Sia - Chandelier

Songwriting: What You Need to Know About Song Form

When we talk about form in songwriting, we might be referring to the various sections of a song: verse, chorus, bridge, etc. Or we might be talking about something like the rhyme scheme of the lyrics: ABAB, for example. Or we might be talking about some aspect of the design of the melody… ascending figures contrasting with descending ones, for example.

I’ve always believed that for the best songs out there, the more that happens instinctively the better. But having good musical instincts doesn’t mean you don’t have to actively think about what you’re writing, and make decisions based on those thoughts.


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Song form — something we also call formal design — is one of those aspects of songwriting that does several related things:

  1. It helps an audience make sense of various elements of a song: its melody, chords, lyrics, and the basic formal structures.
  2. It helps make a short (3-4-minute) song sound like a complete musical journey, with an easily-discernible beginning, middle and end.
  3. It helps give a sense of design to each separate section of a song.

In much the same way that an architect considers the structure of a house as it is being designed, a songwriter considers the structure of a song, whether that consideration happens on a conscious or subconscious level.

So what do you need to know about song form? How can you use form to make your songs more enticing?

Here are some ways in which thinking about form helps your songwriting:

  1. Making clear differentiations between the various aspects of a song helps to make it more easily remembered by listeners. That’s why songwriters often use, for example, a minor key for a verse, and then switch to major for a chorus. (Carole King’s “You’ve Got a Friend”; Timberlake’s “Mirrors”)
  2. Using contrast to show differences between a verse and chorus melody. You might have written a catchy chorus hook that predominantly uses upward-moving melodic shapes. If so, you might find that downward-moving shapes will partner nicely for a verse. That’s an aspect of formal design. (McCartney’s “Penny Lane”)
  3. Delegating certain instruments to certain sections of a song. Even just the issue of deciding which instruments are going to represent a “full instrumentation” for your song can be an issue of form. In other words, you’ll likely decide what that should sound like for a chorus, and then you’ll pare it down to some degree for a verse. Listen to “Chandelier” by Sia, and notice how instrumentation changes rather dramatically between intro, verse, pre-chorus and chorus. Those changes help the listeners develop an understanding of the overall shape of a song.
  4. Moving the emotional level of a song’s lyric up and down as the song proceeds. Songs often start in a low emotional ebb, as situations and circumstances are described, and then heighten dramatically for a chorus. The up and down of this aspect of song lyrics is an important part of the formal design of the text.
  5. Deciding how frequently to change chords. Deciding whether you should strum a chord for 4 beats or 8 is called harmonic rhythm, and how frequently you change chords has a direct effect on the energy of a song. In general terms, the quicker you switch, the more the excitement level of the music intensifies. There’s no rule that says you must find one harmonic rhythm and stick to it; many songs will feature a changing pattern as a song progresses. What’s most important is that you consider it, and really think about this. If you’re a chords-first songwriter, the best time to think about this is at the very beginning stages of writing a song. Experiment with several different patterns, and make note of how musical intensity changes.

One final note: the relative length of various song sections will have an impact on musical momentum. In typical 4/4 (or common time) songs, bars and verses will be some multiple of 8. You might get a verse that’s 16 bars, and then follow it with an 8-bar chorus.

If you find that your song seems lopsided, to the extent that you seem to stay too long in one section, or “get to the chorus” a bit too soon, it’s worth thinking about whether one section or another needs to be shortened or lengthened to offer a proper balance between sections.


Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

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Posted in Song Form, songwriting and tagged , , , , , , , , .
Songwriting - Piano and guitar

Chords Don’t Work? Five Tips to Help Fix Them

The reasons that chords work in pop songs (when they do) relate to a song’s key. For most songs in the popular genres, songs sit solidly in one key or another. And even if they drift around and change key, most progressions will still relate strongly to whichever key is being used at any one time.

This means that if you have a good enough understanding of music theory, coming up with chord progressions that work shouldn’t be too difficult.

If you don’t have that strong working knowledge, you likely come up with progressions by a “try-it-and-see” method: you search for chords that work well together. Since your ear is always going to be your guide no matter what method you use to choose chords, random searching will eventually work for you, even if it takes a bit longer.

So if coming up with a chord progression means improvising until you find a progression you like, here are some tips that will help you in the search:

