Musical magnifying glass

Assessing a Song to Find Its Problems

Part of being a songwriter is being able to objectively critique your own songs. That term, objectively critique, means all of the following:

  1. You can listen to your own songs as if someone else actually wrote them.
  2. You can focus in on exactly where problems may lie.
  3. You can make radical changes to your songs if necessary.

Bad songs don’t usually start out bad; they typically start with a great idea, one that serves as a hook or other important part of the song. From there, things start to go bad. You find that nothing you write supports your initial idea, and then you sense things spiralling down a bit.

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By the time you notice that the song really isn’t working, you don’t know where to begin to fix it. And in fact, you wonder if it might be best to scrap the whole song and start again.

Most of the time a bad song can be fixed. But it requires commitment to the three statements listed above.

First, you’ll never fix a song that you can’t picture as being written by someone else. That kind of distance — of arm’s-length detachment — is a crucial part of being able to assess a song’s strengths and weaknesses.

Next, it’s not enough to say “My new song sucks.” You need to have the ability to look at each component separately and assess each one for their strengths and weaknesses. This is important because since all songs represent a partnership of musical elements, you need to be able to test each element on its own before seeing how they work in partnership with other song components.

And finally, once you know what’s wrong, you need to have the courage and determination to throw out what doesn’t work and create something new that does. Sometimes that means tossing your original idea, or at least reshaping it so that it works well with other ideas.

Remember that in a good song, it’s that partnership of ideas that makes songs great. It’s not just that it has a great melody, let’s say, but that the melody is supported by the perfect chord choices, with a great lyric, all reinforced by a great musical performance.

But when a song isn’t working, you need to have the ability to dig down into a song’s separate parts to find out what’s going wrong. That’s something that typical audiences can’t do. They simply say, “That song sucks.”

You need to be able to do more than make a judgment like that. Part of being a good songwriter is being able to take a bad song apart to find the weak components.

When you do that, you’ll soon discover that most bad songs may actually be great once you apply one or two small fixes.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

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Guitarist - Drummer

Making Sure the Groove Survives Your Songwriting Process

Use Your Words! Developing a Lyrics-First Songwriting ProcessDon’t miss out on a free copy of “Use Your Words! Developing a Lyrics-First Songwriting Process.” It’s free when you purchase “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting 10-eBook Bundle”

No matter how good the individual components of a song are, nothing is important as the basic groove you get from that song. You can have clever lyrics, killer melodies, wonderfully supporting chord progressions, and a fantastic vocalist, but the basic groove and feel you get from a song supersedes it all.

I was reading about Earth, Wind & Fire’s 1978 hit “September” (Maurice White, Al McKay, Allee Willis), which uses the nonsense syllables “Ba-dee-ya” prominently throughout the song.

Co-writer Allee Willis begged lyricist Maurice White to change the lyric to something more meaningful, but White declined. He loved the way it sounded and didn’t care that the words were meaningless. Willis claimed in the NPR article “The Song That Never Ends: Why Earth, Wind & Fire’s ‘September’ Sustains” that it served as a powerful reminder to her about the importance of the groove:

“I learned my greatest lesson ever in songwriting from him, which was never let the lyric get in the way of the groove.”

I’d say that that principle applies to everything you can add to a song. It’s either supporting the groove, or it’s detracting from it. And in the end, how a lyric feels is going to be the most important part of its success.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter. Hooks & Riffs“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.Written by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

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Posted in lyrics, songwriting.
Songwriting Inspiration

Being Guided and Influenced By Other Songs… a Slippery Slope?

When you’re writing a song, one of the best supplies of musical inspiration is your own work! As you come up with new ideas, you get excited and that excitement helps you create even more ideas. That’s normal, and the excitement you feel is what we’d otherwise call inspiration.

It’s the worst-kept secret in the songwriting world that other writers’ songs can serve as a great source of inspiration, and in fact, those other songs often wind up finding their way into your own songs.

