A number of years ago when I was looking to buy a house, the real estate agent I was using was explaining some of the terminology to me. I found it humorous, for some reason, to find out that the term “improvement” was used to describe the house I was considering. As I understand it, the land the house was sitting on was the actual thing I was buying. Yes, I’d say that a house would be an improvement on a simple piece of land!
In music it’s easy to see a metaphor in all of this:
- Chord progressions are the land.
- The melodies and lyrics you put on top of the chords are the “improvements.”
And actually, it’s a really fine metaphor, especially when I think about the number of times I’ve been asked by songwriters to listen to a new instrumental song. So often I find that I’m merely listening to a set of chord progressions. Of course there’s no lyric in an instrumental, but… the melody: where is it?
If you like the chords-first songwriting process when it comes to instrumentals, you can fool yourself into thinking you’re pretty much done once you get that great chord progression working.
But no song is complete without a melody, whether you’re talking about a song with lyrics or an instrumental.
So if you like writing instrumentals in the pop genres, it is an important question to ask: what do you want your listeners to hum after they’ve listened to it?
If you’ve just finished an instrumental, here are four short checklist items to help you know that you’ve got something that goes beyond just being land (chords), and has a few improvements to offer:
- There’s something within the first 30 seconds that an audience can hum. In other words, you’ve got a melody that people can sing and remember.
- The chords offer a variety of moods. This usually means that you’ve got at least two separate progressions, the contrasting moods coming from contrasting major and minor chords.
- The instrumentation and production is interesting. If your instrumental features you mainly strumming chords, the melody instrument better be interesting! But I think more success is going to come from doing something captivating with your instrumental choices.
- You feel that the song is “about something.” A good title helps, of course, but remember that a good instrumental conveys musical meaning even without that title. So listen to your song objectively, and focus in on the moods that the music is conveying. If you’re drawing a blank, your listeners will too.
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In the long run, it’s probably more important to know why a song fails than why a song succeeds. When a song is great, your most important job is to move on and get the next tune happening.
But when a song fails, you could be doomed to repeat that failure — if it’s failing because of some missing bit of knowledge. Practicing your songwriting skills is important, of course, but you could inadvertently be reinforcing errors that you’ve been making for years.
So when you feel that a song you’ve written just doesn’t seem to work, it’s worth the time to stop, look at it objectively and figure out why.
There could be any number of reasons why a song fails, but in my experience, 90% of bad ones will fail for one or more of these reasons:
- The form of the song is confusing. You need a chorus that really pops, but your chorus is lacklustre; your verse lyric should tell you what’s going on, but instead you’ve got it doing what the chorus usually does: emoting instead of describing; and so on. These are elements of form that are crucial to get right, and is part of the musical momentum of a song.
- The melody lacks shape. An untrained audience may think that a song melody meanders up and down in a kind of random way, but good melodies make great use of repetition, both exact and approximate, and those patterns are crucial to a song’s ability to be easily sung and remembered.
- The chords seem to wander aimlessly. A good chord progression targets the tonic chord — the “home” chord represented by the song’s key — and so most good progressions will move away from and then back to that all-important tonic chord. Audiences need that sense of direction.
- Strong and fragile chord progressions are used haphazardly. A strong progression unambiguously targets the tonic chord, while a fragile one might do a bit of pleasant wandering and include some altered chords or ones that don’t necessarily belong to the song’s key. In most songs, a fragile progression works best in a verse or bridge, while a chorus is benefited by short, strong progressions.
- Individual song elements are working at cross-purposes with each other. An example of this might be a chorus melody which soars upward, trying to build excitement, but the lyrics are low-key and unemotional. It’s important to look at every component of a song at any one moment, and find ways to have all of those components supporting each other.
- You’re relying on a hook to save a bad song. You can get fooled into thinking that the hook is everything, but it’s just one part of a successful song. When you’ve got a good hook, you can get lazy and ignore other aspects, such as god song structure, performance quality, production, and then aspects such as melody and lyric.
- You’re waiting for inspiration. You’d be surprised how much of a difference just getting going makes. If you’re sitting around waiting to feel inspired, you are wasting a lot of time. Make a regular writing schedule for yourself, and then stick to it, no matter how uninspired you feel. Believe it or not, hearing your own music is one of the best sources of inspiration you can find!
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I’ve just completed and uploaded a new video to my YouTube channel, called “5 Characteristics of Great Song Lyrics.” Please click here to watch.
If you take a look at the songs that make it to the “best songs ever” kinds of lists, most of them are there because of the quality of their lyrics, at least in most part. But many songwriters struggle with lyrics.
A great lyric is tricky because while novels allow for tens of thousands of words (or more) to describe a story, you need to offer a complete lyric in a hundred words or so. That takes a particular kind of skill that needs to be practiced and honed.
