When you’re experiencing a creative block of some sort, one where writing is causing considerable frustration, a good solution is often to simply step away for a few days and let your creative mind have a bit of a rest.
And during that stepping away, it’s good to keep yourself immersed in music. There are lots of things you can do, including playing music, teaching, pursuing other creative interests, and, of course, just listening.
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Listening is a good one, because sometimes we get so caught up in writing that we forget how important it is to listen to good music. It can stimulate your imagination and get you excited to write again.
But there’s another benefit that comes from listening, though you might not recognize it as such: listening to a successful songwriter can make you a bit jealous.
Jealousy is normally seen as a negative emotion. Feeling jealous of someone else’s friends, relationships, possessions… well, there’s not much good that can come from that.
But I’d suggest that there’s a healthier kind of jealousy — healthy, as long as you keep things in perspective and treat it as a thought experiment. Here’s what I mean.
Let’s say, during one of those times when writer’s block has gripped you, that you spend time listening to a recording by someone else in your genre. You make note of the polished sound, the level of production, the gorgeous melodies, the clever lyrics. If you’re normal, you might start to feel a bit jealous of that musician’s achievement.
Instead of following jealousy down its normal path of leading to anger, I’m suggesting that you go down a somewhat different path: explore feelings of creative excitement and energy that come from hearing good music.
And ask yourself: Why aren’t I writing music like that right now? Why can’t that be me?
By thinking that way, you acknowledge the excellence of the song you’re listening to, not disparaging or denigrating it. And you use that emotion as fuel to get your creative juices flowing again.
This is not unusual, of course. We actually do this all the time. When I was learning trumpet at university, the thing that got me practicing more than anything was simply listening to and acknowledging the excellence of my classmates. And feeling a little bit of jealousy when they were better than me.
But it’s amazing how lethargic we can become as writers when writer’s block kicks in and stops our songwriting in its tracks. You get so depressed about your temporary inability to write that you forget that you can use your ego to get you back on track.
So the next time writer’s block grabs hold and refuses to let go, spend a good amount of time listening to music. And don’t be afraid to let a little bit of good ol’ fashioned jealousy of someone else’s success snap you out of your creative block and get you back to writing again.
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.
This is something that doesn’t necessarily occur to casual listeners to pop music: the number of times we hear a melody that’s really just the same short 4- or 5-note cell that gets repeated over and over with different chords underneath.
A good example of this is Shawn Mendes’ recent single “Lost In Japan” (Shawn Mendes, Scott Harris, Nate Mercereau, Teddy Geiger), using a verse melody that takes a short 6-note motif that moves up and down on the notes A and G:
With those two pitches, A and G, he creates almost the entire verse, with just a few extra notes thrown in. Give it a listen to see what I mean:
As I say, constantly repeating melodic cells won’t usually be obvious to the casual listener of music. It’s amazing, though, how much of a typical pop song is created using the same melodic motif or shape, over and over again.
So why don’t we usually notice this sort of thing? Generally it’s because other things are changing — the lyric, the chords underneath, and sometimes the instrumentation/production.
In “Lost in Japan”, the lyrics keep changing, but I think the fact that the A-to-G melodic cell is accompanied by four different chords is the reason it slips under the radar. We first hear it accompanied by Bb, then Cm7, then Gm, then Eb.
For each of those chords, we hear the same melodic idea, but with each change of the chord it’s like we’re hearing it “from a different angle”, so to speak.
Why This Is Important
One of the most important benefits of creating entire melodies by stringing together similar cells is memorability. It’s a lot easier to remember a melody that contains the same short segment constantly repeated.
The changing chords and lyrics helps to disguise the constant repetition. So you get the benefit that comes from repeating something over and over (it’s easier for the audience to sing/hum it) while making it sound as though an entire verse has been created out of fresh material.
This is only one melody-writing technique, of course, and there’s nothing wrong with writing a melody where everything changes as it goes (“Hey Jude”, for example).
But if you find yourself struggling to write a melody that’s just not happening, try the technique used in “Lost in Japan”: create a short melodic cell, then sing it over and over, changing the chords underneath.