  1. Identify the tonic and dominant chords. Yes, you can do this even if you don’t know what key you’re in: Play a major chord, then play a major chord whose root is a 5th higher. So if you play a D, follow that with an A, and you’ve got the tonic and dominant. That can serve as a good foundation for most progressions. Do it in minor as well: Play Dm, then follow it with either Am or A, and you’ve played the tonic and dominant in the key of D minor. Using those two chords as a starting point, you can then build something a bit longer.
  2. For progressions that sound random, try including more root movements of 4ths and 5ths. Let’s say that you’ve got this progression: C  Eb  Dm  F  Am  Em  C. From one chord to the next, there’s not much of a problem. But taken together, that progression lacks a sense of direction: it’s hard to hear C as the tonic chord. The main culprit is that there is only one spot where adjacent chord roots are a 4th apart: Am to Em. You’ll find that if you can include 4ths between adjacent roots, the progression tightens up. Even if all you do is change the F to a G, you’ve made an improvement. Changing the Em to a G chord would give you a dominant chord, which further improves things.
  3. Keep progressions from getting too long. A long progression can lose a sense of direction, and listeners get bored. A shorter, more concise progression is usually all most pop songs need. So this might be a bit too long, particularly for a chorus: C  Em  Am  Bb  F  G  Esus  E  A  D  Bm  E  F  Dm  Gsus G (though it really depends on the rest of the song.) To create the kind of chorus groove that really connects, try something shorter: C  Em  Am  G.
  4. Beg, borrow & steal. Copyright protection does not extend to chord progressions. So if you’ve got a favourite song, try taking that progression, changing the tempo and playing style, and you’ve got the chords for your next song.
  5. Create “answering progressions” by playing short progressions backwards. Let’s say you’ve got a short progression like this one: C  F  G  C. Play it 8 times and you’ve got a chorus or a verse. But that’s a bit mundane. So try this: play it frontwards (C  F  G  C), then immediately “answer” it by playing it backwards: C  G  F  C. That gives you an 8-chord progression that sounds quite nice:  C  F  G  C| C  G  F  C. Not all progressions will sound good when played backwards, so you have to use your musical judgement on this one.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter

Creative Chord ProgressionsAre you looking for ways to make your progressions more creative? Tired of the same-old, same-old? This eBook, “Creative Chord Progressions“, is being offered free with your purchase of “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” 10-eBook Bundle. Read more.

Posted in Chord Progressions.
Love Songs

Can a Love Song Be Unique Anymore?

After decades of love songs, guess what still sells? Love songs.

There’s something about love that people still want to hear about. Yes, your audience still wants to feel you tug at their heartstrings. And what’s strange — maybe even bizarre — is that you don’t really have to say much of anything unique on the topic at all.

“The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” - Can't get past the hook?Whether it’s Ed Sheeran singing that “I will be loving you ’til we’re 70”, or perhaps Bruno Mars complaining that “you walk around here like you wanna be someone else”, it seems the listening public want to hear about it.

What is it about love that we tolerate, and actually seem to crave, the same old thing, with no particular need for a unique approach?

The real answer pertains to why we listen to music at all. We like to experience an emotional reaction. And, it would seem, the more rudimentary that experience, the better.

As a songwriter, that might mean that you’re trying too hard if you spend a lot of time trying to concoct something deeper, something more innovative. The good thing about love as a song topic is that everyone has experienced it, and for many, those experiences have been powerful ones.

But I believe there’s rarely anything bad that can come from trying to be unique, even with something as ubiquitous as a love song. So if you’re working on a love song, and you wonder if you might be able to offer a new take, here are some suggestions to consider:

  1. Try a different point of view. Instead of writing a lyric that tells everyone how you feel about another person, see if you can rework the lyric so that you’re in the role of observing a relationship between two other people. It can be tricky to get this to work, but it’s what Lennon and McCartney did with “She Loves You.”
  2. Write about other kinds of love. It’s typical to think a love song is about romantic love. But listeners will have powerful reactions to any kind of love: for a child, for a sick friend, for your country, etc.
  3. Write about after a break-up. Break-up songs are powerful, but you can hit an emotionally higher tone by writing about how you’ve recovered from that break-up. It keeps things feeling positive.
  4. Give an alternate viewpoint. Gotye did this in verse 2 of his hit “Somebody That I Used to Know.” He allows the former love interest to have her say, and it gives a more complete picture of what is rather common in most break-ups: two points of view.
  5. Don’t work too hard to be unique. Remember that what people really want is the emotion, not the facts. So yes, it is possible to work too hard at this. Simplicity is always going to win out in songs that touch the emotions of the listener.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

Creative Chord ProgressionsThe free deal continues. Get a copy of “Creative Chord Progressions” free of charge when you buy “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” eBook bundle. Eleven songwriting eBooks that cover every aspect of composing music. Take your songwriting to a new level of excellence.

Posted in songwriting and tagged , , , , , , .
Mike Rutherford, Genesis

Building Musical Energy With a Dominant Pedal

In a movement from a classical symphony, the music isn’t divided up into verses and choruses as is typical for pop songs. You’re more likely to see reference to sections called “1st theme”, “2nd theme”, “transition”, “development”, “coda”, and so on.

With pop songs, you get a definite feeling that the basic energy of the music changes each time you move from one section to another – from a verse to a chorus, say. Even people with little or no training in music can hear and perceive these changes. So when a non-musician listens to Michael Jackson’s “Bad”, they know when the chorus starts, even if they can’t verbalize quite why they know that. Amongst other things, they’re perceiving an energy change in the music.

“The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” - Can't get past the hook?One of the things that classical composers would do to increase the musical energy of a section would be to heighten the harmonic tension before a new section, to make the change in musical energy more obvious once they’ve reached a new part. A favourite way of doing this was to do what was called “standing on the dominant.” Here’s how that works.

