Sometimes you’ll find that a song you’ve written will succeed even when it seems to violate some of the basic principles of good songwriting. It might be a melody that just lingers around one or two notes, when our instincts tell us that good melodies should have a nice up-and-down shape.
Or it might be a chord progression that wanders around seemingly aimlessly, when our musical instincts tell us that good progressions should target the tonic (key) chord.
“The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” 10-eBook Bundle describes every aspect of how to write better songs. Get the eBook manuals that thousands of songwriters are using to improve their songwriting technique. GET TODAY’S FREE DEAL..
Or it might be lyrics that are hard to understand and hard to make a connection with, when we know that good lyrics usually touch our emotional soul and alternate between narrative and emotional.
When songs succeed despite violating the principles of good songwriting, the worst thing you can do is worry about those violations, and try to fix them. In fact, when songs work, it usually means that they are adhering to those principles in ways that you’re not immediately understanding.
So I usually recommend against analyzing your songwriting successes. When a song works, here’s what you do: turn the page and get going on your next one.
If a song you’ve written seems to be failing in some way, thats when it’s time to analyze it, and try to figure out what’s gone wrong. That’s when applying the principles of good songwriting will work for you. Knowing the basic principles of musical composition will usually point you in the right direction, and show you how to fix a bad song.
So when it comes to succeeding and failing with songwriting, take the following tips on board as your personal philosophy:
- Don’t analyze (or over-analyze) your own songwriting successes. If you appear to have broken some basic norms of songwriting, that’s fine. That’s not a problem to fix, as long as you like the song and it seems to be connecting with audiences.
- Analyze other songwriters’ successes. When you hear a song you like, try to figure out why you like it. Is it the chords? The lyrics? The melody? The groove? Identifying the things you like about a song helps you when writing your own. Because it’s someone else’s good song, you’re less likely to worry about the fact that it may have gone against the norms of good songwriting. That’s music for you!
- Silence your inner critic, especially at the beginning of the songwriting process. Being overly self-critical is a waste of time, and can kill whatever innovative direction your song is taking.
- Don’t confuse songwriting with production. A song that sounds bad may simply mean you need to hire a producer to help you. A song needs to be good before you take it to the studio.
- Have a healthy perspective on other people’s opinions. If someone dislikes your song, it’s not necessarily an indication that you’ve done something wrong. People can hate the songs you write, and that’s their right. Seek out and value seasoned professionals’ opinions, but remember that these are your songs. You get the final say on what they sound like.
Are you ready to develop your own lyrics-first songwriting process? “Use Your Words! Developing a Lyrics-First Songwriting Process” shows you three different approaches that can help you get control of your lyrics. It’s FREE with your purchase of “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting 10-eBook Bundle”
Take a look at pop song lyrics, and you’ll see everything from straight-ahead, easy-to-follow, to something more abstract.
The easy-to-follow lyrics might be something like “Thinking Out Loud” (Ed Sheeran, Amy Wadge, Julian Williams):
When your legs don’t work like they used to before
And I can’t sweep you off of your feet
Will your mouth still remember the taste of my love?
Will your eyes still smile from your cheeks?
The more abstract might look more like the lyrics for Yes’s “Siberian Khatru” (Jon Anderson, Steve Howe, Rick Wakeman):
Sing, bird of prey
Beauty begins at the foot of you, do you believe the manner?
Gold stainless nail
Torn through the distance of man as they regard the summit
However you choose to write your lyrics, and whatever the final form might be, there’s a natural progression that happens. In general, that progression is the moving from descriptive, narrative-style to emotion-based reactions. But there’s more to it than that.
Developing a lyrics-first process can turn you into the kind of respected songwriter you’ve always wanted to be. Right now, get “Use Your Words!” FREE when you purchase “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting 10-eBook Bundle.”
Take a look at the following, and use it as a kind of checklist for your own song lyrics. Not every song will work this way, but if you’re having trouble with your lyrics sounding too random, or otherwise disorganized, you might find it will help:
- Lyrics near the beginning of a song (the verse, for example), should describe people, places, situations or circumstances. It’s impossible to completely eliminate emotion, and that shouldn’t be the aim. But the verse needs to be all about the scene, not the reaction.
- Lyrics near the beginning of a song should keep the emotional outpouring contained, spending most of its time laying a narrative foundation. Verse 1 should attempt to make it clear (either obviously or abstractly) what the song is about.
- As lyrics move through a verse, getting closer to the chorus, the emotional content might start to increase. It pulls an audience in enticingly to have the emotions start to build; it makes audiences want to hear what happens next.
- Lyrics in a chorus need to connect to the verse by offering an emotional reaction to the content of the verse. This is a crucial connection. The chorus needs to sound like (or “feel” like) the obvious result of whatever the verse has been talking about.
- Emotion at the end of a chorus doesn’t need to gently dissipate. You can end your chorus on an emotional high, and let Verse 2 be what brings things down again.
- Bridge lyrics work well when they alternate quickly between narrative and emotional reactions. Most bridge lyrics “reveal all.” You’ll build more emotional energy with the quick back-and-forth of “then this happened, and so I felt this emotion..”
The most important thing to remember about lyrics is that audiences want to hear emotional ups and downs. They don’t want all emotion all the time. If your lyric is simply an emotional outpouring from beginning to end, you dull the effect you’re trying to create.
So in your verse lyrics, be patient. Tell people what you’re writing/singing about. There’s lots of time to grab the listeners’ heart.
