Simply Red - If You Don't Know Me By Now

What You Need to Know About the Rhythms of Your Melodies

Most of the time you probably don’t think a lot about the rhythms you use for your melodies. That’s because the rhythm is usually determined by the lyric. The words you use will tell you what the rhythms are going to be.

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But there’s more to it than that. Think of the following three well-known songs, and, from a rhythm point of view, try to determine what they each have in common:

Three very different songs, but they all show a characteristic that’s an important part of building musical energy: the rhythm of the verse melody (or in the case of “One Night In Bangkok”, the rhythm of the verbal patter that makes up the verse) is busier than the rhythm of the chorus melody.

And again, we’re talking about the rhythm of the words being used. For those three songs, the verse melodies sound busier and use more complex rhythms than what we find in the chorus. For each of those songs, the chorus settles down to a predictable, even delivery.

“If You Don’t Know Me By Now” shows that the difference between verse rhythms and chorus rhythms can be quite subtle. The verse in this song has an almost improvisatory feel, before it finally locks in to a strong, predictable (and less busy) rhythm for the chorus.

This observation often surprises songwriters, because there’s a notion that everything gets busier in a chorus. And instrumentally, that’s probably true. Song choruses build up a lot of musical energy by increasing the instrumentation and basic musical activity.

But vocally speaking, musical energy increases by building on emotional energy, not usually rhythmic energy. And the best way to do that is to allow the voice to settle into a strong, rhythmic pattern, as well as to allow the voice to linger on emotionally strong words.

If you’re looking for a way to make your song choruses a bit more exciting, you can go a long way to finding a solution by making sure that your song’s chorus features a melody that locks into a rhythmically strong, rhythmically predictable pattern.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

Essential Chord ProgressionsSometimes 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.

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Your Favourite Part: Does Your Song Have a WOW Moment?

For every song you know, you likely can name a favourite part — something specific about that song you really like. Sometimes, it may just be a single word, and the way the singer performs it. It might be a specific line in a guitar solo, or even just one note in that solo.

If you’re not sure what I’m talking about, think about the perennial Christmas favourite “O Holy Night”, and how people just love waiting for that climactic high note near the end: “O night, di-VINE!”

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Or maybe it’s that iconic scream at the end of the instrumental in the middle of The Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again.” Or Phil Collins’ drum fill in “In the Air Tonight.”

Most of what you’ll identify are performance/production level moments. But you can get the chills from great moments that are attributable to the actual notes of a performance, like perhaps the guitar solos near the end of the second side of Abbey Road. Or the eventual arrival of the chorus in Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin'”.

The important point here is that beyond the strength of a song’s structure, a song’s melody, a song’s chord progression, a song’s lyric, a song needs a moment — a spot that excites the listener – a WOW moment.

And your songs need those kind of moments too.

It’s a great songwriter’s exercise, once you’ve finished a song, to record it and then listen like a typical audience member. And in listening, ask yourself, “Does my song have a WOW moment?”

For every song, that kind of moment will be different. The moment might be subtle, hardly noticeable. It might just be the way a certain line moves and hits a certain note. You may love a moment and not even know why.

But every good song has that kind of moment.

In your own songwriting, if you can’t listen to one of your own songs and say, “THAT’S my favourite moment”, your work on that song may not actually be done.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

“The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” 10-eBook BundleThe perfect combination: “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting 10-eBook Bundle” and a Study Guide! Dig into the songwriting manuals that thousands of songwriters are using to polish their technique, complete with a study guide to show you how to progress through the materials.

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U2 - Sunday Bloody Sunday

Five Questions About Any Good Song You Should Be Able to Answer

If you’re looking to improve your songwriting abilities, you can do no better than to look to some of the best songs written, and then figure out how the writers of those songs were able to write them. Then hopefully, you can apply what you learn to your own songs.

It’s not usually that easy, of course. It’s hard because all songs are unique. You certainly can’t do exactly what other songwriters have done in their own songs, or else you’re simply repeating someone else’s success, and then you’re wandering into the world of plagiarism.

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It’s a better approach if you listen to a great song, and then answer some basic questions about that song. If you can answer those questions, you have the chance to apply what you’ve learned to what you do, and keep getting better.

The first step, though, is to start keeping a songwriting journal, if you aren’t doing that already.

