Carly Simon - You're So Vain

Describing Your Song In One Short Sentence – That’s Important!

If you can’t express or sum up the main concept of your song — what the song’s all about — in one sentence or less, you’re going to have trouble connecting to your audience. Lyrics may take the listener on a journey, but there needs to be one concise way of describing that journey.

It’s like taking a trip. Your plan may be to visit the Eiffel Tower, see St. Peter’s Basilica, take a gondola ride in Venice, and finish up with a trip to London, but you’re likely going to tell your friends, “I’m going to Europe!”

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Take a good look at any song that’s hit the top of the charts, and you’ll see that every one of them can be summed up with an overarching expression that categorizes the entire experience. That overarching expression more often than not is the very title of the song:

  • “You’re So Vain” (Carly Simon)
  • “It’s Still Rock & Roll to Me” (Billy Joel)
  • “How Am I Supposed to Live Without You” (Doug James/Michael Bolton)
  • “He Wasn’t Man Enough” (Rodney Jerkins, Fred Jerkins III, LaShawn Daniels, Harvey Mason, Jr., recorded by Toni Braxton)
  • “Happy” (Pharrell Williams)

And even if the title doesn’t describe everything the song is about, it usually only takes one listen to catch the title’s significance:

  • “Dear Prudence” (Lennon & McCartney)
  • “Magic” (John Farrar, recorded by Olivia Newton-John)
  • “Poison” (Bell Biv DeVoe)
  • “Smooth” (Santana feat. Rob Thomas)
  • “Roar” (Katy Perry, Lukasz Gottwald, Max Martin, Bonnie McKee, & Henry Walter)

Why is the ability to sum up a song’s meaning with one simple expression so important? It has to do with emotion. Your song may pull the listener in several directions as a story unfolds, but the emotion the listener feels needs to be much simpler, much more basic. Everything points to that one emotion.

That simple, basic emotion gives listeners an uncomplicated musical experience that offers one important benefit: they’re more likely to remember that emotional experience, and want to re-experience it.

If you find it difficult to sum up your song with one phrase, your audience will have the same difficulty, and you’ll be losing an opportunity to make a necessary connection. It may require you to go back through your lyric and see if you can rework it. Here are some tips:

  1. First, make sure the chorus lyric is a simple expression of the song’s emotional experience. Reword things if necessary to be sure that there’s a single emotional focus to what you’ve written.
  2. Next, look at the verse. Make sure the verse lyric, even if it moves through several related events or descriptions, addresses (or sets up) the emotional experience of the chorus.
  3. Finally, look at any other section (pre-chorus, bridge, etc.), and again, make sure that they can be reduced to a simple emotion.

As you can see, it’s the song’s emotional content that you’re addressing, not the various events described in the song. A song can take the listener on a complex journey, but like the European trip, it all needs to be able to be expressed in a simple phrase that describes its very heart and purpose.


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Posted in lyrics and tagged , , , , , , , , , .
Lou Reed

Why We Love Bad Singers

A few listener reviews of some of pop/rock music’s big names:

Regarding Neil Young: “For as far back as I can remember I’ve disliked this guy. His whiney voice is like nails on a chalkboard.”

Regarding Bob Dylan: “Like if a wistful Lee Marvin swallowed a kazoo.” (by Ted Pillow.)

Regarding Lucinda Williams: “Out of tune at times and outright horrible for some songs…”

Regarding Lou Reed: “He mumbles, comes in flat, can’t pick a note, and when he does it’s the wrong choice.

Regarding Leonard Cohen: “Citing Cohen as a voice to reckon with serves only to remind me how many major male lead lungs can’t sing their way out of paper bag but are hailed as musical heroes.” (by Susan G. Cole.)

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What is it about bad singing that we love? Not only do we love it, we love to tell others how much we hate their singing. And then we love it, secretly or openly.

We love to complain that Bob Dylan sounds like sifting gravel (Ted Pillow again), but tell me, do you really want to hear “Subterranean Homesick Blues” sung any way other than how Dylan manages to drone that tune out?

