Singer - Open mic

Music From a Different Angle Can Help Cure Writer’s Block

If you find that you just can’t finish any song you start these days, give yourself a break from writing before the frustrations get too deep. It’s often a good time to involve yourself in music, but from a completely different angle.

If most of the music you write comes about by playing around with your computer (loops, sequences, etc.), it’s too easy to lose touch with other aspects of music: playing it, listening to it, talking about it, and so on.


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So before your creative block moves from being mild to severe, try the following activities. They’ll keep you excited about music, and have the benefit of recharging your creative powers:

  1. Organize a concert of local singer-songwriter talent. Talk to owners of a local café, bar, or other similar gathering place, about arranging a singer-songwriter talent evening or open mic. Sometimes just hearing and seeing other people performing their own songs can inspire you to get writing again.
  2. Think of arranging already-existing songs rather than composing new ones. When you compose, the pressure is on to come up with something completely original. But what about taking, let’s say, a public domain folk song — as Simon and Garfunkel did with “Scarborough Fair” — and treating it as if it were your own composition. The melody and lyrics are already there for you to use, and now you simply have to turn your attention to the musical presentation — the production.
  3. Improve your playing abilities. It can help your songwriting chops to become a better instrumentalist. We all have musical “muscle memory”, where our fingers move to the same shapes and ideas over and over again. The better the player you are, the more ideas you’ll be able to create and tap into as a songwriter.
  4. Start a blog or a podcast and write and talk about songwriting. Sometimes just getting your thoughts written down helps make you more disciplined, and that kind of organization goes a long way to sorting out the problems you might have been having maintaining a creative songwriting flow.
  5. Collaborate on a musical project with someone from another artistic discipline. As a student of music years ago, I collaborated with a poet and a choreographer at Dalhousie University, and together we created a short ballet. The poetry was to be recited as the music was played, so I didn’t have to worry about setting the words as lyrics. Working this way felt exciting and innovative, and it was amazing to see people onstage dancing to the music I had written. The project was different enough from every other writing project I had done that it felt inspiring and musically exciting.

When writer’s block hits, it’s usually some form of fear — a fear of failure. A creative block has a hard time taking hold if you frequently change how you involve yourself in music. Routines are good because you can work to get better at what you do.

But when you feel that you’ve become enslaved by your creative routine, it’s time to look at music from different angles. Look for ways to feel musical and creative that get you out of your rut.


Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter

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Maroon 5 - Sugar

Assessing Your Latest Song Hook: a Checklist

Hooks feature prominently in pop songs because they grab immediate attention. If it’s a chorus hook, it’s not going to be heard until you get to the chorus, but that should happen before the 1-minute mark in most mid-tempo or uptempo songs.

Because songs in the pop genres are relatively short, a lot is riding on the success of a hook. If, by the time that chorus hook finally becomes evident to the listener, you aren’t grabbing attention with it, listeners will abandon your song and go looking for something else.


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The longterm viability of a song depends in large part on the quality of the lyric, but the hook has the important job of pulling in fans and keeping them there.

How do you know if you’ve come up with a hook that really works? Here’s a checklist you can use:

  1. The chord progression is short, strong and repetitive. Strong means that it sits strongly in a key — there’s nothing ambiguous about it. So C Ab augmented is tricky to use, but C  F, or C  Bb, etc. are much stronger. Example: “Billie Jean” (Michael Jackson)
  2. The rhythm of the melody is interesting, usually incorporating a syncopation. A syncopation is a kind of rhythm where the majority of notes are happening “between the beats.” Think of the “Don’t believe me just watch” line from “Uptown Funk”, and you get the picture.
  3. The backing rhythm of the accompanying instruments helps to bring the hook to life. Yes, a hook can and should sound enticing even if you sing it on its own. But there is an important instrumental factor that contributes musical energy. Careful though: if you leave all of the work of generating musical energy to the backing instruments, a hook has a way of sounding quickly irrelevant.
  4. The melody moves, often incorporating a leap. You can have songs where the hook features a static melody line (“All You Need Is Love” — Lennon & McCarney), but most of the time your hook will benefit from a melody that moves a little, often using an upward leap. Example: Maroon 5 – “Sugar
  5. The hook sounds like the natural follower of whatever happened in the verse. If you use the analogy of a song verse as climbing a mountain, the chorus hook is the mountain peak. And it needs to sound that way. The audience needs to hear something building. It might be the melody rising; it might be instrumentation building, or even an obvious direction coming from the lyric. Then the chorus hook needs to be exciting, even breathtaking. Example: John Legend -“All Of Me.”
  6. The hook sounds great when it is repeated. And that’s one of the most important characteristics of a good hook; you want to keep hearing it.

In the final analysis, what really matters is: do you like it? Listen objectively, and ask yourself: Does this hook excite me? Does it make me want to keep listening? For any good hook, if you need to ask someone if it’s any good, it probably isn’t.


Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter

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Balancing the Familiar With The Strange

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I learned something important about teaching very early in my career: if you want people to understand that new thing you’re teaching them, you need to start by giving them something they already know. I’m going to tell you more about that because it has a direct application to developing a unique songwriting style.

Teaching in a Nutshell

Let’s say you want to teach a class about some aspect of plants — why most plants are green, for example. You could begin with a discussion of photosynthesis, but that would likely leave many students scrambling to understand all the related terms: chlorophyll, carbon dioxide, chloroplasts, etc. A lesson that starts that way would leave students feeling that they’re in over their heads, and they would quickly lose interest.

The better way to go is to start by observing the things they can see with their own eyes, using terminology they’re already using in their everyday life: green, fade, dark, light, etc. So you might show them that not all plants are green, that there are different shades of green, that blocking the sun from a plant makes the green fade, and so on.

By starting that way, you encourage the student, because they already know these things, and they feel more inclined to stick with you — to trust you.

Deeper, More Creative Songwriting

Now let’s shift back to songwriting. Let’s say that you want to write the kind of music that really makes people think, that goes beyond what they might hear on the Billboard Hot 100. If you want to keep your fans and then build on that fan base, you need to present your music as carefully as a good teacher might present a lesson on something as complicated as chlorophyll:

  1. Offer your audience something they are familiar with. The Beatles’ groundbreaking album “Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” is known for its innovative ideas and genre-stretching songs. But innovation is offered in small doses. The title song is, at its core, a good ol’ rocker, but with innovative elements thrown in: french horns, audience sounds, an interesting segue to the second tune, etc. But it’s an easy song for listeners to get their heads into.
  2. Keep innovation from taking over the song. Innovation is like a spice; use too much, and it’s all you’ll notice, and that’s not necessarily a good thing. A little bit of innovation goes a long, long way.
  3. Make innovative elements in your song relevant to what the song’s about. The strange harpsichord part in “Lucy In the Sky With Diamonds” helps the audience feel the strange scene being described in the lyric, so it has an important place. It’s relevant.
  4. Use innovation in an “ebb and flow” kind of way. If you start with something tricky for an audience to comprehend, move then to something easier for them. Then move back toward the abstract, then again back to easy. That ebb and flow approach will encourage your listeners, helping them to trust that you aren’t leaving them behind.

Just as a good teacher moves toward the unknown in small, carefully measured steps, you can successfully pull your audience along with you in a more thought-provoking direction if you move carefully, helping them to understand your musical motives and goals.


Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

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Paul Simon

Creating an Emotional Response With Song Lyrics

It’s an observation about lyrics that I’ve become aware of only recently: I tend to think of good lyricists as people who either a) make me think, or b) make me feel. Sometimes both simultaneously, (like you might experience with a song like, say, “Crying Lightning” – Arctic Monkeys (Alex Turner) but often one or the other.

I’ve been a fan of prog rock since my early 20s, and for me it’s been about how the lyric makes me think. A good lyric challenges me, daring me to come up with meaning, making me wonder if I’m right, or am I off in the wrong direction. I love the ambiguity of a well written, complicated lyric that keeps its true meaning hidden, at least at first encounter.


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But for my money, nothing beats a lyric that makes me feel. It’s not so much that I have to figure out what’s being said, or what’s going on — it’s more that I just love how it creates emotions within me using very simple images.

Neil Peart (Rush) and Jon Anderson (Yes) come to mind as two of the lyricists who make me think, and Paul Simon is a great example of the kind of lyricist who makes me feel.

In Simon’s “America” lyric, images flood your mind with every line:

Laughing on the bus
Playing games with the faces;
She said the man in the gabardine suit was a spy
I said, Be careful his bowtie is really a camera.

Toss me a cigarette, I think there’s one in my raincoat.
We smoked the last one an hour ago.
So I looked at the scenery, she read her magazine
And the moon rose over an open field.

If you read the entire lyric, you feel the sense of exhilarating freedom gradually giving way to a more serious reality. With every line, you feel giddiness gradually replaced with sombre reckoning.

And behind it all, it’s the story. A song without a story, whether that story is implied, or obvious as it is in “America,” has no hope of generating images in the mind of the listener.

When songwriters send me their songs to critique, or when I do Skype sessions, if there is ever a problem with the lyric, it is most often this: I’m reading a lyric that describes emotions, rather than a lyric that creates them.

Yes, you can feel an emotion from hearing someone else’s emotional response, but there will be an emptiness to your own emotional response since you have no back story.

The best songs set up a situation, or describe a person or circumstance, and then the listener is ready to feel something. Now the listener has something in their mind that can create an emotion.

