Most songs will end in the same key that they start in. If there is a key change, probably the most common one would be presenting the verse in a minor key, and then switching to the relative major key for the chorus. For example, you might start your song in A minor, and then switch to C major at the chorus. Since both those keys use the same key signature — no sharps or flats — they’re said to “related” to each other.
But there are many ways to change key in a song. Raising the key by a semitone in the final chorus repeats, for example (“Man in the Mirror”, Michael Jackson, is a good example), is a relatively common one in pop songwriting.
If you’d like to learn more about this sort of effect and what it can do for your song, take a look at the following short list. They’re all blog articles I’ve written over the past several years on this blog, and I hope you find them helpful.
Changing key within a song can add that spark of variety and uniqueness you might be looking for. Of course, key choice will be closely related to the vocal range of your melodies; you can’t put your song in a certain key if it puts the melody out of your own vocal range. More..
I really do believe that most songwriters worry too much about the possible banality of their chord progressions. It’s OK for a progression to be boring and predictable. More..
Regarding the changing of key within the same song (called modulation), the songs that start in minor for the verses and switch to major for the chorus are the most common kind. Here’s how that usually works. More..
For most of the songs you’ll write, you’ll likely use the same key throughout. If you do happen to change key, the mostly common scenario is to put the verse in a minor key and then switch to the relative major for the chorus, like Carole King’s “You’ve Got a Friend.” More..
It’s not uncommon for songwriters to be looking for unique chord progressions that will, in turn, make their song sound unique. But some of the best songs written use very basic chord progressions, usually dictated by the expectations of their chosen genre.
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When you write lyrics, you obviously want your audience to connect to those lyrics and feel something. That would seem to imply that the meaning of your lyric has to be at least clear enough that your listeners understand what’s being sung about.
But that’s not necessarily the case. There are plenty of good examples out there of successful songs where the words being sung are clear enough, but the actual story is a bit unclear.
“The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” eBook bundle comes with a free copy of “Use Your Words! Developing a Lyrics-First Songwriting Process,” along with a Study Guide. Learn how to make the writing of a good lyric the starting point for your own songwriting method.
A good example of what I’m talking about is Don McLean’s “American Pie.” The meaning of the song has been debated for decades now. Some things are clear — that “the day the music died” referred to the 1959 plane crash that took the lives of three of that era’s biggest stars: Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and The Big Bopper.
But everything else is deliciously ambiguous, and over the years has become the subject of wild and entertaining speculation, as you can see on this page, “Meaning Of ‘American Pie’ Song Lyrics (Full Explanation).”
But what’s most interesting is the fact that even though we’re not quite sure what many of the individual lines actually mean, we’re not particularly bothered by that. And our lack of knowing hasn’t prevented McLean from making that all-important emotional connection to his listeners.
In other words, we feel a deep connection to individual lines of lyric. If we knew nothing about “American Pie”, and didn’t know what he was talking about when he used the phrase “the day the music died”, we’d still feel a twinge of surprise, nostalgia and emotion at the sound of those words.
And keep in mind that no one initially knew who he was referring to when he mentioned “the jester” (probably Bob Dylan), the “quartet” (probably the Beatles), “a girl who sang the blues” (probably Janis Joplin), and yet the song soared to number 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 while the meaning of the song was confusing to most of its fans.
People Connect to Lines of Lyric
The lesson you can take from this as a lyricist is that most of your fans will connect to individual lines of lyric and the way those lines are sung, even if they’re unclear what it all means when you pull it all together.
There are many examples of songs that are a bit unclear when it comes to what exactly is being referenced. But they become successful because individual stand-alone lines carry the potential of great meaning.
And once a listener pulls all of those different lines together, they have the ability to create their own meaning, one that works on a personal level.
Most of your listeners will be just fine listening to your lyric even if it does more to pose questions than offer answers. We’re all okay with questions and ambiguity, as long as on a micro-level there is meaning and emotional potential in the individual lines.
Do you have favourite songs where the meaning of the lyric is ambiguous or complex? Please feel free to let me know in the comments below.
