Guitarist - songwriter

Don’t Get Overly Worried About Similarity Between Your Songs

Similarity is a dangerous quality in the world of the creative arts. And it is a particular problem in pop songwriting, because — weirdly — it’s also an important quality.

And it all comes down to how you define similarity and how excessive that similarity might be.

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Your target audience will expect certain things from your songs. They will have come to know the kinds of things you write about, as well as your singing style, your prefered instrumentation, and even the way your melodies work and the kinds of chords you’re likely to use.

Those are aspects of similarity that define who you are as a songwriter, and they’re usually positive attributes.

And it’s always been that way. If you listen to a Mozart symphony that you’ve never heard before, you will probably be able to identify that symphony as his, just because you might be familiar with the way he composed, and the similarity you hear between that one and other symphonies of his that do you know.

Similarity is unavoidable. And in moderation, similarity between your songs is to be expected, and isn’t something you should worry a lot about.

But excessive similarity might be a problem that needs to be dealt with. Why? Because without knowing specifically why, your audience will feel that they’ve heard your new song before, and that would be certainly undesirable!

Giving your listeners something new with just a hint of similarity to other songs you’ve written is a kind of musical sweet spot that the best songwriters know how to achieve. Sometimes a bit of obvious dissimilarity can sound cheeky and fun, like when Queen followed “Death on Two Legs” with the rather unexpected “Lazing On a Sunday Afternoon” on their “A Night At the Opera” album.

If you find though that your songs are coming across as a bit too predictable, here are the things to check:

  1. You shouldn’t be singing about the same thing all the time. “Love” is an overarching theme in pop music, and if all your songs are “I love her… why won’t she love me too??”, you need to branch out and consciously write about other things.
  2. Your songs need to explore a good range of keys. You may find that your musical muscle memory is always taking you to, say, G major. But that will give all your songs a sameness before they’re even out of the gate. Improve your instrumental abilities, and find other keys to be comfortable with.
  3. Find ways to incorporate other instruments in your performances. This might mean finding friends who can play other instruments on your recordings — flute, strings, trumpet, mandolin, etc. — and any of these choices will add something pleasantly unexpected to your music.
  4. Avoid using the same songwriting process for every song. If you like starting the process by strumming some chords to see what else happens, there’s a good chance that most of your songs will have an unpleasant sense of sameness to them.
  5. Try mixing up vocal performance style from one song to the next. Most good singers will instinctively do this to a certain degree. Springsteen can get a real rocker’s edge to his voice in a song like “Born in the U.S.A.“, but offer something completely different in “I’m On Fire.” That difference comes not just from the vocal style, but also by changing up the basic range: higher for “Born in the U.S.A., and lower in “I’m On Fire.”

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

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Pulling Different Melodic Ideas Together To Finish a Song

If you look at your most recent song’s verse and compare it to the chorus, you’ll usually notice:

  1. There is likely a similarity in the kinds of chords you’ve used in both sections.
  2. The lyrics are probably different, with verse lyrics setting up a scenario, and chorus lyrics expressing the emotions created by the verse.
  3. The verse melody often doesn’t bear a lot of resemblance to the chorus melody.

But those are, you will likely agree, vague generalizations. It’s not hard to find songs where those generalizations don’t particularly apply. With a song like McCartney’s “Golden Slumbers“, the kinds of chords you hear in the verse (mainly diatonic, with a few added sevenths) are very similar to what you hear in the chorus. But the verse chords for Paul Simon’s “My Little Town” are long and wandering, while the chorus is short, with a much different feel.

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When it comes to song melodies, it’s usually understood that the verse and chorus melody — at least most of the time — won’t sound much alike. And if you find songwriting a struggle, and in particular finishing songs, you can use that dissimilarity to your advantage… more about that later.

You might think that for most songs, even though the verse and chorus melodies are different, that there must be some similarity. What else would account for a verse and a chorus working so well together on most of the world’s biggest hits?

The fact that a completely dissimilar verse and chorus partner up well has more to do with all the other elements of the musical performance — the fact that the tempos are the same, the keys are either the same or strongly related, and the instrumentation is the same or strongly similar.

In my years of looking closely at verse and chorus melodies, and trying to find the similarities that might account for their strong partnership, the only characteristic I’ve noticed is that in many songs, a verse might be comprised of melodic ideas that chiefly move in one direction, moving to a chorus that might move chiefly in the other direction.

