If All Your Songs Sound Similar: Some Fixes For That

Everyone has a songwriting style, and if you listen to enough of someone’s music you’ll start to hear those similarities, assuming it’s not immediately obvious.

Similarity between songs is not a horrible wrong that must be corrected. It’s unavoidable. And it’s a part of being creative in the sense that creativity usually builds on things we know.

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But when excessive similarities exist such that every time someone hears a song of yours they feel that they’ve heard it before… well, that’s obviously a problem that needs to be addressed.

If you find that all of your latest songs are showing an annoying sameness, here are some ways to address it:

  1. Experiment with new time signatures. Most songs are in 4/4 or some other related time signature (2/4, 4/2. etc). Those time signatures arrange your music in an alternating strong beat-weak beat feel. So try 3/4 time, which usually gives us a strong beat followed by 2 weak beats (as in “The Times They Are A-Changin'”). There are others that can be fun to practice: 5/8 or 5/4, and 7/4, which will sound like alternating 4/4 and 3/4 bars.
  2. Avoid the same formal design. If all your songs are in the verse-chorus-bridge format, you’re going to get that “Wow, this sounds like my last song” feeling by the time you reach the bridge. The formal design of a song is a strong contributor to why one song sounds similar to another. Since songs are just a collection of ideas, it should be possible to rearrange that song to sound fresher and more innovative. Try starting with the chorus, or using an instrumental solo break instead of a bridge. There are lots of alternatives to changing things up.
  3. Don’t constantly favour major or minor keys. If you find yourself always choosing a minor key for your songs, you’re likely finding that your chord choices themselves are showing a lack of creativity. So be sure to choose a good mix of major and minor keys. And don’t forget that it’s a great option to start a song in minor and switch to major for the chorus. (But not in every song, of course!)
  4. Changing tempo: the forgotten element. Many songwriters unfortunately have a 2-speed option they always select: If the song is fast, it’s usually 120-132 bpm; if it’s slow, it’s around 80 bpm or so. The mood of a song can change dramatically if you nudge it in one direction or another. So take that fast song that you’ve been playing at 132 bpm, and see what emerges when you slow it to something like 116 bpm. Or even a move from 80 to 96 can allow a different mood to come forward. And changing the tempo you thought you’d use can allow new melodic or lyrical ideas to happen. I’ve always found changing the tempo to be one of the most important modifications a songwriter can do to their song.
  5. Keep your lyric ideas fresh and new. Love songs still work. But if you’re always singing about being tossed aside by your lover, your listeners will feel they’ve heard your new song before, even before they get to the first chorus. It may be time to spend a day or two simply writing down ideas for songs. It’s also a very useful exercise to take four or five albums from a favourite performer, and write down the basic topics they’ve sung about, just to see how diverse their ideas are. Sure, half of them might have been love songs, but when you dig down into the lyric, you discover that there’s a different side, something that sets the song apart from all their other ones. To avoid sameness, you need to be giving your fans new topics, new opinions, and that means new lyrical experiences.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

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Creative Exhaustion

Working Through Creative Exhaustion

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Creative exhaustion might seem like just another term for “writer’s block”, but in fact it’s a bit different, and probably a bit more common. Writer’s block assumes that you’ve reached a stage where everything to try to write ends up unfinished because you feel creatively blocked.

But creative exhaustion is a more common condition, and not necessarily one that indicates any kind of longterm problem. The main difference between the two is time: exhaustion is usually temporary — a day or so — while writer’s block can last for many days, weeks, months, or even longer.

To be creatively exhausted simply means that you’re spent. You’ve got no more to give. It can feel alarming, particularly if you’ve got major songwriting projects on the go. But creative exhaustion often has a simple solution: stop trying to write.

To be creatively blocked is a condition that might be mild or medium in intensity, and the solutions might be a bit more complicated. Solutions often involve:

  1. Stopping for a short or long time.
  2. Changing focus to another creative task (like writing poetry, playing your instrument, learning to paint, etc.)
  3. Getting help (from a psychologist, for example) if the block is a particularly severe or long-lasting one.

But to be creatively exhausted is often no more alarming than being exhausted after running a long footrace. The best solution is often to simply stop for the day, get some rest, and have a go at it again the next day.

Jumping to Conclusions

Often when you feel that you can’t come up with songwriting that pleases you, you might jump to some apparently obvious conclusions, and assume that you’ve entered some stage of writer’s block.

