Lately it seems that I’ve been getting a lot of comments, both through email and in the comments section at the ends of various posts, questioning some of the various songwriting principles I write about.
Mainly, a comment will go something like this: “You say that chorus progressions are shorter than verse progressions, but I know of a song where the verse progression is shorter than the chorus. So you must be wrong.”
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Or, “In this article you say that chorus melodies are usually higher in pitch than verse melodies, but here are three songs where that’s not the case… What’s going on?”
Good songwriting is guided by principles, not by rules, and thank heavens it’s that way. We’d never be interested in songwriting if all we had to do is follow the rules, and — presto — we’ve written a great song.
So what are the main differences between rules and principles? At least with regard to songwriting, a rule is something that absolutely needs to be present in order for the song to work. If it isn’t there, you’ve got a problem.
I can’t think of any songwriting rules.
A principle, however, is much easier to identify. There are probably dozens, maybe even hundreds, of principles that all work together in the production of music. Many of those principles can be combined because they’re basically trying to achieve the same thing. And principles do so by guiding your musical choices, not demanding them.
For example, in my eBook “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting”, one of the first principles I describe is the fact that song energy tends to increase as a song progresses: the end of most songs is as energetic, or more so, than the beginning.
There are other principles that actually are a rephrasing of that. The one I mention often on this blog, that chorus melodies are usually higher in pitch than verse melodies, helps to achieve that goal of increasing song energy. That’s because as the human voice moves higher, it naturally exudes a noticeably higher energy level.
So what is going on when you have a song that seems to go in the opposite direction of a stated principle? For every principle I describe, I could come up with a list of songs that actually don’t do that.
There is no one reason why a song that “violates” a principle still might work. It really depends on the song. A song can have a long, meandering chorus progression for example (“Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” – Elton John – Bernie Taupin), when the principle indicates that most songs will use shorter, tonally strong progressions in their chorus.
In that case, the progression, though long and meandering, is actually quite tonally strong. It’s all a matter of comparing one section to another within the same song – that’s what really counts.
All of this is a long-winded way of saying: you should expect to find songs that violate practically every principle you can think of. It’s the way it is in the arts. If no principles were ever challenged, music would never evolve or progress.
And I’d say one other thing: when it comes to your own songs, it’s best to analyze the songs that you feel are not working, and resist the temptation to apply the principles of songwriting after the fact. If your song sounds great, celebrate that, and move on to the next one.
It’s really only for weak songs, or for ones that seem to have some unidentifiable problem, that it makes sense to put the magnifying glass on it and figure out where a tightening-up of principles might make it better.
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If you ask songwriters to describe the most difficult part of starting any songwriting process, I’m sure many — perhaps most — would say, “Deciding what to write about.”
A song is a kind of social interaction. There are vague similarities between singing a song you’ve written, and having a conversation with someone, but with the important difference being that the other party in the conversation doesn’t get a chance to respond in kind. It’s a one-sided conversation.
A one-sided conversation is seen as a negative; there are usually no good ones. And so there are probably many ways in which we shouldn’t necessarily be using those kinds of monologues as a model for good songwriting. “Motivational speaking” is a better analogy.
But sticking with the metaphor of “one-sided conversation, if you were to have a one-sided conversation, and make it a good one, you’ll find that they have many things in common with good songwriting:
- You’d have the responsibility of choosing the topic of conversation, so make it a good one.
- You’d avoid the temptation to preach.
- Because the person you’re conversing with must be silent, you’d need to say things in such a way that allow them to have some sort of emotional reaction. “Emotional reaction” means “emotional connection.”
Having a one-sided conversation that doesn’t go well means that the other person’s only meaningful way of reacting is to make sure that they don’t find themselves in the same situation again. They’ll avoid you.
And that’s another similarity with songs that don’t go well. People don’t get a chance to respond directly to what you’ve written about. Their only meaningful way of reacting is to avoid your music.
Keep in mind that not everyone will love your music, and the fact that someone doesn’t like your songs shouldn’t automatically be seen as a failure on your part. Not everyone will like your songs, and that’s normal.
But for every time you start a new song, remind yourself:
- I am starting a one-sided conversation where the other party doesn’t get to immediately respond.
- I need to find topics that a silent partner will find interesting and have an emotional reaction to.