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And as long as those other songs are carefully and cleverly hidden, there’s no problem at all.

In the YouTube video ‘The Story Behind The Beatles’ “Here Comes the Sun”‘, we learn that George Harrison was not only influenced by other songs — he made note of those songs on his lyric sheet, borrowing significant bits of guitar lines from a song he co-wrote with Eric Clapton a few months earlier.

All the Beatles took stylistic and performance ideas from other contemporary songwriters and groups: Bob Dylan, The Byrds, and so on. But what about actual melodic or lyrical ideas? How much borrowing can you do before it becomes a slippery slope and you’re just copying someone else’s work?

This is the kind of stuff where copyright lawyers make the big bucks. There are things you can do to someone else’s melody with no problem at all:

  1. Take an existing melody and reverse it, playing it starting at the end. This doesn’t always (or often) work well, but you might get melodic ideas this way.
  2. Take an existing melody and flip it over. In other words, if the melody starts on a C and moves upward by scale steps (C-D-E-F-G, for example), start on the C and move down by steps.
  3. Take an existing melody (or part of a melody), and change the tempo so significantly that it seems to bear little to no resemblance to the original tune. In doing this, you’ll probably have to change the chords underneath as well, not to mention the lyric, of course.

There are lots of things you can do with a song you love to incorporate bits into your own songs, but overall resemblance is the key issue. If, once you’re done, no one thinks of the tune you were influenced and guided by, you’re probably in the clear.

Chord progressions are almost never a problem, but keep in mind that if you’d like to use the chords from someone else’s copyrighted song, but you also borrow the rhythms, the basic feel, and some of the instrumental ideas, you’ve got a problem.

If you’ve been influenced by another song in your songwriting process, and you want to know if you’ve crossed the line, the best suggestion would be to play your song for someone else, preferably someone else in some aspect of the music world.

If they don’t hear any resemblance worth mentioning, it’s fair game to call the song your own.

It’s impossible not to be influenced by good music. It’s why we all write in the first place. And I doubt we could ever make the claim that every idea we come up with is completely detached from everything else in the music world.

So don’t worry that you’ve taken someone else’s idea and cleverly used it (completely hidden, of course) in your latest song. That’s not plagiarism. It’s simply borrowing, and it happens all the time.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

Essential Secrets of Songwriting Bundle“The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” 10- eBook bundle comes with a free copy of “Use Your Words! Developing a Lyrics-First Songwriting Process.” It’s FREE when you buy “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting 10-eBook Bundle ($37 USD) Also comes with a Study Guide

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Rolling Stones

5 Tips For Turning a Bit of a Song Into a Complete Song

Most songwriters start the songwriting process by improvising on ideas. You may have nothing to start with, and so the purpose of that initial improvisation session is to come up with something catchy.

Let’s say that you manage to come up with something short but great, something that might serve as an important fragment of what will eventually become a complete song. The problem you’re having is: How do you take your little fragment of music and turn it into a full song?

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Every song is different, so it shouldn’t surprise you that there are many ways forward. Thankfully, good songwriting is guided by principles which suggest a way to build on your initial idea.

If you find yourself in that situation, where you have a bit of a musical fragment, with little or no idea how to turn it into something that resembles a complete song, please have a look at the following tips. I hope you’ll find them helpful:

