What do your songs say?

What Do Your Songs Say? What Do They Mean?

Songwriting is one of those art forms that presents a strange dichotomy of purpose to the world. On the one hand, we have audiences who insist that their favourite songs, by their favourite songwriters, need to have something vital and important to say.

But those same audiences, whether they’re aware of it or not, need songs that:

  1. speak to their emotions, regardless of the song’s topic;
  2. make an audience feel those emotions regardless of whatever else it might do;
  3. do it in such a way that they feel compelled to return to the song, to feel those emotions over and over again.

Songs need to connect, as we say.

So what’s more important? A song’s message, or the need for it to make an emotional connection?

We’re looking at this from a songwriting point of view, but other art forms might deal with the same issue. When a visual artists paints a landscape, what are they trying to do? What are they trying to say? When Da Vinci painted “The Mill“, is there a message beyond the emotional value of the painting?

To bring it back to songwriting, when you write a song, are you conveying a message, or are you creating something for which the emotional value is its main attribute? Have you been trying to communicate some personal philosophy of life, or are you content simply to get people up and dancing? And if your song does nothing more than describe how you feel about your latest breakup, is that, for all intents and purposes, a self-gratifying waste of time? Can a “Why did she leave me” song ever aspire to be “art”?

My own feeling on this is that songwriters often worry too much that their songs might or might not be making a powerful statement. In other words, while I personally feel that songs should say something about life, nothing is as important as making an emotional connection to whoever cares to listen.

Whether someone wins or loses at love is unimportant to me. Whether I’ve completed my tax return on time is. But I’m more likely to enjoy a song about love than I am a song about tax returns.

That’s because love, and all its related subtopics, touch my emotional soul, while taxes make no connection to me at any level.

I can’t tell you what’s important when you listen to music. It may be that for you, songs need to say something vital about life and how we should live it. And when you write songs, you may feel the same way; your songs need to impart an important life message.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with that, but I do need to point out that a life message without an emotional connection will rarely keep listeners coming back. If your purpose in writing songs is to edify your audience, there will be no edifying without an emotional connection to the listener.

That’s why a song that says nothing more than “I love you” still sells. Take a look at the songs that have hit the top of the charts for the past 6 decades, and you’re probably looking at songs that do nothing more than describe love, in all its possible scenarios.

They succeed because they pull at people’s heartstrings. They engage the audience and make them say, “I’ve felt like that before,” or “I know what they’re going through.” That, ultimately, is what good songs do. That’s what good music has always done.

So if you find yourself worried that your songs aren’t really saying anything important, that’s only a problem if you thought they were. Instructing and educating your audience has never been the purpose of good music. It’s always been much simpler: to connect to your audience and make them feel something.

If you want to go beyond that, please do. I like songs that make me think. But unless your audience is feeling something, you may be wasting a lot of time. A song’s emotional value is more important to the world than its educational value.

GaryWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

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Piano and Guitar - creative chords

Designing More Creative Chord Progressions

Chord choice is one part of songwriting that doesn’t require a lot of imagination. All that’s really required is that a progression works. In that sense, it’s not much different from a piece of country land that you might build a house on. Sure, it may seem important to have land that, on its own, takes your breath away. But if you’re building a house, what’s really important is that it can support the house.

And beyond supporting the house, there are other attributes that make land a nice purchase. It’s nice, for example, if there’s a rolling hill or two, some elegant trees, and maybe a view of the water. Without the house on it, however, a good piece of land can look downright ordinary. Once you place the house on it, the land’s main role is to make the house look wonderful.

In other words, a good piece of land becomes something you don’t notice as much as the house itself. And in that sense, there’s not much different between a good piece of land and a good chord progression. The progression’s main job is to support the other song elements, the melody and lyrics in particular.

But once in a while, it’s nice to create something that’s got more going for it than the fact that it simply works. Sometimes, you want a chord progression that has a bit of freshness, a bit of innovation. The danger in creating chord progressions that are unique is that they can confuse the listener, particularly if the chords aren’t supporting any of the other song components. So how do you create a chord progression that’s a bit more creative than the standard I-IV-V?

Take a look at the following tips and suggestions. It will help your chord creation process if you’re looking to add a bit more variety and innovation to your chords. You won’t necessarily want to do everything in that list, and it should be pointed out that these are not rules. They are simply suggestions for you to try.

