As you write songs, you’re digging into your creative mind to concoct something imaginative — something that the world hasn’t heard before. That level of creativity isn’t easy to maintain. If you’re a daily songwriter (and most of the successful ones write almost every day), there is an unwelcome partner working alongside you: frustration.
Frustration is normal in the creative arts. That’s because songwriting is coming up with ideas, testing them out, and then tossing whatever doesn’t work. Most of the time, you’ll toss more than you keep. But as long as, by the end of the day, you’ve kept enough to make your day of writing feel that it was worth the effort, you’ll accept the frustration that comes with tossing out the “bad” ideas.
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Success in songwriting can make you feel inspired and energized (“nothing succeeds like success”), but frustration also has a way of propagating. If you’re having a bad writing day, each little frustration you experience feels stronger, so that by the end of the day you feel creatively lousy.
On those days, it’s a great idea to simply stop writing, and in fact, you might be wise to take a few days or longer away. You might think that the purpose of stepping back from writing is to allow your creative mind to generate some new ideas, but that’s not really what’s going on.
By purposely stopping your songwriting, you’re also putting the brakes on the frustration that’s been growing inside you. You release yourself from the responsibility of getting music written to a deadline, and you generally feel less aggravation in your life.
Stopping your songwriting also gives you the opportunity to focus more on your past successes, and to remind yourself that you’ve got a lot to be proud of.
Creative Activities While Not Writing
While you’re purposely not writing, you can and should be doing other things that allow your musical mind to stay engaged:
- Listen to lots of music.
- Play lots of music.
- Read interviews with professional songwriters, and find books and other materials written by songwriters.
- Talk to other songwriters about how and what they write.
- Help other songwriters by sitting in on band rehearsals, helping to produce their recordings, and generally giving advice.
Returning to Songwriting
When you return to songwriting, you’ll notice that frustration is the one element that seems to be diminished. Your creative abilities feel every bit as strong, and possibly more so. But in the time away, you’ll notice that frustration has subsided, and it’s a nice feeling.
So remember, just because you’re a songwriter doesn’t mean that you aren’t allowed to cut yourself some slack and back away from the activity once in a while. You’re only human. And every once in a while, you’re going to need a break.
Take that break, and don’t feel guilty about it!
Also, check out Gary’s book on writer’s block, available on Amazon: “Beating Songwriter’s Block: Jump-Start Your Words and Music“
I get songs sent to me now and again, for me to give my thoughts on improving them. (If you’re having a problem with something you’re writing and would like my input, I’ll direct you to this post. It will let you know how to go about that.)
Here’s an interesting fact about the songs I’m asked to listen to: At least 50% of them — probably more — are simply too long for the genre. A typical pop song, as it approaches the 4-minute mark, should be wrapping up. If you’re still in a verse, or even if you’re starting your final chorus repeats, you really need a good reason for being over 4 minutes in length.
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Some songs are actually “finished” by that 3-and-a-half minute mark, and are into their final chorus repeats, and in that case a 5 minute song doesn’t sound overly long (For an example of this, the “long” version” of the Bee Gee’s ballad “For Whom the Bell Tolls” is 5 minutes in length, but the song has entered those final chorus repeats long before, so it works just fine.)
So let’s say that you’ve written a song, and it’s around 5 minutes in length even before the final chorus. How do you edit that so that it comes in at 3-and-a-half or 4 minutes in length without damaging the song’s structure?
Here are some options for making a long song shorter while leaving you with something you’ll love just as much or more:
- Remove a verse. Let’s say your song has 3 verses. You can simply remove that 3rd verse, but that may leave a hole in the narrative of the lyric. So this option may require you to rework verse 2 so that it does a bit of what verse 3 used to do.
- Remove a pre-chorus. If your song structure includes a pre-chorus, take a good look at why the pre-chorus is there in the first place. If it’s to more smoothly attach the verse to the chorus, try reworking the end of your verse to match the start of the chorus a bit better. If, however, your pre-chorus is there because the verse melody is not very adventurous, create a verse melody that’s more inventive, more of a musical journey. That may eliminate the need for a pre-chorus.
- Remove or shorten an instrumental solo or section. Some songs have really great instrumental solos or sections that add much to the song. I don’t like The Who’s single edit of “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” only because the instrumental sections add so much to the feel and structure of the song. (Short version — Long version.) Like any edit, you have to decide what to cut, and why you’re cutting it, and then make decisions that work. (Without the short version of “Won’t Get Fooled Again”, the song would never have made it to radio, I have no doubt.)
