Songs are like trees

The Difference Between Rules and Principles in Songwriting

In a way, it’s hard to speak of “errors” in songwriting, because that implies that there are rules that have been broken. Songwriting isn’t guided by rules in the traditional sense of that word. If rules governed the creative process, writing music would hold little if any interest for us.

Instead of rules, we are more likely to be aware of a set of guiding principles when it comes to songwriting. Another way of saying that is: when you examine hits from the past several decades, you’ll start to see commonalities. We understand those commonalities to be the results of principles. A songwriting principle doesn’t demand that we do something a certain way, but rather describes why we tend to do things in a certain way.

If it’s still hard to tell the difference between rules and principles, think of a song as something like a tree. DNA will determine what a tree will look like, but no two trees, not even cloned ones, will look identical.

We look at a maple tree, and we know right away that it’s a maple. It has the characteristic leaf shape and size, the typical bark, and the overall silhouette is what we’d expect. The branches come off of the main trunk in a way that is at the same time predictable yet never seen quite that way before. Like snowflakes, no two trees have identical leaves, identical patterns on their bark, nor an identical silhouette.

Someone painting a scene with a maple tree will create a tree that looks like no other ever seen, and yet — we know it’s a maple.

That’s not much different from how songwriting works. No two songs are the same, even if they all exhibit similar characteristics. So perhaps the best way to describe principles in songwriting is to equate them to DNA.

DNA is a more like a recipe, and not so much like a blueprint. If writing songs were like following a blueprint, that would mean that all songs that follow a blueprint would sound the same, just as all houses made according to a blueprint would look the same.

The best way to improve your songwriting skills and technical ability is to become aware of, and knowledgable of, the basic principles of songwriting. That, plus a healthy dose of daily listening, will make you the best songwriter you can be.

So don’t worry about songwriting rules. There really aren’t any. But principles? Yes, whether you like it or not, most songs will adhere to an overall set of guiding principles. The more familiar you are with them, the stronger and more prolific a composer you’ll become.


Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter

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