The Essential Secrets of Songwriting Blog – Gary Ewer
Hello all – I hope you’re all doing well as I write this short message from the beautiful Dartmoor region of the south-west U.K. I am currently on holiday here, which explains why you haven’t been seeing any updates to my blog.
I’ll be here in the U.K. for the next bit-more-than-a week, returning on June 6, and will get back into a regular schedule of making songwriting posts.
I was amazed to consider that this is my first holiday since the spring of 2009! And I can’t think of a nicer place than Dartmoor. As I’m able, I hope I can upload a few photos of places I’ve been visiting.
Back in touch soon!
Taking Your Lyric-Writing to the Next Level
I’ve made the point many times on this blog that the one aspect of your songwriting that will contribute most to the power and longevity of your songs is your ability to write great lyrics.
It’s not easy to be unique in songwriting, and it’s definitely hard to come up with unique chord progressions. What’s more, the genre that you write in will often determine the instruments you use as well.
But melody and lyrics are the two elements within songs that offer you the best shot at making your songs powerful and unique.
A good lyric has a way of stimulating the imagination and helping listeners feel something powerful. But many songwriters struggle with lyrics. What can you do to make lyrics a more effective part of your songwriting abilities?
Over the years I’ve written many articles on this topic, and so I’ve put a few in the list below. You may find that the way forward to writing better lyrics is simply to put the spotlight on that element, starting your songs by working out at least part of the lyric as a starting point.
In any case, I hope you find something in this list that will help:
- Seven Ways to Become a Better Lyrics-First Songwriter. If you’ve been working on trying to become a better lyricist, I congratulate you. Great lyrics will be a crucial part of your eventual songwriting legacy. If you look at lists of the world’s best songwriters, you’ll notice that for most of those writers the quality of their lyrics has played an important role in their songwriting output.
- With Good Lyrics, Subtlety Can Be Important. All the basic components of a song — especially the chords, melodies, lyrics — act as partners. Nothing happens in isolation. A good melody will sound even better if the chords support it. Lyrics sound better if the melody they’re delivered with matches the rhythm and basic contour of the words.
- What Word Lists Can Do For Your Lyrics. If you write your own lyrics, I hope you know the value of creating word lists. One benefit is obvious: once you have a general topic, lists of pertinent words will give you the basic vocabulary from which you can pull together a lyric.
- Creating an Emotional Response With Song Lyrics. It’s an observation about lyrics that I’ve become aware of only recently: I tend to think of good lyricists as people who either a) make me think, or b) make me feel.
- A Solution For Aimless Lyrics: The One-Sentence Summary. An aimless lyric, as the term implies, is one that keeps changing its direction, so it’s hard for an audience to get a handle on what the song is actually about.
Written by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.
“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.
Sometimes the Problem with a Song’s Chorus Is Its Verse
Lyrics become all the more powerful when they’re properly paired with a good melody. That’s what Chapter 5 is all about in the eBook “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting.” Polish your songwriting technique with the 10-eBook Bundle.
This blog post is a kind of “part 2” for the previous article on this blog, “Moving Melodies Up an Octave to Deal With Verse-Chorus Sameness.” Let’s look at ways in which a bad verse might make a song sound like it’s got a bad chorus.
It’s pretty much instinctive for songwriters: a chorus is going to be more intense and energetic than a verse. There’s other things about a chorus that are usually instinctive as well: a chorus melody will typically use simpler, more rhythmically patterned ideas that go a long way to creating a catchy hook.
So if a song’s chorus seems to be missing the mark and not actually giving you the thrill that you thought should be there, your natural inclination would be to take a closer look at the chorus to see what you can do to improve it.
But there’s one other thing you could and should be doing, which is to take a closer look at the verse that precedes it, and make sure that it’s doing what a verse should be doing. Because if the verse is lacking in some way or another, the symptom could be a chorus that’s not working well.
The main way this might happen is if the verse is acting too much like a chorus, possibly in these ways:
- Your verse lyric is too emotional, trying to draw out an emotional response from listeners without doing what it should be doing: telling a story or describing a situation.
- Your verse melody is too high in pitch. A high melody makes for a more intense vocal performance, and it may simply be too much, too soon for your song.
- Your instrumental approach might be too intense and loud, meaning that the chorus is missing the opportunity to “pop”.
There are probably other ways that a verse might be doing too good a job of impersonating a chorus, but those three are probably the most common weaknesses in songs that seem to be lacking musical energy at the crucial moment: the chorus.
If your song sounds like it’s lacking in musical energy when it gets to the chorus, it may simply require you to stop looking at the chorus, and take a look back at the verse, and make sure that it’s not upstaging what should be the more flag-waving part of your song.
Written by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.
For most good songs in the pop genres, getting a hook working properly is vital. “Hooks and Riffs: How They Grab Attention, Make Songs Memorable, and Build Your Fan Base” shows you how hooks have made the world’s top songs successful.
Moving Melodies Up an Octave to Deal With Verse-Chorus Sameness
It sometimes happens that both the verse and chorus in a song use the same melody — or at least a very similar one. The kids’ song, “Puff, the Magic Dragon“, is a good example.
It seems to fly in the face of the otherwise important principle that chorus melodies are typically higher, generating more musical energy.
Using the exact same melody may not be all that common, but there’s another more common scenario: songs where the verse and chorus melodies both sit in the same basic range, using the same notes. This can cause problems because it can cause “listening fatigue”, where we just keep hearing the same notes over and over again.