It may seem like a performance issue, not really a songwriting one, but in pop music how you deliver a song becomes every bit as important as what you’ve written. Because if you can’t entice people to listen, it doesn’t much matter what you’ve written.

So why does bad singing so often succeed? I would argue that comes down to three distinct but related reasons:

  1. Bad singing has a spontaneous “I was going to say this, but it just occurred to me to sing it” kind of feel. Bad singing sounds unrehearsed and immediate. And since some of pop/rock music’s best tunes have a strongly improvisatory style, bad singing just seems to work well with it.
  2. Bad singing sounds sincere. Sing a line from Lou Reed’s “Sweet Jane” with a beautiful, resonant, vibrant croon, and then sing it the way Reed sings it, and I’ll bet you’ll choose the weirdly spoken-sung execution Reed comes up with every time.
  3. Bad singing communicates attitude. The cleaner the singing, it could be argued, the harder it is to pick up attitude or point of view. Singing with rough edges communicates much more than what the words alone can relate.

Those are all communication issues, but there’s more to it than that. When we accuse singers of not being able to hold a tune, that’s not strictly true. Neil Young, for instance, often sounds like he’s a bit off, but when required to sing in 3- or 4-part harmonies, he can do it quite well.

With bad singing, we’re more often talking about that lack of a sonorous quality of tone, a voice with a lot of noise attached — the Kim Carnes effect in “Bette Davis Eyes.” Bad singing has a way of having the audience say, “Hey, I could sing like that, too.”

Until we try it, and realize that for some bizarre reason, we can’t. At least not like that. But having an audience think that they could do better is perhaps the most important reason that bad singing sells. If your aim is to touch the heart of the audience and make them feel something personal, singing badly may wind up being your most valuable tool.

When it comes right down to it, bad singing is often a matter of style. If you set out to sound bad, you likely will, and good luck to you. But if you set out to sound real, you likely will. “Real”, in some people’s books, may equate to sounding “bad”, but real always trumps bad.

Gary Ewer

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Posted in Miscellaneous and tagged , , , , , , , , , .

The Most Important Feature of Memorable Songs

Repetition in music of any genre is vital to its success. That wasn’t always the case. If you go back a few centuries, much music was “through-composed”, a term that refers to music that was one new idea after another, with very little repetition.

Through-composed music has the benefit of establishing a mood, and then keeping that mood.

Take a listen to this recorder piece by early Renaissance composer Pierre Alamire, and you can hear the gentle lulling quality that comes in part from one new idea following another. You can hear that though the various instruments are imitating each other’s melodic ideas, it’s one new idea following another, with almost no real repetition:

If someone asked you to sing any of these melodies, you’d have a hard time doing it. That’s what happens when nothing is repeated: nothing sticks.

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Once we reach the 1700s, and true for music today as well, repetition of melodies, chord progressions, lyrics, etc. becomes an important part of music.

So now listen to this hit from Tom Petty, “I Won’t Back Down.” You’ll lose count when you try to list how many times you hear something repeat either exactly or approximately. It’s an important part of the structure of good music:

Repetition’s chief benefit is memorability. It causes the music to stick in the listener’s mind. Repetition is why hooks work, why people remember songs, and why they sell.

Are you using repetition to its best effect? Does each melody of your song feature a short idea that gets repeated? In “I Won’t Back Down”, the very first line (“Well I won’t back down”) gets repeated in an approximate way to form the second line (“No I won’t back down”). The third line is new, but then the next two lines are basically repeats of the first line. It’s a great balance between new and repeated ideas.

For songwriters, most of this happens on an instinctive level. You don’t normally have to keep checking your melodies as you write, asking yourself, “Have I repeated enough in this song?”

But it’s important to note the basic concept of repetition, and its importance in good music. It’s more important to think of this question of repetition in a slightly different way: “Have I written a song with too many ideas?”

