Once you’ve finished a song and play it for yourself a few times, you might find yourself feeling that one particular section — the verse, let’s say — just doesn’t quite make the grade. You like everything else about the song, but that verse, for whatever reason, isn’t doing a good job of setting up the chorus.
Sometimes when one section isn’t working well, your immediate temptation is to declare the whole song a dud and start again. But there are some obvious benefits to trying to zero in on what the problem section is, and then fix that, instead of tossing the entire song.
Words and music need to act as partners in a song, but how do you make sure your melody is helping your lyric? That’s what Chapter 5 of “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” deals with. Get it as part of the 10-eBook Bundle, or purchase it separately.
So let’s say you’re in that situation I’ve described, which is that you’ve identified the verse as being somehow unsuitable for your song. Rather than throwing out the verse and starting from scratch, try the following:
- Keep your melody, and change the chords. Sometimes a melody will get a new lease on life simply by having a new, more interesting chord progression. Substituting chords can be fun to experiment with, but if you’re not sure how to do that, give this older post a read. See how many different renditions of chords you can come up with, and choose the best one.
- Keep your chords, and write a new melody. Chords have a lot to do with the mood of your music, so by keeping the chords that you’ve come up with but changing the melody, you have the benefit of writing something new that retains the mood and feel you’ve been going for. And just as with inventing new chord progressions, come up with as many different melodies as you can, and then keep the best one.
- Keep the chords and melody, come up with new lyrics. Word lists are a great way to generate lyrics when the process seems slow, so return to those lists and see what else you can create with them. It can sometimes work well to go line by line and come up with alternatives for one particular phrase. With that one new phrase, you sometimes find that everything else sounds better.
- Keep everything, but change the tempo. It’s amazing what a new tempo can do for the feel of a song, as Eric Clapton likely discovered when he performed “Layla” as an unplugged version for MTV. A new tempo has an enormous affect on mood, and so radically speeding up for slowing down something you’ve written gives you the opportunity to generate something entirely different. Of course, changing the tempo of your verse usually means changing the tempo of everything else, but it’s possible to have a song with tempos that change as the song progresses, as we hear in “We Are Young” (Fun, ft. Janelle Monáe)
- Partner on a new verse melody. This is where songwriting collaborations can really work well. Getting a songwriting partner to write a new verse for you frequently yields surprisingly good results.
“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.
One of the best ways to avoid writer’s block before it ever happens is to create a songwriting schedule. Scheduling your writing takes patience and discipline, but it keeps your mind feeling creative.
One of the reasons you probably hate scheduling is that it forces you to write even when you don’t feel like it. But that shouldn’t stop you. There are some days when you’ll want to simplify what it is you’re writing. Brainstorming song titles, for example, is a simple activity that keeps you thinking, but doesn’t require you to write full songs.
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That’s part of what sensible means in this context. It means knowing what to spend your time writing as much as when. What follows are a number of tips to consider when you’re trying to create a songwriting schedule.
Dealing With Scheduling
- Creating a daily schedule should be possible for most of us. You should consider 5 out of 7 days per week the norm to aim for. Yes, give yourself a couple of days off.
- Guilt plays no role in a sensible schedule. If you’ve got a day that keeps you working or attending school from morning to night, that’s a great opportunity for a day off from writing. Don’t force yourself to write on days where you are mentally exhausted.
- Get creative with when you write. You may be used to writing first thing in the morning, or last thing at night. But changing your schedule from day to day can work well, and allows you to fit writing in and around a complicated work or school schedule.
- Write down your schedule and stick to it. Think of it as you would a work schedule. If you’ve written down Tuesdays, 4:00 – 5:00 pm., for example, stick to it. If friends want to get together with you, keep your schedule. Fit in friends around it.
Dealing With Substance – What to Write During Your Sessions
- Try not to determine too much ahead of time the kind of things you’ll write during your songwriting sessions. There are some days when ideas will flow freely, and you can almost complete an entire song in an hour. On other days you may feel far less creative. That’s normal. So on those less-than-creative days, have a list of simple songwriting activities that will still allow you to feel creative. (Check the end of this article for ideas.)
- Try dedicating certain sessions to a particular songwriting element. For example, you might devote your Monday morning sessions to creating lyrics, Tuesdays for chord progressions, and so on. You’ll know right away if that’s a good way of working. You may discover, however, that mixing up duties in every session is a better fit for you.
- Avoid being overly judgemental of your songwriting sessions. You may have hoped to finish the song you started the other day, for instance, but can’t get there. That’s not often an indication that something’s gone wrong. It simply means that you need more time. That’s also normal – very normal.
To not have a songwriting schedule often means treating songwriting the same way you’d buy a chocolate bar: on the spur of the moment, as it occurs to you. But something as important as writing music deserves a much better and more dedicated approach.
The Simple Things
The most important aspect to remember is avoiding creating pressure for yourself. Don’t write if you feel frustrated or exhausted. On days when you feel that the creative juices aren’t flowing, simplify everything, and do some basic activities that are fun and easy.
