In the music industry, there’s not a lot of interest in a one-off. If sometime in the past you wrote a great song, but you haven’t been able to follow it up with something similarly excellent, industry folks will be skeptical when you metaphorically come knocking.
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So how do you become more consistent? How do you make sure that that one great song can be followed up by something similarly great. And then another?
Consistent excellence is hard in the creative arts because everything you do needs to be unique. So following up one great song with another great one means that you must write something entirely different but still appealing to your target audience, and do that right away. Not easy!
If you’re trying to develop your songwriting skills to the point where most of the music you write is excellent in some way, here are some tips to consider:
- Write fragments. Don’t be afraid to spend your day writing short fragments of songs. Bits of lyric that sound enticing, a short hook, a phrase, a part of a verse… putting them together can come later. Get your imagination working for you!
- Make songwriting a daily activity. Every day, if possible, pick up your guitar and see what happens. Staying “in the zone” means making songwriting a habit, and that’s always a good thing.
- Don’t forget to take breaks. Yes, it’s a daily activity, but any time you feel frustration setting in means you’ve likely spent too much time on one songwriting activity. That’s the beginning of a bout with writer’s block.
- Take entire days off. There are times when it’s good to not feel that you must get something written. Maybe it’s a day with family, hanging out with friends, or otherwise just getting away. Giving your musical brain some time off is occasionally necessary.
- Record demos frequently. By “demo” I simply mean pick up your guitar, or sit at a keyboard, and do a rough recording for yourself. This allows you to hear your songs, or song fragments, from a listener’s point of view, and that can help you develop ideas for what to do next.
- Find other songwriters you can collaborate with. Sometimes sitting down with someone else is a great way to explore different parts of your musical brain. Make sure that whoever you partner up with is someone you can easily work with. Don’t add frustration to your frustration!
- Explore different styles and genres. Every songwriter will favour one or two genres, but by exploring different compositional styles you increase the likelihood that you’ll write something unique, and gives you a better shot at being consistently excellent. Just think of how different “Penny Lane”, “When I’m Sixty-Four”, “Hey Jude!” and “Back in the U.S.S.R.” are from each other!
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If you like writing complex lyrics, where the meaning isn’t likely to be immediately obvious to your audience, you’ve got one main problem to overcome: to stimulate the imagination of your listeners without overly frustrating them.
Here’s another way to say it: a complicated lyric needs to offer the possibility or hope to a listener that they can eventually understand it on some level.
To not offer that hope means you might have just written garbage.
First, three things about complex lyrics:
- There’s no requirement on your part that anyone eventually understand what you had in mind with your lyric. They may only have a theory as to what you meant by your lyric, and that’s fair enough.
- Lyrics with no meaning are self-indulgent and pretentious. You can send people down paths trying to understand what you wrote, with you knowing that there was no particular meaning or message to find.
- A complex lyric holds the possibility of deeper meaning, and eventual deeper understanding on the part of the listener. Usually it’s why a lyricist might write a complex lyric in the first place. As listeners come up with theories regarding its meaning, they’ll test their theory line-by-line. Once they’re convinced they truly understand the lyric (and even if they aren’t “right”), they find that the lyric is greater than the sum of its parts.
About point #2: In “Come Together,” John Lennon purposely wrote confusing lyrics with little to no meaning (in the traditional sense of the word.) He was trying to make a point, that people often look for meaning where there isn’t any. So that song doesn’t really rate as “self-indulgent” in the sense intended here.
How Complexity Works
How does a complex lyric work, and what makes it enticing? One word: emotion. You’ll notice that a song lyric where the meaning isn’t clear still has the ability to emotionally connect to the listener.
Without that emotional draw, listeners will feel disconnected and ultimately bored. A complex lyric can’t just be an intellectual exercise; it still has the responsibility to attempt to create an emotional response.
Another Beatles song, “You Never Give Me Your Money“, from “Abbey Road”, can serve as a good example here.
It’s not complex in the sense that we can’t tell what’s going on; it’s more a case that we’re not immediately sure exactly what the full meaning might be. We’re not likely to know, at least not right away, what McCartney was referring to by “funny paper”, “middle of investigation”, “middle of negotiations”, and so on.
After a few listens, we get a clearer picture, but as a lyricist, you have to hope that people keep coming back. Emotional connection is what does it.
Specifically, McCartney uses phrases like “You never give…”, “I never give…”, “all the money’s gone”, “Oh, that magic feeling…”, and so on. Those are very provocative phrases. If, in a conversation, you start a sentence with “You never…”, it sounds emotional and almost accusatory.
