Queen - Bohemian Rhapsody

The Power and Danger of Musical Innovation

There is a reason why treating the principles of good songwriting as if they were rules is a bad idea: you might inadvertently kill a good song.

If good musical composition were guided by rules, many number 1 hits would likely have been tossed into the trash bin due to the fact that they did something innovative, something that went against what would have been conventional wisdom of their day.

There likely wouldn’t have been a “Strawberry Fields Forever” or “I Am the Walrus,” with their innovative, imaginative sound effects and structural design. And most definitely no “Bohemian Rhapsody.” Innovation requires writers (and producers, of course) not just to go out on a limb, but to create that limb, and then entice others to follow.

If you want to be successful in the music world, you can do what everyone else is doing, and you’ll likely — for a time, at least — get swept up along with the wave of success that is today’s music. You’ll be doing not just what everyone wants — you’ll be doing what everyone expects.

But if you want to be more than successful — if you want to set a new direction for yourself and grab some audience for that new direction — that requires you to be innovative. And that requires you to create a new limb on the tree, boldly striding out onto that new branch, and bringing others along with you.

It sounds exciting, but in fact it’s dangerous. Innovation will either succeed or fail. Most of the time it fails, but we rarely get to hear the failures. History filters failures as much as it filters unremarkable music so that we don’t encounter them unless we go looking for them.

But no one ever said that innovative songwriting is easy or safe. The Beatles did it the right way: with their first hits they built a loyal following by producing music that was exciting but not much different from what was going on already.

But once they started to innovate, with songs like “Tomorrow Never Knows,” “Eleanor Rigby” and most of the songs on “Sergeant Pepper “, they started their journey into unexplored territory that required unprecedented courage and imagination. And they built a huge audience for it.

There was always a danger that it wouldn’t work. But success in the arts is not for the faint of heart.

Now take a look at your own songs and ask yourself: Are you playing it safe so that you can ride the wave of today’s sound and success? Or are you doing something – anything – that sets you apart from the noise and takes your fans on a new and exciting ride?

It takes courage and resolve. And from the point of view of commercial success, it’s dangerously risky. But the potential rewards are enormous. You can be setting a new direction, not based on the perceived rules of the music industry, but on your own sense of creativity and imagination.

What are you doing in your songwriting that no one else is doing?

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

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To Be a Songwriter, These 5 Statements Need To Be True

I occasionally make the following statement when I think people might be listening:

You cannot learn to be a songwriter. You can only learn to be a better songwriter.

I say that partly because (I believe that) it’s true, and partly because it sounds a bit surprising — and it’s fun to say surprising things. But it really is true. I say that in spite of the fact that there is much research – and much of it scholarly – into why some people are creative, implying that others are not.

But in truth, everyone is creative. It may not be the kind of creativity that will lead you to write a song. Some might call aiming your smartphone in the right direction and waiting for the right moment to capture a stunning sunset a kind of creativity, and they’d be right.

However, taking an amazing photo of a sunset on your smartphone shouldn’t mean that it’s time to give up your day job. That level of creativity is what you’d expect from the normal human brain, whatever that is.

As humans, we’re constantly creative. We hum, we doodle, we tap random rhythms while waiting on the phone. But humming doesn’t mean you’re a singer, doodling doesn’t make you an artist, and tapping rhythms doesn’t mean you’re a drummer. To be any of those things, you need to show abilities and creative aptitude that goes beyond what most people could show.

To be an artist (a songwriter, a performer, a visual artist, a choreographer, a playwright…) certain things need to be in place. They are, in no particular order:

  1. You derive pleasure from the act of being creative.
  2. You derive pleasure and pride from displaying the results of your creative processes.
  3. You are willing to be patient with a difficult or lengthy creative process.
  4. You have unique abilities.
  5. You work toward solutions when you experience a creative block (i.e., writer’s block or similar creative issue).

I’ve written over 1600 articles on this blog, the intent of which are to help songwriters become better songwriters. But I can’t teach someone how to be a songwriter. I can teach someone how to be a better songwriter.

In order to be helped by me or anyone, you already need to be writing songs. They may be bad songs, but you need to be in agreement with those five statements, to varying degrees. To say it again, I can only help you become a better songwriter.

Occasionally I get emails from people that say something along of the lines of “Please teach me how to write a song.” My standard response is to tell them to send me a link to something they’ve written, something I can listen to, and then I’d be happy to solve whatever problem they think they’re having.

And sometimes I get the response, “I don’t have anything you can listen to… I haven’t written anything yet.” And that’s when I just shrug; what do I do with that? I can’t jump-start someone’s creative process if they’ve never done that for themselves.

I can help bad songwriters. Because even with bad songwriters, those five statements are usually true, even to a small degree. Even bad songwriters have a desire to be creative, derive pleasure from being creative, spend time working on a song, and so on.