  1. Try starting on a non-tonic chord. A tonic chord is the one that represents your song’s key. So if your song (or song section) is in C major, the C chord is the tonic chord. Most songs will start on the tonic chord. For example, Adele’s “Hello” is in F minor, and the first chord is Fm. But starting on a non-tonic chord veils the sense of tonality, and makes the key a little less obvious, usually in a creative and pleasant way. Lennon & McCartney’s “Happiness is a Warm Gun” starts on a iv7 chord, then moves to the tonic (Am7 – Em), and it adds a lot to the sense of floating tonality to hear throughout the song.
  2. Try adding 7ths, 9ths, added tones, etc., to standard progressions. Play C – F – G – C, and you’ve got something that lacks any and all uniqueness. But make a few alterations, and you’ve got something that sounds immensely more creative. For example: Cmaj7 – Fadd9 – G11 – C. (Click below to listen)
  3. Try starting on an inverted chord. An inverted chord is one which uses a note other than the chord’s letter name as a bass note. If you use C in the chord progression, your bassist will automatically play C as the bass note. But starting with C/E or C/G adds a bit of pleasant musical instability to the progression, and can be very enticing to your listeners. Example: C/G – F – C.
  4. Change key somewhere in the middle of your verse. Jimmy Webb’s hit song “Wichita Lineman” (no. 195 on the Rolling Stone “500 Greatest Songs of All Time,” does this, starting in F major, wandering into D major before wandering back again (and all the while almost completely avoiding the original tonic chord). Frequent key changes are the mainstay of progressive rock, of course. The advantage of changing key quickly and early on is that it prevents your progressions from sounding standard or predictable.
  5. Try chord substitutions. Sometimes, the best creative progressions are those that start as standard ones, and then, with a few careful substitutions, can take on an entirely new life. So you might take C – F – G7 – C, and turn it into C – Dm – Bb – Am, as long as it still works with your melody. The point is, by starting with a strong progression, then changing chords one by one, you gradually change it into something less predictable, and closer to what you might be looking for.

You’ll find that creative progressions will work better in a verse or bridge than in a chorus. As always, with anything that affects the sound of your song, your ears will be your guide as to what works and what doesn’t.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

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Songwriters Checklist

Using the Songwriter’s Checklist to Diagnose Problems

You’ve just written your new song, but it’s got problems. What’s worse, you can’t really tell what the problem is, you just know that something doesn’t sound right. What do you do?

A few years back I designed a checklist for songwriters to use in such a case, and you can download that free checklist here. You’ll find lots of ideas for going through your song, element by element. Think of it as a guide to diagnosing song problems.

How can a checklist work, when every song is unique, and the product of an improvisatory creative process? If no two songs are the same, what can a checklist do for you?

This checklist looks at song elements, category by category. While it’s true that every song is different, we have decades of pop music history that tells us that the best songs tend to exhibit similar specific characteristics.

Remember that no one should use a checklist if a song is working well. Sometimes you’ll write a song, the success of which seems to defy logic. It seems to stray far from the norms in your chosen genre, and yet it works. In such cases, be happy with your success and move on.

But sometimes a song can have very attractive elements, but yet you can tell there’s something not working. In such cases, a checklist of what normally makes songs work might be just what you need to fix things.

No songwriting checklist can ever hope to be complete, and this one is not meant to outline every possible problem that a song might have. But if you simply need some ideas to get the process for fixing your song started, why not give this one a try.

You can download the free Songwriter’s Checklist by clicking here. Right-click on that link to download it to your computer.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

Hooks and RiffsNeed to know more about song hooks, and how to get one working for you? “Hooks and Riffs: How They Grab Attention, Make Songs Memorable, and Build Your Fan Base“ will show you some of the best hooks in pop music history, why they work, and what you can do to write powerful hooks of your own.

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Benjamin Francis Leftwich

Contouring Your Instrumentation to Create Energy Peaks

When we think about a song’s energy level, particularly as it pertains to the instrumental choices, we often think about how much energy we can generate by adding instruments into the mix. That’s a pretty instinctive approach, and it has worked in almost every genre, in any era. Eighties’ power ballads took this to extremes. If you remember Air Supply’s “All Out of Love“, you know what I’m talking about.

But creating energy peaks by pumping the instrumentals higher and higher can have a dated sound, and isn’t the only way to create the impression of instrumental contour. Another way which works well especially for songs that are a bit more “quiet ballad” in character is to look for areas of your song where you can do the opposite: reduce instrumentation.

How to Harmonize a MelodyGot a melody, but don’t know how to add chords to it? “How to Harmonize a Melody” explains in easy-to-understand steps how good melodies work, and how to find the chords that bring it to life. Includes sound samples. It’s part of “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” eBook bundle packages. GET TODAY’S DELUXE BUNDLE PACKAGE SPECIAL DEAL.

So we’re talking more about production here than songwriting, though it can affect songwriting by changing the shape and range of the melody. By reducing instrumentation, you create a pleasant contrast from what precedes that quieter moment. Then by simply adding instruments back to original levels, you give the impression that you’re building energy by building instrumentation. Of course, you’re not really adding instruments to the mix; you’re simply reintroducing what was already there.

