What role does chance play in the writing of a good song? Since good songwriting is guided by principles and not rules, there’s undoubtedly going to be a certain amount of random good luck. On that particular day, at that particular moment, your imagination created that melodic idea. There’s no way to get around it: good songwriting involves randomness.
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But as I’ve mentioned in the past, even bad golfers can make a hole in one, and look amazing doing it. Everything they’ve done up to that point may have been mediocre, and everything after it as well. But for that one shot, they can look like a golfing genius.
Writing a great song can be a bit like that. Because randomness plays a role in what our creative brains generate, it’s possible to be a mediocre songwriter and then write something great. The stars can align; it can happen.
But you need to go beyond randomness. Whether you’re singing your songs in a café to friends and family, or trying to get the attention of the big players in the music industry, you need to be able to write excellently and with consistency.
In the creative arts, what can you do to increase your chances of writing great songs? In fact, how do you go beyond chance, and become a consistently excellent writer? Some ideas:
- Isolate and work on your weaknesses. If lyrics are hard for you, dedicate songwriting sessions to honing your abilities. Read good lyrics, and do lyric-writing exercises, like these ones. If it’s melodies, try to describe to yourself what you think the problem is. Not enough contour? Not working well with the chords? Try these exercises.
- Make songwriting a daily scheduled activity. If you leave songwriting to be something that happens when you find yourself with a bit of time, you need to add discipline to the mix. That discipline comes from dedicating parts of every day to writing. Create a schedule, put it down on paper or get it into your phone. Here are some tips for creating a daily schedule.
- Spend lots of time improvising. Whether with loops set up on a keyboard, or with bandmates, improvising helps you create and then polish musical ideas.
- Perform your songs as much as possible. How great a song is comes down to what an audience is wanting to hear. You learn so much by hearing their reaction.
- Favour originality over reworking old successes. When a song works well, your temptation is to keep writing the same sort of thing over and over again. Before you know it, you’re losing your fanbase, who think they’ve heard everything they’re ever going to get from you. So keep changing your songwriting process, choose new keys, new tempos, topics… anything to keep your new songs sounding original and fresh.
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Because most songwriters are also instrumentalists, muscle memory plays a big role in key choice. If you’re a guitarist and you’re noodling around trying to create some ideas for songs, you’ll find your fingers wanting to move to the notes and patterns that you find the easiest to play.
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If you don’t do anything to address it, this kind of muscle memory can cause the following problems for instrumentalist/songwriters:
- You tend to favour the same keys.
- All your musical ideas wind up in a similar tempo.
- You notice that most of your songs use the same backing rhythm patterns.
Once you’ve set up a rhythmic treatment in a particular tempo, using your favourite key, your new song is going to sound very similar to the last one you wrote. But there are things you can do to ensure that muscle memory on your instrument doesn’t mean all your songs will sound the same.
Here are some ways to make sure that each song you write sounds fresh and original.
- Work out a chord progression in your favourite key if you must, but immediately transpose to a higher or lower key. You can use the overall energy level of your song idea as a guide in this regard. For more energetic songs, move the key up. For more laid back, gentle songs, move it down.
- Switch modes. If your songs all tend to be in E major, transposing to the so-called parallel minor key of E minor will give your song a dramatically different feel. Example: Play this progression: E A F#m B E. Now try this: Em Am F#dim B Em. That small change from major to minor makes all the difference.
- Try setting up a tempo and feel as a starting point. Start by tapping your foot, and make sure that you’re setting a different tempo than your last song. With this new tempo in mind, apply your favourite process: set up a 2- or 3-chord vamp, or improvise a melodic shape.
- Create songwriting ideas on an unfamiliar instrument. You may not be a good mandolin player, but you don’t need to be if all you’re doing is coming up with songwriting ideas. The different tuning, and even the different sound of the instrument, will guide your musical mind in a new direction. You’ll find that melodies you improvise on a new instrument will sound quite different from what you’re normally used to.
