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A discussion on songwriting usually centers on the usual suspects of song structure, melodic shape, chord progression, and getting all those things to work together properly. Lately, however, I’ve found my mind focusing on the part of songwriting that happens after a song is actually finished: getting the performance of it to measure up to the composing of it. For many new up-and-comers, there’s a lot of guitar-backed tunes out there that are great songs, but nothing happens in the performance that makes me want to listen, or (more importantly) listen again.
To me, performance is a very important part of the process. A good performance that’s well-planned and well-crafted can really bring a song to life. A few well-placed vocal harmonies, or catchy rhythmic interplay, or instrumental effects, can make a great lyric sound absolutely amazing. In other words, all songs need “hooky bits.”
So if you’re doing your first recording, your first attempt to get your songs out there to a wider audience, this is your opportunity to get some attention, and it’s “hooky bits” that will do it.
Recently I listened to a new up-and-coming artist featured on CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation). Her songs were well-written, with interesting lyrics. But the instrumental accompaniment let the songs down. They were mundane, predictable, and uninventive. I could hear great songs in there, trying to get out, but the performances were far too uninteresting to keep me interested. And you could tell that she was using good musicians. But after a few songs, I turned it off.
This boring-accompaniment problem happens more often with ballads than with any other type of song. Ballads bring out the worst in studio musicians, because ballads use melodies that are shaped with great subtlety, and even the best studio players will resort to standard nondescript accompaniment figures, if given no direction.
Consequently, ballads absolutely need an accompaniment that supports the song by developing small hook-like events that give the song an identity.
Here are some ideas for making sure that your good song is not compromised by an uneventful performance:
- Identify significant melodic leaps in your melody that might serve as a hook for your keyboardist or lead guitar. This hook doesn’t need to exactly mimic the melodic shape, but can at least be something other than background strumming. These sorts of hooks make songs more interesting.
- Develop a rhythmic pattern for your chording instruments that offers something more than the standard chording pattern. An interesting rule-of-thumb might be: take the first and second rhythm you come up with, toss them away, and use the third one.
- In addition to your standard guitar-bass-drums accompaniment, come up with a melodic instrument that can play in between vocal lines, especially on verse 2 and the bridge. This creates a layering of sound that makes accompaniments more interesting.
- 2-part vocals (i.e., a melody with a harmonizing vocal line) can sometimes sound predictable; 3-part harmonies sound more clever. So take the time to craft (or hire someone who can create) some interesting 3-part vocal harmonies that can be used in the chorus. 3-part harmonies will almost always work in ballads.
- Since ballads are longer, and usually take longer to get to the chorus, it can sound like a long time sitting in one key. Try developing a key change that puts your chorus in a different key from the verse.
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