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I love when someone says something that gives me a “Wow, I never thought of it that way” moment. Back when I was a college music student, I remember a violin professor talking about the notion of playing “out-of-tune”, and he said something along these lines:
You really have to change your way of thinking of out-of-tune playing. Those notes aren’t out-of-tune… they’re wrong. For every note you play, there are hundreds of notes that are close, but not the right one for that moment. They aren’t out-of-tune: they’re wrong.
That may seem like simply playing around with words, but it really changed my way of thinking on that issue.
There’s another issue that songwriters encounter all the time, and it’s finding the courage to experiment and try something new. It’s hard because experiments can fail, and we don’t like to hear our music sounding bad.
So the option becomes to not experiment, and to keep giving your fan base the music that they’ve come to expect from you. Safe, yes. Innovative and fresh, not so much.
For that circumstance there’s a great quote by inventor Thomas Edison you’ve likely seen many times:
I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.
As a songwriter you simply have to ensure that you’ve got a way to experiment musically such that your audience doesn’t necessarily hear those experiments. And if you want to be a cutting-edge songwriter, where your music takes your fans on an interesting journey, you really must experiment a bit and move outside your comfort zone.
Do you have songs that you consider to be failures? If so, you really have to adopt Thomas Edison’s view that you simply found a way to put music together that isn’t what you want. They’re not failures, they’re simply steps along the way to finding songs that do represent the musician you are.
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When I listen to a song that’s spent a good deal of time at the top of the charts, I’m often amazed by how simple its structure is, how simple the chords are, and how few notes the melody actually uses.
Sure, there are the exceptions. Elton John’s songs, for example, tend to use long melodies and chord progressions that stray far beyond basic three-chord choices. But you should take it as a bit of encouragement for you that it’s quite possible to write a song that keeps things far simpler.
For most good songs in the pop genres, getting a hook working properly is vital. “Hooks and Riffs: How They Grab Attention, Make Songs Memorable, and Build Your Fan Base” shows you how hooks have made the world’s top songs successful.
The Police’s “Every Breath You Take“, the top song of the year 1983 on the Billboard Hot 100, is a good example of the power of simplicity in songwriting. The chord progression is a standard I-vi-IV-V progression in Ab major, sometimes resolving to I (Ab), sometimes to vi (Fm).
The bridge (starting at 1’23”) moves into a new key area — not unusual at all for bridge sections. And even though the choice of moving to the flat-VI chord is a bit rare, the entire bridge consists only of two chords: bIV (E) and bVII (Gb).
If your attention goes immediately to melodies, you’ll probably be surprised (as I was) just how much mileage he gets from very few notes.
The entire verse melody is constructed by only four notes: Ab, Bb, C and Db:
For the bridge, the choices for melody notes move considerably higher, but the melody becomes even more restricted, mainly choosing from E, F# and G#.
What does all this mean for songwriters? How are you able to generate interest in a song if the melodies are constructed so simply from so few actual notes?
It should serve as a reminder that listeners don’t hear notes, they hear patterns and musical gestures. The melody for “Every Breath You Take” makes use of simple rhythms (on the title line, for example), as well as simple syncopations (on “Ev’ry bond you break, ev’ry step you take”), and everything gets placed upon a simple but extremely engaging guitar-bass-drums riff. You can definitely make a case for saying that fewer notes makes melodies easier to remember.
In fact, it seems apparent that the simplicity of the design is a major factor in the song’s appeal: it’s number 84 on the Rolling Stone list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time, and is the most played song in radio history.
If you’re purposely writing a song that uses simple melodies over simple chord progressions, remember:
- You need something enticing that draws listeners in. Listening to the instrumental intro of “Every Breath You Take” shows you how simple that intro is, but it’s very attractive. The extra-long play-off at the end, similarly constructed, shows just how much mileage you can get out of something so simple.
- Simple melodic ideas need enticing rhythmic interplay with the backing instruments. Use standard rhythms and simple syncopations. (If you want to read more about this, check out this article from last years: “The Importance of Rhythm in a Good Song Hook.”
- Basic, tonally-strong chords usually work better than complex ones.
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The best songwriters that I know consider themselves to be “students” of songwriting, even if only in an unofficial sense. They consider every song that they hear to be an opportunity to learn something.
