If you ever listen to an old 1950s-era recording of jazz pianist Oscar Peterson, you’re probably hearing him with his trio which included Herb Ellis on guitar and Ray Brown on bass. No drummer at that time, but the three of them played with such a powerful sense of beat and rhythm that you don’t miss the drummer at all.
And if you want to hear what I mean, listen to their recording of “Swinging Till the Girls Come Home” (written by Oscar Pettiford). No drummer, but you’d swear there was.
Songwriters are very familiar with the chorus hook, but there are other kinds to experiment with, and you will want to discover the power of layering various kinds of hooks in the same song. “Hooks and Riffs: How They Grab Attention, Make Songs Memorable, and Build Your Fan Base“ shows you how it’s done.
There are some groups, on the other hand, where you feel that if it weren’t for the drummer, the band’s sense of rhythm would be weaker. The drummer works to hold things together, and that’s not a good thing. The best use of a drummer is to add to the sound and feel of a song, not to repair errors.
I’m mentioning this because there is a similar situation that occurs in the songwriting world, where musical weaknesses within a song require fixing, and where those weaknesses are repaired by the producer during the production of the recording.
A Good Producer
A good producer is often dealing with things that songwriters can’t necessarily deal with at the songwriting stage, and it’s an important part of their job.
For example, it’s an important principle that songs maintain or gain musical energy as they progress. That’s one that a producer can easily deal with, and it usually means manipulating instrumental sounds and volume.
But here’s an issue (a principle, actually) that songwriters can deal with: a verse melody typically wanders low in the singer’s range, and then it moves upward to include higher notes, particularly as it gets ready to join to the chorus.
If a songwriter doesn’t know that that principle is important — the upward-moving melody — it can be dealt with at the production stage, and usually means that a producer tries to build musical energy, again by manipulating aspects of the music during recording and/or mixing.
But — and this is why I’m bringing this up — songwriting issues are best dealt with at the songwriting stage, not the production stage. Good production helps support those aspects of music, doesn’t try to create them in their absence.
How do you know you’ve got a song that is the best it can be? Try making a recording of it as an unaccompanied, solo voice song.
If you like how the melodies work, then record it again, adding in a simple chord progression using guitars and/or keyboards. Does it still work? Do you like what you hear? Do the rhythms, chords, melodies and lyrics all support the general intent of the song? Those song elements are the most important part of what makes a song really work, from a structural point of view.
If you can still say yes to all that, then you’ve got a song that’s ready for everything else that typically goes with producing music in your chosen genre.
There’s nothing quite so important as getting a song to work well at this bare-bones level. Once it works, everything you add to it works to support those great song elements.
In a way, production can be like the drummer in a band: it can fix errors, but its best use is to support songs and make them better, not repair them.
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We tend to over-simplify what we mean by contrast in a good song, and thereby misunderstand its power.
Contrast, in musical terms, means considering musical opposites: loud versus soft, high versus low, and so on.
When we over-simplify contrast, we simply think that the contrast principle requires us to mix loud and soft sounds, high and low melodies, major and minor chords… that sort of thing.
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But that’s not what the contrast principle is all about. If it were, we’d have no good way to describe why some songs are great even though they use melodies that all sit mainly within the same small melodic range, like “Hound Dog” (Jerry Leiber/ Mike Stoller), or songs that don’t feature much of a change at all in volume, like Joni Mitchell’s “Coyote” from her 1976 album “Hejira.”
But it is true that we like contrast within a song, so what is the true nature of contrast in songwriting?
The Contrast Principle
If you ask a psychologist what is meant by the contrast principle, they’ll say something like: if you put your hand in a bucket of cold water, and then put it in a bucket of warm water, the warm water will feel even warmer than it really is, because you’re conditioned by the first experience: your hand in the cold water.
If you lift a very heavy weight, then put it down and lift a very light one, the lighter weight feels even lighter than you’d normally expect it to feel, because you’re conditioned by the first experience: the feel of the heavy weight.
