Singer-songwriter-guitarist

Dealing With Excessive Predictability In Your Songwriting

Predictability is not the horrible monster of songwriting. Even songs that sound unique, complex or startling are often following a template established by someone else’s song, with just a touch of innovation thrown in; it doesn’t take much innovation to make a song sound unique.


Writing a Song From a Chord ProgressionIf you like starting songs by working with a chord progression, you need to read “Writing a Song From a Chord Progression.” It will give you the pros and cons of this songwriting method, and help you create songs that really work!


Predictability is, most of the time, a good thing. Predictability is the anchor that assures the listener that everything’s okay, that no matter how strange things might sound, there is a strong core within the song that makes it understandable.

Excessive predictability is a problem, though. Excessive predictability usually means that you follow a personal template when you write that makes everything sound the same.

The typical culprits that lead to excessive predictability in your own songwriting are:

  1. The same tempo from song to song.
  2. The same key choices.
  3. The same key changes (e.g., always moving from a minor key verse to a major key chorus.)
  4. The same topic and point of view in the lyric.
  5. The same instrumentation.
  6. The same formal design.
  7. The same vocal range (e.g., if all the songs are placed high in key, you’ll hear the same screaming tension in the voice, song after song.)

So as you can see, excessive predictability usually refers to your habit of copying your own songs, not so much that you’re doing something that other songwriters do a lot. When you approach songwriting in the same way, song after song, you’ve got a problem with excessive predictability: everyone can tell what’s going to happen next.

Here’s what you can do to solve this problem:

  1. Change up the formal design. If you’re stuck in a verse-chorus-bridge design tendency, start your song in a different way. Try starting with the chorus. Or with an instrumental solo. Or with a slow, unaccompanied version of the chorus, as Eagles did in “Seven Bridges Road” (Steve Young).
  2. Don’t use the same tempo in consecutive song projects. Of course, you can change tempo any time you like (and that kind of experimentation is great), but change things up from your previous song right at the conception stage. Tempo strongly affects mood.
  3. Don’t use the same key in consecutive song projects. And more than that, see what you can do to develop a keener taste in complex progressions, or at least progressions you don’t normally use. I always say that simple progressions aren’t usually a problem, but expanding the palette of chords you like to use is a great way to make a song sound unique.
  4. Break out of the love song trap. Love still sells, it’s true. But it will help excessive predictability a lot if you can expand on the kinds of things you write about. If you’re not sure what else is out there that can serve as song topics, you need to do more listening in your chosen genre.
  5. Try lower keys that allow you to explore lower, sultrier vocal tones than you’ve done before. Sure, your money notes may be in your upper register, but low-range singing tends to pull listeners in and make them want to listen to the content of your lyrics.

Being curious about other instruments will help as well, and remember that you don’t need to be very good on an instrument to use it as a songwriting tool.

And remember: predictability is not evil. Most good songs need something familiar about them in order to give audiences something to feel comfortable with. The tiniest bit of innovation will give you a song that sounds very innovative.

But excessive predicability means you may have to stop, sit back, and really listen to what you’re giving your audiences, and then start the process of taking your songwriting in a new and exciting direction.


Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter

“The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” 10-eBook BundleThousands of songwriters are using “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” eBook bundle to polish their songwriting technique. Every aspect of how to make a song better is covered. Stop wasting time — take your songwriting technique to a new level TODAY. Ten eBooks, plus a free one: $37 USD (Immediate download)

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Paul McCartney - John Lennon

The Differences Between Lennon’s and McCartney’s Melodies

Generalizing any aspect of a songwriter’s output is straying into dangerous territory. That’s particularly true of the music of Lennon and McCartney. They were arguably the most versatile writers of pop song of their generation, and probably even now. As soon as they wrote a hit, it was back to the drawing board to come up with something completely different.


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It’s a fun and harmless pastime to try to pinpoint some of the main differences between the melody-writing styles of these two masters of songwriting. What makes a McCartney melody sound different from a Lennon one?

The only way to answer this question with any measure of accuracy is, in fact, to generalize, so here we go:

1. McCartney tended to use a larger tone set than Lennon.

McCartney’s melodies, on average, use a larger spread between the lowest and highest notes. McCartney’s “Penny Lane” is a typical example of how McCartney would explore the upper and lower ranges, and do it fairly early in a song.

Other McCartney tunes that explored the fuller range of the voice: “Here, There and Everywhere”, “Got To Get You Into My Life”, “I’m Looking Through You”, etc.