Got a melody but don’t know how to add chords to make it come alive? “How to Harmonize a Melody” does just that. It shows, step-by-step, how to choose chords that fit your tune, and how to experiment with chord substitutions. It’s part of “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” 10-eBook Bundle.
The main symptom of a song where the verse and chorus melodies both come from the same set of notes is that you find yourself, as a listener, being distracted and wanting to hear something new.
One reliable solution, if you find yourself having written a song where all the melodies sit in the same basic range, is to choose a section to rewrite; either you’ll want to find a way to lower your verse melody, or to raise your chorus melody.
But there’s another solution: keep the verse melody where it is, and, assuming it’s not too high, raise the chorus melody by a full octave.
Tom Petty’s “Free Fallin'” is a good example of a song that does this. And not only do the verse and chorus melodies use the same notes, it’s a very restricted tone set: three notes from the key of F major: F, G and A, sung in his midrange for the verse, and then jumping up an octave for the chorus.
And in that upper octave, it’s still three notes — F, G and A — that the chorus uses for its melody.
If the entire song had been done in the same range as the verse melody, I doubt we’d know this song; I think it would have flopped. But that octave leap into the chorus gives the song the shot it needs.
So yes, rewriting a verse to be lower or a chorus to be higher is a good way to deal with a song where too much of it all sits in the same range. But before you commit to doing that, consider the possibility of keeping your chorus melody the same, but bumped upward by a full octave.
Also, one final point: if that octave leap makes it too high, you can consider lowering the entire song by a key or two, to make both ranges work vocally.
Written by Gary Ewer. Follow on Twitter.
Thousands of songwriters have been using “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” 10-eBook Bundle, along with the Study Guide, to polish their songwriting skills and raise their level of excellence.
Strengthening the Structure of Your Songs
If you look closely at the way Classical composers wrote their music, you’ll find some very sophisticated characteristics that leave you wondering: Did they actually think people would notice?
Here’s a bit of what I mean.
Musicologists will tell you that Bach had an interesting way of structuring his music: he would write a short musical phrase — maybe only five or six notes — to start a movement, which showed a particularly distinctive shape. Take the final movement of Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 3. The violin starts the movement by playing a very quick line that moves up and then immediately down:
He then takes that general shape and applies it to the first section of the movement, so that we hear that the movement starts relatively low, then moves upward, gradually descending downward for the next several bars.
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Then if you look at the entire movement, you notice that in general, the movement starts relatively low, moves upward, and then moves downward.
By doing this, Bach’s hope was that, even if listeners weren’t noticing, there’d be a strengthening of the musical structure of the movement that would make the entire movement better.
I don’t think Bach thought people would notice this. If he did, he was wildly overestimating the musical sophistication of the majority of the people who would be listening. But the fact that it’s there makes the music better. And even if people weren’t able to put their finger on why it sounded better, that technique still worked.
Musical Structure of Pop Music
I wrote about this a number of years ago on this blog when I analyzed Imogen Heap’s song “Tidal” from her 2009 album “Ellipse”. (You can read that article and analysis here.)
We don’t know a lot about Bach’s compositional process, but we assume that he had as one of the items in his “bags of tricks” the notion that he would replicate the general shape of the opening line in the general shape of the entire movement.
Most of the time, the way you write pop songs is going to be governed in large part by your musical instincts. And so you might think that doing something similar to what Bach did isn’t really going to work.
So as a pop songwriter, is there anything you can do that might strengthen the structure of your songs? It all starts by defining what we mean by a pop song’s structure.
The structure of a song is anything that contributes to its power and its understanding as a musical entity. So some things that you already do as part of your natural songwriting process are already contributing to its structure:
- You make verses sit low in pitch compared to the relatively high chorus pitch.
- You use a cleaner, more transparent vocal style in the verse compared to a higher and generally more energetic vocal quality in the chorus.
- You vary your use of instruments throughout the song, moving from lighter to fuller and back again as the song progresses, partnering up with the musical energy of the moment.
- You make observations in your verse lyrics, and switch to more emotional content in the chorus lyric.
Like Bach’s technique of replicating a musical shape throughout a movement, these are things that the audience may or may not be aware of as they listen, but even if they don’t notice that you’ve applied those songwriting techniques, they are still very important, and they still work.
The interesting thing is that you can write a song where, for example, the chorus sits lower than the verse, like the Genesis tune “No Reply At All“, where the chorus is considerably lower in pitch than the verse, seemingly in violation of the principle of higher-pitched choruses. So why does the song still work?
It’s because the general principle is a more focused one: the chorus should sound more energetic than the verse. An easy way to do that is to raise the pitch of the chorus, but if you haven’t done that, you rely on other characteristics, such as a more intense instrumental accompaniment, or perhaps a more intensely emotional chorus lyric.
When you’ve finished a song and you’re ready to record, that’s the time to take a closer look at what you’ve written, and ask yourself: have I done anything that contributes to the overall structure of my song?
Most of the time, you’ll be doing 95% of what you need to do if you simply examine the musical energy — the ups and downs of the intensity — and make note of the ways in which you’ve allowed those fluctuations to happen. Look at how lyrics, melody range, even chord choice, all contribute — or not — to the intention of your song.
And in the final analysis, it won’t matter a whole lot if your fans don’t actually notice that you’ve put that kind of thought into your songs. The songs will simply be better, even if they don’t know why.
Written by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.
“The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” eBook bundle comes with a free copy of “Use Your Words! Developing a Lyrics-First Songwriting Process,” along with a Study Guide. Learn how to make the writing of a good lyric the starting point for your own songwriting method.
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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"