What a Songwriting Journal Could or Should Look Like

There are lots of ways to keep a journal, and every songwriter’s journal will look different. Some use a journal to keep interesting bits of lyric, poetry, chord progressions, or perhaps titles of interesting songs to listen to later. Some use it as a kind of musical diary, making notes on musical interactions they’ve had with other songwriters, performers and industry personnel. Since it serves to organize your thoughts on songwriting, it can look any way you want it to look.

But to be particularly useful, I think a good journal should include specific things that you learn about other good songs — and things that you learn from other good songs.

Five Questions About Any Song That You Should Be Able to Answer

The kind of things you can learn from a song can be summarized by listening to that song enough that you know it by heart, both to sing it, and perhaps to play it. Then answer the following five questions:

  1. What is the one characteristic about this song that you like the most? It could be anything, including aspects that aren’t necessarily songwriting qualities, such as vocal style, performance style, the chorus melody, a particular bit of lyric (a lyrical hook), etc.
  2. What, if anything, surprises you about this song? Does it stray outside of the genre you expect from the performer/performing group? Is there something about the instrumentation, melodies or chords that go beyond what you were expecting?
  3. Are there any obvious similarities or differences when you compare the different melodies (verse, chorus, other) that happen in this song?
  4. If you were to shorten or lengthen this song by 30 seconds, what change would you make? What could you remove that would maintain the integrity of the song? How would you make this song 30 seconds longer?
  5. What are the lines of lyric that you think are the most powerful? If you were asked to contribute an extra verse lyric, what might it be?

No doubt there are probably a lot more questions you could ask about a song, and if you’re coming up with your own questionnaire-style analysis form, feel free to include whichever questions apply to the kinds of songs you’re likely to listen to.

If I were to answer those five questions after listening to, let’s say, U2’s “Sunday Bloody Sunday”, I’d probably answer this way:

  1. I particularly like the sparse, military-style drum beat. It’s unique enough to get my attention.
  2. I’m surprised by how repetitive the song is without being tiresome.
  3. The verse melodies tend to move in an upward direction while the chorus hook moves downward. I like that contrast.
  4. To shorten it, I’d try diving into verse 1 without the intro. Could also try the song without the guitar-based instrumental at 2’38”. To lengthen the song, it could probably work with a longer guitar solo at 2’38”.
  5. Lots of powerful lyrics in this song, but the ones that resonate with me are “There’s many lost, but tell me who has won” and “When fact is fiction and TV reality”.

By doing this kind of analysis, you’re allowing every song you to the opportunity to act as a musical model. In so doing, you’ll find that those songs will start to guide the way you write, and you’ll find that any good song you listen to will serve to improve your own songwriting technique.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

“The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” 10-eBook BundleThe perfect combination: “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting 10-eBook Bundle” and a Study Guide! Dig into the songwriting manuals that thousands of songwriters are using to polish their technique, complete with a study guide to show you how to progress through the materials.

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John Legend

The Benefit of Leaving Lyrics to the Last Step

It’s a good idea to come up with a song topic and perhaps a few snippets of lyric fairly early in the songwriting process. Having the topic gives you a direction for your musical mind, and every line of lyric you generate adds to your song’s character.

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But since there is no such thing as one process that’s better than any other, it begs the question: can you leave lyrics to the very end? Can you write a song where everything else is pretty much in place, leaving the lyrics — even the song’s topic — as something that gets added as a final step?

The answer is yes, and for some songwriters (Paul Simon and John Legend, to name just two), that’s one of their preferred processes.

I start with the music and try to come up with musical ideas, then the melody, then the hook, and the lyrics come last. Some people start with the lyrics first because they know what they want to talk about and they just write a whole bunch of lyrical ideas, but for me, the music tells me what to talk about.

-John Legend

The music always precedes the words. The words often come from the sound of the music and eventually evolve into coherent thoughts. Or incoherent thoughts. Rhythm plays a crucial part in the lyric-making as well. It’s like a puzzle to find the right words to express what the music is saying.

-Paul Simon

The clue as to how this happens comes from Paul Simon’s final thought on this: “…to find the right words to express what the music is saying.” There’s no denying that even if all you come up with for music, at least preliminarily, is a chord progression, that that progression carries with it a very clear sense of mood. And generating a mood is the first step in finding the topic and lyrics that are right for the song.

Using Instrumentals as a Model

If you’ve wondered about experimenting with writing a song where the lyrics come last, think of it this way: imagine that you’re writing an instrumental — a song that will have melody, chords and rhythms, but no lead vocal line.

