I read an interview with Paul McCartney once where he talked about the choice of words in “She Loves You.” In particular, he and Lennon considered it a bit risky to be singing a song about “he” and “you”, since most love songs put the singer front and centre.
In other words, musical logic dictates that you’d want to sing, “She loves me” rather than “She loves you,” if only because it makes it easier for listeners to put themselves in the place of the singer.
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Of course,”She loves you” works brilliantly, shifting the focus so that it’s a song where the singer is advising a friend, rather than a song about the singer.
But most of the time, a good love song lyric will describe a situation between the singer and some particular love interest. When it’s a song about love gone wrong or a love that’s not working, the temptation might be to sing about how you feel about the situation.
But that might lead to self-centred lines of the “I feel so lousy” variety, and those ones rarely work out. Why? Because it makes your song sound like 4 minutes of whining and complaining about your situation. That rarely makes the connection to listeners you’re hoping for.
Getting the balance right is tricky. Eighties power ballads usually got it right if you want examples of how to word things. In Chicago’s “Hard Habit to Break” (Steve Kipner, John Lewis Parker), the chorus describes situations that create emotions, and that’s the key:
Now being without you
Takes a lot of getting used to
Should learn to live with it
But I don’t want to
Being without you
Is all a big mistake
Instead of getting easier
It’s the hardest thing to take
I’m addicted to ya babe
You’re a hard habit to break
There’s no “I feel lousy” kinds of lines; every line is written to create an emotion, not describe one. There’s nothing wrong with describing an emotion from time to time, though it works a lot better when the emotion is a positive one (“…because I’m happy…” – Pharrell Williams)
This is probably why love songs still sell, and we still love to hear new ones. The emotion is as old as the hills; it’s the situations and circumstances described in the songs are usually (hopefully) somewhat different.
And every successful lyric of the hurtin’ song variety avoids putting the focus on the feelings and emotions of the singer, and focuses instead on things that create emotions. You need to do the same.
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There’s no denying that the shape of a melody has a lot to do with the mood of music. However, melodic shape is a tricky one to calculate. It’s not based on a rule as much as it’s based on psychology.
On a psychological level, we know, for example, that:
- melodies that are static, sitting in and around one particular note, are good ones when the lyric is opinionated or forthright.
- melodies that are mainly stepwise in motion, balanced between up and down, are good ones when the lyric describes a story.
- melodies that feature an upward leap are good ones when the lyrics are emotional, often exuberant.
When melodies leap upward, there is a shot of musical excitement. It can be the kind of excitement that’s hopeful and exuberant, like the iconic octave leap at the beginning of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”
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It might be cheerful and happy, like the stepwise burst upward at the beginning of the chorus of Lennon & McCartney’s “Penny Lane.”
It might also be cheerfully tender, like the major 6th leap at the start of the verse of The Stylistic’s “You Make Me Feel Brand New” (Thom Bell, Linda Creed).
It needs to be pointed out once more that we’re not talking about a rule here. But there’s a certain kind of logic, apart from musical logic, that governs why we feel excited when voices move up quickly by step, or leap upward.
As voices move higher, there’s a natural kind of tension that’s audible in the vocal quality. We can make great use of that tension, and depending on what we’re singing about (and sometimes depending on the quality of the chords underneath), we can enhance generally positive moods.
Making Best Use of Upward Leaps
As you see in the sample tunes mentioned above, an upward leap can be useful in either a verse or a chorus. The tender upward leap is great in a verse, but if your chorus is lacking some punch, you may want to consider rewriting your chorus to feature the upward leap.
You’ll find that it often works best placed at the beginning of the chorus, worked into the chorus hook.
Modifying the shape of your song melody is a good reminder that you get to control the notes you use. If your chorus is lacking excitement, one well-placed upward leap may be all that’s necessary to make it suddenly exciting and exuberant.
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It’s frustrating when you can’t come up with any good songwriting ideas. When that happens on random days, we call that normal.
Creativity is not a tap you turn on with an endless supply of ideas at your disposal. It’s normal to have days when ideas just don’t seem to happen. Most of the time, you might call it a lack of inspiration.
When you feel uninspired, the proper response is not necessarily to stop writing. Often, the best response is to sit down and try writing anyway.
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That’s not because you can force creativity out of an otherwise locked-up musical brain. It’s because one of the best sources of inspiration is your own work.
As you compose, you create fragments of ideas. You may not know yet what’s going to happen with those ideas, but it’s common to feel a little jolt of musical excitement. That excitement leads you down a path where you start to imagine other ideas that could work with it.
You then find something that clicks, and you get another jolt of excitement. And on it goes.
That’s on a good day.
So what about the days when that’s not happening?
Not every day will be a good one. There will be plenty of days when you can generate ideas, but they either don’t seem like good ones, or you can’t find other ideas to partner up with the first ones.