If your problem with songwriting is that you think you’re not very good, but you still want to be a songwriter, that’s something I can help with.

You must not despair; there is often only a very fine line between songs that are failures and songs that are excellent. In music, a little bit of knowledge can go a long way.

If you have songs that you think have potential but you just can’t get them working, I’m happy to give them a listen, and make suggestions to you. Listening and making comments is something I like doing when I have time, and as long as you’re patient with my sometimes chaotic schedule, I do that free of charge.

Simply write me an email: songs [at] secretsofsongwriting [dot] com, and provide a link to your song from an online streaming service. (Don’t send me a song file.)

I’m happy to offer whatever suggestions I can to make your music work for you. I’d love for you to be getting enjoyment from your songwriting efforts, and I’m happy to help you along the way.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter

How to Harmonize a Melody

“How to Harmonize a Melody” is part of the 10-eBook Deluxe Bundle, written by Gary Ewer. If you can “hear” the chords you want, but you just can’t find them, this ebook will take you step-by-step through a process that works.

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Rock singer

Getting Attention Using Your Vocal Range

It’s interesting that music in pop genres has mainly favoured the tenor male voice. Most songs will sit in either the high baritone or tenor range. I say interesting, because I was reading recently about a recently-completed study that has examined how much we like or are drawn to high or low-pitched speaking voices.

You can read the abstract here. The research shows that when it comes to the pitch of the male voice, we are more attracted to low-pitched ones as being more trustworthy. For female voices, we tend to have a similar reaction, but it really depends on what they’re talking about.

In other words, we tend to trust a low-pitched male speaking voice, regardless of the topic. With women’s voices, context is important: we’re more discerning.

Of course, they aren’t talking about the singing voice in this study, but it begs the question: Why are most songs, sung by men in the past several decades of pop music, written for the tenor voice? What are we looking for in a singer that gets fulfilled by a high-pitched voice over a lower-pitched one?

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I think the answer lies in what we find to be most important and compelling in music: the display and communication of emotion.

It’s much easier for an audience to empathize with and feel the emotion of a singer when that singer is producing notes high in their range. High-range singing does several things:

  1. It generally displays a kind of strain that audiences equate with emotional intensity.
  2. It usually requires louder singing, which in turn demands attention from the audience.
  3. It provides a contrast to whatever lower-pitched singing might have been happening before the higher notes.

Most songs are written in some kind of verse-chorus format, and it’s typical for verses to feature lower-range singing than the chorus. That’s because verses generally outline a story or describe a situation, and it’s important to keep emotional reactions to a minimum at this point.

The chorus is higher in pitch because it embellishes the emotional outpouring necessary to make a connection to the audience. Those higher notes may even sound strained, but we accept those imperfections as an important part of communication.

A great example of how the strain of the high tenor range can be completely acceptable would be in Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit“, with it’s low-mid range verse, switching to its screaming, generally high-pitched chorus.

High singing, especially the kind demonstrated in that song, can be risky. It requires technique and careful warming-up and preparation. And it probably favours younger singers over older singers.

Fortunately, you get the same positive effect of higher-versus-lower singer even if you aren’t in the screaming range of your voice. Simply creating a chorus with a note or two that exceeds the range of the verse is usually enough to draw special attention to the higher emotional content of the chorus.

And just to give you something else to think about: Higher-pitched choruses aren’t an absolute necessity. We know that there are songs that use the same (or very similar) melody for the verse and the chorus.

If you’ve written a song that uses the same melody for the verse and chorus, you will need to find other ways to power up the chorus, including 1) building the instrumentation, 2) adding vocal harmonies to the chorus, and/or 3) changing the key to something higher.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter

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Songwriter - guitarist

What Inspiration Means to a Songwriter

There are commonly-used words in the music world that have several meanings, depending on who’s using the word, and the context in which the word is being used. For example, you’ll find that the word “hook” can mean a short, catchy bit of music, but it also might mean an entire chorus — depending on who’s talking, and on what they’re talking about.

The other word that has several possible meanings is inspiration. In general, we know that we’re talking about a kind of musical excitement when we talk about inspiration. For example, someone might ask you, “Where do you find your inspiration to write?”, and by that question they want to know what excites you to pick up your guitar and pencil and start composing music.

I like to make a distinction between inspiration and motivation when it comes to writing music. If someone asks me what inspires me to write, I never quite know what to say. But if someone asks me to describe what motivates me, I feel that that’s a question I can answer.

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That’s because most of the writing I do these days is because I’ve been asked to do it, not specifically because I feel inspired. That doesn’t mean that I don’t get excited about composing, of course. When someone says that they’d like for me to compose something, let’s say, for their choir, for a performance on a certain date, I feel highly motivated, and I find that musical ideas start popping into my mind, even at that beginning stage. It doesn’t take much to get me excited about writing. If that’s what you call inspiration, then I guess I’m inspired.