- Remove or shorten a bridge. Most of the time, a bridge needs a reason for existing. You might be surprised that your song could work without a bridge, particularly if you had no good reason for including it in the first place. (If you’re not sure why your song might need a bridge, watch this video.)
- Remove final chorus repeats. Or at least remove some of them. While “Hey Jude” is basically done by the 3 minute mark, the final chorus repeats take it to more than 7 minutes. It was a risky move by The Beatles which, in their case, paid off. That kind of endless repeating, however, is, for all intents and purposes, an effect. For most songs, you can do a couple of choruses and then end it, and you’ve got something tighter and more balanced.
Every song needs to be judged on its own merits. And these days, where radio play is no longer the be all-end all of songwriting success, you might consider a song that’s longer. Like a symphony, long songs work, as long as it represents a coherent musical journey that doesn’t just meander around for 6 minutes.
And if you want some good reasons why the 4-minute pop song is still probably a good idea, read my post on that topic here.
How much thought do you give to the instrumental accompaniment for your songs? The question may feel like a no-brainer; if you’re a guitarist, you’ll use guitar. If you’re a keyboardist, you’ll lean towards using keyboards.
But simply deciding to use the instrument you’re most comfortable with may be missing great opportunities to create something interesting for your audience.
In the classical music world, where writing for orchestra is common, the choice of any one instrument at any one time is a crucial part of the musical challenge. The danger of not carefully considering instrumentation is that all of your songs will start to get a sameness about them.
For some of pop music’s greatest acts, interesting instrumentation has been a key part of their success. Cello, theremin, harpsichord, flute, organ and other non-standard instruments — each instrument adds to the thorough palette of sounds at a band’s disposal, and can play a crucial role in generating listener interest.
If you’re looking to expand on the instruments you use in your recordings, consider the following tips:
- Use authentic (rather than synthesized) where possible. It’s true that technology can synthesize instrumental sounds that are astonishingly real. But having an actual person playing the instrument gives us a sense of realism that’s much harder to synthesize, and gives us a more true to-life sound.
- Try to come up with a written part. If writing a part out isn’t within your abilities, play what you want onto a recording device, and try to enlist the help of a music student at a local college or university to transcribe what you’ve written. Using instrumentalists usually means that you’ll need to give a written part to them.
- Take advice from players. Leaping from a low G to a high G may be a piece of cake on a violin, but difficult to do with ease on a trumpet. Every instrument has their idiosyncrasies, and players of those instruments can help you adjust a part to make it more idiomatic.
- Think about your live performances. You may have a local bagpipe player who can do a recording session for you. But what about your live performances? You’ll need options for your song, because you won’t necessarily have that player with you for every concert. This may be where a good synth version of your added instrument will suffice, and hopefully a bagpipe setting will work fine.
- Have musical reasons for your instrumental choices. Many of the choices you might make will sound unique, but uniqueness is not always the best motivation for using particular instruments. Think about your song, and the feeling you want to convey. A small string grouping will work really well in one particular song, but may add nothing to another.
Having said all this, remember that most of the time listeners like a certain amount of consistency with instrumentation. If every song on your next album uses a completely different instrumentation, that can make it difficult for the listeners to identify any kind of consistent sound with relation to your music.
The best approach is to record your song with a bare instrumentation — guitar, bass and drums for example — and then decide what can be added to that sound, rather than thinking of each song as an entirely blank slate.
Written by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter
It’s time to declutter your songwriting process. “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” eBook Bundle packages can help you become a more efficient, prolific songwriter. Get today’s 10-eBook Deluxe Bundle deal: a free copy of “Creative Chord Progressions”
You’ll often hear that the verse is where you tell the story in your song. Most of the time, however, a song verse tells its story in a roundabout sort of way. There are the songs we call story songs – the ones that give a specific account of events in a sequence we’re used to when we read books. “Hotel California” is a kind of story song, as is “A Boy Named Sue” and “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald”.
But most of the time, a story in a song is one that listeners pull together based on the lyric. They aren’t “first this happened, and then that happened” kind of songs.
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Here’s an example of what I mean:
Now and then I think of when we were together
Like when you said you felt so happy you could die
Told myself that you were right for me
But felt so lonely in your company
But that was love and it’s an ache I still remember
As you can see, the lyric (“Somebody That I Used To Know” – Gotye) is very clear regarding the writer’s point of view. We know the writer’s general mood and disposition. He was in a relationship with someone, and it should have been working out, but he felt lonely.
