The thing that’s bad about a songwriting formula is the predictability of it. When you write to a formula, you’re working out a song based on the notion that “when I do this, I should then do that.”
And if you write that way, every song you write is going to have an undesirable sameness. Not only that, most songwriting formulas exist because so many other songwriters have used them. So not only will your new songs sound like your old ones, but they’ll also sound like lots of other songs out there, and then it’s practically impossible to get any sense of uniqueness for your own tunes.
If you like the chords-first songwriting process, you’ll want to be sure to avoid some common problems that can arise. “Writing a Song From a Chord Progression” shows you how to make the most of the chords-first method of songwriting.
It’s impossible to avoid formulas when you write. Even just the verse-chorus format is a formula of sorts. What that implies is this: not every songwriting formula is bad. Particularly when it comes to chord choices for your song, sticking to predictable changes is often a very good way to go.
But chords aside, what can you do to make sure that your new songs aren’t just following some formula that every other songwriter is using? How can you ensure that, in amongst all the predictable nature of most songs, there is something unique and innovative with the songs you’re writing?
The best model for how to write songs that sound like they’re creative and original is to follow the example given to us by The Beatles, who were always looking for new ways to “package” music. Their favourite way of staying innovative was to borrow ideas from other music:
- Borrow ideas, playing techniques and sounds from other genres. The Beatles were a rock and roll band, but were always borrowing ideas from related genres: funk (“The Word”), French Café (“Michelle”) metal (“Helter Skelter”), country (“Don’t Pass Me By”), and so on.
- Borrow ideas, playing techniques and sounds from other groups. The Beatles looked to other groups as a way of changing up their own sound: The Byrds (“Nowhere Man”), Bob Dylan (“Norwegian Wood”).
- Create new instrumental sounds. Starting with the Rubber Soul album, The Beatles began experimenting with new ways to record and present their instrumentation, and this idea peaked with their Sergeant Pepper and Magical Mystery Tour albums. Sitar, the inclusion of classical instruments, radically equalizing instruments and voices… they all contributed to a new sound and a new approach to songwriting.
None of these ideas were, on their own, radical departures, but when combined, resulted in a sound that was unique and fresh. In that sense, The Beatles didn’t abandon anything; they simply took fairly common musical ideas and dressed them up in a new and exciting way.
And perhaps that is what all songwriters should be doing: not so much abandoning common ways of writing, but rather infusing standard ideas with innovative treatments. In the end, it sounds like you’ve found a new formula, and that’s the best result you could hope for.
Sometimes all you need are lists of chords to get the songwriting process started. The Essential Secrets of Songwriting 10-eBook Bundle includes “Essential Chord Progressions” and “More Essential Chord Progressions.” Use the suggested chords as is, or modify them to suit your own songwriting project.
If one of your songwriting struggles is to get the verse and chorus melodies to sound like good musical partners, you may be surprised to find that the answer may not be to make them similar. Sometimes good verse-chorus partnerships happen when those two melodies have very different structural qualities.
When it comes to making the verse and chorus melodies work really well together, my mind always jumps to Paul Simon’s “My Little Town” as a great example. What I find so instructional about that song is how radically different the verse melody is from the chorus, and yet how excellently they act as musical partners.
More specifically, the verse is a long, meandering line of ups and downs, with many chords, and changing time signatures. Just when you think your brain can’t process more information, the chorus kicks in. By comparison, the progression is short and strong, the musical phrases are short, and the melody is repetitive and tremendously catchy.
Dissimilarity is a great quality, and of course, it’s only one solution. Some songs use the same (or practically the same) melody for the verse and chorus, like “Born in the U.S.A.”
The real question is: how do you know when a song is better when verse and chorus are dissimilar? If you focus on the structure of the verse melody itself, you start to see the answer. If the verse melody is comprised of short, tonally strong phrases, with predictable chords, you’ve got a verse melody probably also works well as a chorus.