But for me (and not to simply play around with words) I would describe that as a motivation to write.

What should inspiration mean to a songwriter? There are any number of definitions for that term as it applies to writing music, but here are three closely related – but different – definitions that get used by songwriters in different contexts:

  1. Inspiration: the excitement at the start of the songwriting process. You might have witnessed something emotionally powerful, such as the birth of your child, the death of a close friend, even the changing of the seasons. You feel a welling-up of emotions that make you want to write music to express what you’re feeling.
  2. Inspiration: the ability and desire to generate musical ideas out of thin air. You find that you can write music even if nothing powerfully emotional is happening in your life. In this sense, inspiration is a sense of motivation (a desire to write) coupled with an innate ability to assemble music purely from your imagination.
  3. Inspiration: the continually-replenishing desire to keep writing. You find that as you write, your new musical ideas excite you to keep going. Each idea you compose makes it easier to generate new ideas. In other words, you get excited (inspired) by your own music.

Perhaps you see now why I like to make a distinction between inspiration and motivation. The second definition simply requires that you see yourself as a songwriter. For many, that’s what makes them what to write. It’s who they are, and perhaps that would describe you as well.

You hopefully also identify with the third definition. You feel a sense of musical excitement that keeps generating and growing as you write. In other words, your own music supplies you with the necessary fuel to keep going.

For me, the first definition is the one that I struggle with. If you find that you can only manage to write if you’ve got some emotional event to incentivize you, then you are likely heading for a serious bout of writer’s block.

If you wish you were the kind of writer that could write music at the drop of a hat, here are some thoughts:

  1. Think about who you are. What are your values, your opinions, and/or your position on the important issues of life.
  2. Listen to music daily. And don’t just listen – think about how your favourite songwriters are able to manipulate the way you think and feel about a topic through their use of music and lyrics.
  3. Write music daily (or almost daily). Don’t feel the need to compose full songs every time you sit down to write. Give yourself short tasks. Something like these lyric-writing “games”, for example.
  4. Don’t wait for inspiration. Waiting for inspiration is usually a waste of time. You should be able to generate musical ideas without feeling an initial excitement or inspiration. The very act of writing will or should generate the necessary kind of excitement that keeps you going.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter

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Posted in Inspiration, Writer's Block and tagged , , , , , , , .
Synthesizer keyboard - songwriting

Why Saving Failed Songs Is So Important

It may seem illogical to save bits of songs that you’ve determined are failures. After all, if you’re trying to write a song and it’s not working out, surely that means that the ideas you’re creating are simply bad ones, and you should toss them and try new ideas.

It really depends on what you mean by a failed song idea. Most of the time, it’s a simple matter that the idea is good, but you can’t connect it to anything that makes a complete song. Sometimes this happens when you just can’t figure out where in a  song this new idea might work best. Would it work best as a chorus hook? Is it something that sounds more like a fragment of verse. Sometimes you find that no matter what you do, you can’t seem to join it onto something else that goes the distance.

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But failed ideas are rarely irredeemable. Almost every idea has potential, and finding that potential starts with putting it away and ignoring it for a while.

Putting a song fragment away means that you’ve got to record it, make note of the chords and possibly the lyrics and any other ideas you have for it, and then saving that file on your computer or smartphone.

Six months or more later, it might be time to try the fragment out once more and see where things stand with it. The passage of time frees up your musical brain, allowing you to more easily consider new treatment ideas for your song fragment.

If you’ve started a song, been dissatisfied, put it away, and now you’re ready to try it out again, here are some ideas for seeing if you can get that song fragment to work better this time around:

  1. Look for a second fragment to pair it up with. The Beatles famously created songs that were two different song ideas melded into one (“A Day in the Life”, for example). Doing this doesn’t necessarily mean that there needs to be some connecting idea that brings the two together, as you’ll know from “A Day in the Life”.
  2. Work out substitute chords. Chords go a long way to conveying mood in music, and you might find that by keeping the melody intact, but considering a new chord progression to accompany it, the fragment sounds different enough that new ideas will start to form, ideas that can take the idea from being a fragment to being a full song.
  3. Consider a new tempo. Tempo is another element of music that can radically modify the mood of music. You might find that turning what you thought was a ballad in the making into a faster, uptempo song will be the change that opens the floodgates of ideas.
  4. Give the idea to a songwriting partner. A songwriting collaboration is a great way to give new life to an old idea. Different writers have different strengths, and you might find that an old, stale idea will sound exciting to a different songwriter. Play it for someone you trust, and you might find that that’s the beginning of finally finishing something you started months ago.

It’s so important that you save every bit of music you write. It’s almost always the case that a song fragment that seems hopeless at one point will eventually form the core of a much better song. All you need is a bit of time away from it.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

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Posted in songwriting and tagged , , , , , , , , .

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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Please feel free to leave a comment at the end of any article. I love reading what others are thinking about music.

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