If you’re looking to become a better songwriter and wondering why that’s not happening for you yet, you only need to look at the kinds of goals to targets you set for yourself. Songwriters who struggle are usually guilty of one of the following:
- The goals they set are unrealistic. (“I want to be writing songs for pop music’s biggest acts within the next year.”)
- The goals they set are too vague. (“I want to be a better songwriter.”)
Setting targets for yourself is a vital part of becoming a happier, more successful songwriter. Without targets to aim for, you’ve got no way of knowing what you’re supposed to be achieving. But they need to be realistic, and they need to be specific.
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If the songs you write come about as a result of improvising — either by yourself or with other songwriters/players — you probably find that the various components of a song come together in layers. A bit of this, a bit of that, and it all eventually glues together.
If you’re writing songs by yourself, you may find that it’s the chords that happen first, to which you add a bit of a rhythmic groove, and then melody happens.
“Chord Progression Formulas” can give you lots of progressions to try in mere moments by using some standard easy-to-use formulas. If you like the chords-first songwriting process, you need this eBook. Get it separately, or as part of “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting 10-eBook Bundle”
Most of the great composers wrote their music by imagining melodies as a first step, and then working out the chords that might accompany them. In fact, imagining melodies and coming up with chords happened almost simultaneously for the Beethovens and Mozarts of the classical music world.
That’s because their minds were already organizing melodies that have a strong sense of harmonic direction; no one was composing melodies made up of notes that were just moving around randomly. So the melodies, if they were good ones, implied the chords that might go with them.
The Melody-First Process
Coming up with a melody first, with nothing else in your mind at the time, might seem scary to you, but I think that if you give it a try you’ll enjoy what happens. And what happens is usually this:
- You hum a few notes, and you find that you create catchy patterns consisting of short, repeating ideas.
- Those ideas, if you just start humming, seem to centre themselves on certain chords, often the I, IV or V chords (in either major or minor).
- You find that you can imagine when chords might actually change.
All of this is to say that you already have the basic ability to imagine melodies, because you can also imagine chords and the general tempo and feel of music.
So why do so many songwriters like the chords-first process over the many melody-first methods? What is it about coming up with chords that makes songwriting seem easier than coming up with a melody? Mainly, it’s that you can create pretty good songs with very few chords. Even two chords can be enough to get most of a song worked out, like American’s “A Horse With No Name” (Em D6/add9)
And chords have a way of creating a mood almost immediately, while a melody (and this is usually a strength of the melody-first methods) can be manipulated into different moods depending on the chords and accompaniment specifics.
So if you’re going to write songs using the chords first method, you’ve probably got the mood of your music established pretty early on in the process. But what do you do to create melodies? How can you improve your ability to imagine melodies once you’ve got the chords?
Here’s a short list of ideas that will hopefully help you out:
- Create your chords, record them, and let them sit in your mind for several days. Listen to them over and over on a loop, and start improvising melodies vocally. It’s a great activity as you walk to work or school, or sit in your car at rush hour. And because you’re doing this over several days, you will likely find that your musical mind goes looking for new ideas, and that’s a good thing.
- Change how you play your chords. Alter the tempo, the time signature, the notes you choose to be the tops of the chords. The more you change the way you play the chords, the more likely it is that you’ll come up with something unique as a melody.
- Choose a good progression, but don’t stop experimenting. Some things to try: change up the order of the chords. For example, if you’ve chosen Am G Em Am as your basic progression, try Am Em G Am, and even try a different starting chord: Em G Em Am. Substitute chords. Nothing’s cast in stone.
- Explore vocal range. Play your chosen progression on a loop, and start by improvising melodies that are generally low in pitch. These ones will work well for verses. Then try melodies that are mainly high in pitch, comprised of short, catchy patterns that might work as a chorus hook.
By spending this kind of time on working out your melodies, you avoid the problem of melody boredom; chords-first has the inherent danger of making us ignore melody.
The main benefit of focusing as much as possible on melody early in your songwriting process is that you’re focusing on the bit that everyone will hum. You’ll notice any little problems with your melody right away, and it helps you as you start layering other components underneath it.
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You’ve got little to no hope of achieving your goals in songwriting, or any of the creative arts, if you don’t have the confidence to be honest about your songs.
Confidence refers to your ability to stand behind and believe in your songs even though others might dislike them.
Honesty refers to your ability to hear your songs exactly the way others will hear them.
If you falter and dismiss your own songs because someone else doesn’t like them, you don’t have the confidence needed to move upward in the music business.
If you find that everything you write sounds wonderful to the extent that you miss crucial opportunities to improve your skills, you don’t have the honesty or objectivity needed to advance from the amateur world to the professional world.
It’s a tricky tightrope upon which the best songwriters find themselves balancing. Too confident? You’re probably missing opportunities to hone and polish your music. On the other end of the spectrum, you might find your confidence collapsing simply because someone else dislikes your music.
If you are a songwriter with both of those characteristics in proper balance, the following statements likely pertain to you:
- You feel pride in every song you complete — but you don’t let pride cloud your musical or artistic judgment.
- You feel disappointed if someone expresses dislike for a song you’ve written — but you don’t use that opinion as the sole reason for changing the song.
- You feel able to listen to your songs objectively and honestly — and you work to hear them the way others hear them.
Confidence in your songs should never prevent you from seeking out advice from good songwriters and good producers that you respect and admire. Listen to that advice; you’ll find that more often than not, their advice is sound.
Professional producers with experience in your genre will almost always give you advice that will help you tap into your target audience.
Professional songwriters will be able to help you by teaching you the lessons they learned the hard way.
