In the long run, it’s probably more important to know why a song fails than why a song succeeds. When a song is great, your most important job is to move on and get the next tune happening.
But when a song fails, you could be doomed to repeat that failure — if it’s failing because of some missing bit of knowledge. Practicing your songwriting skills is important, of course, but you could inadvertently be reinforcing errors that you’ve been making for years.
So when you feel that a song you’ve written just doesn’t seem to work, it’s worth the time to stop, look at it objectively and figure out why.
There could be any number of reasons why a song fails, but in my experience, 90% of bad ones will fail for one or more of these reasons:
- The form of the song is confusing. You need a chorus that really pops, but your chorus is lacklustre; your verse lyric should tell you what’s going on, but instead you’ve got it doing what the chorus usually does: emoting instead of describing; and so on. These are elements of form that are crucial to get right, and is part of the musical momentum of a song.
- The melody lacks shape. An untrained audience may think that a song melody meanders up and down in a kind of random way, but good melodies make great use of repetition, both exact and approximate, and those patterns are crucial to a song’s ability to be easily sung and remembered.
- The chords seem to wander aimlessly. A good chord progression targets the tonic chord — the “home” chord represented by the song’s key — and so most good progressions will move away from and then back to that all-important tonic chord. Audiences need that sense of direction.
- Strong and fragile chord progressions are used haphazardly. A strong progression unambiguously targets the tonic chord, while a fragile one might do a bit of pleasant wandering and include some altered chords or ones that don’t necessarily belong to the song’s key. In most songs, a fragile progression works best in a verse or bridge, while a chorus is benefited by short, strong progressions.
- Individual song elements are working at cross-purposes with each other. An example of this might be a chorus melody which soars upward, trying to build excitement, but the lyrics are low-key and unemotional. It’s important to look at every component of a song at any one moment, and find ways to have all of those components supporting each other.
- You’re relying on a hook to save a bad song. You can get fooled into thinking that the hook is everything, but it’s just one part of a successful song. When you’ve got a good hook, you can get lazy and ignore other aspects, such as god song structure, performance quality, production, and then aspects such as melody and lyric.
- You’re waiting for inspiration. You’d be surprised how much of a difference just getting going makes. If you’re sitting around waiting to feel inspired, you are wasting a lot of time. Make a regular writing schedule for yourself, and then stick to it, no matter how uninspired you feel. Believe it or not, hearing your own music is one of the best sources of inspiration you can find!
Thousands of songwriters are using “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” ebook bundle to improve their songwriting technique. If you’re looking for excellence and consistency, get the bundle today. Comes with a FREE COPY of “Use Your Words! Developing a Lyrics-First Songwriting Process.”
I’ve just completed and uploaded a new video to my YouTube channel, called “5 Characteristics of Great Song Lyrics.” Please click here to watch.
If you take a look at the songs that make it to the “best songs ever” kinds of lists, most of them are there because of the quality of their lyrics, at least in most part. But many songwriters struggle with lyrics.
A great lyric is tricky because while novels allow for tens of thousands of words (or more) to describe a story, you need to offer a complete lyric in a hundred words or so. That takes a particular kind of skill that needs to be practiced and honed.
But if lyrics have always been tricky for you, where do you start? In this video we take a look at five of the most important characteristics of great song lyrics. It will give you that all-important starting point for putting lyrics front and centre in your songwriting process.
If you’re ready to study — to learn why a great song succeeds — and then to apply those discoveries to your own songs, you’re ready for “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting 10-eBook Bundle.”
When I’m buying a real, “hold it in your hand” book from a bookstore, particularly if it’s fiction, I have a confession to make: I am highly influenced by two things:
- the cover design, and
- the first paragraph.
I wonder if it makes me seem shallow, but so be it. I notice that I just simply turn away from books that have covers that I have a negative reaction to, and I’m less likely to give that book a chance. And I seem to do that without realizing it at the time.
