, and sing along to it. You’ll get better at locking into pitches with your voice as time progresses. Use an instrument to play along with your voice at first if you find this hard.

Most musicians have a voice that’s good enough to compose melodies. Don’t be too hard on yourself. By practicing every day, you can get your voice working to a level that makes it easier to compose melodies that singers will enjoy and that audiences will love to listen to.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

“The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” eBook Bundle packages“The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” eBook bundle comes with a free copy of “Creative Chord Progressions”. Learn how to take your chords beyond simple I-IV-V progressions. With pages of examples ready for you to use in your own songs! READ MORE

Posted in Melody and tagged , , , , , , , , .
Jason Aldean

Don’t Go Overboard With the Contrast Principle

Musicians and psychologists hold slightly different practical definitions for what is known as the contrast principle. A good description of a psychologist’s use of the term might be something like the following, which comes from the website:

If you put your left hand into a bucket of cold water, and your right into hot water, and then plunge them both into a single bucket of room-temperature water, a funny thing will happen. Your sensations will reverse: your left hand will feel warm and your right hand will feel cold. There’s no magic in it, it’s simply the contrast between the starting and ending points of each that makes the difference.

In music — and in fact most other art forms — the contrast principle, at least in common usage, refers to opposite qualities being in relatively close proximity.

For example, a verse melody might feature melodies made up of downward-moving phrases, contrasting with a chorus melody that features upward-moving ones. A verse might be quiet, and a chorus might be louder. Or a bridge progression might feature mainly minor chords, switching to mainly major for the chorus.

But as a songwriter, you might be well advised to think about the psychologists’ use of the term, especially when you think about how much contrast is needed.

Here’s a quick look at what I mean.


We know that a chorus melody will usually be higher than a verse melody. (Example: “Rolling in the Deep” – Adele) But if a verse melody dwells on lower notes, the chorus does not need to be much higher in order to come across as being higher. In other words, a chorus that’s only a note or two higher might give the impression of being a lot higher than it really is. Moving slightly higher might be all that’s necessary.

A good example of this is Jason Aldean’s “Big Green Tractor“, the verse for which spends considerable time sitting in and around G#. The chorus moves up to dwell on the note B — only a minor 3rd higher. But that minor 3rd interval higher, with a louder and busier instrumental accompaniment, gives the impression of being a lot higher, and so the chorus achieves considerable energy because of it.


A bridge will often dwell on minor chords if the song’s chorus features mainly major chords. But in reality, a bridge often only has to start on a minor chord or two to give the impression that the entire section is minor. Christina Perri’s “A Thousand Years” uses a mainly major verse and chorus. The bridge doesn’t change key at all — staying in Bb major. But the first two chords are Cm and Gm, two chords that come naturally from that same key. But starting the bridge with these two chords makes it sound as though the tonality has switched completely to minor.


We know that a chorus instrumentation tends to often be busier, higher and louder than the verse and/or pre-chorus that precede it, and a good example might be Fun’s “We Are Young“. In fact, there really doesn’t need to be much of a change at all to give the impression that a big change has happened. Foster the People’s “Pumped Up Kicks” shows how just a slight build in production/instrumentation at the chorus is all that’s often needed.

Your Own Songs

For your own songs, the benefit that comes from holding to the “slight-change-is-big-change” technique is that you have a better chance of having your entire song glue together a bit better. When a chorus is higher, but not all that much higher, than the verse, there is a stronger sense of continuity that runs through the entire song.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

“The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” eBook Bundle packagesGet “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” eBooks, and take your songwriting to a new level of excellence. The 10-eBook Bundle comes with a free copy of “Creative Chord Progressions.” READ MORE

Posted in songwriting and tagged , , , , , , .

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.

And if you're ready to discover the extent of your true songwriting skills, you need my eBook Bundle. Read about that here.

Please feel free to leave a comment at the end of any article. I love reading what others are thinking about music.

About Gary Ewer

Stay Connected!

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Gary’s YouTube Videos

If you like seeing songwriting concepts being explained, check out Gary's YouTube Channel.

Gary's latest video: "5 Reasons to Include a Bridge In a Song's Design"

Read More Articles From the Archives:

A Welcome from Gary Ewer

Welcome! I've been helping songwriters improve their technique for many years on this blog, and I'm glad you've visited today. And I very much welcome your comments on anything you read here.

About Gary

Songwriting Manuals

Are you stuck in a songwriting rut? Gary's “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” manuals will get you moving again. Seven high-quality PDF documents. Take your songwriting to a new level of excellence!

Read more..

Essential Chord Progressions

Discover how chords work, and how to add chords to your song melodies.

More Info