Some Lennon songs would use a wide range (“Instant Karma”), but he’d typically take his time exploring that range. It was more typical of Lennon to use a smaller range for each section: a smallish range for the verse, then move upward for a pre-chorus (if the song had one), then even higher for the chorus, and “Instant Karma” shows this clearly.

2. Lennon’s melodies were usually riff-based repeated ideas; McCartney preferred longer-form tunes.

“Penny Lane” and “Instant Karma” demonstrate this trait. “Penny Lane” does have a nice hooky bit at the start of the chorus, but the main feature we become aware of right away is the long descending — almost scale-like — melody that starts the song.

Other McCartney songs show longer melodic ideas, as opposed to a shorter riff: “Hey Jude”, “I Will”, “Live and Let Die”, etc.

“Instant Karma” shows Lennon’s preference for taking a short vocal riff and repeating it over a changing chord progression. Other Lennon songs that demonstrate this preference: “Dear Prudence”, “I’m Only Sleeping”, “Good Morning Good Morning”, etc.

3.  Lennon’s melodies tend to spend time sitting in and around the tonic note.

The tonic note tends to feature prominently in a Lennon melody; Lennon would start melodies on the tonic note more, and use it more, than McCartney would: “Across the Universe”, and “Dear Prudence”. And even if he didn’t start exactly on the tonic note, it would often feature that note as being structurally important, like in the chorus of “The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill” and “Come Together.”

As mentioned earlier, McCartney would explore a fuller range of notes, even in his harder rockers (“Helter Skelter”). And even the songs that started on the tonic (“You Won’t See Me”, “Blackbird”, “The End”) would quickly move away from that note so that other notes rivalled the tonic in importance.

4. McCartney melodies had a fluid sense of vocal rhythm; Lennon preferred more driving rhythms/pulse.

This observation applies more accurately to the moderate and faster tempo songs. The faster tempo Lennon melodies tended to lock in to rhythmic ideas that were more intense, more energetic and more repetitious, like “Everybody’s Got Something To Hide Except Me and My Monkey”, “All You Need Is Love” and others.

McCartney would come closer to allow the natural pulse of the words dictate the specific rhythms of the vocal melody. If you say the words to “Golden Slumbers” without trying to sing it, you’ll see what I mean. There’s a natural flow to the rhythm of the words that gets translated directly into the vocal line.

You’ll hear that characteristic also in the rhythmic choices made in “Penny Lane” and “Getting Better.” In “Got To Get You Into My Life”, you can hear how the very quick rhythms of the start of each line of the verses adds a sense of breathless excitement to the text.

5. McCartney melodies borrowed stylistic ideas from many genres; Lennon paid more homage to rock & roll.

Don’t get me wrong, McCartney loved rock & roll, and can write a real rocker any time he wants. But his melodic and instrumental approach was also highly influenced by other genres: music hall (“Martha My Dear”, “Honey Pie”), Parisian ballad (“Michelle”), classical (“She’s Leaving Home”, “Eleanor Rigby”), ragtime “Rocky Raccoon”, and others.

Lennon was more a student of rock & roll, and even though he allowed treatments of his songs that pulled them into other genres (“Strawberry Fields Forever” as psychedelic pop, for example), I think it’s fair to say that he loved good ol’ rock & roll, and loved playing through a song with just raw emotion and a simple instrumentation. Probably “Don’t Let Me Down” demonstrates this the best.

Differences in Approach to Writing Lyrics

In their early writing, Lennon and McCartney both knew what the job of a songwriter was, and so “Do You Want to Know a Secret”, “I Want to Hold Your Hand”, “No Reply” and even “The Word” are pretty straightforward and easy to understand.

As their careers continued from Rubber Soul onward, that’s where we start to see a difference in how they both would tackle a lyric.

Lennon was a writer of a kind of impressionism: you have to take in the entire lyric, and your job as the listener is to get an impression — from the lyric in its entirety — of what is being addressed.

So if you go line-by-line through “Come Together”, you get what Lennon himself described as “gobbledygook.” But if you take the entire lyric and consider it all together, you get a sense of meaning — an impression.

So if you’re looking for exact “meaning” in the traditional sense, you won’t find it in any specific line of “I Am the Walrus”, “Strawberry Fields Forever”, or “Tomorrow Never Knows.” Even many of the lines in “Baby, You’re a Rich Man”, the verses of which were composed by Lennon, are hard to define in any traditional way.