If you’re trying to develop a lyrics-first songwriting process, but aren’t having much luck, give this ebook a read: “Use Your Words! Developing a Lyrics-First Songwriting Process.” Right now, it’s FREE with your purchase of “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting 10-eBook Bundle.”
When I look inside a book, that first paragraph needs show me something immediately good, and indicate what I can expect from the rest of the book. If I’m turned off, confused or otherwise disinterested in that first paragraph, it goes back up on the shelf and I keep looking.
That’s neither right nor wrong, it’s simply a subconscious reaction.
The reaction you have to your first encounter with a book is similar to people’s reaction to the first few seconds of your new song, and it’s particularly true of music in the pop genres. Fans of classical or jazz tend to be a bit more patient and will give music a longer period of time to impress them.
But if pop music is your genre, you only get a few seconds to seal the deal and gain a fan.
This is where objective listening becomes crucial, and particularly if you are producing your own song. You need to be able to listen to your song as if it were written by someone else, and ask yourself:
- Does this song grab my attention right from the start?
- Does the length of the intro seem balanced properly with regard to the length of the song? (i.e., it should usually get to the first words of your verse by the 15th second or so.)
- Does it get to the chorus before the 1-minute mark?
- Does the first line of lyric make me interested in whatever else is going to follow?
- Is the instrumentation interesting, and is it well-played/produced?
There’s probably more you could ask yourself, but the point is clear: a good song needs to get going right away, and not run the risk of boring or confusing your listener before they get to the chorus hook.
In the pop music world, immediacy of effect is often the difference between failure and success.
“The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” 10- eBook bundle comes with a free copy of “Use Your Words!” Learn how to put lyrics front and centre in your songwriting process. It’s FREE when you buy “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting 10-eBook Bundle ($37 USD)
You’ll sometimes see discussions amongst songwriters on the topic of how many notes a good melody should have. In other words, how much of a range, when you compare the lowest notes to the highest ones, should there be when considering good melodies?
History tells us that there’s no good answer to that question, because some famous melodies will span an octave and a half (“You’ll Never Walk Alone”), while others will stay within 4 or 5 notes (“The Times They Are A-Changin’.”)
Writing a killer melody means writing something that partners well with lyrics and chords, among other song components. Chapter 5 of “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” shows you how that works. Get it separately, or as part of the 10-eBook Bundle.
The discussion might get you thinking about what we actually mean by a good melody, because some songs may not be about that gorgeous (or powerful or notable) melody, but rather the general feel of the song (“Got To Give It Up“).
Or maybe, along with a great melody, the lyric fights for top billing: “What a Wonderful World.”
A great melody probably means :
- We love to sing it.
- We find it easy to remember.
- We feel that it partners well with the lyric.
- We note how well it’s supported by the chords.
- It stands out as one of the best features of the song.
You’d be forgiven for believing that there’s a certain kind of magic involved in the writing of a good melody. But one of the most important characteristics — the one that makes it less about magic and more about structure — relates to patterns.
The actual notes you use in a melody aren’t nearly as important as the patterns you make with those notes. Patterns imply repetition, and so creating a cell of notes that gets repeated is crucial to a successful melody.
That cell might repeat almost exactly, as we hear in “Born In the U.S.A.”, but it might merely be approximate repetition involving different pitches, the kind we hear in the verse of “What a Wonderful World.”
Without patterns, melodies have no power. They aren’t fun to sing, aren’t easy to sing, and are practically impossible to remember.
The best exercise a songwriter can do to improve melody-writing ability is to listen to great songs and make note of:
- when the melodies use fragments that repeat note-for-note, as you’ll notice in much of the melodic structure of Calvin Harris’s “We Found Love“;
- when the melodies use fragments that repeat in an approximate way, like we hear in “California Dreamin'” (John Phillips, Michelle Phillips);
The next time you find yourself in a discussion about how many notes make a good melody, you’re probably discussing the wrong thing. It has little to do with number of notes, but much more to do with how you organize them.
