Beyoncé’s latest hit single, “Break My Soul” (written by Beyoncé, Tricky Stewart, The-Dream, et al) is currently at the top of the Billboard Hot 100. Every hit song balances standard fundamentals of songwriting with something unique and innovative. So let’s take a look at three songwriting innovations that set “Break My Soul” apart and make it the hit it’s become.
1. The Static Chord Progression
“Break My Soul” isn’t really a one-chord song, as we get slight touches of the iv-chord in the verses, but they’re fleeting, and because the iv-chord shares most of its notes with the i-chord, the iv-chords fly in and out under the radar. The first time you hear a meaningful chord change in “Break My Soul” we’re actually past the 3-minute mark.
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But of course, “Break My Soul” isn’t the first song that spends most of its time around the tonic chord. “American Woman” (The Guess Who), and “Within You Without You” (George Harrison) are other notable examples.
For a one-chord song to work, you’ve got to think about musical momentum: what makes a one-chord song feel like it’s moving forward? Other than, of course, the rhythmic groove, there’s also a little-noticed feature of the melody…
2. Starting the Melody On the Seventh Note of Your Key
For whatever key you choose, it’s likely that you’re going to start your melody on one of the three notes that represent the first chord. So for a song in G# minor, you’d expect that the common choice for a starting note would be either G#, B or D#.
“Break My Soul” does something a lot less common: starting on the seventh note of the chord: F# over a G#m chord.
There are other songs that do this: Rush’s “Tom Sawyer” does the same thing, starting on the note D over an Em chord. So what does that do for a melody? And does it have anything to do with musical momentum and forward energy of a song?
The seventh note sits somewhat precariously over the triad underneath. There’s a strong sense of foundation that comes from a melody that starts on the tonic note: there’s almost no musical “need” for that melody to move anywhere. Starting a melody on the third or the fifth note is a great way to start, because you’ve got the ability to move to any other note, and the song’s sense of momentum is easily manipulated depending on which way the melody moves after that.
But starting on the seventh note? Musically speaking, it’s a bit like standing on the tip of a pin: the melody wants to move. In “Break My Soul”, however, the melodic fragment that comes from that start on the seventh note (“You won’t break my soul…”) keeps repeating to the point where the need to move diminishes as it locks in powerfully to the rhythmic groove. Starting on the seventh note, though, still achieves the main goal: keep people listening to hear what happens next.
3. The Relevance of the Lyric
It may seem strange for me to mention the writing of a lyric that’s relevant to the listeners as being an innovation. Surely we don’t need to emphasize that having lyrics that relate to your audience’s individual experiences is a crucial part of any good song.
But this song speaks to us (and particularly younger audiences) in a more direct way. Most song lyrics are, at least for the generation they’re written in, timeless (that lyric you wrote about the party you went to could have happened at any time, in any generation), but this lyric would not have happened had we not just been through a global pandemic, so it’s not just relevant, it’s personal and points to a time: our time here in 2022.
It’s a lyric that reminds us that the pandemic didn’t just affect us physically — it affected us socially, and changed the way we think and do things.
(Good at night) and we back outside
You said you outside, but you ain’t that outside
Worldwide, hoodie with the mask outside
In case you forgot how we act outside…
And though it uses a difficult circumstance as its backdrop, it’s a hopeful and empowering lyric:
I done found me a new foundation, yeah
Shaking my new salvation
And I’ma build my own foundation, yeah
The success of “Break My Soul” is a reminder that most of the best songs of any generation represent a mixture of solid songwriting principles with a touch of uniqueness that sets them apart from every other song out there.
And if you don’t look for and use those moments of innovation for your own songs, you’re just adding to the background noise.
A bridge is an optional section of a song that usually happens either:
- …after the second chorus in songs that use the verse-chorus format, or
- …after the second verse in songs that don’t use a chorus (verse only, or verse-refrain).
Jack Johnson’s song “Banana Pancakes” is a great example of use of a bridge in a verse-chorus song. After the second chorus (with a short extension), you’ll hear the bridge start at 1’43”. It begins on a ii-chord (Am) — a minor choice, which contrasts nicely with the original key of G major. The end of the bridge connects to a third verse at 2’16”.
There are several reasons that a song might use a bridge. In the case of these Beatles songs, the reason is that there’s no chorus to help provide a musical contrast. So the bridge keeps the verse from wearing out its welcome.
A bridge section is an important part of a song’s formal design, and form partners up with other aspects of good songwriting. That’s all dealt with in Chapter 3 of “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” eBook. Get it separately, or as part of the 10-eBook Bundle.
But one of the most common ways that a bridge can be helpful is if the verse and chorus are a bit too unadventurous: their melodies are either 1) somewhat restricted in range, or 2) repetitious.
Verses and (especially) choruses that feature a short, repeated hook, could very much benefit from adding a bridge. This is especially true if:
- the bridge takes the song in a new direction with regard to key or chord choice.
- the bridge offers a new sort of mood that contrasts with the mood generated by the verse and chorus.
A hook is essential in most pop songs, but there’s a danger of it becoming too repetitious, and listeners automatically look for something new and interesting, and that’s where a well-written bridge can be exactly what the song needs.
Remember that a bridge has an important role with regard to lyrics, and it’s this: a bridge lyric (especially if the bridge is followed by chorus repeats which ends the song) is the last new lyric listeners will hear, so you’ve got to craft your lyric in such a way that the bridge lyric finishes whatever you started in your verse and chorus.
If you want to know if your song would benefit from adding a bridge, try this: Let’s assume you’ve written a song in a major key. Find the vi-chord in your key. (For example, if your song is primarily built around the C chord, find the sixth note in C major — A — and play a minor chord.)
Now, sing your song, and after you’ve gotten through the second chorus (or second verse in verse-only formats), strum an Am chord. You’ll either find it to be a welcome chord, in which a bridge might be a good choice, or it will sound a bit intrusive, in which case a bridge may just make your song sound cluttered.
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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.
“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.
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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“The Essential Secrets of Songwriting 10-eBook Bundle” comes with an excellent Study Guide that’s meant to get your songwriting moving in the right direction. Also comes with a FREE eBook, “Use Your Words! Developing a Lyrics-First Songwriting Process.”
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.
The best songwriters are best because of the power of the words they use. Read “Use Your Words! Developing a Lyrics-First Songwriting Process” in order to become a better lyricist. It’s a FREE add-on to “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting 10-eBook Bundle.”
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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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