Written by Gary Ewer, Senior Instructor, Dalhousie University, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website.
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Weirdness in songwriting, when it’s done simply for the sake of being weird, usually doesn’t work. It can come off as sounding pretentious, and of being musically condescending. But of course, it all depends on your definition of “weird.” In the songwriting world, the opposite of weird is “predictable,” which also often means “unimaginative.” Ideally, you’ll want to be writing something that the majority of your target audience can understand on some level without being too predictable. So how do you balance weird and predictable successfully?
If it’s hit songs you’re trying to write, predictability is your friend. If you give a listen to the hit songs of any given era, they all have a similar stylistic approach. It’s the style of the day, and straying too far from those typical beats, instruments, vocal style and chord choices will leave you with a smaller audience.
But if you want to give the listener something new and refreshing, something that helps you stand out from the rest, it’s innovation you want, and yes, perhaps a bit of weirdness.
But if weirdness is what’s going to leave you with a smaller audience, how do you build an audience base by being innovative?
If you compare a song to a journey, the travelers you take on that journey with you are going to be a bit confused and put off if the journey goes majorly in a direction they weren’t expecting. A little bit of a diversion is OK, but a bizarre sidetrack that has no perceivable purpose or resolution can leave the listener feeling like they were dropped off in a strange land when all they wanted was to get to New York.
Historically, there are groups that have made their reputations on being a bit musically weird, a bit outside what mainstream audiences are looking for. The group Yes, from their early 70s until later in that decade, is a brilliant example of the power of being innovative and non-mainstream. Or Gentle Giant from the same era (give “Funny Ways” from their “Gentle Giant” album of 1970 a listen for a great example.)
But those songs were never hits, and weren’t intended to be. They were musical compositions, using the rock language, and, speaking personally, were a strong part of my own musical upbringing and influence.
Unpredictability, weirdness, creativity – these are still the qualities I look for in good music. So I find myself ever turning to songwriters and composers that challenge my imagination and take me on journeys that stimulate my mind.
If you want to reach into the world of the weird, but you’re afraid of losing your loyal audience, take a page from The Beatles’ life story and move gradually in that direction. Once The Beatles had built an audience of trusting followers, they were able to gradually move toward a more creative output, and their audience, as we know, increased all the more.
Listeners can accept a song that they don’t understand if you follow it with something they do. If you’re putting a playlist of your tunes together, balance predictable tunes with something more creative, and your audience will grow.
Who are your favourite “weird” musicians or groups? Share them with us by adding your comments below.
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