If you’re trying to develop an innovative songwriting style, a major impediment is one that’s often unnoticeable: you’re listening only to music from your own genre of choice.
So if you’re a country-folk songwriter, and you’re only listening to the latest and greatest country-folk singer-songwriters, it makes developing your own style immensely difficult. Innovation is almost impossible.
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The songwriters who can lay claim to being a new kind of sound within their genre are usually only innovative and imaginative within their own genre. What I mean is that though the music they write uses ideas that may be unique their typical fanbase, those may be ideas that have existed in other genres for decades or more.
Most songs can be produced to sit in different genres, so we’re not just talking about writing style here, we’re also considering production.
When Queen came up with “Lazing On a Sunday Afternoon” — a kind of music hall-salon music melange — on their “A Night At the Opera” album, it was surprising, unique and, for all intents and purposes, risky within their chosen genre.
That’s an extreme example, but there are thousands of other examples where singer-songwriters took on music that was just outside their normal genre. A good example of introducing production values from one genre and applying them to another is Dolly Parton’s rendition of “Here You Come Again” (Barry Mann, Cynthia Weil). Dolly was concerned that it was too pop for her mainly country fans, so some country steel guitar was added at the production stage.
My point here as that “Lazing On a Sunday Afternoon” would not ever have happened if Freddie Mercury didn’t have some passing knowledge and experience with other genres other than the heavy rock genre with which he and Queen were most associated.
Once you take those ideas that exist in other genres and pull them into your own genre, it sounds to your fan base as though you’ve come up with something new, fresh and innovative. In fact, all you’ve done is taken tried and true techniques from other genres — techniques that probably have existed for many years — and given them a new audience.
So if you’re bemoaning the fact that you find it hard to offer something fresh and innovative to your fans, start fixing the problem by examining what you’re listening to on a daily basis. If it’s all the same kind of music that you’re trying to write, it’s practically impossible to innovate. Broaden your listening tastes as the best way forward.
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If you’ve been a songwriter for a while, you’ve probably noticed that the times you don’t particularly feel like writing are predictable. I’m not necessarily talking about day-to-day here: everyone has the time of day when they feel most creative, and the times when they don’t.
I’m more talking about larger time segments – monthly or yearly. For example, if you tend to take a summer vacation at the start of July every year, you may have noticed that for you, vacation time is not the best time to write songs. Your brain is in a kind of shut-down mode.
Or maybe, if you’re a student, exam period is just too hectic for you to set time aside to write.
If you know that there are certain times of the year where you just don’t feel particularly creative or imaginative, it can feel like writer’s block if you try to force yourself to write at those times.
There’s a better way to handle those times of the year where you know that writing is going to be difficult: make a decision to refrain from writing during those times.
By scheduling your break from songwriting, you are taking control of the situation, and you are taking a very positive step toward preventing writer’s block from setting in.
Writer’s block is a very negative situation: you want to write, but you can’t come up with anything useable. It’s frustrating — there’s nothing good about writer’s block. And some bouts of writer’s block can last a long time, because it puts your brain in such a negative mode.
But taking a preemptive break — actually deciding that for the next several days, or week, or even month, you are not going to write music, is a very positive action that puts you in control of the situation.
At the end of that period of non-writing, you feel refreshed, and your creative mind is ready to get back to work. You don’t feel down about the time y0u weren’t writing, because you planned it that way!
So if you feel that writer’s block is an all-too frequent situation for you, try scheduling a break from songwriting. I believe you’ll see positive results.
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Songwriting success is great. Random success isn’t, because it means a lack of consistency.
Lately I’ve been writing about the importance of songwriting principles. While a rule is something that must be followed, a principle does nothing more than guide the songwriter. Most of the time those principles exist because it’s the way we like to hear music.
When we say, for example, that a chord progression should use the tonic chord as an important target and musical anchor, that’s not strictly true. You can probably find examples of successful songs that don’t focus on the tonic chord at all.
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But we have enough songs that do place the tonic chord in a position of prominence that we can identify it as a kind of musical principle in most pop songwriting.
So knowing the principles allows songwriters to identify and learn from the successes of other songs. But it does more than that: knowing the principles helps you to avoid random success.
What do we mean by random success? If you work purely by instinct, and if you write enough songs, you’re eventually going to write something that sounds rather good. You might get a following based on that song, and you might even make a hit out of it.
But if you simply “stumbled upon” the song because you were experimenting and improvising, you’ve got a problem: you may not be sure why the song is working so well.
And because you don’t know the principles involved in making that (or any) song great, you are not very likely going to be able to follow that success up with another. Your success with that song will have been the result of good things randomly coming together.
To know the principles of good songwriting works as a kind of shortcut to success. In my eBook “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” I’ve identified and explained eleven different principles, and depending how close you hold the proverbial magnifying glass, there are likely many more.
Any good songwriting process will use improvisation and experimentation as an important part of that process. But without a knowledge of the principles involved in songwriting, your success will be random and inconsistent.
