A good melody needs to be memorable and at least somewhat easy for the average listener to sing or hum. Someone singing and humming a tune as they walk down the street is one of the proofs that a melody has done its job.
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But zeroing in on what actually makes a melody memorable is a bit more challenging. We know from looking at decades of pop melodies that:
- Most melodies include mainly stepwise motion (from one note to the next note up or down) with occasional leaps (jumping several notes at a time up or down.)
- Most melodies partner up with the chords that are supporting it.
- Most melodies move up to increase emotional levels, and move down to decrease them.
To that last point, this may be one of the most common problems with songs that seem to lack energy: the haphazard way in which your song melodies might move up or down.
And if you’ve written a song where the basic melodic ideas seem good, but the song itself lacks energy, momentum and musical direction, it’s worth taking a bit of time to compare the range of the verse melody with the range of the chorus melody.
It’s an easy assessment to make: find the lowest note of your verse, then the highest note. This is the verse melody range. Now do the same thing for the chorus. When you compare the verse and chorus ranges, you should notice:
- The lowest note of the verse is lower than the chorus’s lowest note.
- The highest note of the verse is lower than the chorus’s highest note.
- The two ranges (verse and chorus) likely overlap.
Overlapping ranges between verse and chorus are common. The problem, though, is if both verse and chorus spend most of their time giving us the same five or six notes, where the chorus perhaps only offers one note higher than the verse range.
In other words, it can be a problem if there’s not much to distinguish the verse from the chorus. If both sections sound too similar, it can be a problem. The fix is usually not complicated; there are always ways to insert higher note choices in your chorus melody, enough to make a more noticeable difference.
If you’ve purposely written a song that uses the same (or almost the same) melody for verse and chorus, you can get the energy boost that you need by considering production elements: making the chorus instrumentally fuller and busier, for example.
So if your song seems to lack direction or drive, start your analysis by comparing the verse and chorus ranges. It will at least let you know if that’s the problem, and then you probably have a few options to try as solutions.
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A cliché is an overused expression. We use them most frequently in casual conversation, and it’s why they might appear too often in your songs: the best lyrics tend to be the ones that sound like casual conversation.
In songwriting, a cliché sounds lazy. It sounds as though you might have come up with something more creative, but you opted for the easy line. (“I’m down on my knees and begging you please”).
Clichés have a way of turning listeners off because before you get the whole cliché out we all know how that line will end.
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Having said that, there are circumstances in which a well-placed cliché can be just what a lyric might need. A bit of humour might come from the use of a cliché statement: “Love me till the cows come home…” from “Skin Tight” (James Pankow, from “Chicago X”.)
Song titles are definitely more forgiving of the use of clichés. “About Damn Time” (Lizzo), “Rock and a Hard Place” (Bailey Zimmerman), “Take My Breath Away” (Berlin). Cliche’s can work as titles because a song’s chorus or refrain (from where most titles are pulled) tend to use words that are high in emotional content, and often a quick cliché is accepted more readily.
In any case, here are five common but dangerous lyrical clichés you should try to avoid in your lyric writing:
- Forced lyrics. A forced lyric sounds as though you jammed words and phrases together simply as a way of completing a line. The best way to identify forced lyrics is to say your lyric without the notes or rhythm of your song, simply as prose. The lines should sound easy and natural.
- Overused phrases. These are the kinds of phrases that might innocently and suddenly pop into your lyric, like “Got t’have you by my side”, “I saw her walkin’ down the street..”, “I’m down on my knees and beggin’ you please” , and “Can’t you see..”. The solution is to make a list of other phrases that say the same thing, and that fit into the general mood of the rest of your lyric.
- Forced rhymes. A forced rhyme means that you chose words whose main function was to rhyme with the line before it, and you can tell it’s forced by the unnatural feel and meaningless contribution of the line when you read it as a line in a poem. “Hope you give your heart to me/ Hope you do, hee hee hee.”)
- Over-the-top analogies. Probably the best example of this is Starship’s “We built this city on rock and roll..” In a way, an over-the-top analogy comes under the category heading of the forced lyric.
- Bad grammar, when it’s used to make a line fit. Bad grammar can be fine if it’s the way we’d typically say something in a given context, like the line “I Got Rhythm..”. But bad grammar simply to get a line to work can be dangerously detrimental. I often use the first line of “Honey” by Bobby Russell, recorded by Bobby Goldsboro back in the late 60s, as a good example: “See the tree how big it’s grown/ But friend it hasn’t been too long/ It wasn’t big..” (“Honey”, by Bobby Russell, made famous by Bobby Goldsboro)).
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For practically anything you do there are established ways to determine if you’ve been successful. For some projects, like stacking a cord of firewood, success is easy to assess: is the wood secure and up off the ground? For the most part, it’s either a yes or no.
But songwriting comes with an added category: does my target audience like what I’ve done? You may have followed all the basic principles and guidelines of good songwriting, but ended up with a song that just doesn’t reach out and touch listeners. Yes, in songwriting you can do everything “right”, but end up with a bit of a dud.
It’s that way in all the arts, not just songwriting. Everyone has their own opinion as to who the best singer is, the best ballet dancer, the best playwright, the best painter — and it all comes down to a mixture of several things:
- adherence to basic principles of whatever artform you’re pursuing;
- your creative innovations within your chosen genre; and
- (possibly most importantly) the artistic taste of your target audience.
