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The New World of Songwriting – But Not That Different, Really

Today’s world of pop music can be a very insular one, in the sense that many “discoveries” pop musicians make about what people like aren’t really new after all. I’ve posted an article from the New Yorker recently, called “The Sound Machine,” about how hits are written today. In that article, Jay Brown (president of Roc Nation) said:

“You’ve got to have a hook in the intro, a hook in the pre-chorus, a hook in the chorus, and a hook in the bridge.” The reason, he explained, is that “people on average give a song seven seconds on the radio before they change the channel, and you got to hook them.”

I’d argue that that hasn’t really changed. Pop music has always been a hook-laden art form. And though we talk a lot about hooks as the main element of a catchy chorus, every section of a song needs something that keeps people listening, and that hasn’t changed.

A great example from classic rock can be found in Bill Wither’s “Lean On Me”, which contains several hooks, all layered, overlapping, and vying for attention. Give it a listen and see how many short, catchy “ideas” happen in this tune. From the opening parallel chord progression, to the hooky bass line in the bridge, to the masterful lyric that culminates in the pleading line, “Lean on me, when you’re not strong.”

The truth is that composers of music have always had the same issue to solve: how to get people’s attention from the very first note, and to keep them listening for the entire song. A song’s intro has got to be good, but once it starts, audiences are wanting to hear the verse.

And once the verse happens, they’re looking for the chorus. So even though typical pop songs are longer now than they were in the 50s and 60s, the time relationships haven’t changed all that much if at all. Song intros are still short – around 10 seconds or so (longer for ballads).

And most song choruses are happening before the 1-minute mark (again, later for ballads). And the longer you take to get to those key elements, the more danger there is that a listener is going to get distracted or bored.

If anything is different today with regard to pop songwriting, it’s the realization that it’s incredibly easy for a listener to click and hear something else if they’re not satisfied. In 1970, taking an album off the turntable and finding a different one to replace it took a while – 30 seconds to a minute. Today, as you listen/watch something online, YouTube is already suggesting a dozen or more other songs you might want to watch even before you’ve clicked to play the first one.

So while Jay Brown’s statement is true, that most songs need something hooky in every section, you might find that it’s always been the case. It’s almost a kind of songwriting principle: The shorter the musical composition, the more important the hook becomes.

And in the world of music, pop songs are some of the shortest examples we have of complete musical works. The composer of a symphony has up to an hour to offer a complete musical journey. That may seem daunting (and it is, of course), but you could also make the case for a 3-minute pop song as being just as daunting in its own way. Try telling a public speaker that they get 3 minutes instead of a half hour to tell a captivating tale. It’s not easy.

If there’s any directive in all of this for you as a songwriter, it’s this: Listen to your latest song, and for every moment along the way, try to identify what, if anything, is keeping your audience listening. That requires an ability to listen with complete objectivity, but it’s so important. What keeps someone listening to your music?

That may seem like a new requirement in today’s pop music world, but I would say that the job hasn’t really changed at all. It’s always been incumbent on songwriters and producers to keep people listening.

Written by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter

chordsfirst_smIf you’re a chords-first songwriter, Gary’s most recent eBook, “Writing a Song From a Chord Progression, is a manual that gives you a solid songwriting procedure that makes it easy.

It’s being offered FREE, right now for a limited time, to purchasers of “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting eBook Bundle”.


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

Can’t Get Beyond the Chorus? Try These Ideas

When you conjure up the first musical bits that will become your next song, those bits are likely going to become part of your song’s chorus. That’s because it’s most likely that you’ll find it easy to think up something like a hook than something like a verse or a bridge.

And hooks are going to be the backbone of your chorus, at least most of the time. So I think it’s safe to say that choruses will usually come together easier than verses. With a chorus you get the following typical characteristics:

  1. Short, repetitive melodic ideas.
  2. A relatively short, tonally strong chord progression.
  3. A lyric that features a good deal of repeated words and phrases.

chordsfirst_smGary’s just released “Writing a Song From a Chord Progression”, a 35-page manual to help songwriters who like starting the songwriting process with a chord progression.

It’s currently in a pre-release stage, but is being offered FREE, right now for a limited time, to purchasers of “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting eBook Bundle”.


Starting with the chorus means that you’ll get quite excited about this new song, and it gives you the impression that the rest of the song will come together quickly. But more often than not, a verse will take more time, and require more experimenting before it sounds right. That’s where discouragement sets in, and you’re left with the feeling that you can’t get beyond your chorus.

Does that describe where you are with your latest attempt to write a song? If so, here are three useful tips to consider that will help if you’re stuck, and can’t get beyond the chorus.

