Piano-playing songwriter

Changing Your Songwriting Approach

In order for an athlete to improve, something needs to change. A golfer who wants to improve needs to develop a different stance, or perhaps hold the club differently, or do some other thing in a different way.

Athletes work all the time on that simple idea of change. If they aren’t changing something, their rate of improvement will be limited, and they’re probably stagnating.

Not only are they stagnating, but with every passing day, it becomes less likely that they’d ever be able to change. Bad habits become ingrained, and much harder to solve over time.

To improve at songwriting means changing something about how you write, not just what you write. And the longer a songwriter works within their sphere of weakness, the less likely it is that they’d ever be able to break out and write something fresh or exciting.

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What I’m describing is the subtle difference between fixing how you’re writing your songs versus trying to innovate on what  you’re writing about.

Let’s go back to the golfing analogy: If a golfer’s bad grip is causing, let’s say, tension in the arms, there are two ways to solve it:

  1. Try to reduce the tension while keeping the same “this-is-the-way-I-do-it” grip; or…
  2. Come up with a new grip that prevents tension.

Obviously, you want — you need — to go with option 2, but many don’t. That’s because a new grip feels uncomfortable at first, more uncomfortable than just dealing with the old grip. It’s so much easier to let muscle memory have its way, and try to make the old habit work somehow.

With songwriting, you deal with the same thing. You’re not holding a golf club, though, you’re holding a pencil and a guitar. But you still battle the same kind of muscle memory-laden “this-is-the-way-I-do-it” problem.

If you have that unpleasant feeling of stagnation in songwriting, you notice it most by the feeling you get from your music. That shouldn’t surprise us much: songs are ultimately about feelings.

So if you get the same kind of feeling from everything you write (everything sounds nostalgic, or everything sounds aggressive, or everything sounds warm & fuzzy, or…), the time to change is now.

So what do you change? You can change what you’re writing about, but do you see the problem? At least regarding stagnation, it doesn’t much matter what you’re writing about if everything has that same nostalgic sound.

So think more about how you’re writing. Change something about your approach. A new golf grip will change how you even pick up the club. A new songwriting approach will change your notion of what songwriting is, even before you pick up the pencil.

So how do you change the how? Mainly this way: Think less at the start about what you want your song to sound like at the end of the process. Leave production for later. Concentrate on the structure of your melodies, your chords, and your lyrics.

Your melodies, chords and lyrics all need to communicate with each other, and you can hear that communication (or lack of it) more clearly if your song isn’t encumbered with production issues from the very start.

Get a bare-bones version of your song working, where the basic melodies in their starkest form are well-supported by an intelligently-chosen chord progression. Make sure the melody expresses the up-and-down of the emotional content of your lyric. Get these pairings working well, and when you do, you can then turn your attention to production-level issues.

It takes time to think this way in songwriting. But if you can manage to make a stripped-down version of your song sound right, production will always make it sound better.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

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Singer in a recording studio

The Role of Melodic Range in Good Songwriting

Melodic range refers to the interval between your song’s lowest and highest note. It may not seem all that important to the success of a song, but melodic range (by which we eventually mean vocal range) can play a role in how audiences hear melodies, and be important regarding to how easily those melodies are remembered.

Each section of a song is a separate entity that then needs to communicate with the other sections of that song, so it makes sense that we look at the various melodies a song offers and assess range issues separately.

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Verse melodies usually feature the song’s lowest notes and most constricted range, and the chorus usually displays the highest notes. Those highest notes often happen right at, or near, the start of the chorus. Maroon 5’s “Payphone” is a good example of this.

A bridge might contain the song’s highest notes, if that bridge is used to pump up the song’s musical energy. But what’s really important about melodic range?

Range and Singability

As you work out your song, you’re instinctively thinking about range all the time, because range relates to basic singability: you’ll struggle with a melody that’s too high in pitch. The same is true for melodies that are too low, though pop music genres tend to push melodies into the upper regions of the singer’s vocal range.

So your instincts might tell you to move a melody up or down until it sits more or less in the middle of your range, but that’s not always the wisest course of action. A chorus in an emotionally powerful song, such as The Beatles’ “Golden Slumbers” would not have the same impact if the melody were placed lower in pitch. In most songs, upper range singing intensifies the emotional aspect of the song.

Range and Memorability

We’ve been talking about range with regard to a song’s highest notes, but when it comes to how easily or not an audience remembers a melody, the actual span of the range — the interval of the lowest to highest note — can play a vital role.

Audiences will have an easier time remembering melodies that have a smaller range, because the smaller the range, the more likely repetition is going to be an important organizing feature. In “Man in the Mirror” (Siedah Garrett, Glen Ballard, recorded by Michael Jackson), the chorus uses the range of a 6th, and repetition (both exact and approximate) plays a very important role.

