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It’s important to remember that successful songs don’t usually achieve that status by accident. There are reasons why songs work, and there’s usually a logic behind those reasons. When your songs are floundering, it’s time to dig out the Songwriters’ Checklist to see what the problem might be. I’ve printed it below, and it covers many of the basic aspects of good songwriting.
But remember this: you really only need to check that list if your songs really aren’t working. Why? Because if your songs are working, there’s no need to second-guess yourself. We all know that there are killer songs out there that seem to defy logic: their melodies are contourless, their chords seem uninventive, and the lyrics just come across as babble. And… they work!
But if you’re finding that your songs are just not working, and you can’t seem to build an audience base for them, it might be time to step back a bit and run it past the Songwriters’ Checklist.
That list will describe various aspects of what (usually or often) makes good songs. So find your latest unsuccessful tune, and see if this list will help you pinpoint the problem
- My melody shows good contour, with a distinctive shape.
- I can identify a moment in the verse that would serve as a climactic point for that melody.
- I can identify a moment in the chorus that would serve as a climactic point for the song.
- My verse melody works its way upward, and connects somewhat seamlessly to the chorus.
- My chorus melody resides a bit higher than the verse melody, and features the tonic (key) note more than in the verse.
- My bridge melody (if applicable) is generally higher than the chorus.
- I use more “strong” progressions in the chorus, with more interesting “fragile” progressions in the verse (see p. 90 of “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting”, 2nd ed.)
- I use more vocal harmonies in the chorus than I do in the verse.
- I start the bridge, or any other “miscellaneous” section of my song on a chord other than the tonic chord.
- The majority of progressions throughout the song feel like a complete musical journey, and any complex progressions eventually feel resolved by progressions in the chorus.
- I use relatively plain, everyday language that connects with average people.
- Despite my use of plain language, I find opportunities to say or describe things, events, people, etc., with an occasionally clever turn of phrase.
- I ensure that my verse lyrics primarily describe events and situations, while my chorus lyrics primarily describe reactions and emotions.
- I try to find concise ways to say things, and avoid being unnecessarily wordy.
- My song shows, even in a small degree, something innovative that sets it apart from other songs I’ve written, and other songs of the same genre that listeners would know.
- I’ve tried to incorporate something unique regarding instrumentation (fiddle, acoustic guitar, acoustic orchestral instrument, etc.).
- The song’s intro is, even in just some small measure, interesting, and is likely to pull a listener into the rest of the song.
- I’ve varied the overall loudness of the song so that the basic dynamic level shows an interesting and compelling contour.
So how did your song fare? Don’t consider this list a be-all and end-all. Just think of it as a starting-point, a way of looking at your song with perhaps a more objective viewpoint. It might help you identify a problem with your songwriting technique that you didn’t know was there.
And keep writing!
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