When we use the word “clever” in songwriting, we’re usually talking about lyrics. In that context, a clever lyric means any one of the following:
- There’s a double meaning going on that might not be immediately obvious. (i.e., the song isn’t about what it appears to be about)
- There are common words being used in an uncommon or unexpected way. (i.e., “I’m high but I’m grounded…” (Alanis Morissette, “Hand In My Pocket”)
- The lyric makes copious use of metaphors, alliteration, similes and other poetic devices.
Could we ever consider a melody to be clever? How about a chord progression? Would you ever hear a rhythm in the backing instruments and think, “That sounds clever?”
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We might be tempted to equate the word clever with “complex” or “intricate,” but I think that would be a mistake. Being clever has a bit of surprise attached to its meaning: you used a word, a phrase, or perhaps an entire lyric, in a way that was unexpected.
Cleverness is hard to incorporate into pop songs, because one of the most important features of pop music is the immediacy of appeal. The most successful hit songs are ones that people tend to “get” — to understand — pretty much right away.
True, there may be new aspects of the lyric that are revealed as we hear them many times. There might be phrases that we never truly understand. But those don’t typically keep us from enjoying the song right away.
If you’re ready to bump your lyric-writing abilities up to the level of being clever, then, you need to keep a few things in mind:
- Pop songs generally need to be immediately appealing, no matter how clever the lyric might be. We often think of songs for which we have an instant liking to be “dumbed down” for commercial appeal, but that’s not necessarily true. A song’s groove and feel can give it an immediate appeal, and buys you some time if you’ve opted to write a lyric that’s clever, deeper, or more intricate in some way.
- Clever lyrics can move dangerously close to being pretentious. A pretentious lyric means that you’re using complex words or phrasing for no good reason, simply to sound intellectually superior, and it’s artistically dishonest. Read though any lyric that you consider to be clever, and you’ll find that the best ones use common, everyday words, but assembled sometimes in unexpected ways.
- Remember your genre, and remember your audience. Some song lyrics just don’t need to be overly shrewd. I’ve always loved the line from “Boys ‘Round Here” (Rhett Akins, Dallas Davidson, Craig Wiseman) that goes, “The boys ’round here don’t listen to the Beatles…” It’s a fun line, quite an unexpected way to start a song, and almost argumentative in a “twinkle-in-the-eye” kind of way. To me, it’s clever, and I might add, clever enough.
- Partnership between song elements is more important than cleverness. When it comes right down to it, a song in which all the elements — the lyrics, melodies, chords, instrumentation, etc. — work well together will outperform any other song that’s simply clever. Clever is an attribute of a song element, not an element itself.
I believe that cleverness in music comes over time. It’s not something we can consciously do, any more than we can be consciously “smarter”, “cooler”, or “funnier.” If you want to bump your lyric-writing to a new level, you need to read lots of good lyrics, and spend a lot of time writing and rewriting your lyrical attempts.
If you get stuck at the chord progression stage of songwriting, you’ll find “Chord Progression Formulas” to be a vital go-to text for your process. Create dozens of progressions in moments by applying a formula!
It’s a common characteristic of many songs in the pop genres: a minor-sounding verse that moves to a major-sounding chorus. You might think that means you need to create two completely different progressions.
But let’s say that you’ve worked out a good chorus hook, and now you’re trying to create a verse that partners well with it. Here’s a quick and easy trick to take a chorus progression and turn it into something that works nicely in the verse, and prepares the arrival of the chorus hook.
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First, write out your chorus progression. The progression below is shown in C major. You can hold each chord as long as you want, but let’s assume you’ll change chords every two beats (i.e., two chords per bar):
I bVII ii V (C Bb Dm G) (Click below to listen)
Next, place a vi-chord at the beginning of the progression, and then follow it up with the chorus progression:
vi I bVII ii V (Am C Bb Dm G) (Click below to listen)
To make the verse progression the same length as your chorus progression (four chords), simply remove one of the chords from the chorus progression. I’ve opted to remove the final G:
vi I bVII ii (Am C Bb Dm) (Click below to listen)
Creating a verse progression in this way has an important advantage: it uses the chords from the chorus progression, but because the I-chord, which was on beat 1 of the first bar, is now on the second half of the bar, it sounds similar but different.
