Lately I’ve been thinking and writing a lot about musical momentum… that quality that keeps people listening to a song. Without it, songs would just be one nice sound following another nice sound, and though it may seem strange to say, that’s not enough to keep people listening.
There’s a sense of expectation that keeps people listening to a song. For example, when we hear a verse melody moving higher and higher, we instinctively want to hear where it ends up. That keeps us listening.
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When we hear a chord progression start on a I-chord, then move away from that tonic chord, we expect to hear the progression eventually move back to the I-chord in the chorus. That’s another way good songwriters might keep us listening.
What about lyrics? How do songwriters use lyrics to create that important sense of expectation?
Often people will say that verses should pose questions that get answered in the chorus. But rarely does this happen in a literal sense. Songs would be pretty boring if every one of them used verse lyrics that ask questions, followed by chorus lyrics that answer them.
But good verse lyrics do several things that give us the same feeling as if questions were being posed. Here are some examples:
1. Emotional Ambiguity
A good verse lyric describes a situation without being overly clear what your emotional response (as the songwriter) might be. Verses are good at introducing characters, laying out the scene, etc., but shouldn’t get overly specific about emotions.
A good example is Adele’s “Someone Like You”, which uses the verse to set the scene, but as you can see, doesn’t get overly weepy:
I heard that you’re settled down
That you found a girl and you’re married now
I heard that your dreams came true
Guess she gave you things I didn’t give to you
The chorus is where she makes feelings clearer. It’s not so much that she really misses that relationship; it’s more that she doesn’t want to become a complete nothing to this previous love (“Don’t forget me, I beg…”)
2. Powerful Imagery
A good verse lyric uses imagery to describe people and circumstances, but by using metaphors and other poetic devices. By using metaphors, we find ourselves comparing one situation (the metaphorical one) to another (the real one), and that sets things up for an emotional outpouring in the chorus.
Eric Church’s “Record Year” (Eric Church, Jeff Hyde) is a good example of what I’m talking about. He uses the metaphor of a record representing is day-to-day life (“Keeping this turntable spinnin’“), and even though his emotions are clear in the verse, it’s all done in an understated way.
It’s not until the chorus that things heat up (“I’m either gonna get over you/ Or I’m gonna blow out my ears.”) We really get the metaphor, and it deepens our emotional response.
A good verse lyric gives us reasons why the chorus makes us feel the way it does. There’s nothing worse than a verse that starts by describing how you feel, while giving no backstory to base those emotions on.
In that way, the verse and chorus are important partners, each with its own set of responsibilities.
If you take a look at practically any lyric that works, you’ll notice that the best ones offer a very clear up-and-down of emotion through the length of the song, and that’s what keeps us riveted, and coming back.
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We all know that songs need to be unique. You can’t take someone’s melody or lyrics and call them your own.
Most songwriters know, though, that chord progressions aren’t generally protected by copyright. So that’s certainly one element of a song that you can take and use, guilt-free.
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You can also use someone else’s title — usually. Even though titles are not typically protected by copyright, I’d recommend you steer away from calling your next song “Hey Jude”, “Rolling In the Deep”, or “Blowin’ In the Wind.”
Is there anything else that you can borrow or “steal” from someone else’s song that won’t get you in trouble? One of the most helpful parts of a song to take and use might be another song’s formal design.
By “formal design”, we’re simply talking about the structure of a song — the arrangement of verses and choruses and any other optional bits of someone else’s song.
How is borrowing a formal design helpful? In some cases, you may have snippets of musical ideas, but not be sure how to fit those ideas all together. Seeing how someone else solved that can be very helpful in your own process.
If you find borrowing another songwriter’s solutions a bit restricting, you can take parts of songs that are otherwise copyright protected, and manipulate them. Here are 3 quick ideas:
- Take a well-known melody and play it backwards.
- Take bits of lyric and change certain words to create something clever, humorous or thought-provoking. Weird Al does this when he “recreates” songs, and since copyright laws allow for parody renditions of songs, you can have a lot of fun with this without worrying about being on the wrong side of the law.
- Borrowing the feel of a song. Sometimes you get inspired by the general performance ideas that other singer-songwriters come up with. While being mindful that there is a limit to how much you can do this (remember “Blurred Lines?”), you can certainly take the tempo and basic backing rhythm feel and see where it takes you.
Generally speaking, though, the best way to keep the ideas flowing is to be listening a lot to music. The more you listen, the more your own sense of creativity and musical imagination extrapolates on those songs.
Sometimes all you need are lists of chords to get the songwriting process started. The Essential Secrets of Songwriting 10-eBook Bundle includes “Essential Chord Progressions” and “More Essential Chord Progressions.” Use the suggested chords as is, or modify them to suit your own songwriting project.