Here’s a quick list of things that keep your brain feeling artistic and successful:
- Creating song titles. Titles often tend to be succinct and descriptive. For your songwriting sessions, don’t worry so much how you’d use the titles you create, just get something interesting written down. And let your mind wander: “Falling Down”; “Help Me Find the Way”; “Guide Line”; “Have No Fear”… that kind of thing.
- Creating chord progressions. Work quickly, and get 3- or 4-chord progressions written down. Throw in altered chords, non-diatonic chords (i.e., ones that don’t belong to the key you’re in), etc.
- Creating Lyrics. Create short lines, and don’t worry that you don’t know how they might figure into a song. “I’m walking out, not coming back…” “Hold on, keep it going, don’t forget to breathe…” Just the creation of lines like this can get your mind moving in a certain direction, and can be the germ that leads to a more complete lyric.
- Creating melodies. With your guitar or other chording instrument, strum a chord and sing a line of 4 or 5 notes moving up or down. repetition plays an important role in good melodic structure, so try repeating that line with a different chord underneath. It’s best to record your efforts in a digital recorder of some sort. You’ll find that a lot of what you write won’t be immediately useable, but everyone once in a while, a fragment will happen that has possibilities.
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When we talk about a melody-first songwriting process, we assume that we’re talking about writing a song where thinking up the melody, or at least a bit of a melody, is the first step. Then once we’ve got a good chunk of that working and sounding good, we then try to figure out what kind of chords are going to support it.
In fact, that’s not exactly the case. Any good musician (songwriter or otherwise) would find it next to impossible — and I might even say undesirable — to work on a melody without having any kind of notion what the supporting chords are. So in fact, a melody-first process means a melody and chords process.
The chorus hook is just one type of hook, and you’ll make the greatest impact if your song actually makes layers from several kinds of hook. If you’re not sure what this is all about, you need to read “Hooks and Riffs: How They Grab Attention, Make Songs Memorable, and Build Your Fan Base.” Get it separately, or as part of “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting 10-eBook Bundle.
That’s just the way we hear music. Humans are pattern seekers. When we hear melodies, we automatically group the notes together in our minds, forming possible chords as we go.
Here’s an example of what I mean. Click the play button below, and listen to the melody. You’ll notice that even though no chords have been included, you get a strong sense of implied harmony: you can easily imagine chords that might work with it:
That’s certainly not to say that you don’t have choices in what chords you ultimately choose to harmonize your melody. There are many possible choices.
How are we able to imagine chords when they aren’t there? There are many ways that chords work that we can actually imagine without those chords being present yet:
- We tend to hear chords as wanting to change on strong beats, not usually on weak beats.
- We usually like to imagine chords changing in a regular sort of way (i.e., every 2 beats or 4 beats or 8 beats, etc.)
- We typically consider the one or two melody notes that happen on the strong beats as defining what we want to hear for a chord at that moment.
- We often immediately imagine the most uncomplicated or predictable chords as a first step.
With regard to that 4th reason above, listen again to the sample melody, and you’ll notice that you probably imagined a simple I-IV-V kind of harmonization, something like this:
That’s a simple solution, and I would bet that you were imagining those chords, or something very close, when you heard the melody on its own. The chords were I-IV-V-I.
But once you know what the chords could be, you start to look around for some other solutions that might make that melody more distinctive while still supporting the melody.
For example, here’s a solution that includes tonic pedal notes — keeping the tonic note in the bass:
Here’s a version that uses some interesting chord substitutions: starting with a vi7 chord instead of I, and a ii-chord instead of IV, a iii7 chord in place of the V, and then ending on a IV7 instead of I:
The Benefits of the Melody/Chords Method
A chords first songwriting process usually means coming up with chords and backing rhythms as a first step, and then once that’s working to some degree, coming up with a melody and lyrics. There is an inherent weakness in the chords-first process, which is that melodies can be ignored and then added in, almost as a final step. This weakness can be overcome, however, and it’s the subject of my eBook “Writing a Song From a Chord Progression.”
The main benefit of the melody-chords process is that it requires you to have a melody in fairly good working order before you start experimenting with possible chords that support it.
And the reason that’s beneficial is that it places the spotlight on the part of your song that people are more likely to be able to hum and remember. Getting the melody in good shape early in the process increases the odds that you’ll wind up with a tune that’s got an interesting shape, that gets built on enticing patterns, and that listeners will want to keep returning to.
Do you know how to add chords to that melody you just thought up? “How to Harmonize a Melody” shows you how to do exactly that. It shows the secrets of harmonic rhythm, identifying the key of your melody, chord function, and more. It’s part of “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” 10-eBook Bundle.
There is a kind of melodic structure called period structure — a two-phrase melody in which the first phrase acts as a kind of “question”, and the second phrase provides an “answer”.
A simple example of this is the very familiar “Ode to Joy” theme, composed by Beethoven. You can hear that the first phrase ends in an incomplete way, needing more to make it sound finished.