The similarity makes it an idea partner. The fact that it now starts with a minor chord makes it an ideal verse progression.
There are a few ideas you can try to modify what I’ve suggested above:
- Start your verse on a different minor chord: ii or iii.
- Remove a different chord to make it the same length as the chorus progression. I opted to remove the final V-chord, but you should experiment with other possibilities.
- Use the chorus progression idea as a start for your verse, and then create an entirely original second half to a verse progression.
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I’ve written a few articles on this blog about the notion of drawing a line that represents your melody (like this article I wrote a few years ago). It’s not just that it’s kind of neat to see your melody sketched out as a line; there is a real purpose and benefit from seeing your melody drawn in this way.
The main benefit is that it reminds us that our brains like to perceive a sense of direction when it comes to melodies. As a melody works its way upward, for example, our brains predict where the next notes will be based on what the most recent notes were.
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Our brains make those predictions based not just on what the last notes were, but also on what the last few chords were. But why should we do this at all? Why is it important to hear melodies as a line that has some measure of predictability in its structure?
It’s because we like our music to be a mixture of predictable and unpredictable elements. The more predictable music is, though, the more we’re bored with it. The less predictable it is, the more we’re troubled we are with it: we feel lost. The best music gets the balance just right.
When you do a line drawing that represents the twists and turns of your melody, what you’re aiming for is to see the kinds of things we hope we hear: repeating patterns, generally upward-moving shapes followed by generally downward-moving ones, and so on.
In other words, if the line drawing of your melody simply looks like mindless scratchings, randomly moving up and down with no apparent patterns or design, it’s likely that the melody itself is leaving listeners scratching their heads, wondering what to make of it. A line drawing can be the first important step to fixing melodies.
Don’t Stop At Melodies: It Works for Lyrics, Too
But it’s important to consider that line drawings can be done of other elements, so don’t stop at melodies.
For example, we know that with lyrics, the emotional content of the words should move up and down, starting with relatively low-emotion words in the verse and moving to more emotional ones in the chorus. This can be represented with a line, and you hope that you see it moving constantly up and down.
Here’s how to do it: Write out the lyric from your latest song, and draw a time line at the bottom of the page representing the length of your song. For each line of lyric, sketch a short (1-inch or so) length of line that represents the emotional impact of those lines of lyric. When you’re done, you’ll have a line from one side of the page to the other, hopefully moving (with some measure of predictability) up and down.
So just as with melody line drawing, it can be a great diagnostic tool for fixing lyrics. Audiences love the predictable nature of emotional choruses, and so a verse that’s too heartrending can take away the impact of a well-written chorus. Seeing verses that are too emotional will help you fix the problem.
For each song that you write, you should consider line drawing to be an important diagnostic tool for analyzing how you’ve done. The results can surprise you, but most importantly, it often gives you a direction to move in order to fix problems.
“Hooks and Riffs: How They Grab Attention, Make Songs Memorable, and Build Your Fan Base” shows you how a good hook can make the difference between songwriting success and failure. With great examples from pop music history.
Everyone’s got an opinion. When it comes to your own songs, you hope everyone’s opinion is a good one. But if it isn’t, it can be discouraging.
I practically never ask people what they think of anything I’ve ever written. That’s certainly not to say that I don’t ask for help or advice. When I was a student of composition at university, I had my weekly private tutorials with composition professors, and their guidance was a crucial part of my development as a writer.
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But getting guidance is not the same thing as soliciting an opinion. The reason I don’t often ask for an opinion is that I assume that some will like the music I write, while others won’t. So soliciting opinions doesn’t actually tell me much. It’s quite possible to write music that works well, but just doesn’t get much attention or please an audience. That’s music for you.
I think the best thing you can do as a composer is to write what’s in your heart and mind, and accept the fact that some will like it and others won’t. You’ll hope that the number of people who like it outnumber the ones who don’t. You’re only human, after all.