Smaller ranges also makes it easier for people to sing along, of course, and so it makes sense that chorus hooks use a somewhat restricted range.

Expanding a Song’s Range

Some songs work well with a very small range. It usually leads to restricted melodic cells (not necessarily in a bad way) which can have a meditative effect on an audience, much like the verse of  Tom Petty’s “Free Fallin’.” And so if that’s working for your song, that’s great.

But if you find that any of your song’s melodies sound mundane or uninteresting, it could be that the range is simply too restricted. Some tips:

  1. Look for ways to expand the range. Most of the time, this will mean finding a moment to move a melody’s high point even higher. Moving low notes lower tends to not have a great impact, unless you’re talking about a verse melody that sits in the same range as your chorus (see point #3 below).
  2. Don’t be afraid of your high range. Even if you have to strain to get those higher notes, a bit of strain (within reason) can add to the emotional power and meaning of your lyric.
  3. Avoid using identical ranges in adjacent song sections. If your verse melody and chorus melody both sit in the octave between Middle C and the C above it, the lack of variation in range will usually result in something that sounds boring to an audience. Move your verse down or your chorus up, or both.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

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Posted in Melody.
Songwriter in nature

Finding More Sources of Songwriting Inspiration

If you’re a composer of music who is required to be writing daily (film score composers, for example), you know that you can’t count on a steady supply of inspiration to keep you writing. You know you’re going to have days when you feel the excitement that inspiration provides, but lots of other days when your creative mind feels dry.

So what do you do when you can’t find the inspiration that gets you excited enough to write?

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Inspiration is all around us, but if you have days when you’re not feeling it, it’s possibly because you’re relying too much on externally-sourced inspiration, and not the kind that can and should come from within: internally-sourced inspiration. Here’s more about what I’m describing.

For songwriters, there are three major sources of inspiration:

  1. Events, circumstances, places and people. By these, we’re talking about things that generate a strong emotional response within your creative mind. You witness the birth of a child, loss of a loved one, or perhaps you get in touch with nature.
  2. Other musicians’ music. You get excited when you hear a good song, and it kickstarts your artistic brain and makes you want to do something similar.
  3. Your own songwriting process. As you write, you get excited by the ideas you’re creating, and those ideas spur you on — make you want to keep going.

The best kind — the kind of inspiration that will take you furthest — is the third one on that list: your own songwriting process.

Your Songwriting Process is a Self-Generating Source of Inspiration

Your own songwriting can generate excitement within you. With every idea you create, you feel a momentary jolt of excitement, and it makes you want to write more. As you continue to compose, you find yourself getting excited about those new ideas, and on it goes.

The problem with the other sources of inspiration is that they are fleeting, and it requires “going out to find them”, if you will. There’s no denying that a great song by your songwriting hero will be an important source of inspiration, but that kind of excitement typically wanes, and then you’re back to where you started: trying to find creative excitement again.

So how do you make sure that your own songwriting process is giving you the kind of excitement that keeps you writing daily? It’s not a mystery: Set up a songwriting schedule that keeps you writing at least five days out of seven, and you will have done the most important thing you can do.

To make sure that your writing keeps you excited, remember these tips:

  1. Scale your daily songwriting expectations down if necessary. If you’re simply getting nowhere trying to write a song on a given day, try smaller projects. Perhaps spend your time inventing great song titles, come up with short descriptive lines of lyrics (even if you don’t know how you’d use them)… that sort of thing.
  2. Make your songwriting schedule sensibleIf you’ve just done an 8-hour shift at work, or have a big exam the next day, scale your songwriting activities to match. Don’t guilt yourself into writing; that just doesn’t work.
  3. Listen to older songs that you’ve written as a source of inspiration. I do this all the time. When I feel uninspired, I’ll sometimes listen to something I’ve written a year or two ago, and it gets me excited enough to feel like writing again.
  4. Choose a “songwriter of the day,” and listen to their music. Do some research and find a songwriter you never knew before, and get familiar with their music. You’re more likely to generate new excitement over a “new to you” songwriter than you are over a songwriter whose music is already known to you.
  5. Always work to improve your songwriting technique. Songwriting must be more than assembling random ideas to see what comes out of it. Studying past hits and hitmakers allows you the benefit of learning from those who have already solved many of the songwriting problems you’re trying to solve for yourself.


Written by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

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Songwriter in Home Studio

Writing Better – Writing More

You should not necessarily worry if it takes you weeks or months to write a complete song while all your songwriting colleagues are getting the job done in days, sometimes hours. How long it takes to finish a song rarely has anything to do with how good it is.

Having said that, it’s going to be frustrating if, after a year of writing, you’ve only got two songs to show for your efforts. Assuming there’s nothing obviously wrong with your process, is there a way you can speed things up, and write more?

