Violin section of an orchestra

Changing Instrumentation May Be All the Innovation Your Song Needs

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Most songwriters will, from time to time, worry about their songs all sounding a bit too much the same. There are some typical things you can do at the songwriting level (before you ever get he song into the recording studio) to make sure that you’re avoiding some obvious similarities:

  1. Use a good mix of different tempos from one song to another.
  2. Put your various songs in different keys, with a good mix of major and minor.
  3. Start the songwriting process with a style that’s somewhat different from the previous song you wrote.

If you adhere to those three ideas, you’ll likely avoid any sense of similarity. But sometimes, even with these three ideas in play, you’ll worry that your fans are going to feel that your pool of ideas are starting to overlap.

If you find yourself in this kind of quandary, there is one other idea to try: make a radical change to your choice of instrumentation.

Just as we can suddenly realize that we’ve been writing our songs all in the same key, or with the same or similar tempo choice, we can fail to notice that everything we write assumes we’re using the same or similar instrumentation.

With today’s technologies, it’s pretty easy to come up with something unique. But there are ways to go beyond just relying on computer-based instrumentation to come up with something fresh and interesting.

For example, if you live in a city with a university-based music program, you might make contact with instructors in that program to see if you can make use of a string quartet or brass quintet as the instrumental backing for your new song.

Also, you can partner up with another songwriter who plays an instrument different from the one you play.

Paul McCartney made great use of different instruments in otherwise typical instrumental choices: string quartet (“Yesterday”), recorders (“Fool on the Hill”), bagpipes (“Mull of Kintyre”), etc.

Adding unusual instruments will grab the attention of your listeners, and any other similarities between this song and previous ones will often not be noticed at all.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

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John Legend

The Rhythm of the Chorus Hook: It Matters

Even if a song’s chorus hook happens by pure musical instinct, there are several characteristics that are usually present in most of them:

  1. They’re rhythmically interesting.
  2. It’s usually a short, catchy melodic idea that’s easy for a listener to remember.
  3. The chords are simple and tonally strong (they strongly imply the key of the chorus).
  4. They use lyrics that fun and easy to sing.

There’s one other characteristic that’s usually the case, a characteristic that partners up with the first point above: they incorporate the title of the song.

Hooks & RiffsHooks 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.

For songs using a verse-chorus formal design, the rhythm of the chorus hook really matters. The title becomes a fun, rhythmically enticing aspect of the song. It allows the title to wave a flag and grab attention.

Often that title line will be the first line of the chorus, but sometimes it’s the end, and sometimes, as in Adele’s “Water Under the Bridge”, it’s in the middle.

For songs in a verse-refrain format, you’ll notice that those important chorus characteristics will be present in good song refrains.

So if you’re wondering if the title has the potential to get enough attention, try this:

  1. Say the title of your song using the rhythm of your chorus hook. You should notice that the title jumps out, using a rhythm that’s catchy and immediately noticeable.
  2. Sing your chorus hook. You should notice that the hook part is relatively high in pitch when compared to the verse that comes before it.
  3. Play the accompaniment for your chorus hook. The chords supporting the hook’s melody should be simple, but strongly implying the key of the song.

There’s a way that a good chorus hook “flies off the tongue,” and is fun to sing. If you find it hard to evaluate your own chorus hook, give these hit songs a listen, and focus on the chorus hook. You’ll see that the characteristics listed above are all present:

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter

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Guitar and Notepad - Songwriting schedule

A Deadline Is a Powerful Writer’s Block Antidote

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If you don’t have a specific day when the song you’re writing needs to be completed, you may not have a good reason for that song to be finished at all.

Sometimes you’re own desire to get something written isn’t enough to get the job done. It often takes more than desire: British author Mavis Cheek has been quoted as saying “Authors with a mortgage never get writer’s block.”

The mortgage analogy is a good example of what it really takes to get something done in the world of the creative arts: a tangible deadline. A scheduled mortgage payment will often do it.

And sometimes, the fact that you’re collaborating with another person or group on a larger project — like writing a ballet, supplying a film score, or taking part in an upcoming show — will help you focus your attention and get the job done.

But again… it’s a deadline.

Because most of us are still battling with the realities of the pandemic, we find ourselves in the situation where we’re writing for some unspecified performance sometime in the future. And without a date or an event, it’s hard — really hard — to get motivated to write.

Right now, I have two choral arrangement projects I’m working on, with no exact date for when they’d be performed. So I know firsthand how difficult it is to stay focused and get the tunes finished.

So in the absence of real deadlines, can I recommend this: create your own hard-and-fast deadline.

Creating Your Own Deadline

I find this works best if you have several songs that you’re working on: take a look at your calendar, and find a day when you want those several songs to be finished. Now, put it in the calendar that on that date you’re going to record all of them.

As the appointed day approaches, get set up to make demos of all of the songs in your list. Make the need for completion as real as possible.

If you find that setting up a recording day isn’t feeling real enough, then try this: plan a short house concert for your family and close friends. Send out invitations — a great way to make it real.

By doing this, you’ve created a real deadline, so the need to finish your songs is no longer an imaginary requirement: you’ve got a real date.

If, in the process of doing this, you find yourself staring at a blank sheet, not knowing what to write, give this article a read — it will help you through the tough days: 5 Tips for Dealing With Writer’s Block.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

“The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” 10-eBook Bundle“The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” eBook bundle includes “Writing a Song From a Chord Progression.” Discover the secrets of making the chords-first songwriting process work for you.

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Singer - Songwriter

Songs Are About Feelings, So How Do You Get a Listener to Feel Something?