The problem with being a student of songwriting is that we all hold very strong opinions about music. We have our likes and dislikes. And it wouldn’t be unusual to find that you’ve got more songs that you dislike than ones that you like.
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When you dislike a song, it’s hard to learn from it. We’re usually too busy considering what we don’t particularly care about it. But just because you dislike a song does not mean that it’s a bad song.
If you dislike country music as a genre for example, it tends to make you dislike most country songs in general, no matter how well-written they actually are. That’s a normal response. But if you’re going to be a serious student of songwriting, even in the unofficial sense, you have to get past your dislike of genres and songs, and be willing to learn from them.
In fact, being able to spend time listening to, analyzing, and learning from a song you dislike is probably the most important part of being a student of songwriting.
This kind of listening is called objective listening, because you succeed only if you are able to put your subjective reaction — your feelings and opinions — in the background.
Once you’ve done that, you find that there is much to learn from practically any song. For any song that has been professionally produced and recorded, you should consider it a treasure trove of songwriting ideas that you can learn from in a bid to improve your own songwriting technique.
Suppressing your stronger opinions is not as difficult as it might seem. Here’s what do to:
- Look for songs specifically from genres you don’t normally like. Search online for “Best Country songs”, “Best Ska songs”, or whichever genre you’re not too familiar with.
- Adjust your frame of mind. Don’t listen with the thought in mind, “I wonder if I’m going to like this?” Think rather, “I wonder what part of this I’ll enjoy the most?”
- Listen and take notes. As in, literally keep a listening journal where you write down the title, the songwriter(s), and then make a list of the parts of the song you found most interesting.
- Listen again. You will always hear more in a song the second or third time through. Give the song a chance. And if it’s a genre you dislike, actively suppress your naturally-occurring opinions and find something positive in what you’re hearing.
Once you’ve honed your ability to learn from songs you don’t particularly care for, you’ve opened your mind to a suddenly larger repertoire of music that will influence how and what you write. And that’s a great thing.
We all have opinions, and I’m not suggesting for a moment that you can’t have those opinions. But when you’re trying to improve your songwriting technique, do what you can to suppress those strong opinions, at least while you’re in learning mode.
Then when it’s time to put some music on for your own personal enjoyment, that’s the time for your opinions. But my guess is that you’re going to discover that your musical tastes have increased and benefitted from the time you took to enhance your ability to listen objectively.
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About seven years ago I wrote a blog post about the best way to create chord progressions for a song’s bridge. I had created a graphic to show how a bridge progression could work, and I thought I should repost that image here, and then show you how it works:
The image works for 8-bar bridges, but you can also use it as a guide for writing longer sections, even ones that aren’t specifically bridges.
In this graphic, the first four bars will emphasize A minor as the key, and then you move on to the right side of the graphic, which emphasizes G as a kind of target. That’s because G is the dominant chord of C major, and you want the end of your bridge to sound like it wants to return to C major.
Here are some tips for using the graphic:
- The graphic assumes that the song’s chorus is in C major. So of course you can transpose it to any key you’d like.
- The graphic assumes that your bridge is in the key of A minor.
- Think up-and-down when you work with the graphic. For the first four bars of your 8-bar bridge, you’ll create little progressions that keep moving back to Am as a kind of temporary tonic chord. So for example, start your bridge by playing the Am chord, then jump upward to any other chord on the left hand side of the vertical line.
- Gradually work your way downward. So let’s say you’ve played Am, then you jump up to, let’s say, Bb. From there you should move downward or sideways. For example, after Bb you could move sideways and play Dm, then downward to G, then downward again to Am. That would give you a progression of:
Or, let’s say that you decide to jump up to F after your Am starting chord. You could then go to Dm, then to Em, and then Am, giving you:
In general, you move downward through the list, with the option to move sideways as the arrows show.
After four bars of bridge, it’s time to move on to the right side of the chart and start creating progressions that make G sound like a target. It’s good if your final progression in the bridge has a G as its chord, but that’s not vital.
So using the right side of the chart in the same way as the left side, you might create the following:
That final G prepares the music perfectly for a return to C major.
Now… to experiment!