Even non-musicians have an idea of what the hook of a song is: it’s the short, memorable bit that comes immediately to mind when you ask someone, “Hey, do you know the song ____?”
Back in the 70s, if you asked someone, “Hey, do you know the song “Stayin’ Alive”, they’d immediately sing, “Ah, ah, ah, ah, stayin’ alive, stayin’ alive.” That’s the main chorus hook.
“Hooks and Riffs: How They Grab Attention, Make Songs Memorable, and Build Your Fan Base” shows you how songwriters in decades past have used many different kinds of lyrics to create great songs. Use it to create your own great song hooks.
For songwriters, though, you need a more specific definition if you want to write a hook that really works. The most important aspects of a song hook are:
- An enticing melodic shape. Most hooks have a melodic shape that’s immediately noticeable and interesting.
- A catchy rhythm. Along with that melodic idea is a rhythmic aspect that partners up with the mood of the song.
- A strong chord progression. You may like complex chords, but most song hooks work best when they’re supported by basic, tonally strong chords.
We associate hooks with pop music, but the truth is that every genre features songs that use hooks, even classical music. (Beethoven’s 5th Symphony, Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, and Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus, to name a few.)
Though it’s easy to define a hook, it’s not so easy to write music according to definitions. In other words, it won’t do you a lot of good to try to use those 3 defining qualities of hooks if you don’t have the makings of a hook in your mind already.
In most songwriting, improvising and experimenting to come up with a hook, and then examining your idea closely for how well it fulfills the basic definition of a good hook is a much better way to go.
One Possible Hook-Writing Process
Starting the songwriting process by coming up with a hook, therefore, is a good idea. It ensures that you’ve created something that, on its own, sounds catchy. You then work to add to your idea, and hopefully eventually come up with a complete song.
If you’d like to try starting your next song by working out the hook first, try these steps. It’s a kind of create-the-melody-first process:
- Hum some random note, around the middle of your vocal range. Keep this simple… maybe choose an E or a G.
- Try adding rhythms to that one note. This means getting a sense of tempo as well. Tap your foot to get that beat feeling solid, and now try improvising rhythms.
- Now start changing notes, making some higher, some lower. Always remember that repetition is an important part of good songwriting, so find a melodic pattern you like, and repeat it a few times.
- Add some guitar chords. Since your first melody note was an E or G (both notes in a C chord), try starting with a C chord, and let your imagination take you from there.
- Start adding lyric ideas. You’ll notice that the rhythm of your melody will start to sound like certain words which have a similar rhythmic pattern.
When doing this process, you’ll notice that sometimes you’ll come up with something quickly, within seconds, while at other times you’ll find the process won’t go anywhere for you and you have to start over.
Once you’ve got a hook that sounds usable, you can turn your attention to other parts of your song, such as the verse. And remember, you can always return to that hook and refine it and make it better.
There are other ways to start hooks, and they’re all outlined, step-by-step in “Hooks and Riffs: How They Grab Attention, Make Songs Memorable, and Build Your Fan Base.” That eBook is part of “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting 10-eBook” Bundle.
“The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” eBook bundle includes “Writing a Song From a Chord Progression”. Learn how to write great songs by starting with the chords, and then avoiding all the potential pitfalls of the chords-first songwriting process.
If you find it hard to finish songs, this may be the cause: You haven’t started properly. You’re too focused on pulling all the elements of a good song together, and you don’t yet have one good main idea.
You’re starting too big. You vamp away on two or three chords, and hope a song happens.
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So the whole songwriting project stalls because you’ve been focusing on the final product without giving enough thought to all the individual bits that eventually get pulled together to make a song.
So that would be Tip #1: Unless a fairly complete song enters your mind in an almost complete state (and that will happen occasionally), you need to concentrate on getting a good main idea happening.
Most of the time, that good main idea will be the song’s chorus hook — the bit that everyone’s going to sing, and going to remember. Once that’s happening, you can try different ideas for your verse. You can try things, toss them out, try again, but at least you’ve still got that main chorus hook, which is a lot.
If your songwriting process constantly stalls, here are some more tips to add to Tip #1 above:
Tip #2: Let music guide your process.
It’s not absolutely necessary to know what your song is going to be about, at least not right away. Your audience doesn’t typically use topic as an initial source of attraction to a song.
So don’t be afraid to simply let the music happen, and then see where those sounds take your thought process. Topic can come after music.
Tip #3: Don’t keep using the same set-up to start songs.
If you find yourself always sitting on the edge of your bed, strumming chords to get song ideas happening, you’re basically going down the same creative road time and time again.
