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In a way, when philosopher George Santayana said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”, he gave composers of music some good advice without realizing it. With songwriters, the issue is that it’s possible for us to make mistakes in our writing, fail to build our audience base because of it, and then keep making the same mistakes. Like the person who doesn’t remember the past, we can find ourselves constantly making the same errors if we don’t look at our songs objectively.
So put your guitar down, and take a look at the following list. See if you recognize any of these songwriting issues in your own musical output.
And a word of advice: Just because you see something listed below does not mean that you’ve done something wrong. Some songs have become hits against any ability to predict that they’d succeed. (Remember “Convoy” from the 1970’s, by C. W. McCall?!) But hopefully the list gives you the ability to look objectively at your music, and give you possible reasons for why you’re songs are having trouble gaining traction.
So answer the following ten questions. If you want your songs to have broad public appeal, the usual answer should be yes.
- Is your chorus melody pitched higher than your verse melody?
- Does your chorus begin before the 1-minute mark?
- Is there some aspect of your song that could be described as a hook, meant to keep listeners humming?
- Is your chorus chord progression more predictable than your verse progression?
- Do your verse lyrics describe situations while your chorus lyrics describe emotions?
- Does the bridge of your song present ideas quickly, venturing further afield harmonically, building energy?
- Does your chorus melody feature a distinctive melodic shape, particularly as the title of the song is sung?
- Does your song feature a clever use of instrumentation?
- Are your song’s melodies mostly stepwise, with occasional leaps especially on emotional words?
- In the balance between predictability and innovation, your song is predictable enough without being boring, and innovative enough without being overly weird.
There are probably other questions that could be asked, but those ten will give you a good start.
And the best way to use the list is to think of the last three to five songs you’ve written, and give a general answer for each question. If you see the same “no” answers coming up, you may have cause to examine that aspect of your writing.
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