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In songwriting, an innovative element is some aspect that jumps out at the listener, something that presents itself as being creative and imaginative. All songs should incorporate something that sets it apart from every other song out there, so in a way, all songs need something original. But there is a problem with innovation in the songwriting world. It has a way of scaring off listeners if a song comes across as too creative. In the balance between innovation and predictability, songs should proceed in a mostly predictable way, with innovative elements playing a small role.
What counts as “innovation” in songwriting changes from era to era. Certainly, Lady Gaga’s music is innovative, but her music actually proceeds in a mainly predictable way. But 40 years ago, her music (not to mention her appearance) would have stunned the average listener, and would have been, I have no doubt, largely rejected.
It’s easy to determine if something is innovative, because innovation surprises us. Hit songs need something innovative, or else it will come across as one more average song in a sea of noise. And average songs do not tend to become hits!
As you’re composing your next song, it may not be obvious to you how to add innovation, or what that might really mean to the final product. And as you’re writing, it may not be that important, as innovation can be finessed into the final product once the song is complete. So here are some ideas for making sure your song makes its own statement:
- Grab attention with an innovative song intro. The intro needs to be short; I would recommend aiming for something less than 7 seconds. And research shows that the average length of a hit song intro these days is between 4 and 5 seconds. So in those 4 to 5 seconds, grab attention with sound effects, odd instrumental effects, crescendos, percussive sounds, and so on. It’s OK to be weird here… those 5 seconds will pass quickly, and then it’s on to the song. Longer intros are possible, but be careful. Lady Gaga’s intro for “Bloody Mary” is a good example.
- Make a statement with innovative instrumentation. Synthesizers are a common way to provide songs with their own signature sound, but you can be more creative than that! And it doesn’t take much. Try adding an acoustic instrument that doesn’t usually get used in your genre: oboe, English horn, French horn, cello, clarinet, bagpipes, a string quartet, and so on. These can really make a difference. They’re beautiful instruments, and if you’re not sure how to incorporate them into your song, visit a local university’s music department. You’ll find students there very willing to make great suggestions.
- Try some odd time signatures. Most songs will use a standard 4/4 time signature (alternating between strong and weak beats). But some famous hits have been innovative: Pink Floyd’s “Money” from “The Dark Side of the Moon” (7/4 time), and Peter Gabriel’s “Solsbury Hill“, which alternates between 3/4 and 4/4. To change a song to a non-traditional time signature, take certain notes in a 4/4 bar and either elongate them or shorten them.
- Take your lyrics to a new level. It might be time to consider partnering with a lyricist, and add a touch of class to your lyrics if you feel that your songs need a more poignant message.
- Experiment with traditional song forms. Songs with innovative form can really make a statement. The traditional verse-chorus-bridge designs will be quite predictable, but incorporating odd elements such as verse melodies that differ from each other (Genesis: “I Know What I Like (In Your Wardrobe)” from their “Selling England by the Pound” album), or songs that have different seemingly unrelated sections (Beatles: “A Day In The Life” from the Sergeant Pepper album).
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