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Writing Better as a First Step

Your first objective should be to evaluate the songs you do manage to write to completion. Some things to look for:

  1. Evaluate your songwriting process. A process is a good one for you if it’s stimulating your creative mind and generating ideas.
  2. Don’t obsess over the quality of your ideas too soon in the process. It’s often best to get a song working, even if you don’t like the lyric, the melody, or want a better progression.
  3. Once you’ve got a completed song, then start to improve it. By working to quickly get a song in some kind of finished state, you’ve got something concrete, something tangible, that you can work to improve. A blank page gives you nothing to evaluate, and so your overall process can grind to a frustrating halt.

Step 3 by itself will do much to speed up the songwriting process for you, but all 3 steps are a necessary first stage in becoming more prolific as a writer. Now it’s time to really focus on writing more.

Writing More as a Second Step

If you’re comfortable with your songwriting process, and feel that it’s giving you good quality ideas, it’s time to focus on writing more. Some things to try:

  1. Write several songs at the same time. Having several songs on the go at any one time has one particularly powerful advantage: it helps to prevent writer’s block. When your ideas for a song run dry, simply switch to another song, and work on it until that song gets momentarily stuck. Then move on to another. By keeping several songs going, you feel creative and prolific.
  2. Figure out a songwriting schedule that works for you. Most of us can find time on at least 5 out of 7 days per week to devote to writing. But simply planning to write isn’t often enough. Create a songwriting schedule, and then try as best you can to stick with it. Having even the best of intentions to write won’t often get the job done. Write your schedule down, and then do it.
  3. Use several songwriting processes. Starting every song the same way not only results in songs that all have a sameness about them — they also make you feel that you’re constantly working on the same song. So develop as many different processes as you can, and try to feel comfortable with each one. Lyrics first, chords first, melody first, and so on… with each possible way of starting, you’ll find that your creative mind engages the task of writing in a fresh, new way, and that alone will speed up the process. (And don’t forget collaborations as a great way to get more songs written.)

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

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Joni Mitchell

Theme and Variations as a Songwriting Technique

A common musical form that classical composers have loved for centuries is theme and variations; a melody is repeated, changed in some way, but still similar enough to the original that it’s recognizable. It was a measure of a composer’s musical imagination, and fun for an audience to hear what might happen next with the theme.

It’s not just melody that might be changed. The melody might be repeated in a more-or-less intact form, with the rhythm changed, or perhaps the underlying chords.

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If you want to hear a perfect example of what I’m talking about, give Mozart’s “Ah vous diraie-je, Maman“, otherwise known as “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star,” a listen. The melody is first played in a very plain way. With each variation, something is changed, but within all the changes, the original tune is recognizable.

As a songwriter, you’re not likely to write a theme and variations in the traditional way, but you might use the technique in trying to come up with a better melody, or a better arrangement.

Think of it this way: Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now” started its life as a mid-tempo pop song, but more recently she has performed the song as a much slower ballad. The melody is still intact, with a few slight differences, with some modified chords and completely different arrangement. Now imagine putting both approaches together in the same song.

If you’ve written a song melody, but you wonder if there’s an even better melody, similar to what you’ve written, but a little different, try the following ideas.

  1. First, play and record your original melody with the chords you first thought of. If you’ve got lyrics, you can sing those of course, but you might do well to simply hum it, or sing it to a neutral syllable (“la la la…”).
  2. Sing your melody again, but improvise on the melodic shapes. Keep the basic outline of the melody, but try to find different “gestures” within that melody.
  3. Sing your original melody, but come up with a different chord progression. For example, if your song sticks to a standard C-F-G-C progression (I-IV-V-I), try this: Am-Dm-G-C (vi-ii-V-I). Then try it again, changing a chord every time.
  4. Sing your original melody to a new time signature. The most common choice is 4/4, with 3/4 being the next likely one. If you’ve created a melody in 4/4 time, simply shorten up one of the beats to move it into 3/4, and you’ll have a song with a completely different feel.
  5. Sing the original melody with new rhythms. Try elongating notes that were short, or shortening up bits that were originally long. Use your imagination, and see where it takes you.
  6. Consider one of your “variations” as material for a song intro. A good example might be Dire Straits’ “Money for Nothing”, which uses fragments of Sting’s backing vocal “I want my MTV” as a slow intro.

I don’t think I know of a pop musician who has done a traditional theme and variations the way a classical composer has. I’m not sure why not. It’s a great way to create variety and contrast within a song, though the idea probably belongs more in the prog rock world than pop.

As you can see, developing a melody and then coming up with variations allows you to explore all possibilities that melody offers. It requires you to expand on your original idea, stimulating your musical imagination.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

Essential Secrets of Songwriting BundleGet “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” eBooks. They’ll help you polish your technique, and make you the best songwriter you can be. Comes with a Study Guide, tons of chord progressions, and information covering every aspect of how to write good music.

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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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