Limiting The Number of Ideas Within a Song

Singer/ SongwriterIf you were to give a speech, you’d first establish what you should be talking about, limiting yourself to a small number of related ideas. You’d then present those ideas to an audience. Once you’ve presented the ideas in general terms, you’d develop and expand on them in (hopefully) interesting ways. You’d likely then finish up by doing some sort of a summation. Songwriting is not much different. One of the biggest problems I see when analyzing music by newbie writers is lack of a clear motivic idea.

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And this lack usually means that there are too many ideas. The song seems to go in many different directions without an obvious goal. It’s as if you sat down to listen to a speech, and all you got was a disorganized, rambling stream-of-consciousness-type muttering that seemed to go nowhere.

Songs need to pull you forward, and this forward momentum can happen in many different ways. For example, lyrics will add forward momentum if the verses pose questions and set up situations, with the chorus lyric answering those questions and offering an emotional response.

Instrumentation can contribute to momentum if instruments are added along the way, or if instruments move into a higher range as the song progresses.

But song energy can be undermined if there isn’t an obvious musical fragment, idea or construct for the listener to focus on. That fragment is something we call a motif, and it’s important that a song have something that repeats enough to be enticing, but not so much that it bores.

Songs will suffer if there is no identifiable motif, but in my experience, there’s an even bigger problem out there with novice writers: songs that seem to include too many ideas.

There may be a fear with songwriters that repetition will bore a listener. This is not true. In fact, the repeating idea is a vital part of successful songs, and has been a crucial element in musical composition for centuries.

Just listen to any successful hit song, and you’ll hear that repetition is a major component. Every time a chorus lyric repeats, you’re experiencing repetition in the best sense of the word. Even down to the basic beat delivered by the drummer, repetition pulls the listener in and keeps them listening.

But beyond that, your song will benefit from the establishment and development of one or two basic musical ideas that repeat throughout. A typical song hook is an example of this idea: a short, catchy musical fragment that you keep humming long after the song is finished.

And beyond the hook, your song needs some kind of musical element that repeats and develops. And that repetition may not be noticeable at first, but helps pull the whole song together. A basic background rhythm might be a good example.

For example, the Beatle’s hit “I Want to Hold Your Hand” uses melodic shapes throughout that are made up of descending scale passages. Sing the song to yourself, and you’ll realize how many musical phrases begin on a high note and descend by step, or start low, quickly ascend, and then descend by step. That is a motif. It’s not a motif that would be immediately noticeable, but it’s an important construct of the song. It helps pull everything together.

And once you’ve got an idea like that, you need to be consistent with it, and use it throughout. Motifs, coupled with a catchy hook, can give your song an important sense of focus and momentum, and pull listeners in.

-Written by Gary Ewer, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting”
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