As humans, we work best when we have a target to aim for. Imagine a basketball season, for example, that might end with no playoffs, no awards, and no official recognition for anything you’ve done. It would be hard for the players to get excited at all.
Songwriting is not much different; we’re supposed to think that songwriting is fun, and that’s supposed to sustain our interest and create inspiration, at least in part.
But if you’ve been finding it hard to stay excited about songwriting, you know that the simple act of writing often isn’t enough. We feel our excitement and interest-levels rising when we have something to look forward to, something related to songwriting, but bigger and more inspiring.
What’s the songwriter’s equivalent of the basketball playoffs? What represents that kind of target? Here are some things you could or should be thinking of that can keep you focused on the future, and excite you to keep writing songs:
- Performances. Simply put, if you’re writing songs but not getting them out there or performing them, you are working in a creative vacuum. Planning a house concert for several months into the future may be all it takes to get you pumped to write a set of songs to present.
- Recordings. Making a recording is a major source of creative excitement. But because informal recordings are so easy to do these days, I’m talking about taking things to the next level. If you can afford it, hire an experienced producer and do it right. Get excellent players, singers and make a recording of your songs that shows the world what you’re capable of as a writer.
- Festivals. Summer is a great time for music festivals, and getting a spot on the roster can be something that stirs your creative spirit and makes songwriting fun and stimulating.
- Songwriting Contests. To be honest, I’m not a huge fan of contests, because there’s so many ways for a contest to reward the wrong thing. But if you do your research and find the contests that are reputable and professional, writing just the right tune can be powerfully motivating. (Always register the copyright of any songs you enter.)
- Inter-arts collaborations. As a songwriter, writing for film, theatre, dance or some other arts discipline offers you a kind of experience that takes songwriting to a whole new level. Most of these kinds of collaborations require you to work closely with other artists, making decisions where everyone needs to be on the same page. Some may find that limiting, but most of the time the rewards are worth the compromises.
Here’s the thing that all of those ideas have in common: they all require you to work to a deadline. That one simple feature alone — the need to have work done by a certain date — is powerfully motivating.
And it’s exciting, because it’s possible to miss deadlines. So meeting the deadline gives you a shot of creative adrenaline that keeps you moving forward as you plan your next songwriting project.
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If you use one particular instrument to write all your songs, you’re likely running up against a problem: all your songs start to sound the same. I just wrote about song similarity in my most recent post (“Working On Several Tunes to Avoid Excessive Song Similarity“), in which I suggest that one great way to solve song similarity is to have 3 or 4 songs on the go at any one time. That way, you can hear immediately when one song you’re writing sounds like another.
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A major contributor to song similarity could be the fact that you’re likely writing all your songs on the same instrument. If you’re a guitarist, for example, you will likely find that your fingers keep moving to the same shapes and patterns, and before you know it you’re falling into a kind of creative routine that keeps your songs from being imaginative or original.
The solution is to switch instruments as frequently as possible when you write songs. As I’ve mentioned in previous blog posts, switching instruments keeps musical muscle memory from forming, but it does something else: it allows you to write a song that takes advantage of the main characteristics and strengths of the new instrument. Here’s how:
- Writing on guitar. Guitar is very much a rhythm-based instrument, and while that may work well for chords-first songwriting processes, you’ll probably find your fingers constantly moving to the same notes and patterns. But if you are aware of that problem, guitar can be good for writing songs that are all about the groove.
- Writing on keyboard. Keyboard instruments also lend themselves to patterned chording, but with more of a possibility for working out melodies. If you’re trying to turn the focus to more melody-based writing, try using a keyboard, right hand only, and see what melodies you can work out. Add chords once you’ve got melodic ideas developed, not the other way around.
- Writing on violin, flute, or other melody-based instrument. These are great instruments for working out melodic fragments. You can use other treble instruments such as ones from the brass family (trumpet or french horn), but they’re not quite as “flexible”, and might be trickier to achieve the vocal quality you experience with violin or flute.
- Writing using your voice as your instrument. It often amazes me that some songwriters are such good singers, but don’t think to use their voice as an instrument for creating music. Use your voice in much the same way that you’d write melodies on a keyboard: improvise melodies, and once you’ve got something that you like, move to adding chords (either on guitar or keyboard) as a second step.
If you find it hard to improvise music using your voice, it is possible to use a chording instrument like a guitar or keyboard to get the job done. A few years back I wrote an article about this which I encourage you to read: “Songwriting Tips For Writing Melodies… If You Can’t Sing.”
