Songwriting - Songwriter - Formulas

Is a Songwriting Formula Really So Bad?

If you’re a mathematician or physicist, formulas play a large role in your professional life. Formulas in that context are simply a kind of equation, and without them you don’t really have a profession.

Songwriters know the word formula very well. In a songwriting context, “formula” is a word that describes a process, or perhaps set of steps that results in a finished song. In a sense, a songwriting formula says “once you’ve done this,  you should then do that.”

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Formulas exist on many levels in the songwriting world. The fact that we say “once you’ve done a verse, you should follow it with a chorus” is a kind of formula. Even the fact that pop songwriters, as their songs approach being 4 minutes long, are looking for ways to end the song before it gets too long, are responding to the directions that come from a type of formula.

You’ll often hear of songwriters speaking negatively about songwriting formulas, and when they do, they’re typically talking about the more restrictive kinds of formulas. For example, if you start all your songs with a guitar solo, and if all your songs use a pre-chorus, and if the bridge always starts on a vi-chord, ending on a big pause before launching into the final chorus repeats, you’re using a formula that likely works but stifles creativity, and that’s why good songwriters hate the word formula.

Why We Have Formulas At All

Where do songwriting formulas come from? Quite simply, a formula comes from the history of your chosen genre. Country songs sound like country songs because of all the things older country songs have in common. The kind of backing vocals, the ways the lyrics are written, even aspects of the melodies and chords — these are all results of songwriting formulas, and they all have roots in music history. Your song sounds like a country song because you’re using formula-based elements in your music.

That’s where they come from, but why do we use them? Someone must be using them, or else we wouldn’t be talking about them. Another way to ask this question is: Are songwriting formulas automatically bad?

No, formulas aren’t necessarily bad, and music would be a structureless mess if we didn’t use some kind of structure that relates to a formula. The good thing about a formula is that you’re giving the listener, at least to a certain degree, what they’re expecting to hear, and within reason that can be a good thing.

When Formulas Become More Important Than Originality

Where formulas become a problem is when your song seems to exist merely to put flesh on a formula. In other words, when the formula becomes more important than the original material you’re writing, you’ve got a problem. In that way, formula equates to predictability: the more you use a formula, the more predictable your music becomes.

How do you make sure that you’re not a slave to a songwriting formula? As you write, think about the following:

  1. Am I incorporating enough individuality and innovation into my songs? Innovation usually means that you’re stepping outside of the predictability that comes from using a songwriting formula.
  2. Are all my songs using the same (or almost the same) kinds of chord progressions, topics, melodic shapes, form, etc.? It likely means that you’re responding to the restrictions imposed by formulaic writing.
  3. Are all my songs in a similar tempo or performing style? This is a symptom that often comes from songwriting formulas.

As you may know if you’ve read my blog, I feel that chord progression formulas are mostly harmless, and can be a good way to add some solid structure to a song. You can have very imaginative melodies and abstract lyrics, and a solid chord progression behind all of that is a great way to keep listeners feeling that they’ve not been thrown into a sea of musical complexity.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter

Writing a Song From a Chord ProgressionLike starting the songwriting process by working out the chords first? There are benefits and dangers. Read “Writing a Song From a Chord Progression” to get this process working properly for you.

Posted in songwriting and tagged , , , , , , , , , , .
Fleetwood Mac - Don't Stop

Song Melodies: Thinking About Your Starting Note

Because good songwriting usually starts with improvising ideas based on your instincts, you may not have given much thought to what note your tunes start on. The chord you choose, in most circumstances anyway, limits your choices to 3 notes: the root, the 3rd or the 5th.

Understandably, there’s no rule that governs what the best starting note of a melody might be, or else songwriting would be a pretty boring activity. But there is something to be said for the following:

  1. In verse melodies, you can begin the building up of musical energy by avoiding the tonic note.
  2. In chorus melodies, you can allow the music to reach an energetic pinnacle, as it were, by featuring the tonic note more often.

The tonic note is the note that represents the key of your song. Music that’s in G major, for example, has a tonic note of G. When we hear that note in a melody, it displays characteristics of strength and musical repose: you’ve arrived.

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That, in a nutshell, explains why it works so well in a chorus, and why it often is beneficial to limit its use in a verse. By starting your verse on a non-tonic note, you keep the music from sounding too much like the song has reached its musical target.

