Essential Secrets of Songwriting Bundle

Songwriting eBook Bundle Sale On Right Now

Just a quick note for you – I have a total of 10 songwriting ebooks that I sell on my online store. The price of the entire set (the “Deluxe Bundle”) has been cut. You can now purchase that entire bundle at $10 off the normal price.

That sale started today (Feb. 11, 2016) and will end without notice, so you may want to take advantage of that while you can.

To see the songwriting eBooks in the online store, click here.

Written by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter

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Three Trapped Tigers - English band

5 Ideas to Add Sparkle to a Chord Progression

A song that we love can seem to have a really enticing chord progression, but when you really dig into the song to find out what they’ve done regarding chords, you often find that they’re very ordinary, and that it’s other things — syncopated rhythms, chord inversions, and melodic shapes above the chords — that make the progression seem more complex.

I’ve always believed that we worry too much about chords. The best ones are usually very ordinary, the kind that sit in the background and are quite repetitive. Those are qualities that songwriters instinctively avoid. We don’t like associating our music with words like “ordinary”, “background”, or “repetitive”.

But with chords, you’ll find that if you can keep chords relatively simple, and look for ways to add complexity to the melodies that sit above them, or to the lyrics, that your music will be more successful.

But there are times when you wish that your chords would sparkle just a bit more. In the following examples I’m going to use a simple progression as a suggestion: F C Dm Bb F. Here are five things you can do to an ordinary progression that will fool the audience into thinking you’ve done something a lot more intricate:

  1. Add a bass pedal point. A bass pedal point is a note that gets held in the bass while the chords above it are changing. Tonic pedals are common. Dominant pedals — the bass sitting on the 5th note of the song’s key — can build a lot of energy. Listen to Peter Cetera’s masterful bass playing in this excerpt from “Hollywood“. The bass dances all over, but essentially keeps hitting the dominant note – F – as the main downbeat note, and it builds considerable musical excitement. In our example progression, you’d wind up with this for a tonic pedal: F  C/F  Dm/F  Bb/F  F. A dominant pedal gives you: F/C  C  Dm/C  Bb/C  F/C.
  2. Add a bass pedal point that isn’t the tonic or dominant note. These are rarer in pop songwriting, because they can obscure the functionality of the chords. But if a bit of complexity is what you’re looking for, give it a try. Keep D (the submediant note) in the bass. Or try it with the supertonic note, G. All sense of normal chord function seems to get tossed out the window, but the results are fascinating, and may be what you’re looking for.
  3. Invert the chords to create what amounts to a bass countermelody. Here’s how that works. If you look at just the bass notes of our sample progression, you get a line that bounces around a bit. You can create what is almost a descending scale by using an inversion (slash chords), like this: F  C/E  Dm  Bb. You can create an ascending bass line by trying these inversions: F  C/G  Dm/A  Bb. You’ll want to check the results carefully to be sure you’re getting the effect you want.
  4. Try polytonality. Polytonality means that you’re exploring two (or more!) keys at the same time. It’s not as difficult to do as it might seem. Simply have your guitarist play the example progression (F C Dm  Bb  F), while the keyboard transposes those chords to a new key, let’s say, a whole tone higher: G D Em C G. You might get better results if you separate the two instruments by having them play in different octaves. I did up a quick midi file that has piano and guitar playing in F major and G major respectively, then reverses keys halfway through.  Listen.
  5. Add rhythmic complexity to a chord progression. Sometimes you think it’s the chords that are sounding pleasantly weird, but it’s often the rhythmic treatment that’s making it seem that way. Rhythmic complexity may be the way the drums sound, the playing around with lengths of musical phrases, and melodic complexity above a simple progression. A great recent example of instrumental prowess making chords sound more complicated than they really are can be heard in “11”, by British instrumental noise-rock band Three Trapped Tigers. You can hear in that recording that they make great use of bass non-chord tones, complex time signatures and melodic intricacies.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

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Writer's Block

Songwriting and the Fear of Not Being Great

If you’re a songwriter, you’ve already dealt with writer’s block. Everyone feels it in its mildest form at least, and most feel it from time to time at a moderate level. For some, writer’s block becomes severe; it digs its heels in and lasts for months or longer, and can be debilitating.

It may seem that there are many different causes for writer’s block, but most cases stem from a fear of failure. In that case, it’s not much different from what an athlete goes through when they can’t win games or races anymore. The fear that it’s just going to get worse becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy of the worst kind.