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If you’re still struggling with the fact that all your songs sound similar, the first step in dealing with it might be not to worry: a bit of similarity is not necessarily something that needs to be avoided.
After all, if you listen to any hit group, you’re going to notice at least some similarities, and as listeners we kind of like that. The problem is excessive similarity, when every song seems to be almost a copy of the previous one.
If you struggle at the lyric-writing stage of songwriting, you need to read “Use Your Words! Developing a Lyrics-First Songwriting Process.” Right now, it’s FREE with your purchase of “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting 10-eBook Bundle”
It’s not just the melodies that start to sound the same. You notice that many aspects of your songs are too alike:
- Excessively similar song topics – always writing about that party that was so good, that relationship that’s gone sour, and so on.
- Excessively similar lyrics – you’ve got those go-to-phrases, words and clichés that seem to come up in every song you write.
- Excessively similar chord choices – always opting for the same minor key, or the same I-vi-ii-V-I progression.
- Excessively similar song forms – you constantly rely on a verse-chorus format with a bridge that seems to always do the same thing.
- Excessively similar instrumental choices – the overall sound of your songs is more or less identical.
If that’s all so bad, why is it a problem? Why not simply avoid those similarities? The solution seems easy.
But in fact it isn’t easy because we all have a concept of what good songs are — at least, good in our own opinion. It’s actually hard to change your sound from one song to another. It’s hard to come up with melodies that sound completely different, one song to the next.
We all have a comfort zone that’s as hard to move away from as it is hard to throw out a comfy old easy chair, no matter how much we think we should throw it out. Musical muscle memory is a double-edged sword that makes writing easier, but also infuses our music with a similar feel.
Keeping Several Songs On the Go
One of the best ways to deal with excessive similarity is to have several songs on the go at any one time. What does that do for you? It makes the fact that two or three songs might be overly alike very obvious and noticeable.
By working on three or four songs at the same time, you’ve got the ability to move to a new tune as you feel creatively blocked with the old one. The close juxtaposition of several songs makes any kind of similarity obvious — and irritating!
Most of the good time, any reasonably good songwriter doesn’t need to be taught how to make songs suitably different; they just need to be made aware of the problem. Keeping three or four songs on the go makes the problem plain to see.
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For most songs in the pop genre, the bit that you really love will be some short, catchy fragment. That fragment — the hook — is the bit that you’ll remember forever about that song. Long after you’ve forgotten almost everything else, you’ll remember that hook.
“Hooks and Riffs: How They Grab Attention, Make Songs Memorable, and Build Your Fan Base” shows you how a good hook can make the difference between songwriting success and failure. With great examples from pop music history.
Everything else in the song has the duty of supporting and providing focus for the hook. That’s not to say that all the other bits don’t have their own intrinsic value, but without a doubt everything in a song that leads up to the hook whets the appetite of the listener and points to that hook as being the most important moment.
In many pop songs, the chorus hook gets placed right at the start of the chorus. There are other kinds of hooks, of course, if you count anything in a song that grabs attention and helps to make a song memorable. But the chorus hook is the bit you’ll keep humming and singing to yourself. If you like Adele’s music and you find yourself singing the line “Rumour has it…” over and over again, you know what I’m talking about.
So what does everything else in a song need to do in order to make a hook stand out and sound important? Here’s a short list of song elements that have the job of creating musical anticipation and excitement:
- The Verse Melody: A verse melody has a somewhat meandering quality; it can wander up and down, though over its length often in an upward direction. That gradual upward movement helps to build musical momentum and excitement, and causes the listener to want to hear the culmination of that upward movement: the chorus hook.
- The Verse Lyric: A good verse lyric sets the stage and builds a story, either literally or through implication. As each part of that story is described, the listener all the more wants to hear the emotional result of that story. That’s how chorus hooks become so powerful. They give us the ultimate summation of the emotion contained in the story (“Baby, you’re a firework!” “Raise your glass if you are wrong…” “Glory Days”)
- Pre-Chorus: A pre-chorus really has just one main purpose, which is to make a better connection to the chorus than would be possible without it. So almost by definition, a pre-chorus’s purpose is to do what a verse does (i.e., target the chorus), but to do so in a more obvious, specific way. If your pre-chorus isn’t building musical energy, it’s missing the main purpose of its existence!