As you write your song lyric, you’ll make people feel something if:

  1. you choose topics that are universal in nature. This means writing about things that are likely to be something other people might be able to relate to;
  2. you think of your lyric as something that creates images, rather than creating sentences. In good songwriting, images are everything;
  3. you use words that are in common, everyday use. Conversational lyrics have a better chance of touching someone’s soul;
  4. you alternate between describing what’s going on and then the emotions that those events are causing. That alternation is crucial to a great lyric.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter

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Wet - Kelly Zutrau, Joe Valle

Chord Progressions for Pentatonic Melodies

Back in June I did a post on creating melodies from chord progressions. One method I described was creating melodies based on a pentatonic scale, and I want  to explore that idea a little more in this post.

The word pentatonic means “five notes.” If you sit at a keyboard and improvise melodies using only the black keys, you’re using a pentatonic scale — specifically, one that uses Gb as a tonic note.


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Technically, any 5-note scale that you choose will be a pentatonic scale, but the most common kind is the type you discover when you improvise on the black keys. In C major, we’re talking about these notes: C-D-E-G-A (1-2-3-5-6).

You can dig deeper into the theory of this if you want, and learn about hemitonic scales (those that use one or more semitones) and anhemitonic scales (those that use no semitones). But for the purposes of this post, you won’t need to know anything more than the standard major pentatonic derived by eliminating the 4th and 7th notes of a  major scale.

So take any major scale (1-2-3-4-5-6-7), eliminate the 4th and 7th notes (1-2-3-5-6), and you’ve got a pentatonic scale:

  • C major pentatonic: C-D-E-G-A
  • F major pentatonic: F G A C D
  • G major Pentatonic G A B D E
  • A minor pentatonic: A-B-C-E-F
  • …and so on

Pentatonic Melodies

Pentatonic melodies are common in traditional spirituals and folk songs (“Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” “Amazing Grace”, etc.) If you want to hear how beautiful a pentatonic melody can sound in pop music, listen to “There’s a Reason” by American indie band Wet.

The verse and pre-chorus consist entirely of pentatonic melodic shapes, and it’s only in the chorus where we hear the 4th note subtly appear in descending scalewise passages. For all intents and purposes, “There’s a Reason” is comprised almost exclusively of pentatonic melodies.

Pentatonic Melodies and Chords

If you’ve written a melody using a pentatonic scale, how do you work out chords? If the melody is avoiding using the 4th and 7th notes, does that apply to the chords you choose as well?

The short answer is no, you can still use the same chords that you might use for any standard progression from major or minor keys. And in fact, you’ll often find the process of fitting chords with melody notes easier when you use pentatonic scales.

The reason for that ease is because the 4th and 7th notes of a major scale are a bit fussy about which chords make them sound good. Take, for example, the 3rd note E in C major pentatonic. It will sound great with:

  • a C major chord (where it acts as the 3rd)
  • a D minor chord (the 9th of that chord, changing it to Dm9)
  • an E minor chord (where it acts as the root)
  • an F major chord (where it acts as the 7th, changing it to Fmaj7)
  • an A minor chord (where it acts as the 5th)

The 7th note B also has chords that it works well with (C, changing it to Cmaj7, just as one example), but other standard chords where suddenly hearing a B might call for careful preparation for that chord: finding a B in an F chord, for example.

Creating Pentatonic Melodies and Chords

When it comes to pentatonic melodies, improvisation works really well. So try this as one possible process for creating a song section (verse or chorus) based on pentatonic melodies:

  1. Choose a key, and play through a couple of octaves of the pentatonic scale. This is your best way to learn the scale, and to get familiar with it on your instrument (or voice).
  2. Improvise melodies on that pentatonic scale. Remember to try lower shapes for verse, and move them higher for chorus ideas.
  3. Create simple chord progressions and repeat a pentatonic melodic idea over each chord. In that previous post from June, I gave an example of what it might sound like:

That should certainly give you enough of a start that will provide the inspiration to fill in most sections of a song.

And remember, full major scales work nicely in the same song where you’ve used pentatonic melodies, so feel free to do as you hear in “There’s a Reason”: use pentatonic for some sections, and major scale-derived melodies for others within the same song.

One additional bit of advice: You’ll find that simple, basic progressions work well, and have a nice, lulling effect in pentatonic harmonizations:

  • I  vi  IV  V (C  Am  F  G)
  • I  ii  I6  IV (C  Dm  C/E  F)
  • I  IV  ii  V  (C  F  Dm  G)

But as part of your improvisations, try fitting in some altered chords, and also some non-diatonic ones… chords that don’t naturally belong to the chosen key. They might result in a few more clashes, requiring you to adjust your melody if you like the progression:

  • I  bIII  IV  I  (C  Eb  F  C)
  • I  vi  IV  bVII  I  (C  Am  F  Bb  C)
  • I  IV  iv  I (C  F  Fm  C)
  • I  V  bVI  bVII  I  (C  G  Ab  Bb  C)

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter

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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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