That assumption then brings on a fear of failure, and becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy of sorts: because you fear writer’s block, any form of creative difficulties gives us the fear that it’s something long-lasting and difficult to solve.

So when your songwriting ideas dry up, don’t jump to conclusions. It may just be creative exhaustion — infinitely better than a creative block! And going on that assumption, here’s what you do:

  1. Stop, leave your songwriting where it is, and turn your attention to other duties or activities you’ve got planned for your day.
  2. You may even want to avoid listening to music for a few hours, just to clear your head. Whoever said “A change is as good as a rest” got it right!
  3. Make the assumption that you’re just tired and you need a break. To assume you’re at the start of a bout of writer’s block can be a self-fulfilling prophecy.
  4. Get back into writing the very next day, but go slow. Give yourself little songwriting tasks before taking a small coffee break. Perhaps work on getting a line of lyric working, or perhaps work on modifying a chord progression. Think of it as a kind of warm-up before you launch back into larger, full-song activities.
  5. Have several songwriting projects on the go at any one time. That way, when you feel that ideas aren’t happening for one song, you’ve still got another one or two that you can move to, and that’s a great way to avoid feeling mired in the creative mud!

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

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Guitar, Pencil & Paper

What Causes Musical Boredom?

There’s probably nothing worse to you as a songwriter than discovering that people are bored with your songs. If you’re like most, you’d rather have a split between people loving and people hating your music. But boring your audience? That’s pretty bad.

Your fans will likely be unmotivated to say why your songs are boring them, but even if you asked someone, they’re usually unable to say why. To them, a boring song just fails to excite them on any level. And a fan who’s bored is likely to simply move on.

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But as a songwriter, you need to know why your songs are failing to excite listeners.

Usually, the fix for a boring song isn’t particularly complicated. What’s complicated is discovering the cause. Here’s a short list of various song elements, with suggestions for how to fix them when they’re boring.

music staff paper and pencilBoring Lyrics

There are three main reasons lyrics can be boring:

  1. The song is about something that just doesn’t connect with listeners.
  2. You’re using too many cliché lines, making the lyric too predictable.
  3. The lyrics lack a point of focus; it’s hard to know what the song is really about.

You need to choose a topic that relates to other people’s life experience – something they can relate to. Make them feel that your story is also their story.

In relating that story, clichés are going to kill the narrative. A cliché sounds lazy. They can be more successfully used in a chorus, but in a verse, they can make your story sound mundane.

The solution to boring lyrics is to make sure that, first and foremost, the lines of lyric have a point of focus. I’ve written before about logical followers, where each line of lyric is the logical follower of the line that precedes it.

If you want to read more about this, as well as other typical lyric problems, please read my article “Fixing Common Problems With Song Lyrics” – I think you’ll find it helpful.

Boring Melodies

It’s hard to say why a melody might be boring. You could say that if it always sits around the same note, or doesn’t use many pitches, that that’s a recipe for boredom. But there are many songs that use a very small tone set (Tom Petty’s “Free Fallin'” comes to mind), and yet despite the use of very few notes, the songs feel successful.

Song MelodyBoring melodies happen usually in conjunction with other song elements. In other words, a melody that sits around one or two notes, where the chords and lyrics are also uneventful, can result in a tune that sounds powerfully mundane!

So how do you know if it’s the melody itself that is the cause of listener boredom? Sometimes the best way to analyze a problem with the melody is to put a magnifying glass on the other elements. If you find that you’ve got a chord progression that you like, and the lyrics sound acceptable, a melody may need to move up and down a bit more than what you’re allowing.

If you really think that the melody is at fault, look for ways to inject an upward melodic leap, or a climactic high point. A melody usually only needs one exciting spot, usually more toward the end than the beginning of a song section, that injects a bit of melodic energy. It doesn’t take much.

There are several songs that seem to be great examples of songwriting, and I find myself often returning to Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” as a great model for solid songwriting technique. In this case, it’s a great example of what a good song melody should do. Sing through the chorus, and make note of the more exciting highs that happen on the line:

who claims that I am the one
But the kid is not my son

So it’s often the case that a boring melody will be fixed by inserting a high point near its end, or by injecting a melodic leap somewhere, a leap designed to grab listener attention.

Boring Song Form

microphoneOne of the most common problems in songwriting is the issue of song length. More often than not, a boring song is simply too long. I’ve almost never heard a song that I thought was too short. But I’ve heard many that I thought were too long.