- Instrumentation/Production: The choices you make in instrumentation have a lot to do with how we process musical momentum. A song’s verse will often offer a somewhat transparent instrumental treatment, so that when the chorus happens we feel excitement from the chorus hook by the sudden build-up of production and sound. Listen to Now, Now’s “SGL” for a great example of how instrumentation and production build and increase musical energy. We hear the culmination of that build at about 1’45” with the addition of vocal harmonies.
All songs need something that keeps people coming back. In most cases, that’s the hook. It would be a mistake to think that nothing else matters, though. The perfect partnership of all song bits makes the hook shine all the more.
And if you’ve got nothing else good in a song except a good hook, you’ve got a song with problems: a hook won’t solve everything. Remember, adding a hook to a bad song gives you a bad song with a hook. And that’s something that needs to be fixed.
“Adia” (Pierre Marchand, Sarah McLachlan) is one of Sarah McLachlan’s most successful singles, her first top 5 on the Billboard Hot 100 back in 1998. From a musical point of view it’s probably most notable for its beautiful melody and creative chord progression, and well worth a quick study.
The melody (in C minor/Eb Major) has two distinctive sections, a first part that moves freely from the midrange, then down to the lower notes of McLachlan’s range (“Adia, I know I’ve let you down..”), then leaping upward to give us kind of climactic high point for the verse (“…love you in my way/ It’s easy, let it go..”):
The melody has some interesting moments, including some attempts at what we call word painting, which is an attempt by the songwriters to convey the meaning of the text through specific melodic characteristics. For just example, the words “let you down” are partnered with some of the lowest notes of the song.
In a less obvious way, the leap upward on “It’s easy…” is the kind of melodic shape that emphasizes the meaning of the words — it helps us to feel them, in a way.
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The second verse starts as the first, but then changes to give us its second distinctive quality: a melody that becomes much more static, focusing mainly on the F-G midrange as the lines become shorter and punchier:
There’s no one left to finger
There’s no one here to blame
There’s no one left to talk to, honey
And there ain’t no one to buy our innocence
That static quality of the melody as the chords underneath move toward the chorus gives those lines a kind of pre-chorus feel, and we hear the musical energy building to the eventual start of the chorus.
Ballads typically use more creative progressions than uptempo songs. That’s usually because slower tempos allow listeners to process more complex chords, and that’s true in practically any genre of music.
There are some really nice moments in both the verse and chorus in “Adia”:
Cm Ab Eb Cm Ab Gm| Eb Ab Eb/G Cm….. F7 Eb Bb
The F7 is a secondary dominant chord – a major chord when we’d normally be expecting a minor (Fm normally belongs to Eb major).
Eb Dbdim Ab Fm Bb| Gm Dbdim Fm G7
The second Dbdim in that progression almost comes across as a C7 with the bass playing an appoggiatura Db note. In any case, it’s another really lovely moment in the progression.
The chorus chords end on G7 which makes the transition back to the Cm chord at the start of the 2nd verse easier.
It’s a common songwriting technique to use quicker vocal rhythms in a song’s verse and then switch to longer note values in the chorus, and we get that in “Adia”. The verse lyrics come as a combination of 8th-notes and 16ths through much of the verse.
Then in the chorus the rhythms elongate, become based more on a combination of 8ths and quarter notes. That gives a more relaxed feel to the lyric, but the real reason songwriters make that change has to do with lyrical emotion: lyrics feel deeper, more poignant and emotional when note durations become longer.
In the lyric itself, we’re never given a clear indication who she’s singing about, but in any case it seems to be a loved one needing guidance and advice. You’ll note the difference between the kinds of words and phrases that we see in the verse: “…I do believe I’ve failed you/…I know I’ve let you down..”…I tried so hard..”, etc. We tend to pick up a general downward direction from the melodic fragments that get paired with many of those lines.
By contrast, the chorus feels more hopeful: “We are born innocent…” “believe me…”, “it’s easy”, and so on. And partnered with those more hopeful lines we pick up a general upward direction from the melody.
There are many principles of good songwriting, but one of the most important ones is that all song elements partner together to produce a good song. In other words, melodies are only ever amazing if they partner well with the lyrics and chords.
Chord progressions can never be killer progressions if they aren’t supporting a great melody. How any one song does that is different, and getting all the parts working together is, in fact, what good songwriting always is.
In “Adia,” we get a kind of songwriting clinic on how important it is to consider the partnership of components as being crucial to the success of a song. In that sense, any good song is always better than the sum of its parts.
“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. Comes with a Study Guide.
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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