Following your heart as a songwriter takes courage. And it also means several other things:
- Being objective. You need to be able to listen to your own songs and hear them the way others hear them. It’s hard, because your song is your baby, and you’re biased to support that baby. But being a good songwriter means being brutally honest with yourself, and knowing if your song has achieved what you’ve hoped it achieves.
- Keeping your music in perspective. Not every song will be a home run from an audience’s perspective. But not every song needs to be a home run. Sometimes your main goal with a song is simply to express some part of your innermost thoughts, not necessarily change the world. Stop trying to change the world with every song.
- Asking yourself ‘why?’ For every song you’ve written, you should be able to describe what it is the song is trying to say. Sometimes it’s a story. Sometimes you’re generating an emotion. Always, a song needs to present something that an audience will relate to on an emotional level. If you can’t say why you’ve written something, you may have wasted a lot of time.
- Always seeing the big picture. The big picture for most songwriters is a sense of fulfillment. There are days when you may need to force yourself to write, but if writing always feels like a chore, that can’t be much fun. From time to time, you need to step back and look at the kind of fulfillment you’re getting from songwriting. What can you do to generate inspiration, and find the motivation to express yourself through songwriting?
- Not living in a musical vacuum. Listen to great music, go to art galleries, read good books, get out to concerts. One of the best ways to find the courage to continue on as a songwriter is to take in and absorb what other artists are doing. In the arts, no one is inventing anything. Everyone is simply building on what’s come before. So knowing what’s going on, particularly in your chosen genre, is a crucial part of writing great music.
When you start your songs the same way, you make it very likely that there will be an unpleasant sameness about them. Your aim as a songwriter should be to feel at ease with as many different processes as possible for starting songs.
Comfort with many different processes makes it more likely that your songs will sound refreshingly different. Just as taking a walk by starting in a new direction will mean that your entire walk will follow a different path, starting songs differently means that the end product will sound at least partly unique to the audience, and that’s usually a good thing.
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But what are the different ways you can start a song? Often, it simply requires that very first step to be unique, and then you’ve got the makings of a new pathway that sets itself apart from other possible ones.
Here’s a list of ideas to try; you should attempt as many as possible. When it comes to songwriting processes, the more the merrier.
- Rhythm first: set up a drum loop as a foundation for chord/hook improvisation. This is a great way to begin a group improvisation, and it was a favourite process for later Genesis, according to bassist/guitarist Mike Rutherford.
- Melodic idea first. Play a few chords on guitar or keyboard to get your thinking locked into a key. Then, without playing chords, invent a 4- to 6-note or longer melodic idea. Now start to apply chords to this idea. You’ll find that many ideas will work with very different progressions, and each change of progression changes the mood of the melodic idea. Listen to this fragment, and how its mood changes with each change of progression.
- Lyrics first. By developing a lyric first — or at least a good portion of the lyric — you’ll find that the words suggest certain rhythms and certain melodic shapes. So after you’ve worked out a fair bit of the lyric, read it aloud, over and over again, experimenting with different ways to say the words. Once melodic ideas and rhythms coalesce, you’ll find the rest of the song starts to come together fairly easily.
- Chords first. Loop a chord progression and experiment with melodic fragments that fit the chords. You can use this process to simply get the song started, but keep in mind that for each section of your song that uses a unique progression (verse, chorus, bridge, etc.), you can use this method as a starting point.
That’s just four possible processes, but you’ll find that you can develop other ones by combining ideas. For example, the rhythm-first process can be enhanced by chanting words that work with the rhythmic pattern you develop.
The point is that the more processes you can feel at ease with, the greater the chance you’ll have of creating a song that’s truly unique and fresh. And since improvisation is a powerful tool for popular songwriting, they’ll all work well as part of a group songwriting collaboration.
If you like starting songs by working out a good chord progression, you need to get “Writing a Song From a Chord Progression.” It shows you the strengths and pitfalls of this very common songwriting process.
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.
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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