The Top of the Creative Tree
To be innovative and unique in the songwriting world means doing something that no one else is doing. That requires confidence, because you’ll be at the very top of the creative tree, and it’s a lonely spot.
For every song you write, you need to ask yourself, “If someone else had written this song, would I like it?”
You might find that it takes a lot of objective honesty to be able to answer that question truthfully.
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Every songwriter I know wants to write something unique, and you don’t even need to wonder why. Simply put, uniqueness means it hasn’t been done before, and there’s no better way to set yourself apart from other songwriters than to write something that hasn’t been done quite that way before.
While that may be true, consider this: the good old-fashioned love song still sells. Love songs still grab attention, and it’s hard to find a unique angle available when it comes to love songs. Everything you can write about when it comes to love has been written about.
“Chord Progression Formulas” – Instant chord progressions for your songs. READ MORE..
And yet… love songs still sell. When it comes to love songs, the search for uniqueness isn’t going to yield much.
So it’s not uniqueness that’s making a love song successful. But what is it? It’s this: if you write something that can be felt in the heart of the listener, you’ve done something more powerful than uniqueness will ever do for you. If you write a song that taps into the experience (real or imagined) of the audience, that’s what sells.
So when you’ve written a song about some angle of love, the fact that your song is your own is all the uniqueness you probably need. To make it successful, you need the following:
- A lyric that speaks to a universal emotion. “I’ve never loved anyone like I’ve love you” is practically always going to work to at least some degree, because every single listener can relate to the enthusiasm of that emotion.
- A lyric that uses simple, conversational expressions of love. In Chicago’s “Your Are My Love and My Life”, the bridge section ends with the line, “Loving you girl is so damn easy!” That line raises the emotional content of the bridge to its highest point, and expresses what everyone has felt at some point in their life.
- An up-and-down pattern to the emotion of the song. By using verses to describe situations and choruses to express emotion, listeners go on a rather pleasant “roller coaster” ride of emotions, and they love it that way. Just listen to Lorde’s “Writer in the Dark” (lyrics here) and you’ll hear how she pulls you around emotionally with powerful lyric partnered carefully with an unbelievably expressive melody and clever production.
In that Lorde song, it’s the musical arrangement that stands out as the unique element. The intelligent approach to the vocal sound and style, along with the instrumentation, set this song apart and give it the uniqueness it needs.
But underneath it all, the lyrics speak to something far more common: “Did my best to exist just for you…”; “I’ll find a way to be with out you, babe…”; “I still feel you, now and then…” These are all emotions that are simple and germane to the human experience. That’s what grabs our emotional attention.
And when all’s said and done, the simplicity of emotion — writing something truly heartfelt — will stand out and matter more than a song’s uniqueness.
Get “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” eBooks. They’ll help you polish your technique and make you the best songwriter you can be. Comes with a Study Guide, tons of chord progressions, and information covering every aspect of how to write good music.
Time is the one thing all music has in common. Whether we’re talking about a symphony, a pop song, a jazz ballad — whether it’s hip hop, ska, r&b — all music takes time. A start, a middle, and an ending.
When we’re writing a song, we’re (either consciously or subconsciously) always considering some aspect of a time element. It’s not just about that chorus hook: it’s about how long it took to get to it. It’s about how long the song is. It’s about how melodies, chords and lyrics transform over time.
“How to Harmonize a Melody” shows you, step by step, how to choose the chords that will work with your melody, how to substitute chords, and how to make more complex progressions work for you. Buy it separately, or as part of “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” 10-eBook Bundle.
How a song progresses and changes over the 4 minutes or so of its life is crucial to its success. But when trying to analyze problems with your songs, it can sometimes serve you well to take the time component out and look at the various bits as entities that exist outside of time. Here’s how you might do that with song melodies.
A good song to use to describe this notion of ignoring the time aspect of music would be “On My Mind” — Ellie Goulding’s 2016 hit written by Goulding, Max Martin, Savan Kotecha, and Ilya Salmanzadeh.
In this song, we get four melodies: verse, pre-chorus, chorus and bridge. As you write this kind of song, you want to be sure that there’s a nice build as the song progresses — a nice ebb and flow. But ebb and flow is a time-related quality; forget that for the moment, and just look at the contour of your various melodies (represented by the orange lines below):
Pulling these melodies out of time and just looking at them as musical constructs makes it a lot easier to see their basic architecture. And you can see one thing right away: the obvious similarity between the verse and chorus melodies.
That kind of similarity would only be a problem if it existed in a song in verse-chorus design (i.e., no pre-chorus or bridge). Contrast is a vital part of musical success, so a verse and a chorus that both dwell on a repeated pitch with an upward turn at the end would spell disaster for most songs.
But pulling the melodies out of time and looking at them as separate entities allows you to more easily compare them. You’ll see right away that this kind of song is a prime candidate for adding a pre-chorus that starts with an upward leap, a melody that takes on a completely different shape.
And it’s also a prime candidate for a bridge section that uses a melody with much more contour.
As you can see, you don’t need to be able to read music to make these kind of contour drawings of your song melodies. This is all you need to do: create line drawings of the various melodies you use, and then examine them for similarities and contrast. And it works for any genre of music.
Adjacent sections that use similar melodic shape can bore an audience, so sketching out melodies in this way can alert you to needing to add miscellaneous sections that inject a bit of contrast.
Do you simply need some chords to get you started? “Essential Chord Progressions“, and “More Essential Chord Progressions” are part of “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” eBook Bundle packages. Hundreds of chords to use as is, or modify to better suit your songs. Get today’s Deluxe Bundle Deal
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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