How do you know when a song is finished? In days gone by, you’d get a song working as best you could in some barebones fashion, record a demo that, for all its roughness and edges, sounded reasonably complete. At least complete enough that a producer could then make decisions about what the final version should sound like.
These days, technology has made it possible for songwriters to get what sounds like a finished version, and to get to that version very quickly. Using nothing more than a computer or even smartphone, you’ve got the ability to do all steps of the process that takes you from songwriting through to recorded master.
That benefit of technology is also its Achilles heel; the line between songwriting and producing has become enormously fuzzy. For many songwriters, there is no obvious switch between the writing stage and the producing stage. Some see that as a benefit, allowing for a more integrated songwriting approach.
But the problem is that songs need to work on a structural level, and production might simply be masking those structural deficiencies.
What We Mean By “Structural Problems”
When a song sounds great, you might credit many things that aren’t specifically songwriting attributes. You might like the performance, for example. You might enjoy certain sound effects, the edginess of the guitars, the energetic tempo, and so on. These aren’t strictly songwriting elements; those are production-level decisions that every songwriter/performer eventually makes.
But when a song sounds weak, you need to consider the possibility that the problem lies in the actual structural “bones” of the song. These structural bones might be:
- The contour of the various melodies.
- The choice of chords.
- The way the chords and melody relate.
- The strength of the partnership of the chords, melody and lyric.
- In general, the adherence to the principles of good songwriting.
The problem is that many of those songwriting weaknesses can be dealt with by a bandage solution known as production. Good production was never meant to solve songwriting problems. Good production is a feature in its own right, a feature that works best when applied to a structurally solid song.
As an example, look at point #1 above, the contour of various melodies. We know that verse melodies typically start low, move higher, and join onto a chorus melody that sits higher in pitch. Why is that important? Because the voice that sings that melody displays more musical energy as it moves higher, and that goes hand-in-hand with an important songwriting principle: that a song’s energy should increase as a song moves forward.
If your melodies don’t do that, you will notice a lagging of musical energy in your song, a lagging that you might be tempted to fix with production: make everything louder as you go… that ought to do it.
But the better solution is to get the melodies working properly first. Put the magnifying glass on your song melodies and ensure that they’re moving in the right direction so that the song has a natural energy build.
Once you’ve done that, any production you add similarly sounds natural and pleasant.
Solving Structural Problems
So what’s the best way to solve songwriting problems these days, even if you’re using technology from the very first stage?
I believe the best solution is to create a very simple version of your song, as simple as you can possibly make it. What that might be depends on the nature of your song, and the characteristics you want audiences to focus on. So that might mean:
- Sing an unaccompanied version. Though your finished version might include lots of production with a huge instrumentation, strip it all down to just your vocal line, no instrumentation added. Do you like the melody? Do you notice anything odd? Your song should work in this version.
- Sing this unaccompanied version with a chording instrument. Do you like the chords? Try substituting some chords and see if you come up with anything better.
- Experiment with tempo. Do you like your original tempo? Does the melody/chords/lyric sound better when you sing faster? Slower?
- Read your lyric. Try reading the lyric as prose, or as a simple poem. Does it say what you need it to say? Try different ways of saying it. Find other possible internal rhythms. Now read it melodramatically, with lots of ups and downs in your reading style. Can you hear other melodic possibilities coming forward?
It’s important as a songwriter to do this kind of scrutiny before you get too much into the production of your song. By doing this, you are able to solve problems that result in a structurally solid song.
And that almost always makes production sound a whole lot better.
If you like the chords-first songwriting process, but lately you’re coming up dry when it comes to good chord ideas, try this:
- Create a short, simple, 3-chord progression in some major key: I-IV-V-I (example: C F G C)
- Repeat that progression.
- Follow it with the relative minor equivalent of that: vi-ii-iii-vi (example: Am Dm Em Am)
- Follow that with the first major progression you used at the beginning: I-IV-V-I
So far, what you’ve got will sound like this:
That’s an 8-bar chord progression that we were able to create easily out of a very simple, basic, 2-bar chord progression idea. The fact that the middle of the progression moves into minor gives it a measure of interest, and makes what was initially the kind of progression that would draw practically no attention to itself a little more interesting.
Once you’ve got those 8 bars, you’ve got a variety of ways to proceed from there:
- Repeat the whole thing, giving you a 16-bar verse, ready to move on to the chorus.
- Though it may seem odd to do this, you might experiment with changing the key upward, perhaps to the Flat-III (Eb), and go through the 8 bars again in this new key. That would give you the key of Eb major and a middle minor section in C minor. (Eb Ab Bb Eb…|Cm Fm Gm Cm…)
- Move immediately into a pre-chorus. If you do that, I’d suggest starting with a ii-chord and end up on a V-chord (probably either a 4- or 8-bar section). That will move nicely to a chorus that starts on the I-chord.