This relates to song form, of course. Songs with four or five verses are tricky. In the pop genres, that’s getting dangerously long, and not everyone is a Bob Dylan, who can successfully entice audiences with so many verses of “Like a Rolling Stone.”

So the solution is usually to find a way to express what needs to be expressed in two verses, or three at the most. Songs beyond 5’00” need to have a good reason for being that long. At 5’00”, you’re getting into dangerous territory for creating musical boredom.

Boring or Bad Production/Musical Arrangement

A song needs to be well-played and well-produced in order to avoid listener boredom. It’s not usually a songwriting issue, but more good songs have been killed by bad production than you might imagine.

Computer - Music StudioIt’s worth the time and money, if you have it, to involve a producer who knows what they’re doing, who’s got experience, and who understands your genre. They know what to do with your song to make it exciting to an audience.

A good producer is usually objective enough to know how to present your song for its best and fullest effect. They’re not in love with your song like you are, and that’s usually to your advantage. These things cost money, of course, so you need to decide what it’s worth to you.

If you feel that you’re trying to make a move into the professional songwriting world, finding a producer who believes that you’ve got what it takes can be one of the most important things you do to advance your career.

Objective Listening

Here’s something I suggest to anyone trying to get a handle on this important issue: Record your song, then put a song away for a couple of weeks. Once you’ve “cleansed it from your system”, return to it, and listen as objectively as you can. How does it sound? What do you like? What do you find boring?

The time away from your song makes it easier to hear boring elements for what they are. And you’ll have a clearer view of what you need to do to solve the problem.

To develop your skills at objective listening, read this article: “Good Songwriting and Objective Listening

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

The Essential Secrets of Songwriting 10-eBook Bundle“The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” 10- eBook bundle comes with a free copy of “Use Your Words! Developing a Lyrics-First Songwriting Process.” Discover the power and excitement that comes from putting your lyrics front and centre in the songwriting process.

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Nirvana in concert

In Good Songwriting, Opposites Matter

Most songs make use of contrasting characteristics as a way of keeping listeners interested. You might get a song with a verse that’s quiet, at least in comparison to the chorus. “Smells Like Teen Sprit” (Nirvana) is a good example, and practically any power ballad.

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And it’s more than just the general loudness that’s contrasted. Many songs will feature melodies in the singer’s low range, then by contrast the melody will move higher. Full versus sparse production, major versus minor… these are all ways that contrast is used.

Contrasting Elements Within Songs

Most of the time listeners are unaware of how important it is to use contrast in a song. It’s more a situation where they’re likely to hear the musical excitement that comes from contrast more so than to understand and realize the cause of that excitement.

While it’s true that not every song will juxtapose every possible opposite characteristic (some songs are quiet from beginning to end, for example), it’s safe to say that a song with little or no contrasting elements will leave the audience feeling like there’s nothing to listen to. A bit like trying to get interested in a white wall.

In effect, we’re talking about opposites. Good music needs to display opposite effects. Sometimes you might near those opposites in relatively close proximity to each other, like a loud phrase followed immediately by a quiet one. And sometimes you need to wait for the next section of a song, such as hearing a minor key verse followed by a major key chorus.

In addition to the characteristics shown in the graphic above, there are other ones you might want to consider:

  1. GENERAL MUSICAL COMPLEXITY. Prog rock gives us the best examples of this, and I think “Gates of Delirium“, from The 1974 Yes album “Relayer” is a good example. As you listen, you’ll notice that you get very complex harmonies, rhythms and musical phrasing, and then suddenly everything seems to simplify, and you get, by contrast, something that’s almost hook-like and easy to sing along with. That moving back and forth from complexity to simplicity is a mainstay of the progressive rock era, but also quite usable in more accessible genres.
  2. USE OF VOCAL HARMONIES. More often than not, a producer will encourage the use of vocal harmonies as a way of increasing musical energy and excitement, and it’s going to have its best effect if it’s contrasted by sections where there are no vocal harmonies.
  3. TIME SIGNATURES. Some songwriters find anything other than standard 4/4 time difficult to work with, but if you’ve got some experience with changing up time signatures, try complex ones for a verse, and follow it up with a simpler 4/4 meter for the chorus. In pop songwriting, even alternating between a 3/4 verse and a 4/4 chorus is all that’s necessary to give the impression of the opposite qualities of complexity and simplicity, as we hear in The Beatles’ “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds.”
  4. OCTAVE DISPLACEMENT OF MELODY. This is a good technique to explore for songs that use the same melody for verse and chorus. Moving the melody an octave higher for the chorus means that you’re using the same tune, but now you get the benefit of a complete change in vocal quality. Tom Petty’s “Free Fallin’” shows the benefit of this technique.