- Become a better instrumentalist. One reason your fingers always move to the same notes and shapes is that you’re not familiar with other key possibilities on your instrument. Develop your playing abilities, either by taking lessons, or by intentionally transposing familiar music to new keys. Take a favourite song that you like playing, and see how many different keys you can move it to. It will take time and a lot of practice, but it’s one of the best ways to combat muscle memory.
- Try alternate tunings. If you’re a keyboardist, you’re likely stuck with what the keyboard gives you. But as a guitarist, you can try new unique tunings, ones that will give your song an entirely new sound. The possibilities are endless. Here’s an article to give you some specific ideas to try.
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When we use the word “clever” in songwriting, we’re usually talking about lyrics. In that context, a clever lyric means any one of the following:
- There’s a double meaning going on that might not be immediately obvious. (i.e., the song isn’t about what it appears to be about)
- There are common words being used in an uncommon or unexpected way. (i.e., “I’m high but I’m grounded…” (Alanis Morissette, “Hand In My Pocket”)
- The lyric makes copious use of metaphors, alliteration, similes and other poetic devices.
Could we ever consider a melody to be clever? How about a chord progression? Would you ever hear a rhythm in the backing instruments and think, “That sounds clever?”
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We might be tempted to equate the word clever with “complex” or “intricate,” but I think that would be a mistake. Being clever has a bit of surprise attached to its meaning: you used a word, a phrase, or perhaps an entire lyric, in a way that was unexpected.
Cleverness is hard to incorporate into pop songs, because one of the most important features of pop music is the immediacy of appeal. The most successful hit songs are ones that people tend to “get” — to understand — pretty much right away.
True, there may be new aspects of the lyric that are revealed as we hear them many times. There might be phrases that we never truly understand. But those don’t typically keep us from enjoying the song right away.
If you’re ready to bump your lyric-writing abilities up to the level of being clever, then, you need to keep a few things in mind:
- Pop songs generally need to be immediately appealing, no matter how clever the lyric might be. We often think of songs for which we have an instant liking to be “dumbed down” for commercial appeal, but that’s not necessarily true. A song’s groove and feel can give it an immediate appeal, and buys you some time if you’ve opted to write a lyric that’s clever, deeper, or more intricate in some way.
- Clever lyrics can move dangerously close to being pretentious. A pretentious lyric means that you’re using complex words or phrasing for no good reason, simply to sound intellectually superior, and it’s artistically dishonest. Read though any lyric that you consider to be clever, and you’ll find that the best ones use common, everyday words, but assembled sometimes in unexpected ways.
- Remember your genre, and remember your audience. Some song lyrics just don’t need to be overly shrewd. I’ve always loved the line from “Boys ‘Round Here” (Rhett Akins, Dallas Davidson, Craig Wiseman) that goes, “The boys ’round here don’t listen to the Beatles…” It’s a fun line, quite an unexpected way to start a song, and almost argumentative in a “twinkle-in-the-eye” kind of way. To me, it’s clever, and I might add, clever enough.
- Partnership between song elements is more important than cleverness. When it comes right down to it, a song in which all the elements — the lyrics, melodies, chords, instrumentation, etc. — work well together will outperform any other song that’s simply clever. Clever is an attribute of a song element, not an element itself.
I believe that cleverness in music comes over time. It’s not something we can consciously do, any more than we can be consciously “smarter”, “cooler”, or “funnier.” If you want to bump your lyric-writing to a new level, you need to read lots of good lyrics, and spend a lot of time writing and rewriting your lyrical attempts.
If you get stuck at the chord progression stage of songwriting, you’ll find “Chord Progression Formulas” to be a vital go-to text for your process. Create dozens of progressions in moments by applying a formula!
It’s a common characteristic of many songs in the pop genres: a minor-sounding verse that moves to a major-sounding chorus. You might think that means you need to create two completely different progressions.