For many songwriters, it’s not just a fear that you won’t be able to finish anything you’ve started, it seems to be more than that: it becomes a fear of not being great, even if you do manage to finish something.

You want to write songs, but you want to do more than that… you want those songs to be significant contributions to the world of music! You fear that something you’ve done will be thought of as mediocre, or worse than that, boring.

No one ever said that songwriting is for the faint of heart. It takes courage and determination. If you find yourself worrying constantly that even if you do finish a song it won’t resonate with anyone, here are some tips:

  1. Always look at the big picture. Your career in songwriting will be lifelong. You won’t hit homers every time, but that shouldn’t worry you. Most songwriters who have made their mark have a large catalogue of songs, some of which are huge hits, others that barely get noticed. That’s normal, even for the best songwriters in the world.
  2. Write honestly, from your heart. Listeners want to hear you. They want to hear some honest emotions, some honest opinions. A songwriter puts their heart on their sleeve, and makes the audience feel something. When that happens, that’s the only definition of great that you need to worry about. Some songs will click and be bigger than you thought they’d be, while others may not have the impact you hoped for. Most of the time you can’t control that part. What you can do it to write with honesty, and let the chips fall where they may.
  3. Quiet your inner critic. The worse thing about an inner critic is not the criticism, it’s the rush to judgement — the criticizing before the song is even finished. It accounts for the large number of songs that remain unfinished by so many. Resist the temptation to judge your songs before they’re even finished. Also, get comfortable with the fact that your first songs may not be astounding, but you’ll improve with each one.
  4. Listen to music daily. It’s such an important part of improving. Great songs can serve as a model for how we should be approaching the art form.
  5. Make songwriting a scheduled activity. If you leave songwriting to something you’ll do when you have time, it will always feel unimportant to you. Schedule it into your day, and set real goals… a song a week, or every 3 days, or every 2 weeks… whatever your goals are, you’ll benefit from the positive mental attitude that comes from that kind of disciplined approach.

Written by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter

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Folk band concert

The 3 Most Important Components of a Good Song Hook

“It’s all about the hook,” you’ll often be told, when it comes to successful pop songwriting. The only problem with that assertion is that it makes it seem as though other song elements aren’t quite as important. A hook grabs attention, to be sure, but doesn’t excuse you from making sure that the overall structure of your song is solid.

There is some truth to the statement, though, if you consider that a 3-to-4-minute song needs something to grab attention right away, and that’s what a hook does. A hook makes it more likely that your song will be immediately remembered.

To be the kind of musical element that gets attention right away, a good song hook usually needs these three important characteristics:

  1. An enticing melodic shape.
  2. A catchy rhythm.
  3. A strong chord progression.

The best way to grasp the importance of these characteristics is to consider a song that’s known for its strong hook. Think of The Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations”, (“Good, good, good, good vibrations”) and you’ve got a fantastic classic example: the enticing melodic shape, the syncopated rhythm, and the short, repetitive chord progression.

It doesn’t need to be an even balance of all three components, however. The Beatles’ “All You Need Is Love” is a really strong hook, but the melodic component of it takes a back seat to the syncopated rhythm and the strong chords.

There is much more to the quality of music than the strength of its hook, however. Lennon & McCartney’s songs are great examples of the fact that there’s more to good music than hooks.

So what’s the more?

  1. Strong motivic development. If a hook strengthens a song by standing out and being noticeable, a motif strengthens a song by staying out of the way, and working from the background. If you comprise your verse melody by contrasting downward moving ideas with upward moving ideas, that’s an example of motivic development. It acts as structural “glue” to help the listener makes sense of a song, even if they aren’t aware of it.
  2. Strong lyric development. Songs can rise quickly to the top of the charts, and then flame out forever. The songs that rise, and then stay, or become candidates for the top of “Best Songs Ever” charts, are usually songs that have a lyric worth listening to. They may not be masterful examples of poetry, but they speak to common people in an enticing voice, on important issues of the day. Songs with lame lyrics rarely hit and stick.
  3. Strong sense of innovation. A good song needs something about it that sets it apart from other songs of the genre. That unique feature may be instrumentation, quirky voice, unique approach to the sub-genre… anything that combines expectation with innovation.

Regarding the hook, there’s one other characteristic that makes a strong hook a welcome addition to most songs: it makes it fun to sing. Never underestimate the importance of the fun factor in bringing audiences back to songs, and/or making it a sellable item.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter

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Recording Studio

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”.


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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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Essential Chord Progressions

Discover how chords work, and how to add chords to your song melodies.

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