Written by Gary Ewer, Senior Instructor, Dalhousie University, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website.
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Can songwriting be guided by a set of principles? It can make you wonder, because if by principles we mean rules, it would be like saying that successful songs follow “the rules.” But successful songs have a uniqueness about them, seemingly rising above the appearance that there were rules in play during their creation. My belief is that there really are principles that describe and explain why some songs succeed and others fail. If you find that your songs are missing the mark, you could simply be violating some important principles that have evolved over time that make hit songs succeed.
It may be time to look at some basic principles of songwriting, and see how you’re doing. When I wrote “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting”, I looked at dozens of hit songs, and identified some principles that seemed to be common amongst most if not all hit songs. How do your songs measure up against this list?
- Songs without contrast risk being boring. You need to find ways to contrast loud with soft, upper with lower melodic range, one chord progression against another, and so on. Contrast is an important principle that helps songs move forward.
- In general, the energy of the end of a song should equal or exceed the energy at the beginning.
- Two chords that have a note in common will form a strong progression; and if that first chord moves up by four notes or down by five notes to reach the next chord, the progression becomes even stronger. Your songs need at least some progressions that exhibit this strong characteristic. The opposite of strong progressions is fragile ones, and your song will need at least some of those; read the next principle:
- A verse will usually tolerate more fragile progressions than a chorus; a chorus usually requires more strong progressions. A fragile progression is one that doesn’t necessarily point exclusively to one particular key, and they can be very useful in verses.
- There should be a perceivable and somewhat predictable pattern to the planning of chord changes. Listeners need to hear progressions repeat, and more to the point, listeners can get confused by songs that use too many chords.
- The shape of a melody must be planned with vocal range, harmony and text in mind. No aspect of a song lives in isolation; all elements relate to each other, and it’s something listeners need to perceive on some level.
- A verse can use text that is narrative and inconclusive, with predominantly fragile chord progressions; b) a chorus can use text that is reflective and draws conclusions, and use stronger chord progressions.
- The presence of the key note (tonic note) will strengthen the underlying structure of a melody. Choruses can and should feature the tonic note in its melody more than verses.
- The latter half of verses will often be pitched higher than the first half; chorus notes are often higher than verse notes. This relates to the general issue of song momentum. Moving melodies upward creates an important sense of forward motion.
- A song’s hook must be short and memorable.
- Adding a hook to a bad song gives you a bad song with a hook. Hooks are important, but a bad song needs to be fixed, and adding a hook simply tries to mask a song’s underlying problems.
If any of those principles represent areas you need to learn more about, read “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting”. It’s part of a 6 e-book bundle that will help get you writing the songs you’ve always wanted to write.
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