All you’ve done with this chord progression idea is gain some musical mileage by popping an initial major key idea into the minor. That provides a nice sense of contrast, while also allowing you to extend the length of your progression without endlessly repeating the I-IV-V idea.
Need some other 3- or 4-chord ideas to use? Try one of these:
- C Bb F____|C Bb F____|Am G Dm____|C Bb F____||
Roman numerals: I bVII IV…|vi V ii…
- F G C____|F G C____|Dm Em Am____|F G C____||
Roman numerals: IV V I….|ii iii vi…
- C G Em F |C G Em F |Am Em C Dm |C G Em F||
Roman numerals: I V iii IV…|vi iii I ii…
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If you were to ask for a generic definition from the average layperson for a melody, they’d probably come up with something like: “A series of notes that move up and down.” You’d then remind them that backing vocals also comprise a series of notes that move up and down, and that’s when we start to realize that coming up with a specific definition becomes a bit more complicated.
Well, backing vocals are often a melody of sorts, even if they aren’t the lead melody. The word melody is one of those ones that for every definition we come up with, we’ll think of a song where that definition isn’t quite acceptable. But for now, let’s assume that “a series of notes that move up and down” is enough to cover most tunes from most genres.
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Except that there’s another problem: melodies that use repeating notes as a noticeable feature. An extreme case might be the old 70s novelty hit “Life is a Rock (But the Radio Rolled Me.“) Dozens of notes, all sitting on the same pitch. Is it a melody? I think so, and we have no good reason to say it isn’t.
And then there are many songs that tend to sit on and around one pitch for much of the melody, moving up or down only occasionally. Some good examples of these kinds of melodies would be Taylor Swift’s “Our Song,” in which the melody moves in and around D, and Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone,” most of the opening melody of which revolves around C.
And in fact, it’s not hard to find melodies that make great use of repeated notes. Why might composers write melodies that focus so much on one pitch? There are two main reasons.
Keeping a melody restricted to one or two pitches, where at times it can sound almost like a monotone, has a way of giving a bit of power to the lyric. Once the audience believes that the melody is unlikely to suddenly move up or down, they tend to move their attention elsewhere. The first place their attention usually goes is to the lyric.
So one-note melodies are great for songs that offer a strong opinion (social, political or otherwise).
The second benefit of a static melody, especially when those repeated notes happen in a verse, is that the chorus can sound quite energetic by comparison, if the chorus suddenly features melodies that move up and down. The end of the verse of “Like a Rolling Stone” makes that upward leap of a perfect 4th sound exciting and powerful.
In your own songwriting, if you find yourself favouring static melodies, you need to be sure, then, of two things:
- You’ve given the audience an interesting lyric. That lyric needs to be telling a compelling story, or offering a powerful opinion of some sort, such that the words are front and centre in importance.
- You have a different section of the song that does, in fact, offer a melody with a more expansive contour. The best example is “Life is a Rock”, where the verse sits on one or two notes, but the chorus suddenly leaps upward, and then becomes a series of notes in an upward or downward stepwise fashion.
“Hooks 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.
For musicology students who delve mainly in the world of Classical music, history has a way of filtering out “bad” music, leaving them with what might otherwise be known as “the hits.” And there are lots of them to study.
Ask those same students to list every Classical composer they know, and they’ll be able to give you dozens of names. The best students might know of up to 40 or 50 composers . In reality, though, there have been many thousands of classical composers.
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We don’t know most of those composers at all. Some were acceptable composers, but their day job was probably doing something else, usually working as a teacher, church organist, or perhaps as a performer. Ever hear of Giuseppe Branzoli? Johann Tobias Krebs? George Pinto? Not likely. Their music was probably fine, but for a variety of reasons just didn’t rise to the level of consciousness required to make them household names today.
Filtering Out the Garbage
One way of thinking is that history does us a favour by filtering out garbage. After a few generations, maybe a hundred years or so, we’re left with a relatively small list of representative musical works that are considered true classics. So those musicology students I mentioned at the beginning of this post have it easy: the passage of time has revealed who the real musical geniuses are.
You can argue that only lazy students don’t go looking for the geniuses that have escaped our modern day collective consciousness. There are wonderful composers who have written lovely music, but for one reason or another have flown under the radar.
In the world of pop music, we don’t get a hundred years to filter out the garbage. The classical world’s one hundred years is more like 15 or 20 years in the pop world; pop styles and genres evolve at breakneck speed when compared to classical music. So how do you know which songs are good ones to study? Has enough time gone by to “filter out the garbage?”