This was a common structure in classical music, but you’ll find that good pop songwriters have used this so-called period structure in their songs as well. Think of the first phrase of “All My Loving” (Lennon & McCartney):
“Close your eyes and I’ll kiss you/ Tomorrow I’ll miss you/ Remember I’ll always be true/”
The second phrase gives us the exact same melody, but while the first phrase sounds incomplete due to what we call an “open cadence” — a phrase that ends on anything except a I-chord — the second phrase ends on something that sounds more complete: a I-chord:
“And then while I’m away/ I’ll write home every day/ And I’ll send all my loving to you.”
The fact that both musical phrases sound almost the same except for the very end is an important feature of period structure. The satisfying bit about period structure is actually the chord progression, because it comes to us in two parts: a first part that travels out away from the tonic chord, and then a second part that returns home:
All My Loving:
First phrase |Second phrase ii V I vi |IV ii bVII V| ii V I vi |IV V I| F#m B E C#m |A F#m D B| F#m B E C#m |A B E|
If you’re interested in trying your hand at creating a musical period as a structure for your song melodies, there are lots of ways to do it. But as usual, it’s often best to start easy. Here’s a chords-first method that you might find will give you good results:
- Create a short chord progression (anything from two to six chords in length) that ends on a V chord. Example: I IV ii V (C F Dm G)
- Repeat that chord progression, changing the ending so that it ends on a I chord. Example: I IV V I (C F G C)
- Improvise a melody that works with the first progression, allowing the last note to be longer than the others that you’ve used.
- Repeat that melody for your second progression, being mindful of changing the notes toward the end to fit the final chords of the second phrase.
If you’re looking for a more complete look at the musical period, Wikipedia’s article on the topic is a good one to read, though its examples are all from Classical music.
You’ll find that genres that benefit the most from simple, clearly designed melodies (folk, pop and country) are the ones that will make best use of period structure. One added benefit is that creating one short melodic phrase essentially gives you two, as the second phrase is basically a repeat of the first one
Though everyone has a favourite way of starting songs, I think it’s fair to say that most people will use many different processes, depending on what musical idea pops into their head at the start of a session. Some typical ways of starting:
- Setting up a percussion loop and improvise over it, using the mood of that loop to help define the kind of chords and rhythms.
- Starting with the chords, and then applying a rhythm to see what comes of it.
- Thinking of a bit of a melodic shape that sounds really interesting, and then through improvisation slowly expand on the idea and flesh out a more complete song.
All of those ideas have one thing in common: the lack of an initial meaning to what’s being created. In other words, it’s possible to start the songwriting process without actually knowing that the song is about.
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.
I’m mentioning this because many songwriters get stuck at an initial “I-don’t-know-what-to-write-about” stage. But I want to propose that it’s actually possible to get quite far into the songwriting process before you must make that decision.
Musical Meaning and Early Rock and Roll
“Travelin’ Man” (Jerry Fuller, sung by Ricky Nelson), is a song where the singer travels all over the world with the proverbial “girl in every port.” But try this experiment: try to imagine the song without a lyric at all, and now try to imagine that it’s a song about:
- going to the local dance, and seeing all your friends there;
- breaking up with your lover, and moving on;
- the need for world peace;
- a first date.
You see what I mean. Especially in the days of earlier rock and roll, meaning came from the lyric, and so a song’s meaning could be applied late in the process, even after a song was completed.
Later on, particularly starting with The Beatles, the music itself, quite apart from the lyric, offered a mood. So when you listen to “In My Life”, you pick up a sense of deep emotion and melancholy, quite apart from what’s offered by the lyric. The music is now helping to direct the meaning of the song, even before you consider the lyric.
Applying Musical Meaning
So what does this mean for the songwriter? In short, you can allow your songwriting process to help you decide what your song is going to be about. And therefore once you’ve got most of the music of your song worked out, you can then work out the lyric in a second stage of writing.
The benefit to working this way is that you’ll find the lyric will partner better with the musical meaning indicated by the musical choices you’ve made. You might find, for example, that the music sounds emotional or sad, and then you can direct your lyric choices to enhance that apparent musical meaning.
It’s up to you how far along in the songwriting process you get before you decide to work out a lyric. You might find that those beginning stages of writing will make it obvious what the mood of the song is going to be, and you can get started pretty much right away working out a lyric.
But it’s also very possible to get most of your song working as an instrumental, play it through a few times, and then work out your lyric as a final stage. Those kinds of decisions are really up to you.
But in any case, don’t let the absence of a topic or lyric keep you from getting your next song started. Let the music you improvise tell you what the song is going to be about.
Thousands of songwriters are using “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting 10-eBook Bundle” to polish their songwriting technique. Discover the secrets to writing great melodies, lyrics, chords, and more. And get a FREE copy of “Use Your Words! Developing a Lyrics-First Songwriting Process”
I’m Gary Ewer. This blog has been my labour of love since 2008. You’ll find the five most recent songwriting articles right here on this page, and if you want to browse through the more than 1500 posts in the archive, scroll to the bottom of the 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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