Songwriting in the pop genres is, for the best songwriters out there, like walking a tightrope. Lean too much one way, and you’re giving your audiences exactly what they expected from you. No challenge, no getting them thinking outside whatever musical box they live in.
Lean too much the other way, and you’ve given them something that’s just too different, too challenging — too unlike what they thought they were going to get.
The best songwriters and producers know how to straddle that line. They know how to lean without losing their footing.
They know how to offer music that sounds enough like what their target audience was expecting, but with enough innovation and unpredictability that they feel intrigued and stimulated.
When you lean toward uniqueness in your songwriting, you’re taking a risk. It’s a crucial risk, however, if your aim is to build an audience base.
Keep writing the same kind of song, and the audience hears you writing the same song, over and over again: You’ve written three songs, and you just keep writing them, over and over. Different key, perhaps, and maybe different tempo. But merely different versions of the same song.
And when your writing is that predictable, you’ll lose old listeners as fast as you gain new ones. And why wouldn’t you? They’ve heard it all before.
For every song you write, ask yourself: Is there anything unique about this song? Have I given my loyal followers anything to challenge them? Have I nudged my creative approach in any direction?
Because if the word unique has nothing to do with what you’re doing, you’re just adding to the noise.
It’s time to break out and offer something unique to your audience. It takes courage. It’s risky. You’ll lose followers.
But as long as your songs are good, you’ll gain more over time than you lose.
So be courageous. Listen to the best music every day. Then pick up your pencil, and write the best music you’ve ever written.
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For many songwriters, getting a catchy melody for your song happens as the result of improvising melodic ideas over a chord progression. If that’s your normal process, it’ll usually work well for you. But improvising ideas should always be seen as a first step to getting a final version of a melody that really works.
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In particular, it’s worth the time to check and compare the range of your verse and chorus melodies. Here’s one way to make a visual representation of the ranges of your various melodies.
- First, take any of your recent favourites songs (one that uses a verse-chorus design), grab your guitar or keyboard and a pencil, and listen closely to the verse melody. Try plucking the melody; you may need to listen several times to get this step right.
- Draw a line that roughly represents the shape of the melody, and put a few lines of lyric down around the line. If your favourite song is “Someone Like You”, you’d notice that the verse wobbles around the same few notes, with just a few inflections, so you would draw a line that looks something like this:
- Now, try to determine the highest note in that verse melody, then find the lowest. In “Someone Like You,” the highest verse note is F#4 (the F# above middle C), which happens a couple of times. The lowest note is the F# below middle C, and as you can see from the diagram, the melody explores more lower notes in its second half than it does in its first half: a bit of an anomaly in most songs.
- Next, listen to the chorus melody, sketch the rough outline, and find the range. You’ll come up with something like this, with the low-to-high range encompassing an octave-and-a-half, A3 (the A below middle C) up to E5 :
- Draw 2 boxes that represent the range of the verse and chorus melodies, placing them so that they overlap where their ranges overlap, like this:
- So what is this diagram showing us? First, it’s demonstrating an important principle in popular songwriting, which is that chorus melodies tend to sit higher in pitch than verse melodies. In some songs, the range difference is very small, but likely to be there nonetheless. You’ll also notice that there is usually an overlapping of ranges. In other words, many of the notes found in a verse are also found in the chorus, with the addition of lower ones at the bottom of the verse range, and higher ones at the top of the chorus.
Every song will have a diagram that looks different, of course. But the general principle of a higher box for the chorus is crucial to the generation of musical energy for your song. The difference between verse and chorus ranges does not need to be great. In most songs, you’ll notice that the top of the verse and chorus boxes will be very close, with the chorus sometimes only being a note or two higher.
Now the next step is to do the same process with your own completed songs, particularly ones that you feel aren’t generating the interest or musical energy you’ve been hoping for. If that chorus box isn’t higher than the verse box, it won’t take much to fix that problem. Just as in “Someone Like You”, the high note that pops out on the line, “Don’t forget me, I beg” is all it takes to give your chorus a distinctive moment.
In the case of a song where the verse and chorus melodies are the same, you’ll need to look for other ways to generate the extra chorus energy, such as adding backing vocals, or building the instrumentation in the chorus.
