Written by Gary Ewer, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website.
Good songs usually present a balance of unique ideas with tried and true techniques. Usually, you’ll want that balanced in favour of the predictability that tried and true offers. A song that is too unique will often leave listeners confused, and boredom quickly sets in. However, the opposite situation of too much predictability also causes boredom. What’s a songwriter to do?
Getting a song out to the listener actually requires two important steps. Step one relates to song structure: you need to write a song that is architecturally strong. Step two relates to song presentation: the way you perform the song can often have as much or more impact on the listener’s reaction as the solidness of the songwriting technique.
Good songs exhibit a rather nebulous quality called momentum. That attribute refers to song energy. Energy keeps listeners interested because when energy slowly builds, it causes the listener to stay with it in much the same way that a good drama keeps people watching by building to a dramatic climax. Good lyrics have a way of forcing the audience to keep listening for “what happens next”. Good chords present tension and resolution at all the right moments in a manner that keeps listeners hooked. Good melodic development, hand-in-hand with instrumentation, usually provides a contour that works with lyric and harmony to entice the listener forward.
Boredom sets in when one of those elements is neglected. Why songs fail can be a complicated issue of one element simply not working well with another. There are things you can do to ensure that your song keeps listeners hooked. Here are some of the regular suspects that keep listeners from connecting positively with your song. Some of the factors relate to song structure, while others relate to the final presentation:
- Chord Progression with Too Many Chords. A chord progression takes the listener on a journey, and too many chords is like trying to see too many landmarks on that journey. Your brain just can’t process it all. If you find that you’re using 16, 17 or more chords in your song, try to scale back.
- Chord Progressions that Don’t Offer Resolution. A chord progression is a bit like breathing in the sense that a breath inward causes a “tension” that is resolved with a breath outward. Success is when there is a balance of tension (breathing inward) and release (breathing outward). Good chord progressions offer the sonic version of the same thing. Chord progressions will have moments of tension (dominant chords, suspensions, etc.) and then release (tonic chords or other harmonic resolutions). Check your chord progressions to be sure that moments of creative license are balanced with a good dose of predictable resolution.
- Instrumentations That are Boring. If your song structure is strong, but you then present the song with a mindless strumming guitar from beginning to end, you could be short-changing your song’s effectiveness. Look for ways to involve other instruments. It’s amazing what simply adding a few french horn notes, a flute solo, or using a different chording instrument can do to the success of your song.
- Melodies That are Too Flat. Some songs, if the lyric is making an important social or political comment, will do nicely with a flat melody. But if your melody is boring you, it will likely bore the listener as well. Find ways to incorporate leaps into the melodic structure, and do it at moments that support emotion-laden words in your text.
- Songs That are Too Slow or Too Fast. Experiment with the tempo of your song. You’ll see that tempo has a major impact in the overall effect of your song’s presentation. If it feels that the energy of the song never rises enough to support the lyric, try a faster tempo. If the whole thing sounds energetic but frantic, slow it down just a touch.
- Songs That are in the Wrong Key. Most singers like to place a song somewhat comfortably within the outer boundaries of their vocal range. But if a lyric is intense, you may be missing an opportunity to support that lyric with the proper intensity in the voice. (Peter Gabriel singing the end of “Supper’s Ready” on their Foxtrot album is a perfect example of how a high tessitura can add to the effectiveness of the voice.
So once you’ve written your song, your job is just beginning. Now you need to ensure that the listener gets the full impact of what you’re tying to communicate to the world.
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