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Who knows how many myths there are in the field of songwriting, but I’m guessing that the following four would appear in most professional’s list of myths. If you find yourself believing any of the myths in this list, you’d be well advised to stop and think again.
- Myth: A song that takes a long time to finish means that you’ve got a problem with your songwriting process. This really isn’t true. Even with those days where little to nothing seems to be happening might just be a time when your musical brain is sorting things out. Slow output is not the indicator that you’ve got a problem with your process.
- Myth: Songs with boring chord progressions will sound boring. True, an interesting chord progression can add much to a song, but the opposite — that a boring chord progression will cause your song to be boring — is not true. The best thing a chord progression can do is to stay out of the way. Songs will live or die mainly on the rhythmic feel, lyric and melody. Other issues may have an impact as well — the polish of the performance, the quality of the singing, and so on. But the interest level provided by the chord progression is way down in the list.
- Myth: The more you write, the better you become. This is a tricky one, because regular, almost-daily writing is important. But the point here is that it’s not simply the fact that you’re writing that makes you better. In fact you might simply be reinforcing errors in your songwriting process. The quality of your songs usually comes down to whether or not you understand the fundamentals of what makes good music. Failing to properly analyze your failures usually means you’re dooming yourself to keep repeating those failures, no matter how prolific a writer you are.
- Myth: Music theory will stunt your sense of creativity. This myth has been around for ages, and who knows where or how it became so prevalent. A knowledge of theory offers much to those in the creative arts. It allows you to communicate your musical ideas with ease and helps you understand more clearly the music you hear from others. And because theory helps you understand the structure of music, it can help you extrapolate on musical ideas more easily. No one gets worse at songwriting because they’re studying theory!
Songs that are great will work because they’ve succeeded in making audiences want to hear what happens next. So the best songs get the balance between narrative and emotion right, provide lyrics that are casual but imaginative, and relate to the listener’s universe. The best songs make a powerful emotional connection to the audience.
And beyond lyrics, the best songs provide powerful melodies well-supported by chords, and provide a strong hook or repeating idea that the audience wants to hear again and again.
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There are many songs that seem to show no particular relationship between the verse and the chorus, except for the fact that they both exist in the same song. Take a hit song like “Somebody That I Used to Know” (Gotye), and you’ll notice that the verse and chorus bear no obvious similarity. For the verse of that song to work, he could have gone with a completely different chorus.
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But every now and then you’ll notice songs where the chorus seems connected in some way to the verse, even if how it’s connected is hard to place. A great recent example of this is “Motion Sickness” by American singer-songwriter Phoebe Bridgers.
She uses completely different verse and chorus melodies, but you’ll notice that there’s a kind of connection that’s hard to pinpoint. Part of what makes the two sections connect is due to typical production decisions:
- Simliar instrumentation.
- Similar rhythmic feel.
- Similar vocal delivery.
But those are production-level decisions, and pretty typical ones. There’s something else going on that helps to make the chorus sound like a logical follower for the verse, and it has to do with melodic shape and direction.
The verse starts with a large leap upward (a major 6th), but then notice how much many of the short melodic cells describe a downward motion. Even shapes that move upward eventually work their way downward:
In slow to medium tempos, downward moving cells often imply a sigh. It’s a great way to help a lyric with a melancholy message.
The chorus uses a similar pentatonic scale (Db major pentatonic: Db Eb F Ab Bb Db), with the occasional Gb thrown in, and yes, that will help pull the two sections together. But I think what really makes the chorus communicate with the verse is the continuing of the mainly downward motion of the melodic ideas:
This isn’t the sort of thing that an audience is likely to pick up on any sort of conscious level, but it’s a common choice for songwriters, and the structural strength that comes from a design like this is undeniable.
It’s often not even the sort of thing that a songwriter might be aware of during the writing process. Sometimes these things happen because of good musical instincts, creating happy accidents.
But if you find that the structure of your song sounds a bit weak, and the non-connection between verse and chorus is bothering you a bit, you might benefit by spending some time redesigning either your verse or chorus to exhibit some sort of connection between those two sections.
Besides thinking about similar melodic direction, here are some other ideas to experiment with:
- Try opposites. A verse that moves mainly upward followed by a chorus that moves mainly downward can subtly grab the listener’s attention, even if they can’t label the specific connection they’re hearing.
- Contrast minor and major. Once you’ve got the key of your chorus, try the opposite mode in your verse. So if you’ve got a chorus in C major, try experimenting with verse chord progressions that mostly use the minor chords from that key: ii (Dm), iii (Em) and vi (Am). The contrast, and in particular the brightening you get from moving from minor to major, will inject musical energy into your song.
- Experiment with point of view. If your lyric describes a situation you’ve found yourself in, experiment with a chorus lyric that offers an emotional response from another’s point of view. Most songs wouldn’t do that, but the switch can be powerful. (“Somebody That I Used to Know” does this between verse 1 and verse 2).
