Balancing the Strange With the Predictable

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Band and AudienceMost of the songs that become hits in any generation display a mixture of innovative elements with a dose of predictability. But in fact, the balance is very much toward the predictable. Most hit songs sound, in their day, like most of the other songs happening at the same time, with possibly some small innovative aspect. Bands and singers that have built a solid listenership can experiment with innovation, but how do you do that without leaving your audience behind?

Innovation scares listeners, because audiences will sometimes equate innovation with being weird. And that’s a bit like being taken on a trip where you don’t know where you’re going, and don’t know if you’ll be back.

Progressive rock from the 70s is a great example. So-called “prog rock” artists would typically experiment with non-traditional chord progressions, asymmetrical time signatures, abstract lyrics, and so on.

And the price you pay for that is that it can take a long time to build your listenership, because it takes longer to build a sense of trust with average listeners who aren’t used to being challenged in this way.

So what do you do if your desire is to write music that might on the face of it sound a bit weird, but you’d like to build a solid audience base?

There are ways to incorporate weirdness in your music that actually doesn’t sound so weird. It usually involves balancing something innovative with something a bit more predictable. Try these ideas:

HARMONIES: Using non-traditional chord progressions can make for a complicated harmonic journey that can lose listeners. So if your chord progressions are complicated, try adding a pedal bass note. The pedal bass, which is a constant pitch that doesn’t change no matter what the chord above it is, acts like glue.

Consider this rather complex set of changes:

C  Eb  Bb  A  D G  G7  C

Place a pedal note underneath it, and it helps to pull it all together. Try a pedal C, or also a pedal G (with a C under the final chord).

LYRICS: Abstract lyrics won’t usually scare listeners off, because listeners are usually now sophisticated enough that they usually expect to have to work to understand the occasional song. But still, if you’re worried that your abstract lyrics are leaving listeners behind, try a repeating lyrical line that is easy to understand. A great example is the Beatle’s “Come Together.” It’s hard to know what/who they’re singing about, but that repeating refrain “Come together…” at least offers something for the listener to understand.

MELODY: Melodies are not usually a problem, since even abstract songs need to be singable; if a melody is too weird, the singer’s going to have difficulties. Nonetheless, you’ll want to make sure that songs with complex melodies have some sort of “hooky” bit that’s easy to sing, no matter what else is going on. This follows the same advice we always give regarding chord progressions: let your chorus melodies be simpler and easier to sing even if (and especially if) your verse melody is more abstractly organized.

In general, an entire song doesn’t need to be simple in order to attract a large audience. But in the case of songs that are strongly balanced toward the weird that there is a catchy, easily singable hook that will keep pulling the listeners back.

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