“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.
I’m a believer in song analysis as a way of improving songwriting technique. For any writer of music, basic curiosity should make us want to know why something sounds so good, so that we might be able to incorporate at least some of those ideas into our own music. (Or why something sounds so bad, so we can avoid the same mistakes. ;))
But here’s the problem with analyzing music in the pop genres: there’s no guarantee that the songwriter was consciously aware of the theory behind their own moments of genius.
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Just as one example, back in 2012, I had written a song analysis of Gotye’s hit, “Somebody That I Used to Know.” In that post, I mentioned the fact that there is an ambiguity regarding the key: even progressions that point to F major never seem to give us an F chord as a confirmation of the key. So there is a sense of the chord progression never giving us a strong sense of direction: “The chord progression helps create the impression that he can’t move on,” I wrote at the time.
One reader said in response to the analysis, “Kinda silly to analyze pop music like this, it’s like writing an essay on personal relationship in the Transformers movie.” I think there is an element of truth (although I believe it’s a small element!), in the sense that the vagueness of the key may have been a kind of musical “accident”, and not part of the plan at all.
And that’s true of practically every clever moment or clever structural element you can study in pop music. When it comes right down to it, it’s not easy to know if the songwriter was being clever or being lucky. I’ve mentioned in a blog post that Feist’s “How Come You Never Go There” uses a melodic structure that enhances the hypnotic appeal of the lyrics. But is that Feist being clever, or a happy accident?
Let’s say that we can’t come up with a good answer to that question. Let’s say that most good moments in music are accidental, where the songwriters, through their instincts, just came up with something that actually worked well, where each element within the song “randomly” partnered really well with each other. Does that make song analysis a useless pursuit? Are we adding meaning where none exists?
In support of songwriting analysis, I’d still say that even if moments of genius within a song are simply serendipitous, it’s worth the time you spend learning why those moments work so well.
For example, if you discover, while studying “Somebody That I Used to Know”, that the F major/D minor vagueness of the key seems to partner well with the nature of the lyric, and if that’s something you can use in your next song, then it doesn’t matter a lot if Gotye knew what he was doing, or if it was a creative accident.
I admit that it can sound a tad pretentious to be considering the musical meaning of something within a song when the songwriter may have been unaware of it at all. But the truth remains: good songs are good because all the basic elements within that song are partnering so well.
Whether that good partnership comes from a conscious process, or whether it comes by some kind of creative accident shouldn’t matter when it comes to the more crucial question for songwriters: Have they done something I can do in my own songs?
I believe that the best songwriters out there will improve by listening a lot to other music. You will improve every time you try to reveal the magic of why the good songs are good. And that’s because you can now consciously apply those techniques to your own songs.
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In considering the many ways that songwriters start the songwriting process, working from a title is, in my opinion, one of the best. The reason comes down to one word: focus.
To tell you more about what I mean, consider one of the other common ways to get the process started: working from a chord progression. Starting with the chords has a couple of things going for it:
- It establishes a mood quickly. Chord quality (i.e., major, minor, etc.) brings a kind of feel to the music, and it’s something we can use to affect our audience right from the start.
- It helps in the developing of a rhythmic groove. Once you’ve got the chords, you can start working on the elements of music that mean a lot to listeners: tempo and rhythmic feel.
There are, however, potential downsides to starting with chords, such as a melody that lacks direction, but I believe that as long as you’re aware of those problems, it’s possible to make the chords-first process work well for you.
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There is another downside to starting with the chords, which, in fact, is a potential problem for almost every other possible process: you don’t necessarily know where you’re trying to go. And you’ve likely experienced that, where your song ends up sounding rather different from your initial plan. Sometimes that’s a good thing, of course.
Starting With a Title
But starting with a title has one major advantage over most other processes, particularly if the lyric is something that you intend to be meaningful: it provides the point of focus — and in many cases the all-important pay-off line — for everything else in the lyric.
It can also establish a mood. The country hit “God, Your Mama, and Me“, (Josh Near, Hillary Lindsey, Gordie Sampson) was composed by establishing the title first, and then working back from there. Once you’ve got that all-important catchy line toward which everything moves, you’ve got a way of finding pathways in the lyric toward it.
