Written by Gary Ewer, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website.
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As a hit songwriter, your most important goal is to write songs that keep people humming. Without that crucial something that grabs the listener, your song will get ignored quicker than you can say, “Where’s my plaid suit?” Boredom is actually an important audience reaction to study, because if you don’t know what’s boring about your songs, you’re doomed to keep writing them.
There are two main causes of listener boredom, and quite surprisingly, they happen to be opposite conditions: too much innovation, or too much predictability.
Excessive originality can leave your listeners confused and distracted. Here are three of the most common songwriting problems that come under the category of “too innovative”, and will leave your listeners bored:
- A chord progression that’s too distinctive. Innovative progressions can work well, as long as they’re heard as modifications of standard progressions. Random chords may seem like a way to innovate, but most of the time, they just confuse people.
- A song with a complicated form. Form relates to the order of events in your song. Innovative forms can be interesting, and can work well, but even the most innovative of songs needs a structure that is understandable.
- A melody that lacks repeating figures. Trying to innovate with your melody may result in something that’s hard for most people to sing. Innovation in melody often means a succession of notes that lack obvious direction. It’s a funny thing, but people will relate more to songs they think they can sing, even if it’s just in the shower.
Now, if you want to know what constitutes “too predictable”, simply reverse the problems listed above. A song with a I-IV-V-I progression that repeats incessantly will bore your listeners. If every song you ever write is verse-chorus-bridge format, your audience will soon take a hike: they’ve heard it all before. And if your latest melody sounds like all the other ones you’ve written, don’t expect listeners to scream for more of the same.
So the best songwriters out there are indeed the ones who innovate, but who do so by taking what’s popular at the time, and perhaps slightly pushing the envelope. I love the Beach Boys’ album “Pet Sounds” because of its innovative approach to songwriting, instrumentation and formal construction. But innovation doesn’t necessarily mean “weird”. “Pet Sounds” gives the listener something a little bit unpredictable while staying satisfyingly within the world of pop music.
So the lesson for songwriters: consider innovation to be a characteristic that you apply to a song idea. If you simply set out to “write something weird” for the sake of sounding different from all the rest, your audience will probably abandon you. And always remember: in the balance between predictable and innovative, predictable (almost) always wins.
Gary Ewer is the author of “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting”. Read more about these songwriting e-books.