So throughout this lyric, we get pulled along and enticed by phrases that can make us feel emotions, even if the full meaning isn’t clear. In that sense, emotion is more important than meaning.
But as I said before, lyrics with no meaning are pretentious. Meaning needs to be there. But what’s going to pull your audience in and bring them back isn’t meaning as much as emotion.
To see this emotional power even more clearly, take a look at Leonard Cohen’s “Dance Me to the End of Love”, from his 1984 album “Various Positions.” The meaning isn’t likely to be immediately obvious, but what entices us is his use of emotionally provocative phrases: “…your beauty”, “…burning violin”, “…feel you moving,” etc.
If you’ve written a complex lyric, but audiences just aren’t staying with it, take a look, line by line, and see that you’ve given the audience something that can create an emotional image in their minds.
Without that ability to feel emotion, listeners will feel dissatisfied and look for that emotion elsewhere.
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Most songs in the pop genres use simple chord progressions. “Simple” means that they target the tonic chord — the chord that represents the song’s key — and make that tonic chord sound like “home.”
These sorts of progressions:
- C-F-G7-C (I-IV-V7-I)
- C-Am-Dm-G-C (I-vi-ii-V-I)
- C-Dm-G-C (I-ii-V-I)
These are all in the key of C major, and when you play them, you can hear that C sounds like home base. Nothing in these progressions sound weird or unpredictable.
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Before you pass them off as boring, you need to know that most songs will work quite well using these kinds of very basic progressions. Audiences don’t typically judge them harshly for being mundane. In most songwriting, if your lyrics and melodies are interesting, creative and imaginative, they’ll subconsciously hear the chord progressions underneath them as simply being supportive.
But let’s say that you want more from your progressions. If you want to branch out and create chord progressions that are more inspired or unconventional, you can run into problems.
The problems happen because audiences take “musical confidence” from progressions that have an element of predictability. If chords seem too haphazard, they feel lost, confused, and may abandon the song.
Let’s start simple… Let’s say that you’ve created a chord progression like this one:
C Db G E7 F C G (click below to listen)
The main culprit is that Db chord. Everything else fits nicely into C major, including the E7 chord which is a kind of chord called a secondary dominant. When a listener hears that first C chord, they think C major, then their ears get wrenched a bit when Db happens, because now they don’t know which way things are going.
And let’s say that though you like the Db chord, the fact that it jumps out a bit and pulls you out of C major is bothering you. There are 2 things you can do to make that chord behave a little better with the other chords in that progression, and they both involve manipulating the bass note:
- Try a bass pedal point. A bass pedal point means that you’re going to hang onto the C bass note that comes with the C chord, and then when the Db happens, keep the C. And in fact, you can keep holding onto it through the G chord as well. The pedal point helps “anchor” the listener to C major, and makes Db sound a bit more like it belongs.
C Db/C G/C E7 F C G
- Try a chord inversion on the Db (a “slash chord”). The Db chord uses the notes Db-F-Ab. By putting the F (the 3rd of the chord) in the bass, you give it an easier transition from the Db chord to G, and that helps make it sound less intrusive.
C Db/F G E7 F C G
This chord progression just has one chord that’s a bit odd. The progression you’re planning might have more chords that are hard to explain in terms of key, but these two solutions can still work.
- See if a bass pedal will work, and if the tonic bass isn’t doing the job, try a dominant pedal, which means to play the 5th note of the key (the note G, in our example).
- Try the inversion idea, and if putting the 3rd in the bass isn’t working, try the 5th.
And of course, both ideas can work together. All you’re really looking for is a way for audiences to understand what the weird chords are doing in your progression, and manipulating the bass note is the best way forward.
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If for you the lyric of a song is the most important feature, you’re definitely on the right track. Those songwriters who become most well-known and who have the most powerful legacies are the ones for whom lyrics are the most poignant part of the final product.
“Hooks and Riffs: How They Grab Attention, Make Songs Memorable, and Build Your Fan Base” describes several kinds of song hooks, and how good songwriters often layer those different kinds within the same song. Buy it separately, or get it as part of “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting 10-eBook Bundle”
I think that if lyrics are important to you that it’s worth trying to develop a lyrics-first process. There are reasons for this:
- It allows you to focus on the words without dealing with any musical clutter.
- The rhythms of your eventual melody will more naturally fit the rhythms of your words and phrases.
- The chords you choose can support the mood of your lyric far easier than doing it the other way around.
But sometimes, starting a song with lyrics is just too difficult. You feel that everything you write sounds like a mishmash of thoughts and ideas with little form and certainly no sense of rhythmic organization that would be useful in a song.