And when you look at the lyric for the chorus, remembering that the title was written first, you get a fuller appreciation for how the process can work:
Never gonna run dry, never gonna come up empty
Now until the day I die, unconditionally
You know I’m always gonna be here for ya
No one’s ever gonna love you more than
God, your mama, and me
A Title-First Process
So give it a try: make a list of potential song titles. You may not have any idea what those titles even mean yet, but get as long a list as you can. As you add to your list, think of the following:
- What mood does each title convey, if any? Consider the fact that someone clicking to listen to the final track will see the title before they hear the song.
- What do you want to listeners to take away from the title? Is there a message implied? Does it feel like the start of chorus, or the end of it?
- What kind of tempo and rhythmic feel do you pick up from the title? Experiment with it, and see how the mood of the title changes as you try different tempos.
To work from a title, try composing lines of lyrics that lead into it. Then try experimenting with lines that might follow it. You’ll quickly get a sense of where this title belongs. As you get that kind of line pairing working, improvise melodic ideas that bring the title to life.
Once you’ve gotten to that stage, you’ll probably find that switching to your favourite process (mainly chords, mainly lyrics, mainly melody, etc.) will take things even further. But having the title established gives you a goal to work toward.
And it has the strong benefit of giving purpose to your song lyric, and helps eliminate the situation where lyrics sound a bit like aimless wandering.
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As listeners of music, we like to hear contrasting ideas as a song progresses, even if we’re not consciously aware of it. In songwriting, a contrasting idea might mean something like this: one part of a melody that’s harmonized mainly with minor chords, followed by a section harmonized with mostly major ones.
Contrast in a song might also pertain to the range of a melody. For example, you might place a verse in a lower octave and follow it with a chorus in an upper one. Example: “Free Fallin’” (Tom Petty, Jeff Lynne).
Why does this kind of using opposite ideas work? It’s mainly because there is a kind of mental fatigue that happens when a listener hears something repeated over and over again. Switching to something that amounts to being the opposite provides a musical relief and builds interest, even if listeners aren’t overtly aware that it’s happening. It’s a trick that classical composers have used for centuries.
How you know your song might benefit from creating a chorus that uses opposites to what was used in the verse is the boredom factor. Before the song is a minute old, audiences feel that they’ve heard it all, and now they’re looking for something different.
So if find yourself getting bored with your own song, but can’t pinpoint why that’s happening, try these ideas for contrasting your verse with your chorus:
- Create a minor key verse and a major key chorus. This is a common aspect of song design, and you may already instinctively be doing this in much of your music. Not only does it provide musical contrast, it also provides a pleasant “brightening” as it moves from minor to major, something we often like to hear as a song moves from verse to chorus.
- Create fuller backing vocals in your chorus, and leave the verse to a simple lead vocal. The fuller sound of the backing vocals in the chorus goes hand in hand with a build in emotional energy.
- Change the direction of melodic phrases. Take a look at your verse melody. If you find that it’s mainly comprised of short melodic ideas that all have a similar upward or downward shape (think of the little downward-moving fragments that go together to form the melody for the verse of “Bridge Over Troubled Water” for an example of this), you might contrast with a chorus that consists mainly of upward-moving ones. (In the chorus for “Bridge”, you notice that contrast more when comparing adjacent phrases.)
- Remember to contrast “observational” verse lyrics with “emotional reaction” chorus ones. This is standard for most songs, and you should be doing this as a normal approach for your lyrics. Keep the emotional content of your verse low, and switch to something that really touches the heart of the listener in your chorus.
- Contrast shorter verse notes with longer chorus notes in the lead vocal. This is one that often slips under the radar. You’re not likely to notice it until you consciously pay attention, but it’s a great compositional technique, and works this way: You can allow the rhythms of your verse melody to be rhythmically complex and active, but once you’ve moved to the chorus, think of ways to simplify rhythms and elongate notes so that they heighten the emotional content. This is often subtle, but that subtlety is important. A great example: “All of Me” (John Legend, Toby Gad).
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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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