But even that characteristic is rather vague. In fact, there are many songs for which the relationship between the verse and chorus melodies seems to be almost nonexistent. You can have a successful song where the two sections use melodies that seem to share no specific characteristics.

(I should note that there is an advantage, though, in creating melodies that do share characteristics, and that is particularly true of songs where other partnering characteristics appear to be lacking.)

Saving the Bits

The point I’m getting around to making here is that if you find that you’ve written a chorus or a verse, but you can’t seem to write a partnering section to go with it, it’s often a good idea to simply put it away and save it for another day.

On some other day, you’ll likely find yourself in a similar circumstance where you’ve written a verse or chorus for which you can’t immediately create a partner section. But if you’ve saved all the bits of songs from previous writing sessions, you’ve got a treasure trove of song sections you can try placing together.

Many songwriters have had success doing this. Probably one of the most well-known examples is The Beatles’ “A Day In the Life”, with the main section of the song composed by John Lennon, and the middle bit (which bears no resemblance) written by Paul McCartney.

So no matter how unsuccessful you think your songwriting has been, never toss out anything simply because you couldn’t expand it beyond what you’ve written on any given day. That small section, that seems to have no future, can suddenly be useful when you add to something you’ve written on a different day.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary EwerFollow Gary on Twitter

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Posted in Melody and tagged , , , , , , , , , .
Joni Mitchell

Understanding a Song’s Climactic Moment

Most songs have a “climactic moment”, usually in the chorus, but sometimes in other places, like a song’s bridge. In most cases, you can identify a climactic moment by finding the highest note.

This has been a noticeable trait in music for centuries. You can go back to Handel’s oratorio “Messiah”, for example, and see that high note principle in his famous “Hallelujah Chorus” at various moments of that choral movement, particularly here.

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In pop music, the classic tune “It’s Only Make Believe” by Conway Twitty is a textbook example of a melody made up of a short melodic cell that keeps spinning upward, finding its climactic moment near the end of the melody.

You’ll notice that most of the time a climactic moment will happen near the end of a major section (as I say, often the chorus), but not exactly at the very end of it. It seems we like to hear some kind of resolution or “coming down” of that moment shortly after.

But climactic moments don’t always have to be spots where the melody is highest. There can be several climactic moments in a song, where one of them seems to be the obvious one, but where others also occur.

For example:

  1. A climactic moment in the lyric. You could make a case for saying that the final line of lyric in “Hotel California” is a climactic moment of sorts. “You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave” is a very surprising — perhaps even unexpected — way to end the lyric.
  2. A climactic moment in the instrumentation. Sometimes something surprising can happen in the instrumentation of the song… a silence, which also occurs in Hotel California, but is very effective in “Man of Our Times” (Genesis), just before the final chorus. (It’s odd to think of silence as being a climactic moment, but I really think it does the job.
  3. A climactic moment in the vocal performance. In addition to melodies that have a high point, no doubt something like that iconic scream in The Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again“.

The concept of the climactic high point can be complex, and identifying a specific moment that you think of as “climactic” in a song is sometimes hard to do. It’s more a case that you can tell when a song is suffering from a lack of climactic moment. For songs that are missing such a moment, there’s little to drive the music forward, and so a song will often wind up sounding a bit listless and aimless.

One more thing to think about: even quiet ballads need a climactic moment, but in quiet songs the concept might be even more subtle. Think about Joni Mitchell’s “Little Green” from her “Blue” album. The second half of each of the verse sees the melody soaring higher and higher, building musical emotion and energy. That one’s obvious.

But her song “Hejira” — we hear constant layering of moments that are, in their own way, climactic, but in a much more subtle way. And it’s hard to find any one of them that are primary over the others — though I feel that 5’25” feels climactic to me.

One of the best things you can do as a songwriter, once you’ve created a demo that you’re happy with, is to listen and try to identify any moment that you think is more energetic than the other moments around it. Then see if you can identify one that’s more significant than the others.

For me, it’s okay if I can’t identify one primary moment that serves as the main climactic moment. What seems to be more important to most songs is the fluctuating back and forth of musical energy that comes from all the “competing” moments. Let the audience decide which is more significant to them.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter

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Ray Charles

Is There Anything Special About Songs That Get Covered By Others?

