Whenever you make something — whether you’re building a chest of drawers, sewing a dress, painting a picture or composing a song, you’re bringing together two important aspects of human endeavour: craft and art.
Craft refers to the technical skills involved in actually constructing something. If you’re painting a picture, craft would refer to one’s ability to use a brush and other implements, mix paints, to make something pleasing to look at.
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Art is different. To make good art, you need to be an excellent craftsperson, but you need to be more. To make something that is art means that the piece you’re working on (the painting, the dress, the chest of drawers) is unique: there is nothing else exactly like it in existence. That “thing” you’re making is happening as the result of a unique vision.
In that sense, every work of art is a combination of craft and art. When Michelangelo sculpted David, he’d never have been able to achieve the artistic side of that piece if he had no specific ability with chisels: art and craft. The Mona Lisa? Art and craft. Pavarotti singing Puccini’s “Nessun dorma”? Art and craft: vision and technique.
In the creative arts, we use the words art and craft to refer, not just to the abilities of the writer, but also to the actual piece being worked on. In songwriting, for example, all songs have some aspect of craft. For instance, the fact that a song has been composed to use verses and choruses is part of the craft of songwriting.
How Art, Craft and Songwriting Intersect
Anything about a song that is in any way predictable, it could be argued, can be described as craft, in the sense that it’s predictable because so many other songwriters/performers in that genre have done it.
And that’s perhaps where hit songwriting gets considerable criticism. In order for a producer to “make hits”, they need to target a particular audience. In targeting an audience, something about the song needs to be predictable to that audience. You need to give them a generous portion of something you absolutely know will please them. That’s part of a producer’s craft.
If you spend a lot of time listening to the Billboard top ten songs for any week, you’d be forgiven for thinking that there’s not a lot of art going on. Lots of craft — lots of producers knowing what the target audience is looking for and then supplying it.
But art? Vision? Stepping out and taking an artistic risk? Sometimes, but not so much.
If you’re trying to write a hit song, your music will need to be slanting a bit toward the bits about songwriting that your target audience already knows they want: the craft of songwriting. There’s nothing wrong with that, though. The best songs, like the Mona Lisa, need to have polished craft on easy display.
But if your songs don’t move beyond craft and show some pure artistic vision, what you’ve done may sound clean and polished, but won’t necessarily be an artistic statement.
For my money, I love the songwriters that take their craft and use it to make a unique statement based on a unique vision.
If you write a song and find that it sounds great, but also happens to sound like every other song written in the past three years in your chosen genre, you’ve just given the world your version of what’s already going on out there.
Every song is going to have a bit of that, but if you want to have a shot at being noticed and remembered, it’s going to come not from your songwriting craft, but your songwriting vision.
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The notion of the so-called killer chord progression is a bit of a myth that I used to hear songwriters discuss years ago. It’s a myth, not because chord progressions can’t be powerful and epic, but because songs are nearly always about a partnership of many different elements.
Trying to get the chords-first songwriting process working? Your main concern with chords-first songwriting will usually be the creation of good, memorable melodies. Read “Writing a Song From a Chord Progression“, and discover the secrets to making this process work well for you.
A song might have a killer chord progression, if that progression:
- properly supports the notes of the melody, and
- properly supports the mood that the melody and lyrics are trying to create.
So in that case it’s not that the chords are killer, but it’s the fact that they partner up with the other elements of the song properly; the relationship of all those bits is what’s killer.
I only mention this because you can waste a lot of time trying to create chord progressions — or any song component — that you hope are going to rise to the level of being considered “killer.”
There are so many songs that have interesting chords that seem to transport my musical imagination, but when I consider those chords as separate from the melody, instrumentation and lyrics of the song, they seem less remarkable.
When songwriters talk about a killer chord progression, they usually mean something relatively short but remarkable — with something unexpected about it that really grabs our attention. Perhaps the vagueness of that definition is why some seek for so long for a progression that fits the bill: the impression a progression makes differs from person to person.
For me, I love longer progressions that take us on a journey. Because I grew up in the 70s, I’m going to have a different opinion on what makes a progression powerful. In my mind, here’s one that has it all: solo chords, then partnered up with imaginative lyrics, powerfully creative instrumentation, gorgeous bass lines: “Blood on the Rooftops” (Genesis, from their 1976 album “Wind & Wuthering”). But there are so many more!
As I say, you can waste a lot of time trying to come up with “the killer chord progression.” Good songs will always be about how one element, considered by itself, sounds great, but takes itself to a new and powerful level when considered by all the other excellent elements within that song.