The short, imperfect answer is: we learn which songs are good by initially trusting the hits. A song becomes a hit when enough people say that they like it. In days past, if enough people bought the song, and if enough people requested it to be played on the radio, that meant it was “good.” Nowadays, we work digital parameters into the mix, so we also consider how many times we view it online.
I say “initially trusting,” because, as with classical music, you’re missing out on a lot of good songs if you only trust what everyone else thinks is good. And given time, some of these “good”songs will reveal themselves to be weak or fad-ish, and will fade away as time filters them out. But how do you get to know other songs that you should be listening to?
Broadening Your Musical Landscape
The best way to expand on what you, as a student of songwriting, should be listening to is to find out what good songwriters and good performers have considered their favourite music. It’s very relevant to know.
This article from The New York Times, “Listen to Bob Dylan’s Many Influences,” for example, reveals the musicians from his past that made him the songwriter he became: Woody Guthrie, Odetta, Martin Carthy… some of these names will be known to you, others not. I found that article simply by entering “Bob Dylan influences” into Google. Try that with any of your favourite performers/songwriters.
The best songwriters are the ones who have learned to broaden their musical landscape. The best ones out there can list off previous songwriters — many of whom aren’t even working in the same genre — as crucial influences and inspirations. You need to broaden your musical landscape.
Who knows what the 23rd century world will consider the best songs from the early 21st century? We don’t yet have the benefit of that kind of time. For the time being, your best advancements as a songwriter will come from listening to as much music as you can, and then applying your understanding of the principles of good songwriting to decide for yourself what, in your opinion, is good.
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What do we mean by a song’s “character?” In most cases, we’re talking about the mood or feel that we pick up from it. And we have all sorts of words that might otherwise be described as “character” words: “gentle”, “edgy”, “aggressive”, “laid back”, “dark”, and so on.
Whether we know it or not, a song’s overall character is one of the first things we establish in the songwriting process. Especially when using the chords-first and melody-first songwriting processes, we’re immediately aware of the kind of mood we want the music to convey.
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That sense of mood is also one of the first things an audience picks up when hearing your song for the first time, so it needs to be a vital part of the songwriting process.
There are several qualities that contribute to the mood or character of a song:
- key choice (relating specifically to placement of the voice in the lead vocal line)
- rhythm of the lead line
- backing rhythms
- harmonic rhythm (how often chords change, mainly determined by how many notes of melody happen before one chord changes to the next one)
There are probably other aspects of a song involved, but that list will do for now.
More than anything, you do not want the character of your songs be something that happens randomly as you throw all those qualities together. You want to maintain control over how your songs feel to an audience.
Here are 3 quick tips for dealing with the character of the songs you write:
- Make the determination early in the songwriting process regarding how you want your song to “feel”.
- Allow yourself the freedom to change a song’s character as lyrics, melody and musical meaning dictate.
- Experiment a lot with the feel of a song.
Now, let’s take a quick look at the qualities in the bullet list above and see how experimenting with each one might change the character of the music:
- TEMPO: Faster tempos build energy and allow the music to be more aggressive and edgy. Slower tempos encourage listeners to focus on deeper meaning in the words of the lyric, and allow for more subtle shadings of meaning. (I feel that most songwriters need to experiment more with this attribute!)
- KEY CHOICE: Higher keys place the voice in a higher tessitura. This allows for a more aggressive style to come through. Lowering the key makes the music sound more relaxed.
- INSTRUMENTATION: Producers consider the instrumentation (production) of the music as a vital contributor to feel. As you listen to your favourite songs, think about how the choice of instrumental sounds is contributing to the character you pick up from the song. Now think about your own songs. Are they helping or hindering the mood you’re trying to convey?
- RHYTHM OF THE LEAD LINE. Vocal lines that use more syncopation and other rhythmic devices generate more musical energy. Vocal lines that use longer note values and simpler rhythms generate more emotional energy.
- BACKING RHYTHMS. How your instrumental accompaniment uses rhythm can be a major contributor to the feel or character of a song. Experiment with simplifying rhythm, and then try adding in rhythmic complexity until you’ve got something that matches the message of your song.
- HARMONIC RHYTHM. How often chords change in your song can have subtle effects on the feel of a song. Chords that change often and frequently can contribute to a more edgy sound.
There are lots of ways to get control of the mood of your songs. The worst situation is if you sense your song getting locked into a mood or character such that you don’t feel comfortable changing it.
The answer is to experiment with your song’s mood early in the songwriting process. Even as early as working out your song’s hook/chorus, try experimenting with different tempos, different rhythms, and even time signatures. The earlier to you do this, the easier it feels to make changes to the character of the music as necessary.
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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