Got songwriting problems, but don’t know where to begin diagnosing the issues? “Fix Your Songwriting Problems – NOW!” describes 7 of the most common songwriting problems, and offers solutions you can try right away. Get it separately, or as part of “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting 10-eBook Bundle”
There is a kind of musical “muscle memory,” where we keep relying on the same musical ideas as we write our songs. Practically every songwriter is familiar with it: similar sounding melodies, the same (or almost the same) chord progressions, the same kinds of lyrics, and so on.
A bit of similarity between songs you write shouldn’t surprise you, or even necessarily worry you. Every songwriter has a style that is usually recognizable, and as long as it’s not overly similar, it’s usually OK. Beethoven sounds like Beethoven, after all, so he was also guilty of choosing similar-sounding musical ideas, at least to a point.
If you like creating melodies, but find that it’s hard to add chords to it, you need to read “How to Harmonize a Melody.” This eBook comes complete with sound samples and step-by-step guides to help you.
Chord progressions are particularly susceptible to locking us into a songwriting style that sounds the same from song to song. If you find that your fingers are always moving to D-A-Bm-G, or D-G-A7-D, or something similar, you’ll find that your melodies will also start to have a worrying sameness about them.
The obvious solution is to find other chord progressions, but it’s not always so easy to do this. Not that other progressions are hard to find; it’s more that the mood of a song is strongly dictated by the chords you use, and so it’s hard to simply take another progression if it’s not giving you the mood you want.
So always choosing the same — or very similar — chord progressions exposes a very real problem, which is that it’s quite likely that your songs are exhibiting melodies, lyrics and possibly even song topics that are similar from one song to the next.
The easiest solution to this is to dig into books of chord progressions, look for ones that exhibit the kind of mood you want, and then either use them or modify them to suit your song.
Identifying the kind of mood you want for your song is your first task. If you find yourself always choosing D-A-Bm-G, there’s a reason for that: it starts with a bright, hopeful sound (D-A), then moves to something a bit more melancholic, more introspective (Bm-G). So you’ve chosen a progression that’s a kind of universal one, and that’s why it’s so popular.
If your song lyric indicates a mood that is universal — a bit happy, a bit sad — you’ve got options, as long as you mix major with minor the way D-A-Bm-G does:
- D Em G A (I ii IV V)
- D Bm C G (I vi bVII IV)
- D D/F# G Gm (I I6 IV iv)
- D C G/B G (I bVII IV6 IV)
- D F#m G G/B (I iii IV IV6)
As y0u play through these progressions, you become aware of which parts sound bright and which parts sound a bit darker.
Now notice what happens when you:
- Experiment with a faster or slower tempo.
- Experiment with busier or more relaxed accompanying rhythms.
- Experiment with higher or lower voicings.
- Experiment with thicker or thinner chords.
- Experiment with different time signatures.
So even with these 5 very similar progressions, you actually have a multitude of presentations that give you literally dozens of different sounds, different approaches and different uses.
Once you’ve got chords you like, you now need to experiment with melodic shapes and ranges. Try higher ones, lower ones, melodies that move from high to low and back again (“U-shaped”), or ones that move from low to high and back down (“inverted-U”).
But if these chords sound a bit too much like ones you’ve used in the past, find new ones. You can either create them yourself by being aware of the balance between major and minor and how that affects mood, or you can simply dive into your chord progression collections. (“The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” 10-eBook Bundle contains several chord progression eBooks you’ll find helpful.)
As you write, be mindful of the songs you’ve written recently, as you may have to actively work to have your new song melody sound different. Don’t follow the patterns you developed for your previous songs. Break out, try something new, be as unique as you can.
“Fix Your Songwriting Problems – NOW!” shows you the most common songwriting mistakes that practically every songwriter has made at some point, with solutions you can apply to fix those problems. Get it separately, or as part of “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” 10-eBook Bundle.
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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