You’ll wind up with a better song if you’re willing to experiment and change the things you’ve written. You like to think of your song as being kind of like your “baby” — you’re willing to accept it, warts and all.
But before you fall irretrievably in love with your song, experimenting by changing bits of it can lead to something even better.
“Hooks and Riffs: How They Grab Attention, Make Songs Memorable, and Build Your Fan Base“, is available at “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” Online Store. Get it separately, or as part of 10-eBook Bundle, along with a FREE chord progression eBook.
This is particularly true of verses. A song verse can be the most difficult part of a song to write because most verses don’t have a noticeable hook. A hook has a way of focusing everything and giving that part of the song a real sense of purpose. So one of the most common problems with song verses is that they can sound somewhat aimless and disorganized.
This is where experimenting with what you’ve written for a verse can really improve things — a way of giving it that important aspect of focus. And you’ve got several things you can try changing:
Here’s the best way to experiment with the verse you’ve written:
- Assume that there are better lyrics you could write. If it’s verse 1, try writing many verse 1 lyrics, and then choose the best one. Or combine different potential verses: take a bit of one and bit of the other.
- Assume that there is a better verse melody you haven’t discovered yet. Do this in small bits at a time. For example, keep the first half of melody, but change the second half. Or vice versa. Or try coming up with many melodies that fit the chords you’ve been using. Try this by humming bits of melody, or try letting the lyrics guide your tune.
- Assume you might find better chords. Any one note of a melody can have several possible chords that will properly support it. If you’ve been using a standard I-IV-V-I progression (C-F-G-C), try substituting chords: I-ii-V-I, I-IV-V-vi, or I-vi-V-I. If you want more ideas on how to substitute chords, try this article: 8 Tips to Guide Your Search for Chord Substitutions.
- Play around with the form of your verse. If it’s an 8-bar verse, try doubling its size by repeating the whole thing, perhaps with a different instrumental accompaniment (fuller, or rhythmically busier, etc.)
The basic idea here is this: whatever you’ve written, make the assumption that there’s something better out there that you’ve not noticed yet.
I love reminding songwriters that second ideas are almost always better than first ideas. Our brain has a natural way of building on what we already know. So don’t assume that the first verse you’ve come up with is the best one. In fact, it’s almost always the case that experimenting and improvising will give you something better.
“The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” eBook bundle gives you lots of help when it comes to writing song melodies. Chapter 5 of “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” shows you how lyrics and melody work hand-in-hand, and “How to Harmonize a Melody” shows you how to add chords to that melody you’ve just created.
Any creative activity requires the brain to be generating new ideas spontaneously. As a songwriter, you know that there are days when that feels easy and natural, and other days when it feels impossible.
There is debate over whether or not it’s good to force yourself to write, even on the days you don’t want to write. I tend to believe that if you do it the right way, daily songwriting is better than sporadic songwriting.
But what about those days when it seems that you just can’t come up with anything?
The Occasional Break
Well, there are days when it actually does make sense to stop and divert your attention: change your creative activity from songwriting to, perhaps, playing your instrument, producing someone else’s recording, or even just talking to someone else about songwriting.
There’s something to be said for this kind of break from songwriting, as long as it’s just occasional. The creative side of your brain can get overused and under-supplied. The best way to rejuvenate your creative abilities is sometimes to stop what you’re doing for a few days. Returning to songwriting will often feel fresh and new.
Re-Structuring Your Daily Songwriting Objectives
More often than not, when you feel that you just can’t do anything creative, it’s due to the fact that you’re making unreasonable demands on your musical imagination that go beyond what you’re able to do on that day.
What this means is that instead of simply stopping, it is usually better to readjust and rethink what you’re asking yourself to do.
So if you’re feeling frustrated and negative because you can’t write a song, your goal is too ambitious, at least for that particular day. It’s far better to rethink your daily objective; maybe instead of aiming to write a song, your daily goal might rather be:
- Come up with a list of good song titles.
- Come up with a short chord progression and a creative backing rhythm and short melodic idea.
- Write a good chorus hook.