Here’s the main reason for your difficulties: You’re noticing that good song lyrics are not necessarily good poetry.
Some songwriters, like Leonard Cohen, could write an amazing poem that would work really well as a song lyric, but most of the time poetry strays too far into the realm of written language, and doesn’t have the necessary casual nature of the oral version of a language, as most good song lyrics do.
And because you try to write in a casual nature, your words sound and feel disorganized and unfocused. What can you do?
- Maybe don’t try to write the lyrics first. Sure, a lyrics-first process is great, but not if it’s causing you to feel frustrated, which is the first step to writer’s block.
- Try a topic-first process. Simply think of what you want to sing about, and then move immediately to either chords or melodies. Put something together that sounds like an instrumental, and then start throwing in words and phrases that partner up with what you’ve written. Pull a lyric together little by little.
- Let the music tell you what it’s about. Paul Simon is the kind of songwriter that often writes the music of the song first, and then let’s the music tell him what song is going to be about.
- Focus on the lyrics as a final step. Once you’ve got the music of your song written, and you’ve got smatterings of lyrics thrown in, you can spend as long as you like polishing those lyrics, and making them more and more powerful, more and more meaningful. You might spend a week on the music, and a full year on the lyric.
- Use story writing to get you through the tough spots. Any time you feel stuck, and the words aren’t coming, sit down and write a short 1- or 2-page story about the topic of your lyrics. Through that part of the process, you’re likely to come up with words and phrases that hadn’t occurred to you before, maybe even an entirely new angle to the story.
Just because you find lyrics to be the most important part of a song does not necessarily mean that you must start with them. When a song is finished, audiences rarely know (0r even care about) in what order you created the various components.
There is no one good way to write a song. And through a lyrics-first process gives you some advantages, the most important part of a song is what is sounds like in the end, and it matters little how you got there.
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Every once in a while I see it: an online reference to “We Built This City,” a 1980s smash hit for Starship, now considered in most polls to be the worst song of all time. And just yesterday I saw a 2016 article that I hadn’t read before: “An Oral History of “We Built This City,” the Worst Song of All Time.” Whether you’ve love or hate the song, it is a good read.
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I think about the songwriters, and their realization that they may have written the worst song that’s ever been written… that’s got be pretty heavy. The first “official” mention of “We Built This City” as being the worst came in a 2004 Blender poll. Once that happened, it became almost impossible to have a neutral attitude. You either agreed to hate the song, or you were left to defend it.
A Perfect Storm
Personally, I think “We Built This City,” which was possibly the most 80s-sounding 80s song the 80s ever produced, suffered from a perfect storm of circumstances. It was performed by Starship, and that fact alone magnified the fact that they were simply trying to make some bucks. It sounded nothing — and I mean nothing — like anything they had done in their early days. It simply didn’t sound like an honest musical attempt by a group that rose from Jefferson Airplane.
The lyrics are confusing, and not just a little pretentious and over the top. “Knee-deep in the hoopla”, “Marconi plays the mamba”, “Looking for America coming through your schools” — it’s hard to get a read on what the actual intent of the lyric was. Some say it was bemoaning the loss of live music venues, others say it was about music execs ripping off bands, but who knows?
The music itself, which usually gets criticized along with everything else about the song, is no more obnoxious than anything else being done at the time. It’s powered up, highly synthesized and in your face, but if you made a list of other such songs from the 80s, the list would be long.
I think the hoopla (if I may say) over how much we’re supposed to hate “We Built This City” was the early-2000s attempt to hate the 80s by pointing to something very 80s. The Bee Gees were similarly reviled in the early 80s for being the poster boys for 70s disco. They were blamed for an entire genre.
A Friendly Reminder From Your Audience
All of this serves to remind those of us who write music: audiences don’t require a real reason for hating something. They’re not required to do research.
They’re allowed to have an uninformed opinion. Nothing an audience thinks needs to be proven.
Audiences will like or hate a particular song, and they’ll form that opinion quickly. And (this is the hardest part for those of you who put lots of time and effort into your songwriting) they can hate something because an online poll tells them to hate it.
I would put it out there that if no poll existed that branded “We Built This City” the worst song ever, we’d probably have a pretty neutral attitude to it. Some would love it, some would hate it, many would be in the middle… just like pretty much every other song from the 80s (and every other decade.)
Audiences are fickle. And the higher you move in the music industry, the more prone you are to the vagaries of their opinions.
If there’s one thing the whole Starship and “We Built This City” controversy has taught us, it’s this: it may not actually be the song that people hate… it’s more likely they’ll have a bad attitude to what they perceive as a lack of musical honesty.
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5 Characteristics of Great Song Lyrics
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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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