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
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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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A chord progression is the one element that doesn’t overly hurt a song if it’s predictable. Creative songs are still being written using the tried-and-true I-IV-V-I progression. It’s the uniqueness of the melody and lyrics (and all the related bits such as phrasing, rhythm. etc.) that really matter.
Having said that, there’s something nice about coming up with a progression that strays a bit from I-IV-V-I. The question is, how do you come up with a progression that sounds creative, while at the same time still sounds like it has some direction and focus?
The answer to this lies in looking a bit closer at I-IV-V-I, discovering why it works so well, and then trying to incorporate those discoveries into something a bit more distinctive.
Why I-IV-V-I Works So Well
That simple progression, which in C major gives us C-F-G-C, works in any genre. Here’s what makes it so generically powerful:
- It solidly points to a certain chord — C in this case — as the tonic, the chord representing the key.
- It represents a short journey away from the tonic chord, and then back toward it.
- The progression becomes more predictable the further into the sequence you go.
Let’s look at each point more closely:
- It makes the C the tonic in two main ways:
- By both starting and ending on C, we give that chord some special significance. That fact alone does not make it a tonic, but there can be no doubt that we hear that it’s been given a “place of honour,” if you will.
- The final tonic chord is approached by a 4th. In other words, the final C is approached by a G. That movement of a 4th up (or a 5th down – same thing) is something all listeners in our musical culture understand. That movement of a 4th is a powerful tool for strengthening a chord progression.
- The brevity of a chord progression is often one of its most endearing features. Audiences feel comfortable with progressions that are short enough to easily understand.
- The predictability of the end of the progression is more obvious than at the beginning. When the progression starts, you’ve got many choices regarding where to go after that initial C; you could try Dm, F, Am… But certainly by the end of the progression, once you’ve reached the G (the dominant chord), the tonic chord sounds obvious, to the point where it’s a surprise if C doesn’t happen.
Creating More Imaginative Progressions
You can use the simple observations we’ve just made and come up with progressions that are more creative, more individual, and more distinctive, as long as you:
- Allow the end of the progression to return to the tonic.
- Use lots of root movement of 4ths and 5ths.
- Keep the progression from getting overly long.
- Let the last several chords move solidly toward the key of your song.
When we talk about progressions that are more distinctive, we usually mean something a bit longer, so we’re like talking about progressions longer than the 4 chords that make up our sample I-IV-V-I progression.
So to create longer progressions that don’t just sound like chord muddle, keep the following tips in mind:
- Whenever a progression “loses focus”, move the root by a 4th or a 5th. Let’s take as an example this more creative progression: C Eb Em Am Ab Bb C. The end of it is fine: that Ab-Bb-C is actually quite nice. But the Eb to Em really sounds confusing and odd. The part that goes Em-Am-Ab-Bb-C sounds good — it’s the Eb that sticks out. So try approaching the Em by a 5th below: Am. That gives us this stronger progression: C Am Em Am Ab Bb C.
- Try moving the middle of a progression into the “opposite mode”. If your progression is primarily major, look for ways to move into the relative minor for the middle before moving back to the major. Let’s say your progression is this 2-section example: C Am Bb F |C Am Bb F C. The C chord happens at the start, right at the middle, and again at the end. So try reversing the C and Am (the 5th and 6th chords) so that the Am happens right at the start of the second section. That gives you this: C Am Bb F |Am C Bb F. The Am placement right in the middle gives a minor sound to the middle of the progression that wasn’t so noticeable before.
- Be sure the end of the progression moves solidly into your chosen key. If you happen to be using the progression to change key, let it move solidly into some key. The point is, ambiguity is nice in the middle, but keep the end from being too ambiguous. This might be too confusing for most pop songs: C Bm Em F F#m C. The end sounds like it’s been wrenched from C major and tossed around before being thrown back suddenly into C. You might try replacing F# with Dm, a chord that’s much friendlier to C major, giving you: C Bm Em F Dm C.
A little bit of creativity goes a long way in progressions. Most of the time, when you listen to songwriters who like to write creative music (Imogen Heap, Peter Gabriel, Justin Vernon, etc.), you’ll find, as I mentioned earlier, that it’s the melodic shapes and phrasing, and poignant lyrics, that take centre stage. (Listen to Peter Gabriel’s “Games Without Frontiers” as a great example of a surprisingly predictable progression that partners extremely well with a creative instrumentation, melodic design and lyrics.)
Of all the tips listed above, never underestimate the power of the 4th or 5th root movement for tightening up a confusing chord progression and making it work.
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Do you feel that your songwriting has plateaued? Are you worried that you’ve reached a level of ability that you’ll never surpass? And if the answer to those questions is ‘yes’, it begs a third question: What can you do to take things to a new and better level?
Stagnation in songwriting — and in fact in any of the creative arts — is common, particularly if you’ve been writing for a number of years. You likely remember back to those first few songs you wrote, and how easily they seemed to happen. In your early days, it seemed that everything you touched turned to gold. Now, you feel that you have to fight your creative brain for every song you write.
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How can you become a better songwriter? Or is this level of writing the way it’s going to be for the rest of your career as a writer? Perhaps you’ve just run out of ideas?
You most certainly can and will improve as a songwriter, but only if you change your current state of affairs and do things differently. And so what should you be doing? Here are 3 simple ways that you can modify your ordinary approach to songwriting and take things to the next level:
- Make connections outside your genre of choice. One of the main culprits when it comes to musical stagnation is the ignoring of whatever else is going on outside your chosen genre. If you write folk songs in a kind of Bob Dylan sort of style, and you find that all the music you listen to, and the musicians you work with, are all of that ilk, you’ve done nothing to stimulate your sense of creativity. Start listening outside your genre. You might even join up with another band, one that plays music radically outside your normal comfort zone. Doing these things introduces you to new ideas, new ways of doing music. In turn, that will influence the way you write music, and you’ll find yourself in a new and exciting musical world.
- Develop a new songwriting process. Like muscle memory, always writing your songs the same way, with your guitar on your knee and a notepad in front of you, almost ensures that there will be a sameness to everything you write. Find different ways to write, ways that get you thinking differently. Use a different instrument, partner with someone else… even find a different time of day from your regular routine. Do whatever it takes to get you away from same old-same old.
- Change tempos, keys and formal design. This may not have occurred to you, but have you noticed that in your songwriting you seem to go for similar tempos and similar keys all the time? You may automatically opt for writing ballads, almost always in some favourite key like C major or G major, and always with a verse-chorus design. If all you do is write something in double time — somewhere up around the 132 bpm tempo, and then switch to a minor key, you’ll have opened the door to a completely new sound for you.
Each one of the ideas above will pull you out of what has always been the norm for your songwriting, and push you into a new and exciting way of writing. Of all of the ideas, the most valuable one, I believe, will be the first one: connecting to other musicians from outside your normal genre.
By doing that one thing, you’ll be discovering new ways of assembling chords, encountering new ways of creating melodies, and even new ways of expressing yourself through lyrics. In the sense, you’ll be creating a new personal genre that will make your songs unique and imaginative.
And once you’ve done that, you’ll be pushing past the plateau that has been frustrating you, and things will only get better!
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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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