It makes sense that if you want good feedback on your songs, you’ll want to run them by good, experienced songwriters. After all, they’ve been there; they know the struggles it takes to get a song working, and can (hopefully) pass their experience on to you.
But have you considered musicians other than songwriters as people who can give you valuable feedback?
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If you consider the professional music world, once a song gets to the point where it’s recorded, a lot of good musicians have had a hand in getting it to that point. Yes, the songwriter has crafted something worthy of being presented to the world, but you’ve also got:
- other vocalists who might be doing backing vocals;
- instrumentalists who perform the song;
- engineers and other sound recording specialists;
- producers who guide the performance and recording; and
- marketers, who know the demands of the industry.
In short, there are a lot of people out there who know a lot about what makes music successful. And each category of people listed above have their own particular expertise. True, most of them may not be songwriters, but most of them know what makes a good song.
So if you’ve been scouting out people that you can run your songs by to get a better opinion than you might get by posting it to a public forum, think about the people in your own musical sphere who work, even just part-time, in the music world — players, singers, and so on. They can offer you a perspective that may not be a songwriter’s perspective, but is still based on experience and knowledge.
Those people may not be making music their sole career, but many of them have rubbed shoulders with some very talented people, and they get to know what works. Most of the time, these casual musicians can offer good guidance and excellent suggestions, even if songwriting hasn’t been their thing.
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A number of years ago I taught aural skills (ear training) at Dalhousie University. As part of that course, students had to listen to melodies as I played them at the piano, and then they would write down in musical notation what they heard.
As you can imagine, some students found this relatively easy while others struggled massively with the task. For those who struggled I would give this piece of advice: write down anything, even if you’re sure you’ve got it wrong.
Words and music need to act as partners in a song, but how do you make sure your melody is helping your lyric? That’s what Chapter 5 of “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” deals with. Get that eBook as part of the 10-eBook Bundle, or purchase it separately.
The reason for writing obvious errors down was this: you can fix errors, but it’s hard to fix a blank page.
A page with lots of errors at least gives you something to go back and fix. But a blank page? It’s hard to know what to do with that. The students who “roughed in” whatever they could usually at least had the basic shape of the melody right (the ups and downs), and that’s worth something. Students staring at a blank page felt stuck, with no easy way to move forward with the task.
There is an important “blank page” metaphor here for songwriters. When you’re at the very beginning stages of writing a song, the best thing you can do is:
- Turn off your inner critic.
- Write quickly.
- Ignore (for the moment, anyway) when something doesn’t sound good.
What this gives you is a first draft that’s not really what it’s going to eventually sound like. But at least you’ve got something written down. And because it’s easier to fix errors than it is to fix a blank page, you’ve given yourself something tangible to work with.
Once you’ve got this less-than ideal version of your song down, it’s time to switch your inner critic back on and fix your song note-by-note, chord-by-chord, bar-by-bar.
Learning to silence your inner critic is an important skill the best songwriters have honed over the years. If this approach to songwriting is new to you, you’ll find it hard. Being critical of your songwriting attempts may come naturally to you, and I encourage you to put the time in switching off your critical brain, at least until you’ve got the majority of your new song created.
This early version of your song will sound messy and weak, but you’ve at least now got something to fix.
“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.
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As a songwriter, if you’re not taking regular breaks from your writing activity, you’re probably not getting the most from your creative brain. It’s been well-researched and well-documented that we’re more likely to have bursts of creativity immediately following a period of downtime. (Read this interesting article, How Resting More Can Boost Your Productivity.)
There’s another great article that I think you’ll find both informative and directly applicable to your activities as a songwriter. “How Do Work Breaks Help Your Brain? 5 Surprising Answers“from the “Psychology Today” website looks at the way the human brain needs to be constantly rested in order to work at optimum efficiency.
I’ve often described songwriting as “decision-making.” Creating word lists, experimenting with melodies and pairing them up with chords… everything requires, in the end, making a decision. When decision-making is part of the creative process, there’s a very real need for frequent rest. Taking a break gives your brain the opportunity to reset, and more often than not you’ll find that your best musical decisions happen when you return from a break.