But let’s say that you’ve worked out a good chorus hook, and now you’re trying to create a verse that partners well with it. Here’s a quick and easy trick to take a chorus progression and turn it into something that works nicely in the verse, and prepares the arrival of the chorus hook.
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First, write out your chorus progression. The progression below is shown in C major. You can hold each chord as long as you want, but let’s assume you’ll change chords every two beats (i.e., two chords per bar):
I bVII ii V (C Bb Dm G) (Click below to listen)
Next, place a vi-chord at the beginning of the progression, and then follow it up with the chorus progression:
vi I bVII ii V (Am C Bb Dm G) (Click below to listen)
To make the verse progression the same length as your chorus progression (four chords), simply remove one of the chords from the chorus progression. I’ve opted to remove the final G:
vi I bVII ii (Am C Bb Dm) (Click below to listen)
Creating a verse progression in this way has an important advantage: it uses the chords from the chorus progression, but because the I-chord, which was on beat 1 of the first bar, is now on the second half of the bar, it sounds similar but different.
The similarity makes it an idea partner. The fact that it now starts with a minor chord makes it an ideal verse progression.
There are a few ideas you can try to modify what I’ve suggested above:
- Start your verse on a different minor chord: ii or iii.
- Remove a different chord to make it the same length as the chorus progression. I opted to remove the final V-chord, but you should experiment with other possibilities.
- Use the chorus progression idea as a start for your verse, and then create an entirely original second half to a verse progression.
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I’ve written a few articles on this blog about the notion of drawing a line that represents your melody (like this article I wrote a few years ago). It’s not just that it’s kind of neat to see your melody sketched out as a line; there is a real purpose and benefit from seeing your melody drawn in this way.
The main benefit is that it reminds us that our brains like to perceive a sense of direction when it comes to melodies. As a melody works its way upward, for example, our brains predict where the next notes will be based on what the most recent notes were.
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Our brains make those predictions based not just on what the last notes were, but also on what the last few chords were. But why should we do this at all? Why is it important to hear melodies as a line that has some measure of predictability in its structure?
It’s because we like our music to be a mixture of predictable and unpredictable elements. The more predictable music is, though, the more we’re bored with it. The less predictable it is, the more we’re troubled we are with it: we feel lost. The best music gets the balance just right.
When you do a line drawing that represents the twists and turns of your melody, what you’re aiming for is to see the kinds of things we hope we hear: repeating patterns, generally upward-moving shapes followed by generally downward-moving ones, and so on.
In other words, if the line drawing of your melody simply looks like mindless scratchings, randomly moving up and down with no apparent patterns or design, it’s likely that the melody itself is leaving listeners scratching their heads, wondering what to make of it. A line drawing can be the first important step to fixing melodies.
Don’t Stop At Melodies: It Works for Lyrics, Too
But it’s important to consider that line drawings can be done of other elements, so don’t stop at melodies.
For example, we know that with lyrics, the emotional content of the words should move up and down, starting with relatively low-emotion words in the verse and moving to more emotional ones in the chorus. This can be represented with a line, and you hope that you see it moving constantly up and down.
Here’s how to do it: Write out the lyric from your latest song, and draw a time line at the bottom of the page representing the length of your song. For each line of lyric, sketch a short (1-inch or so) length of line that represents the emotional impact of those lines of lyric. When you’re done, you’ll have a line from one side of the page to the other, hopefully moving (with some measure of predictability) up and down.
So just as with melody line drawing, it can be a great diagnostic tool for fixing lyrics. Audiences love the predictable nature of emotional choruses, and so a verse that’s too heartrending can take away the impact of a well-written chorus. Seeing verses that are too emotional will help you fix the problem.
For each song that you write, you should consider line drawing to be an important diagnostic tool for analyzing how you’ve done. The results can surprise you, but most importantly, it often gives you a direction to move in order to fix problems.
“Hooks and Riffs: How They Grab Attention, Make Songs Memorable, and Build Your Fan Base” shows you how a good hook can make the difference between songwriting success and failure. With great examples from pop music history.
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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