As long as the chords work with your short melodic idea, your final, complete melody should work as well.
“The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” 10-eBook bundle includes several chord progression eBooks, including “Chord Progression Formulas” and the all-important Study Guide. Learn how to create chord progressions within seconds using these formulas.
Melody notes only sound right if the chords underneath them fit properly. If you’re a chords-first songwriter, you need to say it the other way — chords only sound right if the melody you eventually write fits them.
But in any case, good songs are a partnership between melodies and chords, and then they need to be the proper vehicle for the lyrics.
It seems like a no-brainer to say that the notes of a melody need to be found in the chords that accompany them, but this is only part of the story. If that were strictly true, you’d only be able to have melodies that use chord tones, so all your melodies would be leaping about, only using the notes of the triads.
But of course melodies are a mixture of mostly stepwise motion with occasional leaps. So in fact, many notes that we hear in a melody are not actually found in the chords underneath.
So how does that work? How can you have melody notes that don’t exist in the accompanying chords? Take a classic like “Groovy Kind of Love.” Its melodies are made up mainly of stepwise motion, with many notes per chord:
The first few melody notes happen unaccompanied, but then we get several notes (E D C# B A) that all happen over one chord. How do they all sound fine being accompanied by that one chord, A?
It’s All About Strong and Weak Beats
Listeners automatically feel the strong beat/weak beat pattern of music, and this is a crucial part of what makes a chord fit the melody. When you listen to “Groovy Kind of Love”, your foot automatically starts tapping within a few seconds of the start of the song.
Those foot taps that you instinctively do are the beats. If you really pay attention, you’ll notice that some beats feel strong while others feel weak, and in most songs that’s an alternating pattern:
WHEN i’m FEEL-ing BLUE
ALL i HAVE to DO
is TAKE a LOOK at YOU
THEN i’m NOT so BLUE
The sense of strong and weak is subtle, but it’s there in practically every song in the pop genres.
Strong and weak beats are important to harmonizing a melody, because that governs when it feels right to hear a chord change. In general, it feels right when a chord changes on the strong beats.
Take a look at the lyric in the graphic above, and you’ll notice that chords are always changing on the strong beats.
In between strong beats, we’re completely fine if the notes of the melody don’t necessarily come from the chord that’s happening at that moment:
CHORDS: [...] A E9 A LYRICS: [...] ALL i HAVE to DO / is TAKE a LOOK at YOU Notes: [...] D C# B A G# G# A G# F# G# A
Most of those notes in between the chords don’t come from the chord of the moment. But the listeners’ ears accept those notes because they happen during those so-called weak beats.
The good news is that most of the time our instincts take care of this detail. You don’t normally have to think too hard about whether a melody note belongs or doesn’t belong to a chord. For 95% of the time, the note that happens on a strong beat needs to belong to the chord, and the other notes act as musical glue that gets you from one strong beat to the next one.
“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.
This past Friday, producer David Foster did an interview with Tom Power on the CBC Radio show ‘Q.’ Toward the end of that interview, this was said:
DF: “Well, you know, Quincy Jones, what he said about having a hit record? ‘Quincy, what’s the three elements you need for a hit record?’ ‘Well, let me think about it, David. Number 1 is the song, and number 2, by the way, is the song, and number 3, by the way, is also the song.'”
TP: “Do you think a bad artist can make a good song great?”
DF: “I think a bad singer can have a hit with a great song. I think a great singer cannot have a hit with a bad song.”
That’s something I’ve always believed. It’s all about the song, and your success begins and ends with how good that song is.
In addition to that statement about a bad singer having a hit with a great song, I’d add that a great song can fail if it’s poorly recorded and produced, no matter who’s singing it.
And the bad singer? That person can only have a hit if the song is recorded well and produced well. Someone needs to be able to identify a song’s potential, and know how to draw it out.