We experience this contrast principle in less tangible ways, and this is where music comes in. We listen to the start of a song, and based on those initial impressions, will hear other things in the song in comparison to the first things. And we like noting the existence of musical contrast, even if (and some might say especially if) it’s subtle.
So contrast does not need to be obvious or flamboyant. In order to fulfil the requirements of the contrast principle in music, a touch of contrast can go a long way, as in these examples, some of which are strictly songwriting issues, others being production issues:
- Contrasting major with minor. While it’s a common technique to contrast a minor verse with a major chorus, many or most songs will keep the verse and chorus in the same key. The contrast principle might take the form of something far more subtle: starting a verse progression with a minor chord, but staying mainly in a major key. Play through these two progressions, and note how bright the first progression sounds, even though the only difference between the two is the opening chord:
1) C F Dm G C || 2) Am F Dm G C
- Contrasting soft and loud. We usually think of choruses of songs as being louder than verses, and while this is true, the actual difference may only be slight. That’s because the contrast principle says that if the verse is soft, any increase in volume for the chorus, however slight, will be perceived to be greater by virtue of the existence of that soft verse. Listen to Imogen Heap’s “Half Life.” Listen how the changes in instrumentation/production, and the accompanying volume changes, sound far more obvious and ear-catching than the decibels warrant.
- Contrasting full and sparse instrumentation and/or production. When a song starts with a very quiet and transparent instrumentation, any change, however slight, to that instrumentation makes much more of an impact than what you’d normally expect. Listen to the gradual build of instrumentation in Peter Gabriel’s “Solsbury Hill” to see what I mean.
- Contrasting low with high melodies. Every song has its basic range, but we usually note that the highest notes won’t be at the very beginning; they’ll be in the chorus or bridge. But there’s no need for a song’s highest note to be much higher at all than the highest notes of other sections. Even just a semitone can sound dramatic if it’s placed on a strong beat, or paired with a powerful chord or instrumental moment. Also, a chorus may sound a lot higher than a verse, even though its highest notes may only be a tone or so above the verse.
There are lots of other examples but what’s really important to remember is this: in music, the contrast principle is not simply an acknowledgement that opposites should occur. It’s more subtle than that. We take a strong musical message from the first notes we hear in a song, and then everything else is compared.
And in making those comparisons, we notice that even slight differences are all that’s really needed to make a song musically meaningful.
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Inspiration in its most basic terms is excitement. It’s that simple. If you’re inspired, you’re excited.
In the minds of most creators of music or other art forms, inspiration seems crucial. If you’re not inspired, you’re likely not writing.
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Except… many do write even when they don’t feel particularly inspired to do so. It is actually possible to be creative without feeling overly excited or inspired. Film score composers, for example, usually work to very tight schedules. How do they do it if they wake up “not feeling it?”
If you broaden your own personal definition of what inspiration means to you, you should be able to find the inner drive that can keep you writing daily.
Inspiration From Without
If you go through bouts of feeling uninspired, it probably means that you think of inspiration as something that comes from without. You get inspired when you see waterfalls, butterflies, or read an inspiring story of people overcoming adversities in their lives.
The problem with that kind of inspiration is that it is fleeting. We can only sustain that kind of excitement for very brief periods of time (hours, or a day or two) before we feel uninspired once again, and uninclined to write.
Inspiration from Within
The better kind of inspiration is the kind we generate within our own creative minds, where you actually create your own inspiration. The best source of inspiration is often your own success.
There are two main ways to create this kind of inspiration. First, listen to good songs you’ve already written, and remind yourself that you really can do this!
And second, write songs even if you don’t feel like it. Even without inspiration, the human mind is capable of creating musical ideas. As you build on those initial ideas, you’ll find that you get a small shot of excitement as you hear things come together.
The more you add to your initial ideas, the more inspiration your mind creates, and, like the proverbial perpetual motion machine, it keeps you going.