This is a common kind of verse lyric in pop songwriting. It tells a story, to be sure. But it does so in a way that allows us to fill in the blanks. There is not a traditional story, at least not the kind that you might see in the typical novel or story song. In a sense, the listener creates the story out of the bits and pieces that are offered in the lyric.
And that’s the biggest problem that songwriters deal with in writing verse lyrics. Telling a story in a “first this happened, and then that happened” kind of way is easier, in the sense that you can tell right away if anything important has been left out.
When it’s done well, a song verse will do the following:
- Present an interesting situation or person to which the audience can relate. George Harrison’s “Something” is a great example of a song that allows the listener to fill in the details of a powerful love story.
- Use simple, everyday words that the typical listener would use in casual conversation.
- Limit the use of highly-emotive words. (Save those for the chorus).
- Describe enough of a story, but leaves enough “blanks” that it allows different users to finish it in their own way.
- Provides a sense of focus, so that every line of lyric makes sense as a follower to the previous line.
That last point can be a tricky one, and can often mean the difference between success and failure of a song lyric. Because most non-story songs offer the bits and pieces of a story or situation, it can be hard to get things in the right order, or to say things in a way that makes listeners want to keep listening.
To help in this regard, try this: read through your lyric aloud, and say it as if you’re having a conversation with someone. Does it work? Or does it sound like aimless wandering? By treating your lyric as if it’s a conversation, you may suddenly realize that you’ve left important gaps in your verse descriptions.
But reading your lyric aloud, you get to hear its effect clearly and simply. Most lyric problems can at least be identified with that one important tip.
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In 1958, American composer Milton Babbitt wrote an article for High Fidelity Magazine, called “Who Cares If You Listen?” The provocative title referred to the complexity of modern classical music, and the inability for most people to understand it or enjoy it. Babbitt’s position was that music had become like advanced physics or mathematics: too complex for those who, as he put it, were only “normally well-educated.”
In pop songwriting, the question doesn’t even need to be asked. Of course you care if people listen. But caring, and then actually ensuring that people listen… that can be tricky. How do you make sure that the music you’re writing has a caring audience?
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In a recent article for SongTown website, titled “4 Questions Pro Songwriters Ask While They Write,” American singer-songwriter Marty Dodson said this about writing songs that connect to audiences:
I can’t count the times that I have critiqued songs that were written very well, but did not connect with me in any way. For a song to be commercial, it has to connect to me in some way. Otherwise, I’m asking people to watch a 3 minute home movie. Even if my song moves me, it also has to connect to the audience in order to move them. You might appreciate my horribly sad song about my grandmother, but unless it connects you to YOUR grandmother, it probably doesn’t have a chance of commercial success. Pros are always looking for that connection – a way to make the listener care enough to keep listening. If I give listeners a reason to care, I have a shot.
He’s hit the nail right on the head. Audiences have to care. But how do you do that? Because in fact, you can actually write about your grandmother, or your own situation in life, and make the requisite connection. But how do you do that? Here are 4 ideas to ponder as you write your next song’s lyric:
- Write about a person, not about an emotion. If your lyric is something like, “I love you so much/ You’ve really touched my life…“, those are empty words that won’t connect to your audience. But if your lyric is about a person, using some attractive imagery, something like McCartney’s “My Love” (“And when the cupboard’s bare/ I’ll still find somethin’ there with my love/ It’s understood…), you generate a powerful image of love and devotion that everyone will connect with.
- Let your melodies power-up your lyrics. Think about the way your melody moves up and down, and place emotionally significant words and phrases higher in a melody. Often it’s even more subtle than that: a midrange note followed by a low note gives that midrange note the same power as a high one. Example: listen to Tracy Chapman’s “Baby Can I Hold You“, and notice the interplay between melodic range and lyrics. A wonderful song with a powerful lyric.
- A lyric’s emotional power needs to move up and down to be effective. A song lyric that’s all-emotion all the time is going to dull the effect it’s trying to achieve. The emotion of a lyric will make a more powerful impact if it starts low, moves high, then back to low, then back to high… To see this in action in its simplest form, check out Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You.”
- The simplest emotions, based on the simplest situations, have the best chance of connecting. There’s no doubt that someone will love a song and will shed a tear about the extinction of the Desert Bettong as a species, but it’s too far removed from most people’s emotional psyche to make it a hit. You can do it, if you sing about something simpler: what humanity is doing generally to the planet that’s resulting in many of the ecological disasters we see around us. Simplicity is everything. That’s why love still sells.
For every song you write, you should be able to look at your lyric sheet and ask yourself, “Will someone care about what I’ve written about here?” Or, to put it as Marty Dodson does, are you just asking people to watch a 3-minute home movie?
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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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