Don’t feel that every possible quality or characteristic of a song needs to have an opposite somewhere else within the song. It’s probably better to say that songs with no opposite qualities run the risk of sounding boring or uneventful.

It’s more a case of exploring opposites if you determine that what you’ve written sounds dull, with no apparent cause. When that happens, it’s time to make a list of all the possible contrasts your song could be demonstrating.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter

Writing a Song From a Chord ProgressionIf you like starting songs by working out the chord progression first, you will love “Writing a Song From a Chord Progression.” It’s part of the 10-eBook “Essential Secrets of Songwriting” Bundle.

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Changing Key (While Not Really Changing Key)

Most songs will keep the same key from beginning to end. For songs that do change key, the most common circumstance is when you have a minor verse that moves to a major chorus. You hear this in lots of songs. I did a video a while back regarding how songs change key, and referred to the song “Take Your Time” by Sam Hunt, which starts in G# minor, switching to B major for the chorus. It’s just one of many that do this kind of key change.

Most of the time, the change from minor to major is a very smooth one, because in reality the key isn’t really changing. Here’s more about what I mean.

Essential Chord ProgressionsSometimes all you need are lists of chord progressions to get your songwriting process started. You need the chord collections that come as part of “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting 10-eBook Bundle.” Use the progressions as-is, or modify them to suit your own songs.

Most songs in the pop genres will use any of the chords that naturally occur in that key. For any major key, there are seven of them, and they’re fairly easy to figure out: Just play a major scale, and you’ve found the roots of those seven chords.

Now play a 1-3-5 triad above each of those notes and you’ve got the seven chords. Do that in C major and you’ve got this:

  • C-E-G: (C)
  • D-F-A: (Dm)
  • E-G-B: (Em)
  • F-A-C: (F)
  • G-B-D: (G)
  • A-C-E: (Am)
  • B-D-F: (Bdim)

So if your song is in C major, the chords you choose will most often be selected from that list. Occasionally you might choose to throw in a chord that doesn’t belong naturally to your chosen key. Those so-called non-diatonic chords can add a wonderful sense of spice and surprise to your music. That’s when songwriting can get interesting.

When Minor-Sounding Music isn’t Necessarily In a Minor Key

Going back to Sam Hunt’s “Take Your Time” (key of B major), even though the verse is very much a minor-sounding section (sounding like the key of G# minor), it’s simply taking two chords from B major — G#m and C#m — and alternating between them.

Other than those two chords, there’s not a lot that indicates G# minor. There’s a much lengthier explanation for what’s going on here, but let’s just say that in traditional harmony, you need a leading tone to the minor tonic to occur somewhere that would unambiguously announce G# minor as the key.

To illustrate this, listen to “California Dreamin’, which is IN D minor. We get that crucial leading tone note C# every time we hear that A chord move to D minor.

In the verse for “Take Your Time”, however, we simply get an alternating between two chords:

Chords from B major

So what good is this information? Perhaps we’re just playing around with terminology, and maybe there isn’t a lot of difference between being “in a key” and “using minor chords.”

I think the best use of this information is simply this: if you want to switch from a minor-sounding verse to a major sounding chorus, it simply requires you to know the chords of the major chorus. Once you know the seven naturally-occurring chords (as you see listed above for B major), you can carefully select primarily minor chords for your verse, in whichever order pleases you.

Some other possible primarily minor-sounding progressions from B major:

  • C#m  F#  G#m  C#m
  • G#m  F#  G#m  D#m  E  G#m  F#  G#m
  • D#m  B  C#m  D#m

You get the idea. By improvising with the minor chords of a major key, you create progressions that tend toward sounding introspective and moody.

For your chorus, you’ll often find that an abrupt change to B major can work well, with a minimum of fussing about the transition:

Verse —-> Chorus

G#m  D#m  G#m  D#m  E  G#m  F#  G#m  ||B  G#m  E  F#…

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

“The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” 10-eBook BundleIf you’re looking for one set of eBooks that will cover everything you need to know about writing songs –creating melodies, lyrics, chord progressions, and more — “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” 10-eBook Deluxe Bundle is what you’re looking for. It always comes with a SPECIAL DEAL.

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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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