Songwriters are often surprised by this when they try it. And if you haven’t tried it, try it now, even if you feel completely uninspired: Grab your guitar or whichever instrument you use to write, and create a short chord progression or sing a melodic idea with whatever lyric pops into your mind.
Then, since repetition of ideas is so important in good songwriting, try repeating that idea. Maybe repeat it exactly, or try an approximate repeat (like the first couple of lines of “Big Yellow Taxi”, as an example).
Each time you add to your idea, you should feel a shot of excitement. That’s your inspiration to keep going.
As you find that ideas aren’t easily forthcoming, put the song away. Don’t let frustration grab hold. Try listening to good music, then take the song out again and try some more.
In my own writing, I’ve often found that the times I write seemingly without inspiration are the times that I write my best music. I feel inspiration being generated as I write, and to me, that’s far more valuable than inspiration that comes from without.
I wonder if you’ll find the same to be true.
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One of the first things a listener picks up from a song is the mood. Right away, we can usually tell if it’s upbeat and cheerful, or dark and brooding, or somewhere in between. The fact that we notice mood so quickly is probably an indication of how important it is to people.
Online songwriting forums (Reddit and so forth) are great ways to find out what people are dealing with when they write songs. Occasionally you’ll find songwriters dealing with this issue of mood, and more often than not, the problem is that they find their songs to be too light and fluffy, and wish they could come up with something with a bit more edge.
If you find that you get stuck writing a good hook for your song, it’s time to stop and take a look at some of pop history’s best hooks, discover why they work, and then apply what you’ve learned to your own songs. “Hooks and Riffs: How They Grab Attention, Make Songs Memorable, and Build Your Fan Base” is part of the 10e-Book Bundle.
If this is something you’re dealing with, where everything you write sounds like it could be a soundtrack for a Sunday picnic, here are some suggestions:
- Switch major key songs to minor key. Most of the time, this is an easy fix. If your song is in C major, and the chorus progression is something like C-F-Am-G-C, you can switch those with the equivalent chords from C minor: Cm-Fm-Ab-G-(or Gm)-C.
- Use lowered VII-chords in place of V-chords. If your progression is C-F-Am-G-C, try switching the G chord to a flat-VII: Bb. That gives you C-F-Am-Bb-C.
- Use lowered III-chords as a passing chord between I and IV. Let’s say you take that sample progression (C-F-Am-G-C), where you strum each chord for 2 beats. You might try strumming the first C for 1 beat, follow it immediately with a Flat-III chord: Eb. That helps to take the sweetness away from the progression, and move it toward something with a bit more edge.
- Use melodies that have sections that dwell mostly on one note. This is one to experiment with. You hear the effect of this dwelling on one pitch in first part of the verse in Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone.” You also get a version of this in Neil Young’s “Southern Man”, where the melody keeps coming back to those opening vocal line pitches.
- Think about your lyric choices. Sweet lyrics can be the reason a song sounds so mushy. Freddie Mercury mentioned once in an interview that they were worried about the lyrics to “Your My Best Friend,” as they sounded a bit over the top in the sweetness category. But in that case, they actually work. But just to put it out there: sweet lyrics may need to be darkened a bit, and can be a contributor to a song sounding too warm and fuzzy.
- Think about instrumentation, production and vocal quality. Edgy instrumental sounds (distorted guitar and other such effects) can help to dampen the cheery mood of your music. Think about “Helter Skelter” (Lennon & McCartney) and what the guitar sound does for that song.
- Experiment with key. This partners up with point #6 above. Lowering key might encourage darker tones from your voice, but there’s also the consideration that raising the key puts your voice closer to the upper part of your range. That allows some natural strain to come through, and might be what your song needs. For example, give Joe Cocker’s version of “You Are So Beautiful” (Billy Preston, Bruce Fisher) a listen, and try to imagine it in any other key. It seems to be purposely chosen to allow the full range of emotions to shine through, including the upper-register screams.