It’s that last item — the personal taste of your audience — that’s often trickiest to determine and please. People’s tastes changes over time, because we’re all subjected to new music, new art, and along with that, new expectations as to what’s good and what’s not.
Given all that, it’s difficult to determine what success really is in an art form like songwriting. Combine these thoughts with this very true statement: someone disliking your songs is NOT an indication that you’ve done something wrong. Sometimes, the only thing you can do is to please yourself.
When I was a high school choir director many years ago, I remember the year-after-year task of getting the choir ready for its appearance at the local music festival. Like anyone, I wanted my choir to do well, and I think I can be forgiven for wanting to win whichever class we were entered in.
Mind you, I didn’t obsess over winning. But winning, at least to me, meant that we had achieved a goal of sorts: we pleased at least one person with our performance: the adjudicator.
I remember one year we were performing “Dirait-on” by American composer Morten Lauridsen. (There’s a lovely recording of the Chamber Choir of Europe. Give it a listen, it’s an amazing piece.)
We worked hard to get the piece sounding as good as we could. It was a true labour of love. But there are moments that are hard to get just right, and like all student groups, sometimes we seemed to nail it, and sometimes not.
At the festival, it was our turn to perform. We started to sing, and it was sounding good. And as the song progressed, the choir sounded better and better: they were nailing it! It was an amazing five minutes.
But my point is this: By the time we were halfway through our performance, my nerves about what the adjudicator would think of our performance simply evaporated away. We were singing as well as we had ever sung, and to me, that was success.
With songwriting (and the performance of those songs) I can imagine that with some of the best albums of the pop genres — Sergeant Pepper, Thriller, Blue — there was likely a point where the musicians realized that they were nailing it. And it wasn’t because they thought that their audience was going to be so pleased… it was because they were pleased.
There will always be detractors, people who don’t like what you do, and that’s very normal and to be expected. So what it all comes down to is you. Are you pleased with what you’re doing?
And it’s a wonderful feeling to be “liberated” from the stress of always feeling that you have to please the public. Most of the time, the best way to please your public is to actually please yourself.
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Song intros can play a very important role in the success of a song. Here’s a short list of what they typically can do for you:
- They might introduce the mood of the music, and that’s an important part of enticing a listener to keep listening.
- They usually (but not always) indicate the key of the song (or at least the verse).
- They often indicate the style, genre and tempo of the song.
- They usually give an indication of the basic instrumentation the listener can expect from the song.
But despite how important all those things are, there are ways in which an intro can just kind of mess things up. If an intro goes on for too long, or if it doesn’t amount to much more than just a strumming guitar, you run the risk of boring listeners, and then you lose them to someone else’s song.
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For me, when it comes to song intros, I find myself in the “less is more” camp. If I ever hear a song intro that I think isn’t working for the song that it’s attached to, it’s usually the case that the intro is:
- too long, and/or…
- too uninteresting, and/or
- just plain unimportant to the song.
If you’ve been trying to get your song intro to work, and all the ideas you come up with are just falling flat, try this: start the song with no intro at all. You may find that the no-intro approach is the best one.
There are many songs that have been very successful with no intro:
- Hey Jude (Lennon & McCartney)
- Penny Lane (Lennon & McCartney)
- Heroes and Villains (Beach Boys)
- I’ve Been Loving You Too Long (Otis Redding)
When a song has no intro, you rely on the verse to impart whatever mood, tempo, genre and performance style you find to be important.
And starting right away with the verse has a way of getting to the core of the song — the chorus — even quicker. In that way, a song without an intro can actually achieve what an intro is supposed to achieve: grabbing interest and enticing a listener to keep listening.
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If you want to know what key a song is in, it’s typically the chorus you should be looking at. That’s because verse progressions might wander about, making identification of the actual key a bit difficult.
But by the time you get to the chorus, things usually become clearer.
It’s not unusual, for example, for a verse progression to focus on a minor key, and then move to the relative major for the chorus. “King of Pain” by the Police (Sting) is a good example, where the verse is in the key of B minor, switching to D major for the chorus.
By switching from minor to major, you create a nice sense of contrast that pulls listeners in and makes your song more interesting.
There’s another way to create a similar sense of contrast, which is to use the same key for both the verse and chorus, but to start one progression — either the verse or the chorus — on something other than the I-chord.
Here’s how that might work, and it really only requires two steps:
- Create a chord progression that’s tonally strong, something that could work for both your verse and your chorus. Example: C Am Dm F C. (The C chord is the tonic (or I-chord) in this example.)
- Take the first chord away, and you’re left with: Am Dm F C. This becomes your verse progression, and you then use the full progression (C Am Dm F C) for your chorus.
In this particular case, since the second chord of the original progression is a minor chord, you give the sense that you’re using a minor progression for your verse, when all you’ve really done is to remove the first chord, which happens to be a major chord.
If you want, you can use this process as simply a starting point. You could take that initial C chord away, and then use Am Dm F C as just part of your verse, expanding on it and developing it before returning to C Am Dm F C as your chorus.
The benefit to this chord progression hack is that you don’t need to think about relative major/minor relationships. You simply come up with one progression, lop off the first chord, and you’ve still got something that works.
If all you need are tons of progressions to try out, you need “Essential Chord Progressions” and “More Essential Chord Progressions.” They’re both part of “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting 10-eBook Bundle.
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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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