It would be a no-brainer to say that I think Paul McCartney discovered things about songwriting that many other writers just don’t ever get to know. But one aspect of his writing that I think has contributed to his success is his very loose concept of what song form is.
Most of the time when we talk about song form, we’re talking about the basic structure of a song — the verse-chorus design. And it’s possible to dig down even deeper into the concept of form, and talk about things like rhyming scheme, use of instruments, or rhythmic patterns.
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But thinking of the traditional definition of song form, which is to examine the overall structure of a song, is probably the concept that we’re all most familiar with. We look at songs and try to determine not just where the verse, chorus and other miscellaneous sections happen, but also what differentiates those different sections.
When you study pop songs from the last six or seven decades, you discover that most songwriters have a similar kind of approach to how the various sections within a song work. For example, most songwriters will put the verse lower in pitch, generally speaking, than the chorus.
You’ll also find that verse lyrics tend to describe situations, people and circumstances, while choruses describe emotions.
But when I say that I think McCartney discovered things about songwriting form that others haven’t, I mean this: I believe McCartney discovered that the main difference between the different sections of a song is the musical energy that we feel.
And more to the point, McCartney very often wrote songs where it was hard to discern any particular verse-chorus relationship. “Hey Jude“, “Live and Let Die“, “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey” – these are songs where you might get a sense of a verse and a chorus structure, but labelling those sections just seems unimportant to the final musical result.
But what is important, then? Why do these songs work, when what we seem to be hearing is a simple case of one unlabelled section moving on to another one?
The reason they work is why the verse-chorus structure of pop songs work in the first place: the various sections of a McCartney song display noticeably different levels of musical energy, even if there’s no particular verse or chorus relationship in the song.
So the success of the verse-chorus structure comes down to musical energy: specifically, that a lower-energy section (the verse) is seeking out and moving toward a higher-energy section (the chorus).
And if there’s one thing we’ve learned from a McCartney song, it’s that that relationship doesn’t necessarily have to be a verse moving to a chorus. It’s more this section moving to that section, in a way that causes musical energy to change in a noticeable way.
If you’ve never written a song where it’s simply one section moving to another — not necessarily verse moving to chorus — it may be time to give that a try. How do you start?
Probably the best approach is to do what McCartney often did, which was to simply bring together various song ideas that were created at different times, but didn’t seem to go anywhere. So many of his songs were bits and pieces — musical ideas — that didn’t have enough on their own to make a complete song.
But with a bit of thought he was able to “jam them together” in the same song, and the results were often unique, innovative and powerful.
So today may be a day to look back through your musical notebook to find the bits of songs that never went anywhere for you, and see if you can pull some of them together into a complete song. The only thing you really need to be sure of is that the different sections bring with them very different levels of musical energy.
If you’re trying to make your lyrics a much more important part of your songs, you need to read “Use Your Words! Developing a Lyrics-First Songwriting Process.” It’s part of “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting 10-eBook Bundle”, and right now, it’s FREE.
If you find yourself always succumbing to writer’s block, you may find yourself thinking that there’s as much frustration in the act of songwriting as there is fun. What can you do to prevent a creative block from constantly showing up at the worst times?
One of the best ways I know to keep writer’s block at bay is to create smaller goals for yourself. That may seem strange to you. After all, you’d never say to a mountaineer who’s trying to climb the world’s highest peaks, “Climb smaller mountains and you’ll be just fine.”
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So I’m not saying that you shouldn’t have the goal of writing as many songs as you think you should be writing. But for every songwriting session you start, you need to ask yourself, “What am I expecting of myself for today’s session?”
If you think you should or could be writing an entire song in one sitting, you may have just identified why you find creative blocks creeping into your songwriting life. Deciding on a complete song as the only thing that will satisfy you could be the source of considerable frustration.
Here’s a better process: Make it your plan to work on two or even more songs in the same songwriting session. That way, as soon as you feel stuck with one song, you move quickly over to the other song — or even songs — that you’ve got in your plan, and you’ll likely find that you’ve got a bag of fresh ideas you can dig into.
