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Sometimes you listen to a song, and it’s totally impressive how it just flows! It sounds like it’s taking you on a musical journey that makes total sense! The energy build is working, and everything sounds perfect. Those are the songs that become hits. And then, you get back to writing your own songs, and frustration sets in. You’ve got your song finished, but something’s missing. There’s nothing about it that demands that anyone listen. The energy doesn’t seem to have a plan, and the musical journey sounds more like musical stagnation. What’s wrong?!
Songs are not just one nice sound followed by another one. And that’s frustrating for this reason: often, if you feel that something is wrong, you start to dig into the guts of your song to figure out what’s not working. You examine the verse, and it sounds fine. So then you turn your attention to the chorus, and that sounds fine.
You go through every element of your song with a fine-toothed comb, and you simply can’t identify anything you’d like to do differently. And then you sit back to listen to the whole thing, and – [*yawn*] – it’s just sitting there, with all the appeal of lint.
Songs are a musical journey, and how you get from one part of the journey to the next one IS the journey. Of course, the various spots you visit on your journey (the verse, chorus, bridge, etc.) are crucial to defining that trip, but how you get from one to the next is every bit as important.
So one of the most common problems in songwriting is the lack of a connection between the various song components.
I’ve been giving Taylor Swift’s new hit “Back to December” a lot of listen lately. Her music has a simplicity that makes song study easier than a lot of other songs. And I am a big fan of simplicity in musical composition. Simplicity, to me, leads to a nice kind of transparency that is very attractive to listeners.
And you can learn a lot about song structure from listening to her songs. Here are things you’ll learn from “Back to December”:
- Make sure that your chorus melody sits on a higher tonal plane than the verse melody. (In this song’s case, the verse sits around D, chorus sits around F#)
- Use a hook or a rhythmic motif that glues your song together by making its appearance at various times (listen to the mandolin rhythmic idea of 2 8th-notes, followed by a quarter and a half note. This rhythm is extracted from the chorus words, and it keeps showing up throughout the song, acting as an all-important glue.)
- Do something interesting in the instrumentation of your song. If your simply strumming away, with no attention to rhythmic interest, or melodic interest, instrumentation starts to sound boring. If you’ve been able to get some really fine players to play on your recording, you’ll need to give them some direction. Rehearse with them; tell them your ideas; ask them to help create something interesting. (In “Back to December”, listen to the whole song, and make note of how many times something interesting happens in the instrumentation, how many times an instrument is added, taken away, and does something interesting. It’s inspiring!)
- One way to help give the impression of building energy is to allow energy to die away first. (The bridge of this song builds energy, then the final choruses start with a very low-key version. It’s a great idea to try.)
Obviously, you can’t keep doing the same things in every song, so be careful. But if you don’t do something, all you’ve got are a bunch of really great song elements that don’t relate to each other, and the end result is that you’ve taken the listener on a boring journey.
So be creative, use your imagination, and you’ll be amazed at how good your song can be!
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