In other words, if the verse sounds like it’s a good chorus, you can use the same melody for both sections quite successfully. But the opposite does not usually work: a long meandering verse melody makes for a lousy chorus melody.
As a final bit of advice, consider this: if you opt to use the same melody for both your verse and chorus, you’ll want to find other ways to create a sense of contrast within your song. That usually means:
- Think about verse lyrics. They’ll usually tell a story or recount some situation, but things need to tighten up and become rhythmically simpler and more hook-like in the chorus.
- Think about instrumentation and production. A verse benefits from a sparse, more transparent sound, which will contrast nicely with a chorus that sounds fuller.
- Think about backing vocals. Adding some backing vocals to your song’s chorus is a great way to make an immediate distinction between verse and chorus.
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If you’ve got the gift of gab, you’ve an an ability to engage others in conversation and to keep them interested. If you think about the people in your life that you love having a conversation with, the following statements are probably true:
- They find interesting things to talk about.
- They can speak eloquently.
- They know how to balance speaking with listening.
A lot of this applies to good songwriting as well, but in a slightly different way. For music to make an impact, the actual topic isn’t what makes it interesting. It is more a case that good songs touch us in an emotionally important way.
In other words, the best songs sound relevant to our lives. On the face of it, a simple love song may not be all that interesting — it’s simply talking about why the singer loves someone.
But the words that are used, the imagery, and the relevance to our own life (i.e., when you get that “oh, I’ve felt that way myself!” feeling) is what makes the topic interesting.
So that’s how a song is — or isn’t — interesting, so let’s look at the other two characteristics in that list.
To speak eloquently in a conversation involves finding the right few concise words to convey a thought or image.
In lyric writing, eloquence usually involves creating poignant imagery. The best lyricists are able to describe a deep and complex thought with a minimum of words. How it should be done differs from songwriter to songwriter.
When Bob Dylan wrote the words to “The Times They Are A-Changin'”, the eloquence comes from the casual wording. By deliberately choosing words that come from everyday conversation, he’s saying, “This is for everyone.”
Come gather ’round people
Wherever you roam
And admit that the waters
Around you have grown
And accept it that soon
You’ll be drenched to the bone
If your time to you
Is worth savin’
Then you better start swimmin’
Or you’ll sink like a stone
For the times they are a-changin’.
Letting An Audience Respond
I’ve written before on this blog that songwriting is like having a one-sided conversation in the sense that the listener doesn’t get a chance to answer back. But the essence of “allowing the audience to answer” needs to be present.
How do good songwriters do this? Sometimes it’s in the lyric itself, where two sides of a topic are presented. Perhaps Gotye’s “Somebody That I Used to Know” is a good example of this kind of lyric, where we get to hear to sides of a “he-said-she-said” scenario.
But often it’s subtler than that. Good conversation means wording ideas in such a way that they invite others to express their thoughts, even if they don’t avail themselves of that opportunity.
Good songwriting does the same thing. It expresses thoughts, opinions, feelings and ideas in a way that avoids being overly preachy, allowing audiences to accept the lyric for what it is without demanding that the listener automatically accept the lyric as unarguable truth. It’s a tricky line to walk.
That’s not to say that you can’t be controversial in your lyrics. But in the end, what really matters is that you’ve written a song lyric that has potential to create emotions within the listener. The best way to do that is to move back and forth between describing situations and then expressing an emotional response.
Once you’ve done that, you’ve probably fulfilled most of what the best lyricists do in their songs. And making sure the topic is relevant to your audience is the first step to finding something interesting to say.
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If you’re a songwriter, you’re targeting an audience, whether you do it intentionally or inadvertently. You may favour country music, for example, and so if you put your songs out there for others to stream, it’s country music lovers that will be listening to them, whether you purposely target that demographic or not.
When we speak of targeting an audience, though, we usually mean the purposeful act of trying to make your songs appeal to the largest segment of your intended audience. This is an area of great interest to producers, whose job it is to tailor your songs so that they largely meet the expectations of those who listen to your genre.