There’s little hope for innovation if you start every song the same way. So instead of strumming notes on a guitar, start playing ideas on a keyboard. You don’t need to be an accomplished keyboardist to use the instrument to generate song ideas.
Also, use a different room, write at a different time of day, try a different genre… do whatever it takes to change things up at the start of your process.
Tip #4: Keep a ‘Song Ideas’ Journal.
It’s important to keep all the ideas you come up with, because those ideas are where you’re likely going to find your next song.
And it’s important to think of it as a “Song Ideas” journal, not an “Unfinished Songs” journal, because there’s all sorts of negativity that comes from thinking that you simply couldn’t finish a song.
Tip #5: Look through your lyric for a possible lyrical hook.
If you’ve got the makings of a lyric, or if you have a poem, but don’t know how to start turning it into a song, it’s probably not the best idea to start at the beginning of the lyric, trying to come up with melodies.
The better approach is to get the hook happening first, and you do that by looking through the lyric and finding those two or three words that really click — that sound great together — that imply rhythm.
Once you’ve found those words, you’ve likely identified the chorus, the part that’s going to sound great when repeated. Once you’ve got a chorus idea happening (i.e., you’ve got a bit of melody, a mood, a rhythmic treatment, etc.), move back to the beginning of your lyric or poem, and you’ll suddenly find the task of setting it to music a little easier.
There is no one set of rules that tells us how to write. But there are principles — guidelines — that will help. The most important of those tips is probably Tip #1 – Think small, get a good, short idea happening.
Once you’ve got that, you’ve got a better shot at creating ideas that can partner up well with it.
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In songwriting, momentum is that quality of music that causes us to want to keep listening to a song.
Another term for momentum is musical energy, or forward motion. When created and used properly, momentum is a pleasant kind of “tension” in the music, where we sense that something needs to be resolved.
There are many ways that songwriters can create musical tension. Lyrics, for example, are a great way. Your verse lyric might set up scenarios or describe people or events in such a way that we look for the “answer” in the chorus.
There’s a musical kind of tension, though, that comes about when we manipulate the tonic note. The tonic note is the note that represents the key of the song. For songs in C major, C is the tonic note, and the chord C major is the tonic chord.
The song “Imagine” (John Lennon/Yoko Ono) is a perfect song to demonstrate this concept of building musical tension, which we interpret musically as momentum or forward motion.
How the Melody of “Imagine” Creates Momentum
The verse progression is a simple one, moving back and forth between the tonic chord (C) and the IV-chord (F). The quality of musical tension comes from the melody, which sits mainly on the 5th note of the key, called the dominant note: G.
For the first line of the verse, Lennon’s melody starts on G (“Imagine there’s”), moves up a third on the word “no”, then descends quickly back down to G for the remainder of that first line.
The first four lines of the song do this. Musical tension is being created by the fact that even though the chord progression continues to return to the tonic chord, the melody avoids moving toward the tonic note almost entirely throughout the verse. It makes the note G the most important one, at least for the first part of the verse.
For the latter part of the verse, we do get more occurrences of the tonic note in the melody, but never partnered with the tonic chord.
So in the verse, we get two things that contribute to musical tension:
- An avoidance of the tonic note; followed by
- Tonic notes that never happen at the same time as tonic chords.
In most songs, particularly those in the pop genres, tension is followed by release. The tension is created by the avoidance of the tonic note, and even when the tonic note does happen, it’s not often supported by the tonic chord. The release comes from giving the audience just that: the tonic note and chord.
And the release happens in the chorus of “Imagine.” The chorus is made up of four short phrases, and three out of the four of them (phrases 1, 3 and 4) all end on the tonic note, accompanied by the tonic chord.
Tension and Release in the Lyric
There’s another kind of contrast, similar to the tension and release effect, that happens in “Imagine”, and you see it when you look at the lyric. The verses all describe scenarios we might see in the world around us, and the only mention of “I”, “me”, “us”, or any other words that make it personal are as observers (“I wonder if you can”, “no hell below us”, and so on.
Then in the chorus, the point of view changes, where Lennon speaks of himself, and we get:
You may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one;
I hope someday you’ll join us…
Suddenly the chorus brings the singer into full view, and makes it all a personal experience. Whenever song lyrics use personal pronouns, the audience can feel a sudden emotional connection, and that connection equates to emotional release.
So there are two lessons you can take from “Imagine” as a songwriter:
- See what avoiding the tonic note in the melody can do to create a pleasant sense of musical tension in your verses; and
- Think about how the use of personal pronouns within your chorus can help create opportunities for emotional release.
“Chord Progression Formulas” is an eBook that shows you how to create dozens of progressions quickly and easily, using simple, tonally strong formulas. It’s perfect for chords-first songwriters, and it’s part of “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting 10-eBook Bundle”
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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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