McCartney rarely did it that way. If the lyric wasn’t straightforward, like we get in “Getting Better”, for example, he’d give you short, clear vignettes, all meant to blend together to give you his own kind of impression. But it was an impression made up of fairly clear images, not in Lennon’s more abstract style.

The best example of a McCartney lyric that shows this kind of difference is “Penny Lane.” It’s a series of short, almost unrelated vignettes that all blend together to tell you what life on Penny Lane was like.

On a curious related note, the music and lyric of “With a Little Help From My Friends” was composed mostly by McCartney, and the way the melody and words interact sound like it was written by McCartney. But the one line that Lennon wrote “What do you see when you turn out the light?/ I can’t tell you but I know it’s mine” has little to do with any other line. But in true Lennon style, he’s offering an impression, nothing else.

Summary

The differences that exist between the writing styles of Lennon and McCartney are a great topic for any serious songwriter to study. The Beatles owe their success in part to the extent to which these two songwriters differed in their musical approach.

The only thing that might have made them an even better group (if that were possible) would be to have included more Harrison songs, particularly on the later albums. Harrison’s own songwriting prowess leapt forward enormously in the final years of The Beatles. His four contributions to the White Album were four of the best songs on that record, as were his two songs on Abbey Road.

Because Lennon and McCartney were so prolific and so competitive, comparing and contrasting their styles is an activity that every songwriter should take time to do.

I’d be very interested in your own thoughts on this, and so please do leave a comment below.


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 on Twitter.

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Guitar, headphones and music

How to Make Chord Progressions Sound Stronger

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One common complaint I hear from songwriters is that when trying to come up with a unique or creative chord progression, it starts to sound like aimless wandering — a confusing mess.

I have some tips listed below that I hope will help, but before getting to that list, consider this: Don’t try so hard to create a completely unique or creative progression. There really is no progression that hasn’t been used before.

This means that any good progression has already been used. This is not a problem, of course. The uniqueness or creative aspect of your song should come from your lyrics and melodies, as well as your musical arrangement and production. Those are the elements that should be captivating and unique, and many great songs have become huge hits, built on very benign or otherwise standard progressions.

These tips below are not tips to help you make creative, unique progressions. The tips are meant to give you something that sounds strong, and something that you know works. So if your chords do, in fact, sound aimless or confusing, here are some tips to help you troubleshoot them:

  1. Stick mainly to chords that come from your song’s key. If your song is in C major, for example, each note of a C major scale will serve as the root of a chord that naturally occurs in that key. Building 3-note chords above the notes of that scale will give you: C, Dm, Em, F, G, Am and Bdim.
  2. When a chord sounds weird, follow it with a chord whose root is a 4th or 5th away. To simplify this, let’s say that your progression starts with C – Dm – Em… but you don’t know what you should do next. It’s almost always going to work to move up a 4th or down a 5th, so your next chord could be: Am.
  3. Keep chord progressions from getting too long. Long progressions that use lots of different chords will lose their connection to the tonic chord, and that makes a progression sound aimless.
  4. Use chord inversions (“slash” chords) if your progression sounds too predictable for your tastes. Inverting chords — placing a note other than the root at the bottom — can breathe life into an otherwise mundane progression.
  5. Complex or aimless chords can actually sound interesting in a verse or bridge, but choruses should feature mainly strong progressions. In this context, strong means solidly pointing to one chord as the tonic. So if your song is in C major, the chorus progression should be short and repetitive, making C sound like the tonic. But your verse can sometimes benefit from some tonal ambiguity. Just remember, if you’ve deliberately written a verse to be musically ambiguous, use the chorus to tighten everything up and strengthen the sense of key.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

If you’ve got a melody, but you struggle with how to add chords that work, you need to read “How to Harmonize a Melody.” It will show you using an easy step-by-step method, including sound files to help with the process. It’s part of “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting 10-eBook Bundle”

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Bruce Springsteen

Deciding On Verse 1

Many songwriters find chorus hooks easier to write than verses. That’s because you can tell right away if a hook is working. It needs to be short, catchy, strong and simple.

But verses are more complex structures within a song. It’s sometimes hard to get the lyric just right. You know that it needs to lead somewhat effortlessly into the chorus, but it’s often hard to know if the verse is doing its job.


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In particular, verse lyrics, especially verse 1 lyrics, are tricky. You’ve got to get an audience interested right away, because today it’s just too easy to click away from a song and move on to something else.