That’s normal. If it were easy, there would be a lot more songwriters in the world. And most of the time, the proper response is to try writing anyway, to try to take advantage of the self-generated inspiration that comes from your own success.
When It’s Best To Stop
But then there are the days when it might make most sense to stop and turn your musical attentions elsewhere for a day or two, or even a week or more.
How you know that it’s time to step back is when you feel that frustration is creating intensely negative emotions in your creative brain. If you feel that everything you do is lousy, and you fully expect everything else you try is going to be similarly lousy, you experience writer’s block as a self-fulfilling prophecy.
That’s when it’s best to stop and turn your attentions to playing your instrument, producing someone else’s music, or perhaps just listening to good music.
You need to get your musical emotions sorted out and back on track, and if writing is preventing that from happening, you need to give it up for a short time.
And at those times, it’s best to remind yourself that all songwriters go through this. Only you will know the best response to it.
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One great way to improve your songwriting is to improve your singing and your playing.
The reasons are simple: by improving your playing, you make it possible to come up with more intricate and creative song ideas that can serve you well in your next song. You also avoid the situation where your fingers keep moving to the same notes and chords, because you’re increasing your repertoire of ideas.
By improving your singing, you develop some vocal versatility that makes it possible for you to sing more varieties of musical styles. Just take any good singer, and make note of how many different vocal styles they display from one song to the next:
Paul McCartney: “Blackbird” – “Helter Skelter” – “I Will” – “Back In the U.S.S.R.”
So becoming a better pianist/guitarist/singer doesn’t just make you a better band member — it has the potential of increasing your songwriting versatility.
Finding a teacher isn’t that difficult. If you’re not sure you can afford the lessons, your lessons don’t have to be weekly. Talk to a teacher about taking lessons once a month or so, and then work hard between lessons.
There’s another good reason why instrumental/vocal lessons are great for songwriters. From time to time, you’ll find that songwriting ideas dry up, and frustration increases. At those times, taking a break from writing can be the best solution.
And replacing your writing time with practicing your singing or playing is a great way to continue to feel creative and musical. You may find that instrumental improvisation has a way of getting songwriting ideas to flow once more.
So in the bid to make yourself a better songwriter, becoming a better performer might be your best way forward.
There’s nothing quite like the warm feeling you get when your audience loves your latest song. And naturally, you want to be able to copy your success; who wouldn’t?
Replicating your own success is important in the sense that in songwriting, consistency is everything. The industry isn’t much interested in songwriters who write one good song, but then can’t seem to come up with anything great after that. Or if they have to wait for years.
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To keep your success from being random, you take a look at what you’ve written that audiences like, and then try to do something similar again. But the danger is that your songs develop a kind of sameness about them, to the extent that with each new song you’ve written, your fan base feels that they’ve heard it all before.
Then they get bored, feeling that you may have nothing new to offer, and your fan base fizzles.
How to Copy Success
The key to copying your own success is to look deeper into the various elements of your great songs and to figure out what songwriting principle you got right. So it’s not so much about copying the melody you wrote, let’s say, as much as it is about figuring out what it is about the melody that connects so well with your audience.
This is where a bit of objective listening will help. When you know that a song you’ve written is really a hit with your fans, do the following:
- Listen to a recording of the song as if it’s someone else’s. Try to put aside the fact that you wrote it, and think of it as simply a song that you’ve heard somewhere online or on the radio. (This kind of listening is a skill that all songwriters need to develop.)
- Put into words what you like about the song. You can do this any number of ways: writing a short essay, speaking your thoughts into your smartphone memo app, etc. Be as specific as you can. Don’t just say, “Well, I really love the lyrics…” Try to identify why you love the words. Is it the kind of words you used? The phrasing? The topic?
- Move from song element to song element. Talk about the way the various elements interact and relate to each other.
- Identify the songwriting principle that you got right. This is crucial. In other words, in order to learn from a great melody, you need to know why, on a deeper level, the melody you wrote makes such a good impact on your audience.
Every time you get something right, there is a principle that you got right. So you don’t want to copy that great melody — you want to copy the principle involved.
A principle is simply a guideline. A principle advises us, doesn’t make demands of us. So when you have a great song, you need to look deeply into the structure of your song and discover what you got right.
In my eBooks, I identify eleven different principles that I think are important to the success of any good song. The way a melody from the 1950s sounds won’t be much like the way a melody from 2019 sounds, but the underlying principle is likely the same.
So if you want to repeat your songwriting success (and you do!), it’s all about identifying underlying principles. If you don’t know what they are, that’s where you start.
“The Essential Secrets of Songwriting 10-eBook Bundle” explains 11 important principles of songwriting, and does so in language that’s easy to understand, and easy to apply to your own songs. Get a FREE copy of “Use Your Words! Developing a Lyrics-First Songwriting Process” when you purchase the 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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