I want to reiterate that in the pop music genres it’s not vital to create a connection between song sections. Most songs will succeed in spite of no obvious connection, as long as the lyric is strong, the melody/chord combination is enticing, and as long as there is an obvious rising and falling of emotional content in those lyrics.
In the pop music genres, the success of a song is often all about the success of the hook. “Hooks and Riffs: How They Grab Attention, Make Songs Memorable, and Build Your Fan Base” shows you how to make your hook really stand out.
I remember a university prof years ago asking us fledgling students a question: What is the one thing that all pieces of music ever written have in common?
You might think that it’s a pretty easy question. Obviously, all music involves sound, right? No. John Cage’s “4’33” is a work in which the performer (usually a pianist) clicks a stopwatch and sits there playing nothing for 3 short movements.
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In the final analysis, the question yielded one answer that did seem to apply to everything ever written that we call music: all music takes time. Any audience for any piece of music must commit to giving up time if they choose to listen.
In committing the time necessary, audiences must first be enticed to listen, and then the singer/songwriter/performing group has a second challenge every bit as important as that first one: they must entice the audience to keep listening.
Beyond that, you’ve then got a third challenge, particularly if you want to be successful in the music industry: you must entice an audience to return.
Those three things are crucial whether you write symphonies, pop songs, operas, piano sonatas, or anything:
- You must entice someone to listen.
- You must make them want to keep listening.
- You must make them want to return and listen again.
Those are the 3 hallmarks of musical success. And they all have one thing in common: they all require people to commit time.
It’s the second in that list I want to focus on: keeping an audience listening. How do you make sure that 30 seconds into your song your audience still wants to listen? If they lose interest, what’s causing that? Why do people stop listening. If you can’t answer that, you’ve got a problem.
There is only one reason that an audience member will stop listening to your song, and it’s this: they’ve lost confidence that something as good or better is about to happen.
Audiences need to have confidence (usually intuitively at first) that the good stuff they’re hearing right now is going to lead to something every bit as good, and hopefully even better. When a listener clicks away from your song to try something else, they’ve lost confidence in you.
Every time you write a song, you need to do a kind of deep analysis that answers this basic question: what happens — through each verse, each iteration of the chorus, on through the bridge, or any other section of your song — that makes your song get better. What keeps people listening?
If your answer is “nothing much”, then why would you expect your fans to stick with your music? If the question is hard to answer in the first place, then ask yourself a more generic, objective question: What keeps you listening to your favourite songs? I think you’ll find many of the following will likely apply:
- The lyric moves forward in a logical way, even if it’s more situational (“This is why I love her/you”) than straight-ahead story.
- The lyric alternates between narrative-style and emotional, such that when the narrative comes back in verse 2, we want to hear the emotional outpouring of the chorus, and you’re willing to wait for that.
- The chorus progression becomes simpler and more hook-driven.
- The chorus melody is primarily charged up by the chorus hook.
- The instrumentation/production builds and energizes — though not necessarily in a straight line — as each song section occurs.
In other words, the best songs sound like a journey, where each landmark (i.e., each song section) offers something a little different, even in supposedly identical choruses. Sometimes a repeat of the chorus might feature a new instrument, a slight improvisation on the melody you know is going to happen, perhaps a little louder or rhythmically intense, and so on.
Somehow, in some way, listeners need to know that something significant builds as your song progresses. If that’s not happening, your audience will lose confidence that it will ever happen, and they will click away to find something else.
So for the song you’ve just finished, ask yourself that all-important question: What have I given listeners, on a section-by-section basis, that will give them the confidence that something better — something greater — is about to happen?
“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.
“The Essential Secrets of Songwriting 10-eBook Bundle” contains several eBooks that are meant to get you moving quickly in your songwriting process. They’ll give you progressions, formulas for creating your own, and all the info you need to add chords to an existing melody.
Many songwriters love the chords-first songwriting process, for several reasons:
- Chords easily create a mood. Even just getting two chords working gives you an important emotional base that can serve as a launching pad for the rest of the elements of your song.
- Chords make it easy to get a rhythmic feel happening. Setting up a rhythmic groove as a first step is fine. But creating those rhythms once you’ve got a chord progression can enhance musical meaning in powerful ways. With chords already in place, adding rhythms practically tells you what the song is about.
- Chords can imply melody, in the sense that it limits (in the best sense of that word) your choices for what your melody could be. Narrowing down melody choices by setting up chords first helps you compose something that really partners well.
However, as I’ve mentioned many times on this blog, a chords-first process comes with a kind of musical caution: chords paired up with rhythms sometimes gives the songwriter the impression that the song is basically done. (Spoiler: it’s not.)
In the pop music industry, a topliner will take an instrumental track — those chords and rhythms — and create an enticing melody. But if you’re writing “old-school” — where you are the composer from start to finish — you are the one that must compose that melody that really works well.