  1. Take your chorus chord progression, and reorder it to make your verse progression. In other words, if you’re using this as your chorus progression: Am  Dm  Am  G, it may work just fine to take it and put the chords in a different order, like this: G  Am  Dm  G. Optionally, you might try to add a chord to the verse progression, maybe something like this: G  Am  Dm  C. This helps you come up with something similar to, but not identical to, your chorus progression.
  2. Improvise melodies by staying mostly lower in pitch. Verse melodies are usually lower than chorus melodies, so if you’re trying to find that elusive verse melody, start by making sure you stay below the range of your chorus melody.
  3. Write a short story to find your verse lyric. Make the assumption that your chorus lyric is what the song’s all about. Then, to write an effective verse lyric, you need a backing story — something that leads naturally to your chorus lyric. So write a short story that describes how you got to the situation you’re singing about in the chorus. Once you have the story, create a list of words and phrases that might make their way into your verse. You’re trying to create a verse that leads naturally to your chorus.

Having a chorus come together quickly makes you think that there’s something wrong if the verse doesn’t immediately happen. But in fact, many good songwriters spend a lot of time on the verse, much more time than they spend on the chorus, and that’s normal.

So take the time you need to get your chorus working, and then use that chorus to help you generate ideas for your verse. Don’t put a timetable on it — it may come together quickly, or it may take days or even weeks.

How you know your verse is finally working is that everything points to the chorus as being a musical and emotional release for your verse.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter

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Writing a Song from a Chord Progression

New Ebook: “Writing a Song From a Chord Progression”

I mentioned in my blog post yesterday that I was just about finished a new short ebook about chords-first songwriting. It’s now finished, all except for a final thorough proofread, but I am offering it right now as a free add-on to “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” eBook Bundle. Read more.

Here’s a short excerpt from the 35-page “Writing a Song From a Chord Progression” (Gary Ewer):

Songwriting: How to Get the Process Going

Try popping the words, “how to start a song” into a search engine, and the number of people looking for just this information will astound you. And the question is very specific; it’s not “how to write a song”, but more specifically – perhaps you might say, more simply – how to get the process going.

It’s not a silly issue. Wrapped up in that question is the implication that if you start well, you have a better chance of ending well, and there is some truth to that. If you want to, for example, take a good journey, it helps if you at least get started by going in the right direction – preferably to an airport.

Most of the time, starting a song means that you’ve got several musical fragments that you’re tossing about in your mind. Those fragments are usually:

  • bits of lyric
  • a phrase or two of melody;
  • a chord progression.

If you’ve got a bit of all three bouncing around in your musical brain, you’ve got the makings of what could be a hook. From there, you begin the process of working out something longer. Ideas that are good are kept; ideas that are bad get thrown out. You simply hope that you keep more than you throw, and you eventually end up with a song.

The Three Main Ways to Start a Song

But if it’s a question of trying to start a song completely from scratch with no particular idea in mind at the outset – well, that’s when songwriting can get tough. You’re pulling ideas out of a vacuum, or at least it seems that way, and it’s not easy. When you’re in that situation, you get the impression that there are three main ways to start a song from a musical vacuum:

  1. Melody first.
  2. Lyrics first.
  3. Chords first.

But in reality, it’s rarely that cut and dried. Because this is closer to reality:

  1. You think of a bit of lyric, but you also likely consider the rhythm of those words.
  2. You think of a bit of melody, but you likely also consider the chords that are implied by those melodic notes.
  3. You think of a short chord progression, but you also likely consider a rhythmic groove that will give those chords life.

It’s that last point – the creating of a song starting with nothing more than a short chord progression – that is the focus of this short manual. Because of all the potential ways for starting a song, beginning with a chord progression is the one that can exist with almost nothing else to hold it up. Start strumming a chord progression, and all that will occur to you at first is some sort of syncopated rhythm. And you likely know this already, but you can keep strumming that chord progression for a long time before anything else happens.

And it’s worse than that: it’s possible, after a number of months of strumming the chords, to convince yourself that that’s the song! Yes, the chords become the song. I know this because of the number of songs that get sent to me for my perusal that are nothing more than a series of chords with a bass line and drums. The melody tends to be whatever the top notes of the chord voicings are, to which a weak lyric is added. That’s it and that’s all.


Within the next week, this short manual, as well as my recent ebook “Hooks and Riffs: How They Grab Attention, Make Songs Memorable, and Build Your Fan Base”, will be sold separately on my purchase page.

But for the next few days, “Writing a Song From a Chord Progression” will be being offered free of charge to anyone purchasing “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” eBook Bundle.

To read more about this, please visit the online store.

Posted in Miscellaneous, songwriting and tagged , , , , .
Guitar - songwriting

Starting Songs With Chords: Musical Landscape

Many songwriters love starting the writing process by generating ideas from a chord progression. That’s a legitimate way to write, and it’s very popular. By starting with chords, you lay down what is in effect a landscape upon which you can place other items.