A well-paced lyric that has this sense of progression will pull in listeners and keep them listening.
“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.
It’s a dangerous can of worms to open if you dare ask someone, “What is good music?” Most of the time, people misunderstand the question and think you’re really asking, “What are your favourite songs?”, or perhaps “What is your favourite style (genre) of music?”
There is an important difference between “What is good music?” (or “What is a good song?”) and “What are your favourite songs?” If you consider yourself to be a student of songwriting, even if informally, you need to know the difference between those two questions.
Bob Dylan has used a wonderful analogy for describing a good song, which is that it should be able to “walk by itself.” A good song has life. It has an identity, and it exists long after someone sings it.
To describe more fully what I mean by that, try to imagine the world before anyone had ever heard “Tutti Frutti”, “She Loves You”, or “Billie Jean.” Those songs quickly gained a life of their own. They now walk by themselves, as Dylan would say.
Why do we need to know the difference between good songs and favourite songs anyway? It comes down to recognizing that some songs are excellent even if they don’t happen to excite us personally.
As a songwriter, you need to be able to listen to and understand songs — why they work, why they succeed, and determine what you can learn from them — as an issue quite apart from whether or not you happen to like them.
To be able to listen to songs with that more objective viewpoint means being able to listen to, let’s say, a country song and recognize its excellence, even if on a personal level you happen to rather dislike country as a genre.
Objective listening means being impartial. It allows you to appreciate the excellence of a particular folk song, for example, even if it’s not a song you’d willingly otherwise listen to.
It’s tricky, of course, to recognize greatness in a song that you just don’t like. In fact, some might argue that it’s practically impossible to judge music on those kinds of objective terms.
But if you want to improve your songwriting abilities, objective listening is crucial. To practice and improve your skills with regard to this all-important notion of impartial listening, try the following:
- Choose a genre that isn’t normally one you like.
- Do some online research and find songs that have been top of the charts, proving themselves to be strongly influential for other songwriters in that genre.
- Listen to the song, and keep your personal judgements at bay.
- Try to imagine what someone who loves the song is hearing when they listen to it.
- Make mental (or actual) notes about what you as a songwriter can learn from these songs.
That final point is probably the most important one. Because if you’re not trying to actually learn from these songs, the exercise is pointless from a songwriting point of view.
You’ll find that if you can incorporate some ideas into your own music, you’ve done something important: you’ve (in a sense) created a new genre which is a mélange of whatever you used to write, mixed in with what you’ve learned by listening to other new-to-you songs.
That’s when your own songwriting can take an enormous step forward!
“The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” 10- eBook bundle comes with a free copy of “Use Your Words! Developing a Lyrics-First Songwriting Process.” Discover the power and excitement that comes from putting your lyrics front and centre in the songwriting process.
In music, the tonic chord is the one that represents the key. So for a song in C major, C is the tonic. To use a metaphor, it’s home. Progressions may meander around seemingly aimlessly, but once you play the tonic chord, you sense relaxation: you’re home.
Are you a chords-first songwriter? Are you getting the most you can out of that songwriting process? Chords-first writing comes with its own benefits and detriments. Here’s an eBook to show you how to make it work for you: “Writing a Song From a Chord Progression“
When you examine the chords used in pop songs, you’ll find that the tonic often appears at the start of many progressions, and almost always at the end. In old-time rock and roll, this would have been typical: the intro chords from “Young Love” (Ric Cartey, Carole Joyner)
C Am F G C I vi IV V I
It starts on the tonic, takes a little trip “around the neighbourhood”, and then winds up back on the tonic.
As it starts out, you can sense the “looking for the tonic” in that progression. With each chord, the pull back to the tonic gets ever stronger. When it finally returns after the G chord, you feel the sense of arrival – home.
These days, songwriters are often looking for more creative ways to eventually return to the tonic. If you’re trying to find a progression that is a little more creative than the simple I-vi-IV-V-I of “Young Love”, here is something to try.
Take a look at the following progressions. The first two are in C major, and the third one is in A minor. They’re long, but if you start somewhere in the middle and work your way to the end of each progression, you’ve got a shorter one that will work every time. In fact, you can pretty much start anywhere:
So for example, in Progression 1, you could choose to start on chord no. 9 (Am) and work your way to the end. Or you might opt to try starting on chord no. 7 (G), and you’ve still got one that works.
Also, these progressions will all work if you play chord no. 1, then jump to any spot in the progression and proceed through the chords to the end from that point.
So with these 3 long progressions, you’ve got many smaller progressions you can experiment with.
The reason they work is that they all do what any good pop progression does: eventually get you back to the tonic chord.
Never worry about the predictability of shorter progressions. We don’t like predictability with melody or lyrics, but predictable chords are not often a problem. So even though the examples above are long, consider the shorter 3- or 4-chord possibilities from the end of each progression. They may sound predictable, but they’ll work well.
You might try experimenting with short cells of chords from the middle of each progression. They won’t all work, so you’ll have to use your ear and determine their usefulness for yourself. But just as a few examples from Progression 3, you might try chords 3-5 (Am Dm Am), 5-8 (Am F Gsus4 G), or 8-11 (G Am Em F).
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.
Power Up Your Songwriting Skills!
Got good songwriting instincts? Those instincts might be letting you down. Get “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” 10-eBook Bundle, and get the skills you need to write great songs consistently!
or READ MORE
Gary’s YouTube Videos
Gary's latest video: "5 Reasons to Include a Bridge In a Song's Design"