I was looking recently at a list of some of the world’s most covered songs, and saw a few surprises on it. Some of them were what we’ve come to expect on such lists: Paul McCartney’s “Yesterday”, Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”, and Johnny Cash’s “I Walk the Line.”

But I confess I didn’t know that Ray Charles did a fantastic cover of “Eleanor Rigby.” It’s a great song, but doesn’t seem to be the kind that you’d expect groups other than The Beatles to have an interest in.

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When you hear Ray’s version, you find yourself saying, “Well of course, it’s a great soul tune.” And then when you hear Stanley Jordan’s amazing, mind-blowing guitar performance of this song at the Newport Jazz Festival, you begin to realize that you can do “Eleanor Rigby” in practically any genre you can name.

It must be the dream of any songwriter to write something that not only pleases the initial target audience, but then finds a new life when performed by others.

Is there something special about a song that can be covered by other performers, and more specifically, dressed up to sound great in a completely different genre?

The truth is that when you look at the melodic and chordal structure of great songs, there’s not a lot of difference. A song that sounds great as a baroque era “hit”,  like “Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring” (a chorale setting by J. S. Bach from 1723) can also sound great as a high-energy pop-rock instrumental, or even as bluegrass.

If you’re hoping to write something that others will be interested in performing regardless of genre, the good news is that you simply have to write a song that others want to hear, no matter what the initial target audience is.

If you look carefully at that list of most-covered tunes, you’ll see that there is nothing particularly different about any of these songs, except to say that they all serve as models of great songwriting, and when you analyze them you see that they follow good songwriting principles.

Most songs that transfer easily to other genres tend to be rather “tuneful”, meaning that there is a noticeable emphasis on writing a song where the melody rates highly as a point of interest.

Other than that, writing something that follows some basic songwriting principles will make it more likely that it will survive being transferred to other genres.

So if you’re hoping to write songs that others will want to perform as well, the job is still the same as it’s always been: write a song where the melody stands out as a vital element, and then, as always, write lyrics that sound relevant, and support it all with chords that partner up well.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter. Hooks & Riffs“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.Written by Gary Ewer. Follow on Twitter.

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The Bee Gees

Songwriting as Storytelling

Most song lyrics tell a story, whether it recounts a series of events in chronological order, or just simply implies a story. In fact, it’s probably true to say that most songs just imply a story, and we fill in a lot of details as the listener.

There are any number of examples of what I’m talking about, but consider the Bee Gees hit song, “How Deep Is Your Love?”, one of their biggest hits in the 70s. When you read the lyrics line by line, you’re not really getting a story as much as you’re getting a set of circumstances:

I know your eyes in the morning sun
I feel you touch me in the pouring rain
And the moment that you wander far from me
I wanna feel you in my arms again

And you come to me on a summer breeze
Keep me warm in your love, then you softly leave
And it’s me you need to show… How deep is your love?

The lyric presents a series of little vignettes, all meant to say, “Here’s how much I love you, and why I love you so much. But now you need to let me know how much you love me.”

Is that a story? Not really. But for fans of the song, it’s not hard to place themselves right in the lyric, picturing someone they’ve loved that much, and in a sense, everyone’s creating a different story for which those lyrics apply.

When you read each line of the lyric, you get a sense of progression, where each line acts as a “logical follower” for the line that happened just before it. The first line talks about the sun, the second line talks about rain. The third line mentions being far away, the fourth line brings it all closer “in my arms again.”

This is actually a little tricky for songs that imply stories. When a song is a true story song, like “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” (Gordon Lightfoot), or “Take the Money and Run” (The Steve Miller Band), you have the luxury of simply telling the story. There is a lot more to writing a good lyric, mind you, but getting things in the right order is an important part of the job.

If your song lyric is one that implies a story, allowing your audience to fill in details and imagine themselves as players in that story, it can sometimes help to read your song in reverse… to read the last line, and then the line that leads into it, and ask yourself, “Is that last line a good follow-up for the line that immediately precedes it?” The proceed backwards through your lyric in that way.

In lyrics that imply a story, there won’t be the strict sense of story that you pick up from a traditional story song, but each line has to flow and pull the listener along in a way that resembles a story.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

Use Your Words! Developing a Lyrics-First Songwriting Process“The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” eBook bundle comes with a free copy of “Use Your Words! Developing a Lyrics-First Songwriting Process,” along with a Study Guide. Learn how to make the writing of a good lyric the starting point for your own songwriting method.

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Gary Ewer

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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