I’ve been working on a new short manual for songwriters who like to start with chords, and I hope to have that ready in the next day or so; keep watching this blog.

Writing songs by starting with the chords actually requires you to think a lot about melodies. That’s because the biggest challenge facing chords-first songwriters is to create a melody that, in a sense, diverts your attention away from chords. Yes, as funny as it seems, one way you know that a chord progression is doing its job is that it fades into the background and allows you to concentrate on other musical elements, like melodies and lyrics.

Gary EwerGary Ewer is the author of “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting eBook Bundle,” a set of manuals, full of information, designed to get you writing the best music you can. Right now, take advantage of this free offer.

But there’s a danger in chords-first writing, which is that the melody often gets ignored. There is more danger in a chords-first song that the melody is going to sound a bit shapeless and random. The main reason for this is that the voicings you choose for your chords (whether on keyboard or guitar) place certain notes at the top. Those upper notes tend to sound like a kind of melody, but not a very good one.

If you like starting the songwriting process by working out (or borrowing) a chord progression, here are a few things to keep in mind:

  1. Play through your progression many times, and alter the rhythms you choose to play those chords.
  2. Each time you play your progression, try to change the voicings. That will allow different notes to be highest ones with each play-through, and you’ll hear more melodic possibilities.
  3. Change time signature and tempo as part of the songwriting process. Each time you change those things, the musical style changes, and you wind up with more possibilities for a final product.
  4. Play your progression on as many instruments as you can play. Even if you can’t play them well, try playing the chords on guitar, then ukulele, banjo, accordion, keyboard… anything that will produce chords. This automatically opens up your mind to other stylistic and melodic ideas.
  5. Try holding some chords longer, other chords shorter. True, most songs will feature a fairly steady harmonic rhythm, but that’s not always the case. So if your chosen chord progression is: C Am F Dm G E7 Am G, try holding some chords for, let’s say, 4 beats, others for 2. That will give you a time signature of 3/2, somewhat unusual but really easy to work with.

Through all those steps, you need to consider the melody you’ll be writing. Remember that good melodies will often have a noticeable shape, made up of up and down patterns (not random motion.) And they make great use of repetition.

So the end result of a chords-first song is that the melodies should be engaging, and should partner well with your lyric. No one should be able to tell that you started with chords. The listeners’ attention should always be on the melodies and lyrics, no matter how the process started.

chordsfirst_smGary’s most recent eBook, “Writing a Song From a Chord Progression” , is now available! 

It’s currently in a pre-release stage, but is being offered FREE, right now for a limited time, to purchasers of “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting eBook Bundle”.


Posted in Chord Progressions and tagged , , , , , , , .
Toontrack Country Month

Guest Post for Country Month (Toontrack)

This month (February 2016) is Country Month at Toontrack, online maker of sample-based software and other songwriting tools. I’m honoured to have been asked to write an article for their Country Month launch, and they’ve posted Part 1 over on their site. Here’s a short excerpt:

Has Technology Changed the Nature of Music?


Only a few years ago, computers played mainly a two-part role in the music industry: 1) synthesize sounds, and 2) record music. Today, computers still do that, but they do much more, not the least of which is to act as a songwriting partner: to suggest ideas. That is what Toontrack’s EZKeys and other software does, and does well. It offers loops and other musical fragments that a songwriter can use to create songs. In that way, songwriters are in an interesting co-writing partnership with computers.

It is an exciting world, one that a 18th century composer like Mozart would be astounded by. He would be stunned to know that you can write, record and mix a song on your smartphone (What the heck is that??) this morning, and be streaming it to billions of people around the word before supper time. In Mozart’s day, music was composed on a piece of paper, using pen and ink, sitting at a keyboard, or perhaps holding a guitar, lute, or other stringed instrument. Essentially, it was nothing much more than an imagination and a pen.

And nothing much changed in that process until the 1980s, when computers became a household item. Sound sampling, sound synthesis, sound manipulation, and sound recording… the world of music changed incredibly quickly.

Every facet of our lives is now controlled to some degree by computers. Our cars, our house security systems, our communication systems, even our toasters – they all use computers, and it’s easy to think that music should be no different.

With today’s music, we hear the ever-powerful influence of computers in the way it is written and recorded. And that leads to an important question: Has technology changed the nature of music? Is the structure of the music we compose different because computers are involved? We might use our smartphone as a kind of notepad, to sing ideas to ourselves. And we might use software to get our ideas down into some useable form, rather than using pen and paper. But what about the music itself? Has that really changed in the computer age?

To read more, head over to Toontrack’s site.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter

chordsfirst_smGary’s new ebook “Writing a Song From a Chord Progression “ is offered free with your purchase of “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” eBook Bundle. Don’t miss this time-limited deal. 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.

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