Let’s say they had a main theme that was written above the following chord progression:

C  F  Am  G…

And let’s say (as is typical) that that main theme might return several times throughout a movement. In that sense, it’s operating like a chorus: returning over and over again.

To make that theme sound important and stand out a bit, you’ll want whatever chords that come before its return to build up to the main theme, maybe something like this:

Am  Em  F  G  Dm  C/E  F  G

Play that progression, and then play the progression I suggested for the main theme, and you’ll see and hear how easily one moves to the next.

So far, what I’ve given you for chords isn’t much different from what you might hear in a modern pop song’s pre-chorus leading to a chorus. But classical composers would often employ a little “trick”, a way of making that lead-in progression sound even more intense: they’d place the dominant (i.e., the 5th note of the key) in the bass, and keep it there throughout the progression, regardless of the chords above it.

The key of the main theme’s progression is C major, making the dominant note G. That would give them this:

Am/G  Em/G  F/G  G  Dm/G  C/G  F/G  G

Or you might see that written this way:

Am  Em  F  G  Dm  C/E  F  G
____________________________
              G

To hear the effect that this had on the music, take a listen to Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7, the 4th movement. The section below is just before the return of the main theme, near the end of the movement. The bass is murmuring, fluctuating back and forth between the dominant note and the semitone below it, but the effect is that we hear that dominant note over and over again, even while the chords are changing.

And you can hear the energy of the music build and build until the main theme returns about 15 seconds later. And you keep hearing that “standing on the dominant” effect happening at various times until the end of the movement, always used to build musical tension:

Genesis used this effect in their song “Squonk”, from their “A Trick of the Tail” album. The song starts with a pedal tonic note, and then 8 bars later we hear the dominant pedal: the “standing on the dominant” that builds harmonic tension:

If you’re looking to add some musical tension and energy to your songs, here is some advice:

  1. Try adding a dominant pedal before the start of a chorus. Take the final two or three chords of the verse, and play them with the bass on the dominant (5th) note.
  2. Add a dominant pedal to a pre-chorus section.
  3. Add a dominant pedal to the end of a bridge section before the return of the final chorus repeats.

It’s not something you’ll want to do every time, because it can get to be a predictable effect, and not every song will need that kind of intensification. But a dominant pedal has a great way of increasing listener interest by causing listeners (even subconsciously) to want to “wait” to hear the resolution of the dominant pedal.


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)

Posted in Chord Progressions and tagged , , , , , , , , .
Guitarist - Songwriter

Forcing Yourself to Write: When That Works and When It Doesn’t

If you’re someone who keeps running into creative roadblocks every time you sit down to write, it’s a fair question to ask: Are you helping or harming your creative process if you force yourself to write?

The best answer is that it depends on what is causing the ideas to dry up. And there are many reasons for musical ideas to dry up. Mental or physical exhaustion, a demanding work or school schedule, friends who won’t leave you alone– there are many reasons.


The Essential Secrets of Songwriting Online Store is a great place to start your journey to being a better songwriter. See how far your songwriting instincts can take you!


When to “Write No Matter What”

“The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” eBook Bundle: DreamingThere are in fact times when it is beneficial to your life as an artist to keep working even if you don’t feel like it:

  1. You’re the type who gets easily distracted.
  2. You don’t like schedules, particularly writing schedules.
  3. You can make a schedule, but you often don’t stick to it.
  4. You tend to give up when the going gets tough (i.e., you get easy frustrated if musical ideas are elusive.)

All of those situations relate to your sense of personal discipline. A disciplined writer is someone who:

  1. works to a schedule;
  2. is able to minimize distractions; and
  3. keeps working even if it feels difficult, or rewards are few and far between.

In all of those cases, working through a creative block — forcing yourself to write — has benefits. You may not see them right away, but you’ll find that over time, your songwriting process tightens up and improves as you become better at focusing on the task at hand.

So what’s the best way to make yourself write? Try this:

  1. Set a schedule in which you write for 30 minutes to an hour at a time, 5 days out of 7.
  2. Be sure that you have a good chance to work without interruptions or distractions. Put your phone on “Do not disturb” mode, close your door, and tell people you’re working.
  3. If you get stuck or feel frustration building, take a short tea break, or take a walk around the room, but don’t let yourself stray from “work mode.” Remember, it’s discipline you’re trying to hone with this process.

When to Not Write

Everyone feels mild writer’s block from time to time, and that should be considered normal. When it’s something more than mild — if you find yourself stymied for a week or more, where you get frustrated just at the thought of writing, it’s time to take a break.

And you need that break, every now and then. Taking a week or even more away from trying to write should not be considered a failure, if you really feel that you need it. Being creative can be complicated and difficult, even when it’s working for you.

But during those times when you put writing aside, the best way back is to keep doing something creative. Try writing short stories, practicing your instrument, painting, even carpentry… anything that relies on your creative mind. You’ll often find that the switching of gears into a different musical task is all the break you really need to start feeling like a creative writer again.


Written by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter

Gary Ewer

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Posted in Writer's Block 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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