A good contemporary example of this can be heard in the new single, “Mayflies“, recorded by English singer-songwriter Benjamin Francis Leftwich, and co-written with Joe Janiak. It’s a wonderful song of very engaging simplicity. The instrumentation is relatively static throughout, and pleasantly understated: synths, acoustic guitars, drums & bass.

The verse instrumentations are scaled back a bit, and then, to allow the chorus instrumentations a bit more pop, the pre-chorus instrumentation is reduced further (and the rhythmic activity considerably relaxed), before coming back in with the fuller instrumental component we heard in the intro.

So it’s the creating of instrumental contour (and, in that sense, energy peaks), by reducing, not adding:

Instrumental Energy Contour, "Mayflies"

The same technique is used in what is for all intents and purposes the song’s bridge.

The benefits of thinking about places to reduce the instrumentation are numerous, but the main benefit is that it helps to prevent what should be a relatively quiet song from getting too powerful, too loaded up with production. It helps preserve the simplicity of your musical arrangement.

Every element of a song’s construction can contribute to what we think of as its basic energy. Even lyrics have a way of generating energy by adding or avoiding emotion-laden words.

Instrumentation, however, is perhaps the most noticeable way we have to craft an energy that an audience hears and understands immediately. Instead of always thinking about increasing energy by adding instruments, consider doing the opposite: find moments in your music to reduce instrumentation. It helps preserve the pleasant simplicity of a quieter ballad.

(“Mayflies” is a single from Benjamin Francis Leftwich’s upcoming album, “After The Rain”, to be released August 19, 2016. You can pre-order it on his website.)

Written by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter

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Leonard Cohen

What Do You Love About a Good Melody?

Last week I wrote about the similarities between classical and pop music, and what today’s songwriters can learn from the classics. Today I want to look specifically at song melodies, and see to what extent the structure of a pop melody resembles that of a classical work.

There is a book that is in great use in college-level classical music degree programs. “Techniques and Materials of Music“, written by Thomas Benjamin, et al, puts a microscope on how classical music works, but it never ceases to amaze me how applicable many of the observations are to songwriting in the pop genres.

Take, for example, these five characteristics of a typical classical melody as outlined in Chapter 18, “An Introduction to Tonal Melody.” The five descriptors might apply to a Beethoven melody (they use Beethoven’s Piano Trio op. 1, No. 3, as an example), but can apply equally well to a song like, say, “Hallelujah” (Leonard Cohen).

I would paraphrase (and hopefully not over-simplify) the five characteristics this way:

  1. Most melodies use repetition, arpeggiation (i.e., “broken chords”), and stepwise motion (i.e., moving by scale tones).
  2. The structure of a melody depends on the underlying chords. At the ends of musical lines (phrases), melodies and chords work closely together.
  3. Most melodies are confined mainly to an octave, with occasional notes higher and/or lower than that main octave.
  4. With regard to rhythm, faster notes happen on weak beats. Longer notes happen on strong beats. Most melodies will use one or two main rhythmic ideas, with variations happening now and then, especially near the ends of phrases.
  5. The style of a melody depends on the instruments (including voice) that are performing it, as well as the purpose of the music. (e.g., in pop music terms, a melody’s style will depend on whether the song is a love ballad or a dance tune.)

If you now imagine a modern song from pop or rock (such as “Hallelujah”, as I previously suggested), you’ll see that not much has changed since the days of Beethoven:

  1. Repetition and stepwise motion in “Hallelujah” is easy to notice, and Cohen uses that repetitive, lulling opening figure (long note-short note) figure over and over, along with repetitions in actual melody notes.
  2. As in all “tonal” songs (i.e., songs that are in a key), the melody of “Hallelujah” is completely supported by the chord choices.
  3. “Hallelujah” sits mainly within an octave. In “Techniques and Materials of Music”, the suggestion is that most of the time, the octave is going to be from the tonic note to the octave above, or, less commonly, from the dominant (5th) note to the octave above. With “Hallelujah”, the octave is from the mediant note (i.e., the 3rd note of the key) to the octave above.
  4. Faster notes happen at the ends of phrases, especially on the word “Hallelujah” itself.
  5. “Hallelujah” is a ballad, which accounts for the great use of stepwise motion in the melody.

It’s not a good idea to take a perfectly good song that you’ve written, and then try to change it simply because one of the characteristics listed above don’t seem to be present. Even Beethoven composed largely by instinct, not by a set of instructions.

But if you find that your melodies seem lifeless, aimless, or simply dull, it’s worth seeing if one of the five characteristics listed above might be missing.

To familiarize yourself with how closely or not they pertain to your favourite genre, practice your musical observational skills: Make a list of 5 of your favourite songs, and go back to the top of this article and see how much you see those five musical characteristics.

As you get better at analyzing music in this way, you’ll find your own approach to writing melodies improving, and you’ll gain the same advantages classical composers have experienced.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter

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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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