- I need to use imagery, analogies and metaphors that allow the listener to imagine more than what I’m able to describe in a lyric.
In that sense, being a songwriter is indeed more like being a motivational speaker: you’ve got a big audience, you’re guiding the “conversation,” and your final hope is that you leave your audience feeling engaged, motivated and connected.
Written by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter
The typical 3-chord song has been the workhorse of early rock and roll. Go back to the 50s, and it’s the mainstay of most songs. By 3-chord songs, we’re talking usually about this progression:
I IV V7 I (C F G7 C)
And then, of course, the writer might throw something else in, particularly in the verse. So you might also see ii-chords (Dm in the key of C major), or vi-chords (Am). The iii-chord (Em) back in those days was much less common, and the vii° usually least commonly used.
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Songwriters today are often looking for something that might add a bit more “spice” to their songs, so it’s not uncommon to see longer progressions that take the listener on a bit of a more extensive journey.
But it can be tricky to get those longer progressions to work properly without having the audience feel a bit lost. There’s another alternative, which is to create progressions that replace the two inner chords of the I-IV-V-I progression with something more interesting.
If you’ve wanted changes that are a little less than typical, but don’t want to create long 15-chord progressions, here are some to experiment with (with examples from C major). They’ll work in any section of your song, particularly the verse, chorus — maybe not so easily used in pre-choruses or bridge sections:
1. I bIII IV I (C Eb F C)
The flat-III is a great non-diatonic chord that adds an edge to your music, and you’ll find it in many songs that feature a faster tempo and grittier sound. (Example: “Superstar” (Andrew Lloyd Webber, Tim Rice)
2. I ii bVII I (C Dm Bb C)
What I like about this progression is that it gives the appearance at the start of a rising bass line, but then changes its mind and jumps down to the flat-VII. If you want a longer progression, that flat-VII can also move to vi, IV, or back to ii.
3. I bVI bIII I (C Ab Eb C)
As a nice alternative to this progression, try it with a tonic pedal: keeping the tonic note C in the bass through the changes.
4. I I°7 V6 I (C Cdim7 G/B C)
The G/B is an inversion (a “slash chord”) which means to play a G chord with the note B as the lowest-sounding one. This progression makes a nice start for a verse, from which you can then create other progressions that take that section on a longer musical journey.
5. I iii bIIImaj7 I (C Em Ebmaj7 C)
Non-diatonic chords like the Eb chord will move easily to IV chords, but you’ll notice that when you leap back to the tonic chord from bIII there’s almost a momentary feeling of the “twisting” of tonality. That twisting comes primarily from the flat-III note itself (Eb), but also the Bb in that chord, both of which disappear when the I chord happens.
These are just a few possibilities. I’d encourage you to experiment as much as possible. Because these are short progressions (three chords, with the first one then repeated at the end), you don’t have to give a lot of thought to how to “get back” to the tonic. Jumping back, as you can hear, usually works just fine.
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In today’s social media world, we can get fooled into thinking that because something sounds smart, clever or pithy — or even just rhymes — that it must be true.
“You never learn anything by doing it right.” (Yes, you do.) “Rules are meant to be broken.” (No, they aren’t.)
Clever online statements of course require the same kind of scrutiny that any statement anywhere requires. But once in a while I see one that really hits home. Today, on comedian Ruth Buzzi’s Twitter feed (@Ruth_A_Buzzi), I read this:
The fact that no one understands you does not make you an artist.
Yes, I can get wholeheartedly behind that. It’s not an original thought, as I’ve seen this written before, and you can find it on coffee mugs and t-shirts. But it’s one of the few clever statements that I believe songwriters, and lyricists in particular, would be well advised to read daily.
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I find myself wondering if more than a few songwriters and lyricists believe that writing something unintelligible puts 100% of the onus on the consumer of the music to understand it.
Sometimes songwriters will combine words in a certain way because they like the sound of those words together, or perhaps they enjoy the imagery they concoct. And though the words and phrases ultimately don’t really make a lot of sense, they fault the listener for not grasping the profundity of it all.