You can guide your improvisational process by knowing what the principles of good songwriting are. Once you’ve created one good musical idea for your song, you’re more likely to know what the next musical idea — the one that partners with it — could sound like, and your potential success becomes much more likely.
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Good music isn’t determined by adherence to rules; it’s more a case that the best songs are guided by certain musical principles. One of those guiding principles is that chorus melodies should normally be pitched higher than verse melodies.
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But in fact, that principle is a result of two other underlying principles:
- Good songs use musical contrast as a way to keep listeners interested.
- The musical energy of most songs fluctuates upward and downward, also as a way to keep listeners interested.
If this idea of fluctuating musical energy is new to you, take the time today to listen to several songs, from any genre, and make mental note of when you feel the music is becoming more energetic, and where you think it’s becoming less so.
As you think on that, make note also of when melodies move up and when they move down. I’m willing to bet that for every 10 songs, 8 or 9 of them will show the following characteristics:
- Verse melodies tend to start low in the singer’s range compared to the range of the rest of the song.
- Chorus melodies sit high in the singer’s range compared to the rest of the song.
- Vocal rhythms are shorter and sometimes more complex in a verse, becoming simpler and locked in to the basic beat of the song in the chorus.
- Instrumentation is fullest in the chorus, boosting the sense of musical energy from what’s perceived in the verse.
So for most songs, the fluctuating musical energy starts low, then moves high, and toggles back and forth until the song is finished. Sometimes the musical energy of the intro itself is part of the formula: it may start with high energy, then diminish for the start of the verse (“Call On Me” – Lee Loughnane, recorded by Chicago), or may start as low as the verse: “Billie Jean” – Michael Jackson).
The danger in having a chorus melody lower in pitch than the verse, or even just sitting in the same range as the verse, is that you’ve missed the important opportunity to build musical energy. You’ve also missed the obvious opportunity to create musical contrast.
Since verse lyrics typically describe situations while chorus lyrics give an emotional response, it makes sense to have the verse start lower in energy — and melodic range — than the chorus.
Moving the melody up and down is the easiest way to create musical energy. There are other ways, such as building instrumentation and playing around with key, tempo, and backing rhythms. So it is possible to have a chorus melody sit in the same range as a verse melody, as long as something is taking responsibility for building and relaxing musical energy.
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In my own composing of music, I would far rather work out a melody first, and then add the chords as a second step. That’s because melodies are what people hum to themselves; it’s hard to hum a chord progression.
Many songwriters, however, work out the chord progression and backing rhythms first. There is one advantage to starting that way: chords do a lot to establish a mood for a song. If you work out chords, and then develop a playing style for those chords, a listener can usually pick up the mood of the music right away.
But I like the melody-first method of writing. And here’s the interesting part: I know that as I work out the melody, I am also imagining the chords that might go with that melody, so in that sense, a melody-first songwriting process is, in fact, a melody-and-chords process.
At first you may feel intimidated by the melody-first songwriting process. You probably think that without chords already in place to guide you, the melodies you come up with will sound disorganized or musically haphazard. But this is not usually the case.
In fact, most songwriters are surprised by how well they can imagine melodies out of thin air when required to do so. Most songwriters will instinctively do the things that create good melodies:
- They imagine melodies that use mainly stepwise motion with occasional leaps.
- They use repetition of catchy melodic cells, like most good songs do.
- They tend to use contrast instinctively, having melodies move sometimes up, sometimes down, and allow vocal style to change to help create different moods.
- They usually create melodies that make tonal sense; in other words, the notes of the imagined melody conform to some simple chord progression in the back of their minds.
That last point is what will help to guide your melody-writing process. It’s actually hard to imagine a melody that is musically chaotic. Your past musical experience usually does not abandon you.
Adding Chords to Already-Existing Melodies
Once you have that melody, you’ve likely got a good idea of a simple progression that could properly harmonize with it. But especially if that progression is a simple one, don’t feel that you have to keep it. You can always create substitutes for the simple progressions. In any case, adding progressions means focusing on the strong beats — beats 1 and 3 of a typical 4/4 bar of music, and putting chord changes there.
Creating chord substitutions is something I write a lot about on this blog, so if you feel you need some guidance in creating substitute chords, please check out this blog post from a few years back: “8 Tips to Guide Your Search for Chord Substitutions.”
I think there is a good reason for any aspiring songwriter to focus on melodies first — by giving melodies a more prominent place in your songwriting process, you work on them more. You are more likely to create something that is catchy and well-contoured.
And a melody-first process does not mean that other aspects of your song, including the writing of good lyrics, need to suffer. Once you’ve written that good melody and you turn your attention to chords and lyrics, you still have the opportunity to return to working on the melody, even changing it if the chords and lyrics you want to use require it.
It may take some practice, but I hope you give a melody-first process a try.
Practice makes perfect, but only if you aren’t reinforcing mistakes. Get going in the right direction – Get “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” 10-eBook Deluxe Bundle, and this special deal.
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5 Characteristics of Great Song Lyrics
How the Rhythm of a Melody Changes as a Song Progresses
Why Hooks are So Important to Pop Songs
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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