- Edit a song you’ve already written.
- Choose a song topic and brainstorm a list of words that pertain to that topic.
- Write a short 4- or 5-note melody, and see what different chords you can use to accompany it.
- Write a lyric, with no worry or consideration for the melody or chords that will eventually accompany it.
As you likely will have noticed, all seven of those ideas are just another way of saying: write part of a song rather than the whole thing.
By doing this, you remove the pressure you’re feeling of writing a full song. You’ll simply be asking your creative brain to do one small bit of a song, and the benefit is that once you’ve done it, you’ll feel that you’ve achieved something on that day.
There are lots of ways and reasons that writer’s block sets in, but certainly it’s always true to say that negativity is the fuel that keeps it going. By switching your mindset from writing a song to writing part of a song, you’ve found the best way to keep songwriting as a daily activity, and feeling good about it.
When a song sounds great, we like to think that there’s a certain magic involved. But if you are a student of songwriting, as most good songwriters consider themselves to be, you’ll know that it’s not magic that makes a song great.
A song sounds great when it follows basic musical principles. And we love it when those principles aren’t obvious and noticeable.
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Architecture provides us with a very appropriate metaphor. A beautiful building, like the Sydney Opera House, can take our breath away. But underneath all that beauty, the basic structure still needs to adhere to basic principles of architecture and physics.
Buildings might fall if certain laws of physics are violated or ignored, and similarly, songs can fail if musical principles are ignored.
Concentrating on the structure of your music might make you fear that your song will sound technical and uninspired, but that’s simply not true. In fact, chords that sound great, melodies that soar, lyrics that really grab the listener — these are usually powerful elements of songs because they adhere to important principles.
If you’re looking for a quick run-down of what the various elements of your songs should be doing, and how they contribute to a solid underlying structure, consider these as starters:
- Lyrics need to fluctuate between observational and emotional.
- Songs that are all-emotional all the time will dull the effect they’re looking for. So verses should be minimally emotional, aiming instead to describe people, situations and circumstances. Leave the emotional release for the chorus.
- Lyrics should use common, everyday words — the kind of words you’d use in a conversation.
- A good lyric doesn’t need to rhyme, but if you choose to write rhyming lyrics, be careful that you don’t force the rhyme. Forced, corny rhyming is distracting, and one bad line can kill an entire lyric. (“I need to have you near, like my favourite brand of beer…”)
- Most of the time a good melody will move from a low range to a higher range.
- Listeners hear emotion in a voice that rises higher, so use higher melodies in the chorus.
- If your verse is descriptive of people or situations, use lower melodies to keep the emotion in check.
- Most chord progressions will target the tonic (key) chord.
- Verse progressions can be long and wandering, guided by the subject matter or story line.
- Chorus progressions tend to be shorter and tonally stronger, locking in to the simplicity of the chorus hook.
There is so much more that can be said about the structure of music, but I hope that these will give you a clear picture of how structure is always an important part of good songwriting.
If you’re still not sure how the elements listed above apply to good songs, choose any song that you’ve loved over the years, and then start looking through the list. I would wager that almost any song you choose will display most if not all of these elements.
It’s hard, but not impossible, to apply songwriting principles after the fact. But if you find that most of the songs you’re writing these days leave you feeling discouraged, read through those lists above several times, and try to apply them now as part of your songwriting process. I believe you’ll start to see positive results quickly.
“The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” 10-eBook bundle includes several chord progression eBooks, including “Chord Progression Formulas”. Learn how to create chord progressions within seconds using these formulas.
Everyone has their favourite songwriting process. For you, it might be strumming some chords and see what kind of mood you can create, and then come up with a melody.
Or perhaps you like working out a bit of lyric, almost like a poem, and then see what musical ideas come from those words.
And sometimes, you don’t know how to start at all. It can feel a bit like climbing a mountain: it seems so massive, and the whole task of climbing it seems impossible.
So many songs in the pop genres succeed or fail based on the quality of the hook. “Hooks and Riffs: How They Grab Attention, Make Songs Memorable, and Build Your Fan Base” contains info that all songwriters need to write great song hooks. It’s part of “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” 10-eBook Bundle.”