John Lennon was pretty open about the songs for which he enjoyed the images created by the lyric, but when it came right down to it, it was more or less gibberish (“Come Together”). I think that’s fair enough. If you like the sounds of words, and that was your main motivation for creating the lyric, being up front about it means your audience doesn’t waste a lot of time trying to find meaning that isn’t there.
Good lyricists who dabble in the abstract have a way of finessing the meaning of their lyric so that, after some thought and study, the listener can pull much of the intended meaning out. And it’s fun when we can understand enough (but not necessarily all) of what the writer intended.
So for me, a good lyric by an excellent lyricist has several layers:
1. A Layer of Immediate Understanding: There’s something there that, even if I understand nothing else, I get at least some picture of what is being sung about. Example:
Before electric light
You paddled through the soup of darkness as a crocodile
Cherry picking in the river
I would leave crisp note footprints at the Bankside
(“Tidal” – Imogen Heap. Read the full lyric)
2. A Deeper Layer of Relationships Between Words and Images: As I look at the entire lyric, I start to see relationships between various images that are being described. It doesn’t mean that I’ll understand it all, certainly not on its first listen. But I have enough that I can at least find a direction to start looking. In “Tidal”, you’ll find “river”, “Bankside”, “full moon”, “tidal”… what does it all mean? You may not be sure yet, but the words, and their connection to each other, give us confidence that meaning exists.
3. An Even Deeper Layer For Which I May Never Find Answers. I remember a songwriter once saying that a bit of advice she had received once was to “save a bit for herself”, and not feel that every song she writes has to expose every part of her deepest thoughts. I think that’s good advice. There are some lyrics for which the true meaning may be hidden too deeply. But as long as there is enough there for us to understand at least something, that may be enough.
And I would also say this: Your ability to hide a lyric’s meaning is not evidence of its greatness. Some of the best lyrics lay everything bare in plain site. I’ve always loved the classic lyric for “Fly Me To the Moon.”(Full lyric) It uses imagery and metaphors that are very easy to understand. And it’s one of the best lyrics of the 20th century.
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You can spend a lot of time trying to get your next song working, but sometimes you have to stop and wonder: has the time you’ve put into it been worth it?
On the one hand, you could argue that the answer will always be “yes.” I’ve felt that if a song takes you a year to make it work, that’s not a year wasted. Some songs are just like that: it can take a long time before they finally get into the form you know works.
But the truth is that not every song works. Recording artists often go into the studio with many songs, from which a few are chosen. The ones that aren’t chosen might be diamonds in the rough, or perhaps they just don’t feel right when pulled together with the others. Or sometimes, let’s be honest, one or two might just be duds.
And so the tricky part is: how do you know that the song you’re trying to finish isn’t going to ultimately be worth the time and effort? How do you know that your time is better spent setting that one aside and turn your attention to something else?
There’s no one right answer, but here at least are some things you can be thinking about:
- A song not working may just need a fresh approach. And often the best way to find that new approach is to put it away temporarily. Use the time to change direction with a new song. And by new, you really have to try an entirely fresh direction. Try a new key, tempo and performance style. To not do that means you fall into the trap of trying to write the same song again, and that’s just not going to help the situation.
- You’ll know when it’s time to return to a difficult song. If you take it out and find yourself saying, “Ugh, not this song again…” – you know that frustration is going to quickly build again.
- Never trash a song. It’s hard to trash songs these days, anyway. You’ve probably got it in a digital recorder, or something sequenced on your computer. And that’s a good thing, because the song that isn’t working for you right now may eventually wind up as material in a new song.
- Don’t let a song that doesn’t work get you down. Writer’s block often starts by allowing self-doubt to fester and grow. Spending weeks, months or longer on a song has a way of making you feel like a creative failure. It takes the courage of your convictions to put a song like that on the back burner and not let it eat away at you. But it’s important that you do just that.
- Song doesn’t work… Says who?? Sometimes the final arbiter for how well a song works is your audience. Assuming that the song works to some degree, you might be surprised by how an audience reacts to it. So try it out on a smaller audience — perhaps a cafe or house concert — and see what the audience does with it. Most singer-songwriters can read an audience even before the song is done.
And sometimes, getting the song out there in front of an audience can reveal a lot about what actually isn’t working. Your best ideas may come from finally hearing it the way an audience would hear it. Live performance has a way of generating ideas you simply can’t get anywhere else.
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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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