The Good and the Bad of Formula Writing

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website.
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A song with no repeating elements will usually be a song that fails. Repetition is a crucial part of a song’s success. When elements repeat (chord progressions, melodic shapes, rhythms, etc.), the listener feels that they understand the song. Songwriting formulas are a kind of repetition: trying to repeat the success of another song. But be careful: formulas can bite back.

Musical Staff and ClefA songwriting formula works by taking the success of one song, and applying its structural elements to a new song. It usually refers to overall form, and can also apply to the actual way the song was constructed.

For example, you may have had great success with a previous song by starting with a percussion intro, gradually layering harmonic instrumental tracks, then moving to the verse, chorus, an instrumental bridge, finishing with several repetitions of the chorus. You may be so impressed with that method and its results that you decide to use it as your standard way to build songs.

In this way, you are using repetition as an artistic crutch, a “security blanket,” if you will. You know that it’s worked before, so it should work again.

The news isn’t all bad. Most successful songwriters have “a way” that they compose, and certainly have melodic shapes and harmonies that they favour. This is why, for example, one can listen to the music of Beethoven and tell that it’s Beethoven, even if they haven’t heard that specific piece before. Yes, even Beethoven used elements that could for him be called “formulaic.”

But it is very difficult to build on another song’s accomplishments. Listeners, whether they overtly know it or not, trust that there is a healthy quantity of originality in the song they’re listening to. Once they start to be able to predict what your song is going to do, they tend to lose respect for the song. And the writer(s).

And the worst part of it is that they feel the songwriter has reached an artistic limit.

There is much to admire about the music of Lennon and McCartney, and possibly the most admirable quality was their reluctance to write music that adhered to a formula. Every Beatles tune (including, by the way, the fantastic contributions of George Harrison) seemed to come from a different place. Each song was astonishingly original.

If you find that you seem to keep writing the same song over and over, you can inject freshness by ensuring that you don’t compose each one the same way. If you like to write melodies first, try laying down a rhythmic track first. Or develop a lyric first. Or even better, find a songwriting partner who has a completely different take on the art of musical composition.

So repetition is good, certainly when it exists within a song: melodic shapes need to repeat, or listeners feel lost. Chord progressions need to repeat, because that kind of predictability is good. Even lyrics need to return, as in choruses, because it gives the overall motive for writing the song in the first place.

But be careful with the kind of repetition that comes from formulas. They can be the kiss of death for the artistic process.

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