Good songs represent a partnership of components. It’s not just that songs have melodies, lyrics and chord progressions; it’s that the melodies somehow make the lyrics sound better, the chords make the melodies sound better, and the lyrics make the chords sound better.

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In a very real sense, then, good songs are better than the sum of their parts. So when you talk about feelings, and the fact that a good song makes a listener feel something, it’s not enough to leave that up to the lyrics. The lyrics must have the ability to generate feelings, but that ability must be enhanced by the melody that the lyric uses, and then the chords that support the melody.

So everything needs to be supporting everything else in every song you write.

Thinking of that specific important aspect of songwriting — feelings — it’s an important question to answer: how do you get a listener to feel something when they listen to your songs?

TV Drama as a Metaphor

If you watch a television show, you’ll find that it serves as a good real-life metaphor, because, like songwriters, scriptwriters are focused on generating feelings.

A typical TV drama will start with laying the foundation of the story. If the ultimate climactic moment is the capturing of a bank robber, you’ll get a long lead-up to that moment. You’ll need background — a story — which will introduce and develop characters and events.

All along the way, you’ll get enough that keeps you watching. You get suspense, unanswered questions, and lots of emotion.

And you’ll find, as you watch the show, that the emotions rise and fall. The ultimate moment — the capturing of the robber — hasn’t happened yet, so the audience must wait. But they want to wait, because the emotional rollercoaster is fun to experience.

Songs use a very similar kind of construction. The ultimate moment is usually somewhere in the chorus (the chorus hook), but leading up to that chorus hook needs to be enticing enough, with enough feeling, that the listener wants to keep listening.

And like a good TV drama, it’s not just a steady rise in emotion: it’s a series of risings and fallings.

So if generating feelings in the hearts of your listeners is what’s missing from your songwriting, here’s a little checklist you can use to get your songs on the right track:

  • Your song’s title has the ability to stimulate a listener’s interest.
  • In verse-chorus songs, your verse melody stays generally lower than your chorus melody.
  • Your verse lyric generates a lower level of emotion than the chorus lyric, but rises as the chorus approaches.
  • Your melodies put important words (words with higher emotional potential) higher in pitch than other words.
  • Your chord progressions show a good mix of major and minor chords.
  • The rhythms of your chorus melody are simpler and stronger than those of the verse melody.
  • Your song’s instrumentation becomes fuller in the chorus.
  • Your chorus hook is catchy, and sounds like the focal point for the whole song.

Probably the most important part of getting your audience to feel something is the casual, conversational aspect of your lyrics, so spend a good deal of time experimenting with different rewordings of your lyrics.

Remember, it’s the up-and-down of emotion that generates the best response in an audience. And all components of a song have a hand in making the best song.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

“The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” 10-eBook Bundle“The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” eBook bundle includes “Writing a Song From a Chord Progression.” Discover the secrets of making the chords-first songwriting process work for you.

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The Beatles

Musical Back and Forth Between Minor and Major: “I’m Only Sleeping”

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The mood that an audience picks up from a song, at least initially, comes mainly from the chord choices the songwriter makes. And the biggest influencer in that regard is whether you choose to write a song in a major or minor key.

And since major and minor choices both have such a strong effect on which way the mood of a song swings, it can be a powerful songwriting tool. You can move from causing your listeners to pick up feelings of pensiveness or nostalgia, to suddenly feeling light hearted and cheerful, and then everything in between.

“I’m Only Sleeping” (Lennon & McCartney, written primarily by Lennon) makes use of this technique of moving from minor to major and back again, from the key of Eb minor, quickly moving to Gb major, then back to Eb minor again.

I show the chords and key choices below in the simplified key of E minor to G major:

Key Changes in I'm Only Sleeping

In musical terminology, the choice of major or minor is called “quality.” Switching key quality typically doesn’t happen so quickly as we hear in “I’m Only Sleeping.” It’s more common to devote an entire verse to, let’s say, a minor key, using the very end of the verse to create a transition to a major key choice for the chorus.

If you’d like to experiment with moving quickly between major and minor, you can make the figuring out a bit easier if you do the following:

  1. Choose a major key. (Example: G major)
  2. Play/write out the seven chords that naturally exist in that key. (Example: G, Am, Bm, C, D, Em, F#dim). Note: Simply identify the seven notes that make up the major scale of your chosen key, then build a chord above each note.
  3. Find the sixth chord in that list (Em), and play a natural minor scale starting on that note. (Example: E-F#-G-A-B-C-D-E) You’ve just written out the scale for the relative minor key.
  4. Play/write out the seven chords that naturally exist in that key. (Example: Em, F#dim, G, Am, Bm (or B), C, D) Note: The note based on B could be Bm, but often in a minor key the chord built on the fifth note is modified to be a major chord. It’s why B7 happens in “I’m Only Sleeping”)

You’ve now got a list of chords from G major and a separate list of chords from E minor. And you’ll notice something right away: many of the chords exist in both lists. Those common chords can be used to easily move from minor to major and back again.

Using the sample keys from the list above, here are a few progressions you can experiment with that allow you to move quickly from minor to major:

  1. G  Am  Em  Am  C  G  Am  B7  Em (Starts in G major, ends in E minor)
  2. Em  Am  B7  C  G  D  Em  D7  G (Starts in E minor, ends in G major)
  3. G  D/F#  Em  B  Em  Am  B7  Em (Starts in G major, ends in E minor)
  4. Em  B7  Em  G  Am  D7  G (Starts in E minor, ends in G major)

As you experiment, you can try shortening the journey from one key quality to the other, and back again, as Lennon did with “I’m Only Sleeping.” There are, of course, no rules about how long you need to stay in one before moving to the next. That part’s up to your own musical judgment.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

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Why Hooks are So Important to Pop Songs

Gary Ewer

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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