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Don’t be surprised if most of the time you start your songwriting process by working on getting the chorus happening first. For most of your listeners, your song will be defined by what’s happening in the chorus; it’s the chorus that really needs to shine.
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.
That’s certainly not to say that the verse is unimportant. And in fact, a well-written verse can make a chorus really step forward and grab necessary attention.
Another way of saying this is that the verse sets up the chorus. But there are important differences between what a verse does and what a chorus does. Here are some of the important ones:
- The chorus will have a more noticeable hook. Some have the idea that the chorus is where the hook is, but in fact most songs have several “hooky bits” (as I outline in my eBook “Hooks and Riffs: How They Grab Attention, Make Songs Memorable, and Build Your Fan Base.”) And verses can and do have hook-like ideas that grab some attention. But a chorus hook will usually be more prominent, and more song-defining.
- The chorus’s instrumentation/production will typically be busier and more rhythmically active. The sound of your song will usually be demonstrated and defined by the sound of your chorus.
- The chorus melody will normally be more rhythmically locked-in and simpler than the verse melody’s rhythm. Verse words can use lots of syncopation and other rhythmic complexities, but chorus words should lock in to the main chorus hook. By doing so, the lyric is easier to sing and easier to remember.
- The chorus will take advantage of higher notes in the melody to build musical energy. Almost every hit song you can think of will do this: place the chorus melody higher. The human voice tends to convey a more intense energy when it’s higher, and that energy directly links to the musical energy and momentum we perceive from the song itself.
- The chorus lyric will be more emotion-filled than the verse lyric. It’s the verse’s job to lay out the story and explain what the song’s about. A good chorus will allow the singer to react to the story. And that means that when you move from verse to chorus and back to verse again, a song will display an ebb-and-flow pattern that allows emotions to build, subside, and then build again.
Sometimes it can be beneficial for a chorus to share some melodic characteristics and ideas with the verse so that we hear a connection. But in fact, this doesn’t happen all that often.
What is most important is that a verse prepare the listener for what’s about to happen in the chorus. And rather than worrying too much about connection of ideas, it’s better to think about ways to gradually build musical energy from verse to chorus, whether that energy comes from connected ideas or not.
How far into the future do you think about your songwriting? Where do you want to be and what do you want to be doing in a year’s time?
It’s definitely worth thinking about, because if you’ve got no specific plan, it means that anything that happens with your songwriting will come down to random chance.
I don’t know about you, but random chance never sits well with me.
If you like the chords-first songwriting method, you’ll want to read “Writing a Song From a Chord Progression.” It deals with the common chords-first problem of how to write a great melody straight from the chords. It’s part of “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” 10-eBook Bundle.
A list of ideas for what you could be doing in a year’s time has the benefit of making your progress more likely, and when successes start to happen, you’ve got the ego shot of knowing that it’s because you actually did something about planning your future, and… it worked!
What are the sorts of things you could and should be doing as part of a yearly plan? Here’s a short list of things that I think are easily achievable in one year or less:
- Update the look of your website, or (if you don’t have one) develop a professional website. If you haven’t done this already, a website is still a great way to establish a somewhat permanent portal into who you are and what you do. If you’ve got the means, getting it designed by a professional is definitely worth it.
- Update your involvement on social media. You don’t have to be fully active on all of them, but social media is where people get to know what’s happening right now.
- Set a goal for the number of songs you plan to write in the next twelve months. Make sure the goal is a realistic one — a goal that still allows you to write creatively while also allowing you the time to be an active listener of music.
- Plan to participate in a public event like a festival or other type of concert. Seek out events that allow you to expand your normal audience base. For example, if you do country, plan to write some songs that might work in a folk festival. Your country-with-a-touch-of-folk approach may be the fresh new sound many are looking for.
- Plan an event that puts you at the centre. Give yourself up to a year to plan this, and it might be best to partner up with someone to help take care of the details and planning. Find a venue, invite some singer-songwriters to take part, and plan your own mini-festival with you and invited guests as performers. You’ll make connections that can take your career further, and you’ll love the inspiration it provides to keep your own songwriting moving forward. It doesn’t need to be big, and as a starter, it shouldn’t be big.
Thinking ahead one year reminds you that you’re serious about what you do, but it does even more than that. If you’ve got no specific plans for your songwriting, it means that anything good that happens to you is out of your specific control – a random occurrence.
Long term plans make success more likely. You become an active participant in your own career. And it forces you to take your own career more seriously, usually in the most enjoyable way possible.
What’s the best long term plan you ever made with regard to your music career? Please leave a comment!
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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.
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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