But it’s not easy: the target is always moving. As new performers and new songwriters enter the equation, what audiences love to hear changes a little. As producers observe what the latest “sound” is, they try to predict what the next move in that genre will be, and will then offer ideas for presenting your song that has the chance of appealing to the largest possible audience.
In that regard, as a songwriter there are several things to think about:
- Targeting an audience usually involves compromise. Your own ideas are important, but you may need to accept a different way of presenting those ideas, different from how you think the song should sound. An example: Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall” (Part 2) had disco elements added by producer Bob Ezrin, over the objections of the band members. That sound he came up with made it hugely attractive to pop audiences of the 70s, and the song was a big hit.
- Push the boundaries of your genre gently. You may have some great ideas for what you’d like your song to sound like in the end, but keep in mind that audiences need to develop a trust in you in order to accept highly innovative ideas. Scaring off some of your audience isn’t necessarily wrong, thought, particularly if you’re building a new audience with those same ideas. An example: When The Beatles switched from being a touring rock and roll band to being a studio-based ensemble presenting highly complex music like we hear in Sergeant Pepper, they lost a segment of their following, but built an enormous new audience.
- Consider targeting between genres. If, for example, you write a pop song, but give it some country elements in the production stage, you have the makings of a good crossover tune that will appeal to a much larger audience because you’re targeting two demographics. There are lots of great examples of crossover songs: “Islands in the Stream” (country/pop, written by the Bee Gees, most famously recorded by Kenny Rodgers and Dolly Parton), “Looking’ Out For No. 1” (jazz/pop, Randy Bachman), and “Walking On the Moon” (Sting, recorded by The Police).
Many of the issues surrounding audience targeting happens at the production stage, not so much during songwriting itself. But these days, when so many songwriters are producing and recording their own songs, the two areas are divided by a very fuzzy line.
In that regard, it’s good to be thinking about how you might finesse your song and nudge it toward a specific audience, even as you’re writing it.
And be flexible with how you eventually present your song; building your fan base sometimes requires compromises that you may initially be uncomfortable with. As long as you aren’t selling your musical soul, any time you build on that fan base is almost always a good thing.
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We use the term harmonic rhythm to describe the rate that chords change when compared to the number of melody notes.
So let’s say you’ve written a song where the melody is primarily a stream of 8th notes. If you’re not sure what that means, think of the verse (and that prominent intro bass line) of Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean“, which is delivered mainly as a stream of 8th notes, with occasional faster rhythms and syncopations.
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If there are a lot of melody notes between chord changes — say, changing chords every 8-to-16 melody notes — we say that that section uses a slow harmonic rhythm, and that would describe the verse of “Billie Jean.” If the chords change more frequently while there are only a few melody notes between changes (every 4-8 melody notes), we might call that a fast harmonic rhythm.
Harmonic rhythm can be a great songwriter’s tool for managing musical energy within a song. Because quick chord changes tends to increase the energetic feel we get from music, it’s a natural way to make a section of your song sound and feel more energetic.
A good example of this is the recent track “Conversation” (Van McCann) by British indie group Catfish and the Bottlemen off their 2019 album “The Balance.” There’s not a lot of difference between the kind of rhythms the melody uses in the verse and chorus.
What does change, though, is how frequently the chords change. The chords change every four beats (i.e., every bar) in the verse, then things intensify in the chorus, with the chords changing mainly every two beats (i.e., two chords per bar.)
That switch to faster chord changes in the chorus helps to intensify musical energy. While the energy also builds simply due to production decisions (layering of guitar, louder drums, etc.), there is something to be said for helping to build energy in a natural way, by increasing the rate of change with regard to chords.
In your own songwriting, this is something definitely worth experimenting with. If you find that your chorus lacks the power or energy you’re hoping for, playing around with the harmonic rhythm gives you two immediate options:
- Increase the harmonic rhythm of your chorus to boost its natural energy level, or
- Decrease the harmonic rhythm of your verse to allow the eventual chorus to sound more energetic.
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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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