And don’t forget that the basic beat – the groove – of your song will give away its mood almost right away. So experimenting with different ways to present the song, including playing around with tempo, can be a vital part of darkening the mood of a song.
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You know that in the pop music genres, stardom is fleeting. Look at the bio of any successful artist, and you’re seeing a rise, then a fall, in popularity. Sometimes, if you’re a songwriting member of a group like, say, the Bee Gees, you might see that rise and fall happen twice – an early taste of stardom, and then after a shift in musical direction, a second successful phase.
What accounts for a rise and fall in popularity in pop music careers? You don’t see the same thing when it comes to classical composition — at least not to the same degree. In fact, the notion that some composers don’t see their greatest popularity until after their death is not a myth, at least in some cases.
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The reason for this is that classical composers have the benefit of having their music judged almost solely on its musical merits. We think that Brahms is a great composer, not because so many other people like his music, but rather his compositions are structurally sound, unique and imaginative.
But pop musicians (performers, anyway) must work another element into the formula for musical success: personal popularity. Having a successful career as a performing artist means being popular in ways and aspects that are quite apart from musical talent.
For those musicians who are exceedingly popular, you’d find that, not only will other songwriters try to write music the way they do, but also that the public might make fashion choices (hair style, clothes, etc.) based on what their favourite singers and bands have chosen for themselves.
You might have written some great songs, but if your career hasn’t been managed properly, or those songs are not produced professionally, you may not see success even though your songs may be musically very strong.
The Great Song At the Centre
Having said that, though, at the heart of any good career is a great song. If you’re on your way up and you’re hoping to make the kind of impact on the world that the greatest songwriters have made, you need to have written great songs.
You may wonder why this even needs to be mentioned at all. Of course, you probably think, your songs need to be great. But in fact, many songwriters put a lot of effort into getting a great website, easy streaming possibilities, great promotion via social media, etc. But they neglect one of the most important things: the great song.
The best producers of classic rock — George Martin (The Beatles), Bill Szymczyk (Eagles), Quincy Jones (Michael Jackson et al), Roy Thomas Baker (Queen) — became legendary for the groups they worked with, but would never have become legendary at all if they didn’t have great songs to work with.
So if you find yourself stuck and wondering how to become more popular as a singer-songwriter, and you really want that career, you’ve got to move out of the amateur world into the professional world by getting professional producers and managers involved.
And those professionals are not going to involve themselves in your career unless:
- You write great songs.
- You write great songs CONSISTENTLY.
A good professional manager can take care of the nuts and bolts of your career, and a professional producer will get your songs sounding their best, properly targeting the audience you’re aiming for.
But no one will hitch themselves to your wagon if, at the core, you don’t have excellent songs forthcoming.
If you write purely by instinct, I can make a pretty good guess that your music is randomly good. Random success — that one good song that happens “out of the blue” — is of little interest to those in the professional world, because there’s no way of knowing when that great song will be followed by another great one.
But if you write with a healthy combination of instinct, imagination, and knowledge… THAT’S a winning combination, and sets you up for the kind of career you may be looking for.
The best ways to improve your songwriting technique are to listen to great songs, and then to study great songs. It’s why I wrote my songwriting e-book bundle. It looks at every aspect of great songs, and shows how and why they work so well. And then gives you suggestions for incorporating those techniques in your own songwriting.
In that regard, the best thing you as a songwriter can be doing for yourself is to look for ways to make the writing of great songs something that happens consistently. Once you’ve got that happening, you’ve given yourself the best chance possible for having professionals in the music business take the risk of involving themselves in your potential career.
Have a great melody, but stuck at the “how to add chords to it” stage? “How To Harmonize a Melody” shows you, step-by-step and with sound samples, how it’s done, with suggestions for chord substitutions that might work as well. It’s part of “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” 10-eBook Bundle.
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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