Regarding verse melodies, there’s no reason that you would start on the 3rd more than starting on the 5th. Many songwriters would be surprised to know that what note you start on has a lot to do with your own melodic style. In that regard, many aren’t even aware that they have a melody style. We usually use the word style to describe the overall sound and production of a song.

Leonard Cohen liked to start many of his melodies on the 5th: “Hallelujah“, “Suzanne“, “Closing Time“, etc. The advantage of the 5th as a starting note (e.g., a melody starting on a G while strumming a C chord) is that there is a pleasant sense of musical instability associated with that note. It compels the listener to focus on what’s going to happen, and that usually keeps people listening.

Starting on the 3rd has the advantage of being able to easily move by step to either adjacent note, almost no matter what chord follows, so starting on the 3rd makes for good stepwise melodies. Fleetwood Mac’s “Don’t Stop” (Christine McVie) is a good example.

In any case, you can worry a lot about what note to start a melody on, but as I say, there’s no rule. When it comes to the tonic note and chord, you might want to consider the following tips:

  1. Avoid overdue of the tonic note in your verse melodies.
  2. If you do use the tonic note and it sounds a bit to “final” for your tastes, try to accompany the note with a non-tonic chord. In other words, if your verse seems to feature a C in the melody while the chord C is being played, see if you can rework your progression to use Am or F, or even Dm7 at some of those moments.
  3. Lots of tonic note in a verse is OK if those notes happen on “weak” beats: beats 2 or 4 of a bar.
  4. There’s no reason that you must feature the tonic note a lot in a chorus. Most chord progressions should target the tonic chord, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that the tonic note must similarly keep reappearing.

Gary EwerHooks and RiffsHooks and Riffs: How They Grab Attention, Make Songs Memorable, and Build Your Fan Base” shows you how a good hook can make the difference between songwriting success and failure. With great examples from pop music history.

Posted in Melody and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , .
Leonard Cohen

Using Similar Rhythms Throughout a Melody Strengthens a Song

I’m often asked about motifs – how they work in typical songwriting, and if songwriters even need to be aware of them. Unlike a hook, which does its work in the foreground, a motif is a small building-block of music that works mainly in the background.

That’s not to say we don’t typically hear motifs — we do if we listen for them. But here’s the main difference between hooks & motifs: a hook is like a flag that the music waves in the air, allowing the song to be immediately identified. A motif, on the other hand, serves as a bit of melody or rhythm that strengthens the structure of a song, and works mostly in the background.

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A motif appears, and then is used either as-is, or modified and developed as a song progresses. A good example of a motif at work in a pop song: “Closing Time” (Leonard Cohen).

Much of the melody is comprised of a quickly-descending figure that serves as a melodic motif:

Closing Time - Melodic Motif

That alternating between a higher note and a lower one starts out as a major 2nd interval. From there, the motif changes. Sometimes you hear it as a descending 4th… sometimes a line is sung where notes barely change at all.

When the backing singers sing the “closing time” chorus, you can hear that the motif is reversed as they bend the notes upward. That’s just one way that a motif can develop and change as a song progresses.

The fact that various melodic ideas in the song share this common motif is what strengthens the structure of a song. Producers use motifs all the time when they supervise the recording of a song. They’ll add certain backing rhythms and other ideas to the instrumental accompaniment, all designed to help glue the song together.

Instinct or Purposeful?

At the songwriting level, how much of motif-writing is conscious, and how much of it just happens? It’s probably a mixture of both in the best songwriters. Good writers have an instinct for limiting the number of discrete ideas in a song by relating several seemingly unrelated ideas through the use of a motif.

There are several words that all relate to each other, but have slightly different meanings: hook, riff, motif, groove, and so on. The importance of a good hook in pop songwriting is obvious. And most songs, if they aren’t slow ballads, will need some sort of groove to keep the listener fixated.

