In Songwriting, What is a Strong Foundation?

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GuitaristOne of the problems that songwriters often unwittingly face comes from being so intimately connected with the song they’re working on. Because we tend to focus on the parts of a song that are giving us the most grief, we can lose sight of some of the more important elements of basic song construction. For example, if you’re focused on a melodic problem, you might disregard the more important issue of a song’s underlying structural foundation.

Most buildings look different, but if you could get down below ground level and look at their foundations, you’d see that there’s a similarity there, no matter what they look like above ground.

A solid foundation makes certain that a building with an abstract design won’t fall down in a stiff breeze.

Songs also need a solid foundation, but what is it? And is one song’s foundation likely to be the same as another song’s foundation?

For the most part, the answer is yes. In most of the genres that songwriters explore (pop, country, folk being the most popular) there are certain aspects of basic song construction (i.e., foundation) that are in common with all songs, no matter what they actually sound like:

  1. The Time Factor. Most songs are a musical journey that will last from 3 to 5 minutes.
  2. The Harmonic Factor. Most songs work to emphasize one chord as the tonic chord.

You can take two songs that seem to be as different from each other as two songs can be, and yet those two foundational aspects will be the same.

The writers of “Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polkadot Bikini” had the same musical task as the writers of “Smoke on the Water”: how to create a musical event that doesn’t last longer than about 5 minutes, and that feels harmonically satisfying. Those two elements are foundational.

Above that foundation, those two songs display melodies that are radically different, lyrics that come from two different worlds, and a basic feel that comes from two different universes. But the underlying structure is more or less identical.

The rest of the difference between those two songs can be accounted for by instrumentation and performance style.

The time factor is usually the easy part. It can be pretty obvious when a song is not working because of time issues. Sometimes the intro is too long, or it takes too long to get to the chorus, or perhaps the bridge is too long and wanders too much.

More problems come from writers who don’t have a firm enough grasp of the song’s harmonic foundation. When harmonies don’t work, the entire song becomes a failure. With a weak harmonic foundation, it doesn’t matter how clever your lyric is, or how beautiful your melody is. You’ve just built your house on sand, and it’s going to fall down.

All you need to remember is this: when your song is finished, one chord needs to win out as the most important chord of the song. This chord is the tonic chord, and all progressions need to point to it. Verse progressions can be vague (i.e., “fragile”), but chorus progressions need to finally focus in on the tonic chord as being supreme over all other chords.

Here are some examples of verse and chorus progressions that show the concept of the fragile verse and harmonically strong chorus. The possibilities are endless, but these ones show the basic idea:

(Key: C) VERSE: C  F  Em  Am  C  F  Em  Am
CHORUS: C  F  G  Am  Dm  C/E  F  G

(Key: C) VERSE: Em  Dm  Em  Dm  F  Em  Dm  Em
CHORUS: C  F  G  Dm  C  F  G  C

(Key: F) VERSE: Bb  C  Bb  C  Am  Bb  Gm  Dm  Am  Bb  Gm  C
CHORUS: F  Gm  F/A  Gm  F  Bb  Dm  C  (F)

Also remember: the faster your tempo, the less frequently your chords should change, and the fewer chords you should use. Fast tempos with lots of chords and quick changes can result in a song that simply sounds frantic.

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