If you start with the chords, you’ll probably simultaneously come up with a rhythmic treatment for those chords: the strumming or keyboard-based rhythmic pattern that feels right.

Once you’ve got chords and rhythm, mood is being automatically generated, and that mood will guide the melody-writing process. Try a melody moving upwards, then downwards, and see how it affects the mood. But don’t worry too much about trying to figure out at all what this song is about — at least not yet. Have the confidence to leave that to the final stage.

Don’t Forget the Melody

One of the biggest problems in this kind of quasi-instrumental writing, though, is forgetting to write a melody. So often, developing songwriters think of an instrumental as merely a backing chord progression with nothing much else.

In fact, the melody in a good instrumental is crucial to it being a memorable piece of music for the listener. Without a melody, it will sound like a song that’s forever trying to get started but never does.

Once you’ve got the basic elements of the song in place, where it’s working like a good instrumental, you should be getting a clear idea of not just the mood of what you’ve written, but what topic and lyrics would generate this music.

In fact, you may find that the lyrics will flow more easily when you leave them to the final stage. Don’t be surprised if you have to adjust the melody and/or the rhythms in order to make the lyrics work even better. Don’t think of anything you’ve written up to this point as being cast in stone.

The lyrics-last process allows you the benefit of hearing what the music-minus-words has to offer. It allows you to focus more keenly on mood, and the benefit will be that the lyrics will feel natural and even obvious, in the best sense of that word.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter

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Eric Carmen

What Can You Really Learn From an Old Song?

From our standpoint here in 2021, it may be hard to hear the difference between a song written and recorded today, and one that was done, say, three years ago. Ten years ago? You start to hear some differences.

And if you go back a few decades, to the 80s for example, there are lots of differences that you can hear right away. And pop songs from the early 60s bear little resemblance at all, at least superficially, to something being written and recorded today.

Writing a Song From a Chord ProgressionIf you like the chords-first songwriting method, you need to be sure you aren’t compromising the quality of your melodies. “Writing a Song From a Chord Progression” shows you the best way to create compelling songs by starting with the chords. This eBook is part of “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting 10-eBook Bundle.”

So if that’s the case, why is it that people like me, who instruct others on songwriting technique, often dig back into the vault to find songs that are 20, 30, 40 or more years old, and use those songs as models for how good songs should be written today? Is there any relevance to today’s music at all? What can we learn?

What Makes Songs Sound Dated?

If you take an 80’s song — like “Hungry Eyes” (John DeNicola/ Franke Previte), a top-ten hit for Eric Carmen in 1988 — some aspects of the recording will sound dated right away. The computer-digital keyboard-heavy instrumentation gives the decade away immediately. The quality of the singing voice and the way it was recorded, the style and sound of the sax solo… these are all aspects of music that change quickly and regularly with time.

But what about the structural bones of the song. Does that stand the test of time?

The short answer is yes. There are aspects of the actual music that are determined by principles of songwriting, and are not so influenced by stylistic choices of the day.

For example, the verse sitting predominantly in and around the key of D minor, and then changing to F major for the chorus, is a time-honoured and very common occurrence for songs in the pop genre.

The fact that the chorus is pitched higher than the verse, the inclusion of a minor key bridge after the second chorus, the predominantly tonally strong chords, particularly in the chorus, the use of approximate and then exact repetition in all sections of the song– these are all based on solid principles of songwriting that have existed in pop music since the 1950s, and still exist today.

So yes, instrumentation and other production-level decisions are all influenced by audience taste and expectations of a given year, and those decisions change on a yearly (and sometimes more frequent) basis.

But much of the way an older song is designed once you dig down beneath those production values is still found in today’s songs.

So the most important thing you can do as a songwriter is to not limit your studying of songs to just today’s music. You can and should be studying music from all eras, and try to ignore the production styles of those old songs.

If you can read and write musical notation, one of the best ways to look at a song without being influenced by its dated production is to write a lead sheet — a melody, with the chords above it and the lyrics below.

Once you have that simplified version, you can concentrate on the musical structure without being distracted by whatever was done that makes it sound old: instrumentation, recording techniques, etc.

And once you’ve done that, you’ve got literally thousands of songs you can parse and study in a bid to become a much better songwriter today.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

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.

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5 Characteristics of Great Song Lyrics

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Why Hooks are So Important to Pop Songs

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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