Motifs are one more element that can really help by having one aspect of your song “sound reminiscent” of other aspects. If you’re wondering if you’re making good use of what motifs can potentially do for you, consider the following ideas:

  1. Melodic rhythm. Try to find ways to have rhythmic ideas repeat throughout your song, so that the melody in one section in your song bears some small resemblance to another.
  2. Melodic shape. Try taking a verse melody, and reversing some aspect of it. For example, if your verse melody consists of many upward-moving shoes, try writing a chorus melody that uses mainly downward-moving ones.
  3. Chord progressions. Let’s say you’ve worked out a good chorus progression. To create one for a verse, try borrowing ideas from that progression, ideas that might sound similar to the chorus. When an audience hears both progressions, they hear them as different, but with some pleasant aspect of similarity that helps to strengthen the song.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

Chord Progression Formulas“Chord Progression Formulas” show you how to create dozens of chord progressions in mere moments. With lots of sample progressions you can use right away. It’s part of “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” eBook Bundle packages. Get today’s 10-eBook Deluxe Bundle deal.

Posted in Hook and tagged , , , , , , , , .
Daniel Merriweather - Adele

Making Melody Your Song’s Most Important Ingredient

Not every song is about the melody. For songs where the melody is kind of a neutral player, you’ll typically find that the rhythmic treatments, (especially background) will step up and take a leading role. In other words, the groove and feel become very important contributors.

How you know that a melody is acting as a crucial part of the success of a  song is when you notice:

  1. its range is relatively expansive – at least an octave;
  2. it moves up and down in an attempt to mirror the emotional content of the lyrics;
  3. repeating elements, particularly repetitions that begin on different notes.

In the hope that someone might walk down the street humming your latest song melody, it’s worth looking at each of those characteristics more closely.

The Importance of Melodic Range

The fact that a melody moves up and down is a given, or else it wouldn’t be a melody. It’s more important to make note of why it’s moving up and down, and in that respect, points #1 and #2 above go hand-in-hand.

Hooks and RiffsBecause pop songs are typically short — usually 3-4 minutes in length — the hook becomes a crucial feature. “Hooks and Riffs: How They Grab Attention, Make Songs Memorable, and Build Your Fan Base” shows you how to write a hook that really grabs the attention your songs need.

Since the voice displays ever-increasing levels of emotion as it goes higher, it’s wise to partner that with the emotional content of the lyric. That feature of our voice applies even in non-musical settings. If you say in a low-pitched voice, “That’s my muffin,” someone will hand you a muffin. If you raise your voice to a relatively high range and say the same thing, someone will wonder what you’re getting all worked up about. That’s the nature of the human voice.

So as a songwriter, part of making your song’s melody effective is to move your focus back and forth between the melody and the lyric, and making sure that the more emotive parts of your lyric aren’t getting downplayed by a melody moving in the wrong direction.

Some great song melodies that demonstrate the up-and-down nature in partnership with lyrics:

  1. Here in My Heart (Pat Genaro, Lou Levinson, Bill Borelli), recorded by Al Martino, 1952. Lyrics
  2. Rocket Man (Elton John, Bernie Taupin). Recorded by Elton John, 1972. Lyrics
  3. Tears in Heaven (Eric Clapton, Will Jennings). Recorded by Eric Clapton, 1991. Lyrics

The Importance of Repetition

I talk a lot about repetition in good melodies, because it’s one of the strongest organizing structures in music. Playing/singing something once means that it’s come and gone. Sing it twice, and it suddenly rises to being a crucial structural element.

The Song “Water and a Flame“, written by Eg White and Daniel Merriweather, and recorded by Merriweather for his debut album “Love & War”, is a great example of not just how repetition strengthens the structure of a song, but also how repetition can occur in different ways.

Melodic Sequencing

As you’ll notice, the opening line happens while the melody is sequenced downward. Melodic sequencing means that a line of melody is repeated at a lower pitch, and then often repeated again at a still lower pitch. You’ll hear this on the first 3 lines of lyric:

Seven days has gone so fast,
I really thought the pain would pass.
It’s been nearly an hour…

The melody of this opening section then repeats, but it becomes rhythmic, not melodic, repetition. From there, almost every line of melody is repeated, either exactly or approximately as Merriweather improvises and extrapolates on what he’s sung on the previous line.

Advice for Strengthening the Power of a Melody

The best advice for songwriters who are looking to make their next song melody something that really steps up and gets noticed? Be sure to move your melody up and down as the emotional value of the lyric at any given moment dictates.