But if lyrics have always been tricky for you, where do you start? In this video we take a look at five of the most important characteristics of great song lyrics. It will give you that all-important starting point for putting lyrics front and centre in your songwriting process.
If you’re ready to study — to learn why a great song succeeds — and then to apply those discoveries to your own songs, you’re ready for “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting 10-eBook Bundle.”
When I’m buying a real, “hold it in your hand” book from a bookstore, particularly if it’s fiction, I have a confession to make: I am highly influenced by two things:
- the cover design, and
- the first paragraph.
I wonder if it makes me seem shallow, but so be it. I notice that I just simply turn away from books that have covers that I have a negative reaction to, and I’m less likely to give that book a chance. And I seem to do that without realizing it at the time.
If you’re trying to develop a lyrics-first songwriting process, but aren’t having much luck, give this ebook a 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.”
When I look inside a book, that first paragraph needs show me something immediately good, and indicate what I can expect from the rest of the book. If I’m turned off, confused or otherwise disinterested in that first paragraph, it goes back up on the shelf and I keep looking.
That’s neither right nor wrong, it’s simply a subconscious reaction.
The reaction you have to your first encounter with a book is similar to people’s reaction to the first few seconds of your new song, and it’s particularly true of music in the pop genres. Fans of classical or jazz tend to be a bit more patient and will give music a longer period of time to impress them.
But if pop music is your genre, you only get a few seconds to seal the deal and gain a fan.
This is where objective listening becomes crucial, and particularly if you are producing your own song. You need to be able to listen to your song as if it were written by someone else, and ask yourself:
- Does this song grab my attention right from the start?
- Does the length of the intro seem balanced properly with regard to the length of the song? (i.e., it should usually get to the first words of your verse by the 15th second or so.)
- Does it get to the chorus before the 1-minute mark?
- Does the first line of lyric make me interested in whatever else is going to follow?
- Is the instrumentation interesting, and is it well-played/produced?
There’s probably more you could ask yourself, but the point is clear: a good song needs to get going right away, and not run the risk of boring or confusing your listener before they get to the chorus hook.
In the pop music world, immediacy of effect is often the difference between failure and success.
“The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” 10- eBook bundle comes with a free copy of “Use Your Words!” Learn how to put lyrics front and centre in your songwriting process. It’s FREE when you buy “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting 10-eBook Bundle ($37 USD)
You’ll sometimes see discussions amongst songwriters on the topic of how many notes a good melody should have. In other words, how much of a range, when you compare the lowest notes to the highest ones, should there be when considering good melodies?
History tells us that there’s no good answer to that question, because some famous melodies will span an octave and a half (“You’ll Never Walk Alone”), while others will stay within 4 or 5 notes (“The Times They Are A-Changin’.”)
Writing a killer melody means writing something that partners well with lyrics and chords, among other song components. Chapter 5 of “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” shows you how that works. Get it separately, or as part of the 10-eBook Bundle.
The discussion might get you thinking about what we actually mean by a good melody, because some songs may not be about that gorgeous (or powerful or notable) melody, but rather the general feel of the song (“Got To Give It Up“).
Or maybe, along with a great melody, the lyric fights for top billing: “What a Wonderful World.”
A great melody probably means :
- We love to sing it.
- We find it easy to remember.
- We feel that it partners well with the lyric.
- We note how well it’s supported by the chords.
- It stands out as one of the best features of the song.
You’d be forgiven for believing that there’s a certain kind of magic involved in the writing of a good melody. But one of the most important characteristics — the one that makes it less about magic and more about structure — relates to patterns.
The actual notes you use in a melody aren’t nearly as important as the patterns you make with those notes. Patterns imply repetition, and so creating a cell of notes that gets repeated is crucial to a successful melody.
That cell might repeat almost exactly, as we hear in “Born In the U.S.A.”, but it might merely be approximate repetition involving different pitches, the kind we hear in the verse of “What a Wonderful World.”
Without patterns, melodies have no power. They aren’t fun to sing, aren’t easy to sing, and are practically impossible to remember.
The best exercise a songwriter can do to improve melody-writing ability is to listen to great songs and make note of:
- when the melodies use fragments that repeat note-for-note, as you’ll notice in much of the melodic structure of Calvin Harris’s “We Found Love“;
- when the melodies use fragments that repeat in an approximate way, like we hear in “California Dreamin'” (John Phillips, Michelle Phillips);
The next time you find yourself in a discussion about how many notes make a good melody, you’re probably discussing the wrong thing. It has little to do with number of notes, but much more to do with how you organize them.
Got songwriting problems, but don’t know where to begin diagnosing the issues? “Fix Your Songwriting Problems – NOW!” describes 7 of the most common songwriting problems, and offers solutions you can try right away. Get it separately, or as part of “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting 10-eBook Bundle”
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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