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Believe me, there’s much that can go wrong in the creating of music. But over my years of studying and analyzing music by both professionals and students, I noticed that the same errors and musical “misjudgments” would keep showing up time and time again. The noticing of these all-too-common errors are what, in fact, led me to write “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting.” It started as an idea for a short, instructional manual for my students, that grew into a 220-page e-book.
And those errors, seven of them, are still the same ones I see over and over again. There’s a lot more that can go wrong, but in my experience, here are the seven most common songwriting problems, with some ideas on how to avoid them.
1. The form of the song is confusing. The form of the song dictates how a song will progress (verse, then chorus, etc.), but can also control harmonies, lyrical progression, melodic shape and more. Solution: Listeners like when song form is predictable and clear, and one way to achieve this is to make all song components roughly equal in length. If your verse is 16-bars long, it’s a safe bet to make your chorus of similar length. Bridges can be shorter and more intense.
2. The melody lacks shape. These days, you’ll notice a lot of songs at the top of Billboard that use many repeated notes. But if you’re going to go for this kind of shapeless melody, other aspects need to step up. Solution: Unless you really want a flat melody without a high point, try to get a recognizable shape into your melodies. Shapes are what people remember, so a melody that explores the highs and lows will stick in the listeners’ minds more.
3. Chords seem to wander aimlessly. Bad songs often feature chords that don’t seem to flow properly. Solution: When in doubt, make your chord progressions predictable, and save surprises as a rare but interesting event. Unpredictable progressions are analogous to building a house on uneven ground: it can be done, but be careful, and don’t do it often.
4. Strong and fragile chord progressions are used haphazardly. Strong progressions clearly indicate the key, while fragile ones are tonally a little more pleasantly ambiguous. You’ve got to know when to use each type. Solution: Use fragile progressions, and avoid overusing the tonic note, mostly in verses and interludes. Use strong progressions, and lots of tonic note, in choruses.
5. Lyrics are not supporting the form of the song. I hear it time and time again, lyrics that just sound disorganized, telling me what emotions I’m supposed to be feeling, but forgetting to tell me a story or give background info. Solution: Let your verse lyrics tell a story and describe situations; let the chorus lyrics express emotions. Let the bridge lyrics build energy by describing a situation and quickly giving an emotional response.
6. You’re relying on a hook to save a bad song. I can’t say it plainer than this: adding a hook to a bad song gives you a bad song with a hook. Solution: Hooks are almost never going to fix problems within a song. So fix what’s wrong first. When you feel that the song is structurally sound, go back into the song and find ways to add “hooky” elements that will keep the listener coming back.
7. You’re waiting for inspiration. Inspiration gets a lot of credit for successful songs, but really, it’s song CRAFT, not inspiration, that really makes great songs. Inspiration is great, but it’s far better to simply get to work if you don’t feel inspired. The act of writing creates inspiration!
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