And to use repetition of musical phrases as an important structural element. When audiences hear music repeating, they feel more secure and feel that they understand the music much more than in songs where little is repeated.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter

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Guitarist - songwriter on stage

Avoid These 5 Chord Progression Mistakes In Your Songwriting

Knowing why some chord progressions your’e coming up with sound good while others just don’t work at all is an entire area of study in music schools. For many of you, though, a good chord progression is something you can come up with by improvising and by borrowing ideas from other existing progressions.

In this blog I often list the qualities of good chord progressions, but I wonder if it helps, from time to time, to simply list the things that weaken progressions. With that in mind, here are 5 characteristics of chord progressions that make them more of a hindrance than a help in your songwriting:

1. Try to mostly avoid moving chord roots to adjacent letter names.

This is what I mean: C  G  F  Em  Dm  C. That progression starts with a leap downward of a 4th (C-G), which is good. But then proceeds after that by step: G-F-Em-Dm-C. The problem with that is that it forces most of the notes of those chords to move parallel to the bass, and that’s something that’s a bit too distinctive.

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There’s nothing wrong with moving a bass line step-by-step, though, as long as you mix in some chord inversions (slash chords). By using inversions, you can have the chord roots moving more by 4ths and 5ths, which makes a more satisfying progression.

So that progression above — C  G  F  Em  Dm  C — might sound better by changing one of the chords to give you this: C  G  F  C/E  Dm  C. The bass line is the same, but the chords are stronger. Even just that one change makes all the difference. Occasional movement to adjacent letter names is fine, but avoid more than 2 or 3 in a row.

2. Try to avoid moving the bass by an augmented 4th.Bass player

It can work, but its first affect is to startle: C  Am  G  A/C#  Dm. The bass note on the 4th chord is G, and the one that follows is C#. That means your bass is moving up by the interval of an augmented 4th. For that progression (assuming you’re not trying musically to startle the listener), it’s better to put that A/C# in root position: C  Am  G  A  Dm.

3. Mostly avoid progressions that make the key difficult to hear.

To be clear, I’m not talking about progressions that wander from key to key, or where the key could be debatable; those kinds of progressions can be fascinating and very useful in verses and bridges (These are called fragile progressions… See point #5 below). I’m talking about progressions in which the tonic — any tonic — is nonexistent. Here’s a progression that’s just too weird for most songs in the pop genres: C  F#m  Gm  E  A  Bb  C.

keyboard synthTo be creative in your music, I recommend targeting the lyrics and melodies as elements that work really well when stretched and manipulated. With your chords, offer a way for the listener to hear a hint of key, and leave musical weirdness to other elements.

4. Don’t keep using the same key and/or progressions.

If you’ve put an EP together where all the songs are in the same key, the audience can experience a kind of musical fatigue without knowing why. For each song you do, try switching key to keep the audience from feeling the numbness that comes from a never-changing key.

If one or two of your songs use the same or very similar progressions, find ways to use chord substitutions. You’ll also find that reworking the song to be in a different tempo and/or time signature can help divert attention away from a similar progression.

5. Don’t use fragile and strong progressions randomly.

Keyboard & GuitarA strong progression is one for which the key of the music is clear and obvious. C  Am  Dm  G  C is an example of a strong progression. A fragile progression, on the other hand, has a wandering quality, and it is usually less clear what the actual key is. Those can be fascinating and pleasantly creative when used well: Em  F  Dm  Am.. Is it A minor? Is it C major with a missing tonic? The vagueness is very evocative.

The problem is when they’re used randomly throughout a song. Fragile progressions belong mainly in song verses and bridge sections. Strong progressions work anywhere, but especially are needed in a song’s chorus.

That allows the song to move back and forth between fragile and strong, and that kind of contrast makes a song enticing to listen to.

There are always exceptions.

For each one of the problems listed above, you can find songs that actually do them, and do them successfully. Bill Wither’s “Lean On Me,” for example, famously starts with a progression where the chord roots move to adjacent letter names. But that’s an effect, and not something he’d necessarily do in any other song.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

Chord Progression Formulas“Chord Progression Formulas” show you how to create dozens of chord progressions in mere moments. With lots of sample progressions you can use right away. It’s part of “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” eBook Bundle packages. Get today’s 10-eBook Deluxe Bundle deal.

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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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