If today is supposed to be a heavy writing day for you, can I make a suggestion: take the time you’ve planned to devote to songwriting, and break it up into smaller chunks of time, with short 5-15 minute breaks (or even longer) in between.
Those breaks, which allow your brain time away from decision-making, are crucial. With experience, you may find that you can devote longer periods of time to songwriting by simply inserting a few well-timed breaks.
Please give the ideas you find in those articles a try, and feel free to comment below and let me know how the taking of breaks has helped your songwriting activities.
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Do you find yourself wishing that your chord progressions were just a little more interesting? Here’s a quick tip for taking something that’s basic and simple to come up with something that sounds more imaginative: transpose your progression.
Here’s what I mean. Let’s say that you’ve been improvising on a simple progression like: C Dm G Am. It’s a good progression, of course, but you may find that your melodic ideas are all sounding a bit boring, possibly because the progression underneath is sounding a bit too simplistic.
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You can extend that progression by repeating it with a transposition of itself, and there are several ways to do this, but here’s a simple way: play the initial progression, and then transpose it to start a 4th higher. If you transpose that progression a 4th higher, you get: F Gm C Dm. Now play both progressions together and you get this:
C Dm G Am|F Gm C Dm
The transposed part of the progression ends on a Dm, which will slide nicely down to C, and you can play the eight chords again if you want.
The transposition of the original four chords means that you’ve really pulled your song temporarily into a new key. But you’ll also notice that three of the four chords of the transposed progression (the F, C and Dm) also exist in the original key of C major. So the transposition isn’t as odd as you think it might be.
There are other transpositions you can try as well: Try a move into D major: C Dm G Am |D Em A Bm (The most unique part of this transposition is moving from Bm at the end back to the C).
A modification of this idea might be to take a simple progression and then insert a short transposition of two of the chords in the middle. It would work like this:
- Take a simple progression: C Dm F G
- Transpose the final two chords, let’s say, up a major second, which would give you: C Dm F G |G A
- Then repeat the final two chords of the initial progression: C Dm F G |G A F G
Each time you jump from one key to another in this way, you’re using what’s termed an abrupt modulation, where the key change happens with no musical preparation: it simply jumps from the original key to the new one, and back again.
For that reason, you’ll want to be sure you’re using a transposition that works well with the original key, to avoid a situation where the change is distractingly obvious.
The benefit of using transposition in this way is that you extend an initial progression by borrowing chord relationships from that progression to create a new one. In other words, the new bit that you’re adding uses the original relationships between the chords to create new ones. In that sense, it’s like adding a kind of musical glue that pulls everything together.
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.
When you think of the word meaning as it applies to your songs, are you talking about the picture that gets created from the lyrics? Or perhaps you’re talking about the picture that gets created from the sound of the instruments?
For me, I pull more meaning out of the instrumental/vocal performance of a song than I do out of the words. Yes, good lyrics are vital, but to me, the meaning of music is what I’m getting from the notes, not so much the words.
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Another way of saying this: you can speak a line of lyric, and get a certain sense of meaning and definition from those words. Just reading them, it may not even be possible to say definitively what is being said or implied, as there could be many possible meanings depending on how the line is read.
But once music is added, you create a meaning through the music to the extent that it almost doesn’t matter what the words really are — you can tell what is meant through the sound of the music.
Here’s a little experiment to try: If you’ve written and recorded a song recently, try dropping the vocal tracks and listen to just the instruments, and try to hear it as a song intended to be an instrumental.
What do you hear? Is this instrumental different in any way to other songs you’ve written? Without the vocals, is there meaning in your music? And if you can’t hear your track in that way, what does that mean? That your music is devoid of meaning?
And if you find that your instrumental tracks just sound like meaningless fluff until the words are added, what do you want to do about that?
Everyone has their own way to look at music, and I’m not proposing that everyone needs to have my vision of what good music is: what a boring musical world that would be!
But I think this is my attempt to prompt you to listen to all aspects of your music — the lyrics, of course, but also your melodies, your chord choices, and especially your instrumental tracks — and hopefully come to the realization that everything you put into a song contributes to musical meaning.
And if you haven’t really done much to differentiate your song from all the other songs in your chosen genre, you may be inadvertently creating musical wallpaper, when you thought you were creating something much deeper and more meaningful.
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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.
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