So here’s a tip for you: write a lot of verses, and don’t worry (yet) about which verse is going to be the first one.

If you’re writing a story song, you’re pretty limited in the subject matter for the first verse: it’s going to be the start of the story. But if it’s a situational kind of song, where you’re setting up the emotions that occur in the chorus, you’ve got a lot of options for what that first verse might be.

Having a lot of options doesn’t necessarily make it any easier, though. It can be hard to get things in the right order. Take a song like “Born in the U.S.A.”, and you’ll see what I mean. Springsteen presents the somewhat negative side of what it meant to some to be born in the U.S.A., focusing on guns and war.

Each verse has a similar mood, so if you were the one to write “Born in the U.S.A.’, how would you decide what verse 1 should be?

There’s probably no one good answer, but there are principles involved. Here’s one possible way to do it:

  1. Write a chorus hook that captures what you want the audience to feel and take away from your song.
  2. Once you’ve done that, write a verse without thinking about or worrying about lyrics yet. Just get the feel right.
  3. Now start composing verse lyrics. I always recommend word lists to help you with this part of the process. Whatever it takes to get some basic vocabulary and phrasing started for you.
  4. Write lots of verses, knowing that you’ll use one or two of them, and you’ll probably toss the others.

You’ll notice that the more you write, the better things likely will get. Don’t be surprised if your first one or two verses sound lame. The more you write, the better idea you’ll get of what this song is really about.

I’ve mentioned it before on this blog, but that’s exactly what George Harrison did when he wrote “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” He wrote a ton of verses that he wound up not using, but once he had all those verses, he had a lot of options for what would eventually make it to the final recorded version of the song.

When you get to the stage where you’re performing your song for others, it will become apparent right away if you’ve chosen your first verse well. It needs to be something that connects quickly and clearly to your audience.

And it needs to be a verse that makes the chorus or refrain sound like a logical follower. And if you’re performing your own song, you’ll know right away if everything is working.


Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter

“The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” 10-eBook BundleThousands of songwriters are using “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” eBook bundle to polish their songwriting technique. Every aspect of how to make a song better is covered. Stop wasting time — take your songwriting technique to a new level TODAY. Ten eBooks, plus a free one: $37 USD (Immediate download.)

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Led Zeppelin

The Best Songs Are Partnerships of Ideas

Make a little list of what you consider to be the best songs you know, and you’ll probably see one thing that is in common: each song represents a partnership of ideas.

What does that term “partnership of ideas” mean? It refers to the fact that all the various components of a song — the lyrics, the melodies, the chords and so on — work in close collaboration with each other.


Writing a Song From a Chord ProgressionIf you like starting songs by working with a chord progression, you need to read “Writing a Song From a Chord Progression.” It will give you the pros and cons of this songwriting method, and help you create songs that really work!


In other words, if the words are quirky and odd, you’ll find that the melodies are usually also quirky and odd. The chords might also be a little surprising and unexpected. In the best songs, the different elements that go together to make up that song tend to share similar characteristics.

In that way, great songs are usually even better than the sum of their parts.

What does this all mean to you as a songwriter? You should be able to take any song you write and subject it to a component-by-component analysis, and see similarities. You should be able to see how all the different parts of the song support each other, and present a unified message to your listeners.

Start by taking that little list of the best songs you know, and pull them apart and look for the similarities. Think about the mood and sensibility of the lyric, and then think about how the melody supports it. Think about the chords that are used, and how things might have been different if the writer(s) used different chords.

Then think about how the subtext of the lyric changes if you think about that song being faster or slower, and how the performer’s choices affected the overall feeling you get from the song.

The more each separate component of a song supports the other components, the stronger the song becomes, and the more impact it makes on the listener.

A great example of a song that pulls all the various elements of a song together to present a unified image to the audience is Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven.” The lyrics may be hard to understand, but you certainly get an “impression” from them – a kind of profundity that comes through also in the long slow build of musical energy, and the subsequent change in vocal and instrumental style.

It is definitely worth the time to take a close look at your own songs and hopefully find the ways that the lyrics, melodies, chords and performance style all support each other.


Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter

“The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” 10-eBook BundleThousands of songwriters are using “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” eBook bundle to polish their songwriting technique. Every aspect of how to make a song better is covered. Stop wasting time — take your songwriting technique to a new level TODAY. Ten eBooks, plus a free one: $37 USD (Immediate download).

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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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