Written by Gary Ewer, Senior Instructor, Dalhousie University, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website.
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No songwriter wants to be writing tunes that are easily categorized. Most would rather have someone say, “Gee, you never know what to expect next with this writer!” There should be a bit of fear of songwriting formulas, if only for that reason. Sticking to a formula can make your music too predictable. Here’s some advice for adding a bit of healthy unpredictability to your music.
Keep in mind that every song needs some measure of predictability. To have nothing predictable can make songs sound disorganized or cluttered.
There is a balance, therefore, that makes for an ideal song. Most songwriters are either the kind that want to write songs that appeal to as many people as possible, or are the kind that try to make their songs true works of art, ones that may or may not immediately attract a solid listenership.
The first scenario applies to you if you’re hoping to write a hit song (i.e., you want to appeal to the greatest cross section of the public). You’ll want to have that balance considerably leaning toward the predictable, with a few innovative elements.
If, however, your compositional style is a bit more progressive (late Beatles, early Yes, Genesis, or the like), you’ll want to incorporate more of an individualistic approach, one that pushes that balance more toward the innovative.
But no matter what kind of songwriter you are, there is a need for creativity. And whether you’re trying to appeal to listeners’ tastes first, or appeal to your own tastes first, creativity needs to be a crucial element.
So how can you ensure that everything you write feels somehow fresh and unique? Here’s the simple solution: never start two consecutive songs the same way.
If your musical instincts tell you to always start a song by developing a catchy chord progression, you’re going to find that your songs have an annoying sameness about them.
If you start always with the melody, your songs run the risk of feeling a bit disorganized as the lyric may or may not hit key notes in that melody.
My advice is to never start the next song the same way as the last one. Always consider changing your approach, even if it’s an approach you aren’t comfortable with.
The reasoning is this: if you’re going for a walk, how do you ensure that you don’t simply repeat the elements of the last walk you took? Start by going in a different direction.
Apply that analogy to songwriting, and you’ll love the result. It’s the first steps you take as a songwriter in that next song that often will determine how the song transpires from there.
And hand-in-hand with this advice is my constant suggestion to always listen to the music of others. To me, the best songwriters I know are the ones who are talking about other people’s music more than they talk about their own. Every time you listen to someone else’s music, your mind opens up a tiny bit more, and the next song you write benefits from that crucial influence.
Gary Ewer is the author of “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting”, and five other songwriting e-books. Read about those e-books here.