Sticking with that mountain analogy, it may be better to think of climbing it in stages, at least from a psychological point of view. In other words, instead of saying “I have to climb this mountain…”, it might be better to say, “I have to climb to the Base Camp.” That’s only a few thousand feet.
Once you’re there, you can rest up and get your thoughts in order. Then it’s on to the next camp, then the next one, and each arrival at a new camp gives you an opportunity to rest, strengthen your resolve, and then keep going.
You may have heard interviews with climbers who have climbed the world’s biggest mountains, and you’ll notice that even if how long it took to climb the mountain is mentioned, it’s never very important to the story. The achievement is the climbing of it.
Songwriting is very similar. Starting a song can make you scramble about, feeling like the task before you is huge and daunting. If you’re feeling that way right now about your latest songwriting effort, it’s time to change what and how you’re thinking. For today, it may be enough to simply say, “I just need to get this chorus hook working.” That’s base camp for you.
Then tomorrow, once you’ve had a chance to feel good about that hook, it may be time to set out for the next camp: writing a verse that leads into it. Then… on you go.
In that way, you’re not focused on the larger task of writing a song; you’re doing something smarter: you’re dividing the task up into smaller bits, and then aiming for one small bit at a time.
As you climb that “mountain of music”, you should always be putting it together by listening to everything you’ve written in sequence. But the focus should be on smaller bits, as a way of keeping you feeling encouraged and undaunted.
Sometimes a more-or-less complete song will come into your mind, and it’s wonderful when that happens. But most of the time, all good songwriters are simply putting fragments together until a song is complete.
And sometimes the best way forward is to focus on the bits, not the entire project. You’ll feel better and more positive about the song as you write.
Excellence happens when you practice your technique. Gary’s 9-Lesson Course takes you through the fundamentals of writing good lyrics, melodies and chords, and helps you understand the concepts of great songwriting structure. It’s part of “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting 10-eBook Bundle.”
Robin Gibb once said that a great song is all about a great melody. It really depends on the genre, but most of the time I think he’s right.
When you’ve hooked a listener with a good melody, you’ve given them something to hum — something to remember. A great melody is a powerful way to keep someone coming back to your song.
On track to make songwriting a full-time or part-time career choice? Read “From Amateur to Ace: Writing Songs Like a Pro.” It expands on some of the ideas in “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting,” with chapters like “How Do I Write Songs When I Don’t Feel Inspired”, “How Do I write Good Vocal Harmonies”, and others.
Over the years I’ve written many blog posts that pertain to writing great melodies — how to get them to support the lyric, how to integrate them with chords, and so on.
If you’re trying to improve your melody-writing prowess these days, I’ve listed five articles that I’ve written over the past few years that I hope you’ll find helpful.
And if you’ve discovered your own melody-writing secrets that you’d like to share with others, please reply to this post in the comments below.
Summary: So much of how much we like a melody is cultural, based on what we’ve heard all our lives and what we’ve always liked about song melodies. And one of the most important aspects of successful melodies has to do with how it works with the chords.
Summary: Regardless of genre, it’s not normal for the bass to be playing the melody along with the singer. It’s a distinctive sound when that happens, though.
Summary: How do you create a melody that works well in verse-only songs? Are they structured differently from verse melodies that lead to choruses? The short answer to the second question is ‘yes’ — at least most of the time.
Summary: As a songwriter, part of making your song’s melody effective is to move your focus back and forth between the melody and the lyric, and making sure that the more emotive parts of your lyric aren’t getting downplayed by a melody moving in the wrong direction.
Summary: The great classical masters of composition practically always did a melody-first method for writing music. By doing so, they ensured that melody was front and centre, with no chance of being neglected.
“The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” eBook bundle includes “Writing a Song From a Chord Progression”. Discover the best way to use the chords-first songwriting process.
Songwriting Instructional Videos
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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.
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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Gary's latest video: "5 Characteristics of Great Song Lyrics"