If you use this chart literally, you’ll not go wrong. But the best songwriters are creative people, and so you must not feel that you’re stuck using the chords in the order that you see them in the chart. Feel free to experiment.
For example, you can jump up in the chart, start down, and then (if you like the sound of it) reverse direction and start moving upward again before finally moving down.
Of you could play the Am chord, then jump up to Em, go back to Am, and keep doing that for four bars before moving on to the right side of the chart.
Remember that this chart is simply a tool for helping if chord progression ideas aren’t coming immediately to mind. You can start using the chart, and then abandon it after four bars. Or you could try writing a bridge that uses only the right side — or only the left side — of the chart.
Whatever you do, as always, use your ears as your guide. It’s just a way to help you create chord progression ideas to experiment with, and in that regard, there’s no right or wrong.
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Whether you come up with the chords and then create a melody, or have a melody that you want to add chords to, you need to be sure that the chords are properly supporting the melody.
When chords and melody work well together, you have the happy circumstance that they both sound better than they might sound on their own. But the opposite is true as well: when there are problems with chords not properly fitting with the melody, they can both sound worse.
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It shouldn’t surprise you that so much of this aspect of songwriting is guided by your instincts. But you can help your instincts by considering these five important tips:
1. Change chords mainly on strong beats.
The strong beats are the ones that begin each bar of music, so in that case we’re talking about changing chords every four beats. If you want to change chords more often, change every two beats. (Changing every three beats works for songs in 3/4 time.)
In a song like Lennon & McCartney’s “Let It Be”, the chords change every two beats. The verse of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” holds each chord for eight beats (two full bars) before changing. So as you can tell, there’s no rule here, but consistency is important.
In any song, you can make changes as you go — sometimes changing every four beats, then every two, then back to four. But one of those choices should be the main occurrence for that particular song.
2. At the point of a chord change, the melody note should belong to the chord.
The melody note always needs to feel supported by the chord that’s underneath. So if the melody note is C, you’ll have choices: mainly, whichever chord has a C as one of its notes.
3. Let the mood of the song control how often the chords change.
In general, quickly changing chords tends to increase the musical energy of a song. So you can use the frequency of chord changes as a way of boosting the power of a song. In “Let It Be”, the fact that the chords change every two beats gives the song a more relaxed feel, and suits the melody (and lyric) well.
But don’t misunderstand: you can still have intense musical energy with chords that don’t change at all, if you’ve got power in your instrumentation and playing style (as in The Guess Who’s “American Woman”). But if you’re looking to add a bit of intensity, think about ways to increase the speed of your chord changes.
4. Melody notes between chord changes don’t need to belong to the chord of the moment.
While it’s true that the melody note that happens right at the moment of a chord change should belong to that chord, the melody notes in between chord changes can include lots of non-chord notes.
“Groovy Kind of Love” uses lots of scalewise passages in the melody, changing chords mainly every four beats. That means that most of the notes between chord changes don’t actually belong to the chords that are happening. But they sound great, because the melody note at the point of a chord change always fits the chord.
5. When arranging your song, consider using implied chords.
This is more a production issue than a songwriting one, but it’s important: just because you’re playing, let’s say, a C chord shouldn’t necessarily mean that you’ve got to have all the notes of that C chord present.
A good demonstration of this is Billy Joel’s “It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me.” The opening chord progression is C-Em-Bb-F, but the only instruments playing are the bass and guitar playing the roots of those chords. Billy gives one extra note for each chord with his vocal line.
When you’ve got an incomplete chord like this, it’s called an implied chord — our musical brain fills in the notes that are missing.
What good are implied chords? They work well in verses, where you might want the instrumentation to be thinner — a bit more transparent. It allows for a more effective build to a fuller chorus.
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5 Characteristics of Great Song Lyrics
How the Rhythm of a Melody Changes as a Song Progresses
Why Hooks are So Important to Pop Songs
I’m Gary Ewer. For years I’ve been helping songwriters understand the basic fundamentals of good songwriting. I do that mainly through the free articles on this blog, and also through my 10-eBook bundle. If you lack consistency in your songwriting, and you want to take your abilities to the next level, everything you need to know is in that bundle package, so please take a look at those ebooks. And if you want to browse through the more than 2300 posts in the blog archive, scroll to the bottom of this 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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