Most of the time, the verse(V)-chorus(C)-bridge(B) template ensures that we get the right amount of new versus repeated material. That V-C-B form make sure that some melodies and lyrics get heard several times, while others maybe only once.

In fact, one of the benefits of adding a bridge to your songs can be the introduction of a new melody if too much is being repeated.

It’s all a question of balance. Songs with too much repetition wind up having the same effect on your audience as songs without enough repetition: boredom.

Gary Ewer

Written by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

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Posted in Song Form and tagged , , , , , , .
Ed Sheehan - Photograph

Adding an Instrumental Hook to Your Song

One way to make a song stand out and grab attention is to create an instrumental hook, one that may or may not have much to do with the song itself.

One of my favourite examples of how this can work is Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition“. The sung part of the song doesn’t really have a hook that stands out or grabs attention. That’s not a flaw, of course. Many songs don’t get built around an obvious hook.

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“Superstition” is a great song all on its own, but becomes an even better song because of that catchy clavinet hook that starts the song and then sits underneath the entire tune.

The Eagles’ “Life in the Fast Lane” (Joe Walsh, Glenn Frey and Don Henley) does a similar thing. Though it’s a song with a strong chorus hook all on its own, there are several instrumental riffs and hooks that power up the song even before the first words are sung:

Instrumental riffs and hooks do wonders for supporting your song. It takes everything up a notch and makes your music multidimensional, giving the listener a lot more than just the lead vocal to listen to.

Adding instrumental hooks to your songs takes a bit of careful thought, though. Here are some tips:

  1. An instrumental hook can, but doesn’t need to, be based on melodic/rhythmic ideas from the lead vocal. You can hear a kind of relationship between the opening clavinet hook and then the vocal line in “Superstition”, but there’s no strong correlation. As long as the hook sounds supportive and interesting, it’s going to work.
  2. Don’t let an instrumental hook upstage the vocal. In “Superstition”, the fastest notes of the clavinet happen when Stevie is singing a long note, or when he’s not singing at all. There’s a danger in having a song sound too busy if everything is trying to grab listener attention at once.
  3. Try several instrumental riffs, all of different “intensities,” at different times. “Life In the Fast Lane” is a good example of this. The opening guitar riff is busy, but then backs away to allow a riff with less intensity to take over during the lead vocal.
  4. Subtlety works. In other words, don’t feel that an instrumental hook needs to be loud or overly obvious. An extremely subtle version of this is Ed Sheeran’s into to “Photograph”, which also serves as connecting material between verses. It’s subtle, because it’s all that’s needed. And it prevents the intro from simply being a strummed guitar.


  5. Don’t let an instrumental hook mask problems with your song. Songs can have some basic problems that are hard to notice when you’ve added a strong hook. But don’t let a hook be the fix for a song. An example: Let’s say your song is losing energy as it moves from verse to chorus. One solution might be to introduce a strong, up-front instrumental hook in the chorus. But that may just be masking the real problem: your chorus melody is lacking intensity. The real solution might be to rewrite the chorus with higher notes and a climactic moment. Whatever you can do to get your song working properly without a hook will make it ready for the real power that can come by finally adding in the instrumental hook.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

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Posted in Hook and tagged , , , , , , , , , .
Rolling Stones - Paint It Black

“Paint It Black”: Connecting Song Melodies

Most songs consist of several sections that are all woven together to produce one coherent piece of music. The trick is to get all those sections to move seamlessly one to the next.

Seamlessly, in this context, doesn’t mean that you move from section to section without realizing it, of course. In that sense, it’s like walking from one room to the next in a beautiful house. You obviously know when you’re leaving one room and entering the next, but there is a crucial feeling of connection. Though each room is different, there is a pleasant aspect of similarity or homogeneity.

Music is the same. As you move from one section (verse) to the next (chorus), there is an aspect of partnership that’s very important: it “sounds” as though the verse belongs to the chorus, even if we find it difficult to say exactly what produces that sense of belonging.Continue reading

Posted in Melody 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.

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