Getting Away With Being Weird

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer, Senior Instructor, Dalhousie University, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website.
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Weird & angry singer/songwriterWeirdness 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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  1. Cool post.

    I think my favorite “weirdos” are Bowie, The Beatles, Kate Bush, Tori Amos (Scarlet’s Walk specifically), Cake, Prince and The Almighty Violent Femmes!

    One thought to add to this: I think weird matters, to be sure, but in hit songs, true weirdness is, well, weird. I mean, you almost never hear it. Instead, you hear weirdness within a larger more normal context. For example, Prince’s Cream is a weird song (no bass, etc.) but it’s just a blues. Even his song When Doves Cry is pretty normal from a chord standpoint, but all the variations (again, no bass, the dry vocal) make it seem weirder than it really is.


    • Thanks for writing, Jeff. Kate Bush is a particular favourite of mine as well. Your comment about weirdness in music and “context” is very true. It sometimes surprises me that a tune will come across as sounding a bit off the beaten track, and then when you actually analyze what’s going on, it’s really only one small element that’s a bit innovative. You make a very good point.

      Thanks again, Jeff.

  2. Pingback: Creativity for Songwriters « Songwright

  3. Great post… its funny though, bands can be very conservative in their musical choices but their videos are weird as heck and the fans love it. Most fans can’t stomach weird music as much as they can weird videos . Hmm…
    My favs for their unique compositions:
    Architecture in Helsinki
    Yeasayer (great balance of weird and pop)

    • Very true, what you say about videos. I suspect people connect with the visual more easily than with the aural.

      Thanks for the suggestions… I’ll give them a listen.

      • Yeah good point. Perhaps w/ visual a fan can understand more readily what is going on… music is perhaps more difficult.

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