Ten Quick Tips for Writing a Better Song

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Songwriting ChecklistIn 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.

  1. Is your chorus melody pitched higher than your verse melody?
  2. Does your chorus begin before the 1-minute mark?
  3. Is there some aspect of your song that could be described as a hook, meant to keep listeners humming?
  4. Is your chorus chord progression more predictable than your verse progression?
  5. Do your verse lyrics describe situations while your chorus lyrics describe emotions?
  6. Does the bridge of your song present ideas quickly, venturing further afield harmonically, building energy?
  7. Does your chorus melody feature a distinctive melodic shape, particularly as the title of the song is sung?
  8. Does your song feature a clever use of instrumentation?
  9. Are your song’s melodies mostly stepwise, with occasional leaps especially on emotional words?
  10. 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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Written by Gary Ewer, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website
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5 Comments

  1. Keep a list of prospective song titles on your wall. Whenever you hear a good word or an evocative phrase, add it to your list to use when you’re trying to come up with new material.

  2. Pingback: SONGWRITING 101: TEN TIPS FOR WRITING A BETTER SONG « ATTN: the Mag

  3. Thank you Gary for the advice. I look forward to your blog post. Would also love to see you do a song critique of the kings of leon single Pyro. Regards

  4. By dumb luck I stumbled on your great blog and am working my way through your posts. You are clearly an expert in the subject and thanks for sharing your knowledge. I wanted to ask you a question. What advice can you give to a songwriter who comes up with many pieces of ideas, ie. guitar parts and melodic phrases, but cannot complete a song? My typical process is as follows: I develop an interesting chord pattern or arpeggio intro pattern. Melodic bits and pieces will come to mind as I play the chords. I may complete the verse melody but then I hit the wall. I will continue to sing over the chords to try and get the next melodic phrase but it may not happen. I have gotten very good feedback on these incomplete pieces but obviously that is not good enough. Is this where co-writing comes in? Any advice on how to tackle this would be greatly appreciated.

    • Hi Paul:

      I had started working on a new blog posting that sort of addresses this, so perhaps I’ll finish that one up this morning and post it. In short, the inability to finish a song is not exactly like writer’s block. It sounds to me as though you’ve got good musical ideas happening, but when it comes to organizing them into a finished product your creative mind is letting you down.

      I don’t see anything wrong with the process you’ve described. It’s a completely legitimate songwriting process to play chords and make note of any interesting melodic shapes and bits of lyric that come to mind. But good songwriting is a mixture of creativity and craft. The creative process is working for you, but I think as you work you need to focus on the “craft” aspect of writing. Without the craft part, those musical ideas will flounder, and the songwriting process grinds to a halt.

      In general, the craft refers to your knowledge of how good songs work. Generally, when people tell me that they can’t finish a song they start, they’re referring to the lack of a clear picture of the form of the song.

      So my quick advice would be this: as you start getting ideas for your next song, take time to put your instrument down, pick up your pencil, and start sketching (words, or even a drawing) your idea of how this potential song will unfold. Even if you don’t have some parts of it composed yet, you should be able to come up with a verse-chorus-bridge kind of design that might work. That at least gives you something that might work as a finished product. Not knowing your music, I’m only speculating here, but in my experience an inability to finish anything you start is a problem perceiving the form.

      Be watching for my more complete blog posting on this (probably up today, April 14, at some point.
      -Gary

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