  1. Every section of a song has its own set of unique characteristics. We know that verses tend to be lower in pitch than choruses, for example. So you need to look at that fragment you’ve created and make a decision: Does it sound more like a verse, or more like a chorus? Perhaps it’s something else. If you want it to be a chorus, but doesn’t sound right, it may need to be raised in pitch. But identifying where in the song that fragment might belong is a crucial first step.
  2. Repetition is a powerful songwriting tool! Let’s say you’ve got something that’s 4 or 8 beats in length — a nice little musical phrase. You’d be surprised what simply repeating that fragment will do. Now you’ve got something that resembles at least half of the chorus you need, and things start to look more helpful.
  3. Moving the fragment up or down. Songs may appear to be complex and intricate, but when you take a closer look you’ll find that the same musical fragment is simply being moved up and down, with little else added to the composition. The Rolling Stones’ single “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” (Mick Jagger/Keith Richards) is a great example. Listen to the verse and see how many times one idea is used, repeated, moved higher and lower. Then listen to the chorus, and notice the same thing. There’s only a small amount of musical information in this song, but repetition is cleverly used to make a complete tune.
  4. Changing chords under the fragment. You can get a lot of musical mileage by playing the same short idea over and over, changing chords underneath it as you go. “Born In the U.S.A.” demonstrates this: the main idea is played over a B chord, then repeated virtually note-for-note over an E.
  5. Put the idea away and try to compose a partner idea. Most songs will use separate melodic ideas for the verse and the chorus. Let’s say you’ve decided that the fragment you’ve improvised would make a nice chorus. What do you do? Put it away, then try to improvise a new idea lower in pitch than your original one. Once you’ve got something, play it and move directly into your chorus idea. You’ll know right away if they’ll partner well together. And if they don’t… don’t toss it! You may have something that can help with some future song you’ll be working on.

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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Piano - songwriter - theory

Tips and Tricks: When You Want to Change Key in the Middle

Choosing the key for your song usually involves, at least in the first instance, finding the key that suits your vocal range. Most of the time this isn’t specifically a songwriting issue as much as it is a performance issue.

But there are other aspects of key choice that amounts to making a songwriting choice. For example, deciding to put your verse in one key and your chorus in a different one does have a dramatic effect on the way a song is perceived by an audience.

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Over the past more-than-a-decade of this blog I’ve written extensively about this aspect of writing. If you’ve been looking to add a bit of innovative freshness to your songwriting at least regarding key choice, I’ve listed 5 popular articles from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” blog below in which I’ve dealt with that issue. I hope you find them useful:

1. Key Suggestions For Song Sections

It’s not unusual for a song to change key somewhere, but keep in mind that the most common situation is actually to start and end in the same key. And some songs, like the enormously successful “Uptown Funk” (Mark Ronson, Jeff Bhasker, et al), key of D minor (D Dorian, actually), keep it very simple, featuring only two chords: Dm and G, from the beginning to the end.


2. How to Change Key in Mid-Stream

One of the most common key changes happens in the final chorus repeats, when the key is moved up a semitone, much like what you hear in “Man In the Mirror” (Siedah Garrett, Glen Ballard, recorded by Michael Jackson).


3. Downward Key Changes Might “Brighten” a Song – Here’s How

Lowering a key in the midst of a song can be tricky, for the reason that downward-moving keys can sap song energy. But there are times when changing key downward can act like a breath of fresh air. It really depends on the chord progression you use.


4. Using Abrupt Modulations to Generate Song Energy

Many modulations make use of what is called a “pivot chord.” That’s a chord that can be “seen” to be in the old key, but also as a chord from the new key. Here’s an example, with the pivot chord underlined and in bold. This progression begins in C major and ends in D major:


5. Writing a Song that Moves From Dorian Mode to Major Key

As you likely know, it’s not unusual for songwriters to create songs where the verse is in a minor key or mode (often aeolian mode), and then switch to a major key (usually the relative major) for the chorus.

I want to talk in this post about the dorian mode, which is a minor-sounding mode, and a nice alternative to the minor key or aeolian mode. To know the sound I’m talking about, play a C major scale, but start on D and end on D. You get a scale that sounds minor


Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter

Essential Secrets of Songwriting BundleIf you’re looking for tons of progressions to play around with, experiment with, and use however you see fit in your songs, Gary’s written two collections: “Essential Chord Progressions”, and “More Essential Chord Progressions”. They’re part of the songwriting eBook bundle packages available at the online store. Get today’s deal!

Posted in Chord Progressions, songwriting and tagged , , , , , , , , , , .

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.

About Gary Ewer

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