By switching from one song to another, you keep your sense of creativity alive, and that helps you stay positive.
So your goal for each of those songs can be a lot smaller: you’re not expecting to write two or three complete songs in one session. And by working on multiple songs simultaneously, you don’t allow negativity to get a foothold.
Some of the best songwriters are multitaskers. Practice the art of multitasking, and it will help keep you in the creative zone. And in the long run, you’ll write as many songs as you usually do, or even more.
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No matter what genre you write in, there’s one thing that all songs have in common: they take listeners on a musical journey. That means that for every given moment within a song (assuming it’s well-written), listeners eagerly anticipate what’s going to happen next.
In other words, just like a real journey, where you are always wondering what’s going to be around the next corner, a good song entices us to wonder what’s going to happen in the next few seconds, and then the next few seconds after that, before finally coming to a satisfying end.
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If there are any glitches along the way, your listeners may lose interest in that journey. With a song, if there are any moments that don’t lead “logically” to the next moment, you risk having listeners lose interest in the musical journey you’re providing.
The trickiest moment within a song is when it transitions from one section to the next, and perhaps the trickiest of all is that transition from verse to chorus.We know that choruses are usually more energetic than verses, but there might be problems in this regard if:
- the basic range of the melody is dramatically different from the range of the chorus (e.g., if the melody is a lot lower than the verse of the chorus), or…
- the chorus melody is lower than the verse, or…
- the chords at the end of the verse don’t connect logically to the chords of the chorus, or…
- it’s hard to understand the connection between the verse and chorus lyrics, or…
- it’s hard to understand the connection between the instrumentation of the verse and the chorus.
I say might be a problem, because for every proposed glitch, there are probably a list of songs out there that do just fine even though, for example, the chorus melody is lower than the verse (Genesis, “No Reply At All”).
But most of the time, those five circumstances can provide moments of difficulty in keeping basic song energy moving in the right direction. If, in your own songs, you’ve discovered that there is a moment between verse and chorus where something’s not working, it’s likely to be one of those items in the list. And if you find that to be the case, here are some solutions:
- If your verse is a lot lower in pitch than your chorus, see if inserting a pre-chorus that works your melody upwards might work. (“Sweet Caroline”, by Neil Diamond, is a great textbook example of how this can work.)
- If you like the melody of your chorus, but the fact that it’s lower than your verse is draining a bit of musical energy away, try changing the key of your chorus to place the melody higher. (“You’re the Inspiration” – P. Cetera, D. Foster)
- If the chords at the end of your verse move awkwardly to the chorus, try some chord substitutions. Often the awkwardness comes from a key change, but even in dissimilar keys you should be able to find a chord that acts as a good pivot between the two keys. (I wrote a blog article about pivot chords many years ago: “Changing Key by Using a Pivot Chord“.)
- Chorus lyrics should, either literally or perhaps abstractly, answer and address any issues and situations that come up in verse lyrics. In that sense, chorus lyrics should act as a kind of logical follower for whatever happens in the verse. Abstract or complex lyrics are fine, and can be quite exciting. But there needs to be at least the sense that the chorus is responding to whatever has happened in the verse.
- If your chorus instrumental choices seem to come out of left field, with little or no connection to whatever has happened in the song before, it might be a problem. Sometimes a dramatic change from one section to the next can add the musical excitement you’re looking for. In”Come Sail Away“(Styx), there are pretty dramatic changes in instrumentation, but there’s a kind of “preparation” for those changes — little “builds” — that helps everything make sense.
In general, the ends of songs should exhibit more energy than their beginnings. You can use that as an important rule-of-thumb (and in fact, it’s one of the basic songwriting principles I talk about in my eBook ““The Essential Secrets of Songwriting”).
By listening to your own songs carefully you should be able to identify those moments when the changes you’ve put into your song are either too much for the given moment, or not enough, in such a way as it interferes with the basic flow of your song.
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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.
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