And that’s where the chords-first process can lead to problems. There’s no denying that a song that doesn’t have a great rhythmic-instrumental track underneath has practically no value in today’s pop music world. But a great instrumental track without a great melody has a problem: there’s not much that can bring an audience back.
These days, if you are actually working regularly in the pop music industry, you’ll know that the vast majority of songs are completed by topliners who take a great instrumental track and add their melody and lyrics above it. In today’s world, toplining is every bit as important as the produced tracks underneath it. A song with lousy instrumentals dies, and so does a song with a lousy melody.
Since melodies often get ignored in the chords-first songwriting process, here are some tips to help:
- Create chords, and then play them as many ways as possible. Try different tempos, different kinds of backing rhythms, and create different moods. Let those chords help dictate which direction your song is going to take.
- Allow the feel of the chords and instrumental track dictate what the song’s about. Let the sound of the music guide you.
- Improvise melodic ideas over the chords. Remember to allow repetition to play an important role. Find a melodic cell that you really like, and see what happens when you repeat it. How about repeating it higher, or lower? Find the melodic shape you like, and keep improvising.
- If you run out of melodic ideas, revoice the chords. Go back to your instrumental tracks and move the voicings of the chords higher and lower. The newer voicings may imply melodic ideas you hadn’t thought of before.
- Sing your melody without instrumentals. This is where you get to hear your tune with nothing but its own structure to support it. A melody with a great instrumental track underneath needs to work even if there’s nothing underneath. If you’ve got a melody that sounds great sung with no accompaniment, you’ve got a melody that will be a winner once you add the instrumentals back in.
To discover the most important secrets of the chords-first songwriting process, read “Writing a Song From a Chord Progression.” It’s part of “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting 10-eBook Bundle.” Get it now, along with a free copy of “Creative Chord Progressions.”
If you find it hard to create a melody that works with your lyric, it might be that you find the entire package of the musical side of things (melody, chords, rhythms, etc.) to be difficult. Some lyricists are good at creating images, and saying much with few words, but when it comes time to take the step of making melodies that bring those words to life, it’s hard to even get started.
Songwriters are very familiar with the chorus hook, but there are other kinds to experiment with, and you will want to discover the power of layering various kinds of hooks in the same song. “Hooks and Riffs: How They Grab Attention, Make Songs Memorable, and Build Your Fan Base“ shows you how it’s done.
If this describes you, here’s a set of steps that might get things finally moving for you. They start with making sure your lyric is actually ready for being put to a tune:
- Find the inherent rhythm in the words you’ve created. Melodies will often happen easier if there’s a beat running underneath. So spend some time reading your lyric while tapping your foot or slapping your knees, or both. Be creative — try different ways of reading, different implied time signatures, and just generally get a feel for how the words flow.
- Speed up and slow down your reading. Most songs will feature words of quick delivery for a verse, and then everything simplifies and locks into a stronger groove for the chorus hook. So make sure the bits that you expect to be the chorus feel hook-like. Your chorus should have two or three words that feel fun to read. They fly off the tongue and are catchy to listen to.
- Take advantage of the natural up and down of the way we say words. English is not a monotone language. Words rise and fall in pitch as a way of enhancing expression and implying deeper meaning. So use that natural shape as you begin to create melodies.
- Melodies don’t exist without chords being suggested. Most song melodies suggest chords by looking at the notes that happen on strong beats. Sometimes melodies are hard to imagine because you aren’t imagining the chords that would support it. So you might find that a good first step in creating a melody is to come up with a short chord progression that gets played while you speak your lyric out loud. Different progressions suggest different moods, so here are some to try: C-Bb-C (I-bVII-I); C-F-Dm (I-IV-ii); C-Eb-F-C (I-bIII-IV-I); Am-G-Am (vi-V-vi); Am-Em-G-Am (vi-iii-V-vi). Choose one, start strumming, and then chant your lyric. If you feel that you’d like certain words to move higher, the chords should lock you into some note that will work.
- Read your lyric in a lower-pitched voice for your verse and a higher-pitched voice for your chorus. This follows the general shape and contour of what most songs do: they start low in the verse and then rise to offer the highest notes in the chorus. Reading this way can help to imply melodic shapes that make sense and work with your song’s form.
These ideas are just starters, of course. The neat thing about creating melodies for your lyrics is that you’ll find that music can sometimes speak louder than words. In other words, you might find that once you get a bit of melody working, that you find you want to tweak your lyric just a bit, as you feel different emotions coming forward in the music.
In that regard, writing songs is always a collaboration between various song elements. There are no rules, just principles and guidelines.
“The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” eBook bundle includes a copy of “Writing a Song From a Chord Progression.” If you find that coming up with chord progressions as a first step leaves your melodies sounding lame, this is the eBook for you.
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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