All that time you’re spending on songwriting, trying to be a better songwriter? That is time well-spent. Think of any good producer you know of, the ones who’ve worked with artists who’ve had hit after hit. Sure, they got to work with those amazing musicians, but what really made those producers legendary was that they were working with great songs.
So if you’re concentrating on gear, or if you’re trying to get more “likes” for your tunes, you are probably focusing on the wrong thing.
The road to success in the pop music industry can be complex and tricky, but no matter if you’re the writer, the producer, the performer, the engineer, the arranger, or the manager, it all starts with a great song.
And if you are focused right now on trying to write better songs, you’re doing exactly what you need to be doing.
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The following is an excerpt from Chapter 3 of “Use Your Words! Developing a Lyrics-First Songwriting Process.” That eBook is currently a free add-on to “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting 10-eBook Bundle.”
Poems don’t always make good lyrics, if only because the emotional ups and downs of a poem are often subtler than is required in pop genres. Additionally, the form of poetry doesn’t often match up with the typical forms we see with pop songs. But poetry can work well if some or all of the following is present:
- words with an easily-felt pulse;
- words that are in common, everyday usage;
- imagery that works well in a musical setting;
- a sense of emotional ebb and flow.
If you are a poet, then you have control over these factors, and so it can be much easier to create poetry that you plan to use as a song lyric. But searching through centuries of poetry now in the public domain can yield exciting material that will serve you well. You likely know that McCartney’s “Golden Slumbers” from the “Abbey Road” album uses a chorus lyric written by English poet and dramatist Thomas Dekker (1572-1632).
Using a public domain poem can be like discovering an old treasure chest full of jewels, all there for the taking. Because copyright typically expires 70 years after the death of the copyright holder, you usually just need to check a few dates to ensure legalities. But from time to time copyright can be renewed by the holder, and so this is a warning to you that you must do your research if you plan to use someone else’s poetry.
- Read the poem until you have it memorized. You’ll thank me for this tip someday. When you know a poem so well that you can recite it from memory, you are well placed to discover all the things you need to know about it: its structure, rhyming scheme, natural pulse, and so on. And those characteristics are often best discovered when calling the poem to mind, more so than reading it off a sheet of paper.
- Say the poem to yourself in many different ways. Doing this means finding the intrinsic beat and pulse of the words. Since your song is going to likely use a strong beat/weak beat pattern – 4/4 time, most likely – try to say the poem while tapping your foot. You’ll need to experiment with this quite a bit, but it is usually a fun kind of experimenting. Elongate some words, shorten others, and try to find the most natural way of reciting the words of the poem.
- Resist the urge to change words. This is certainly not to say that you can’t change words in a public domain poem, but take it as a challenge to use it as the author penned it, wherever possible. McCartney changed the words of “Golden Slumbers” from “Sleep, pretty wantons” to “Sleep, pretty darling,” and that was of course to use a word that was more in common usage – darling –than the antiquated “wantons.”
- Examine the structure of the poem for a possible chorus or refrain. Some poems will naturally have a refrain as part of its formal design, but that’s not common. However, you may notice that parts of the poem are just right for repetition in a chorus-kind of way:
- The lines trigger an emotional response;
- The words are in common, everyday usage;
- The rhythm of the words are clear, aligning in a strong beat/weak beat configuration.
- Pick the lines that assemble themselves well into a verse structure. Many poems will be long enough that setting the entire work is impractical. To choose lines of the poem that work as a poem, you need to start by getting a good idea of the story or circumstance being described therein. Songs may actually contain several story lines: one main one, with several subordinate stories or issues. Pick lines or sections that focus in on one storyline, particularly if the song you’re writing is in one of the pop genres; you need something that sounds complete in 3-5 minutes.
- Read your chosen verse lines, paying close attention to how they work with your chosen chorus. Remember that the chorus gets repeated, but each verse will use different lines. They all need to move smoothly to the chorus, and the chorus needs to sound right when followed by each verse.
“The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” eBook bundle includes“Use Your Words! Developing a Lyrics-First Songwriting Process”. Discover the secrets of making the lyrics-first songwriting process work for you.
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.
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