Written by Gary Ewer, Senior Instructor, Dalhousie University, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website.
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Songwriters know that music elicits an emotional response. This means that people are either going to love what you do, or hate it. And that’s OK, because let’s be realistic: you can’t please everybody. As a songwriter, you’ve got your own way of communicating, and that’s either connect with someone, or they’ll move on. So people disliking your music is not a sign that you’re doing something wrong. There is something, however, that could mean that you’re doing something wrong: boring people with your music.
Keep in mind that if someone dislikes your music, it will be boring to them, so just because someone is bored doesn’t mean that you’ve failed. But if almost everyone is bored with your music, that’s a failure.
The biggest cause of boredom in music involves the issue of repetition. Good songs need things repeating throughout. But music that has too much repetition can be boring.
And here’s the funny paradox: songs without repetition give the same result: boredom.
It’s a peculiar tightrope, this issue of repetition. There are large elements that people want to hear repeating. A chorus, for example. That repeating chorus, with the repeating melody and lyric, gives a strong sense of form and structure to your music.
Smaller elements also need to repeat. A short melodic hook is a good example. But so is the basic shape of your melody. For example, the verse of Michael Jackson’s “Man in the Mirror” begins with a short melodic shape (“I’m gonna make a change..”) which is repeated (“As I turn up the collar on my favorite winter coat”), and this little shape provides the melodic shape that we hear in the chorus.
Getting repetition right in a song is a challenge. Too much, and listeners get bored because they feel they’ve heard the whole song before it’s even halfway finished. And not enough leaves a listener feeling awash in a sea of notes, and the result is the same: boredom.
So how do you get the balance right? Here are some tips:
- Use shapes that almost repeat. Most hit songs, including “Man in the Mirror” use repeating shapes as opposed to repeating the exact same notes over and over. Sequencing of melodies is another good example. A sequence means that you take a melodic shape and move it up or down to a different level. Think of the verse of “Take My Breath Away” by Berlin for an example of melodic sequencing.
- Don’t repeat your verse too many times. The typical practice in pop music is to do two verses, then get to the chorus, and this should work well for you. Three or four verses before a chorus is too much, and listeners will tune out.
- If your verse uses lots of repeating notes, phrases and ideas, try to let your chorus provide something entirely new and unheard. But if you find that repetition is not a big feature of your verse, try to find ways to construct a chorus melody that uses important intervals and shapes from the verse.
- A hook is a great way to pull a song together and give a pleasant amount of repetition. Try finding a place to abandon your hook, though, so that you can give the listener a bit of relief (usually the bridge).
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