What Compels You to Be the Songwriter You Are?

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Frank ZappaRecently someone posted an observation on my video about the circle-of-fifths. In that video, I was describing the harmonic strength that comes from root movements of chords that are a 4th or 5th apart, which is the theoretical basis of the circle-of-fifths. The main point of the viewer’s comment was, “why would you prefer to write the same song [as] everybody else and sell yourself out to have a “hit song”, when you could write music that you love that doesn’t necessarily sound good to most people.” My reply focussed on the fact that chord progressions don’t necessarily dictate style, and that it is possible to have two completely different songs that use the same progression.

But he (@MrTrolololol75) makes a good point. Why do we study these hit songs in the first place? Is it just so that we can write more music just like it? I hope not! And why do so many people seem to be fixated on writing a hit song? Why not just write what you want? If people want to hear it, great, and if not… still great.

There’s nothing wrong, per se, with trying to write hit songs. And if you want to write hit songs, songs that will appeal to the masses, you’re going to have to use song elements that tend to have universal appeal. That usually, but not always, means doing a bit of “dumbing down”, and this applies to chord progressions more than anything. So his comment is quite fair: why would you purposely dumb your music down?

The fact is that most successful hit songwriters don’t actually describe what they’re doing as attempting to write a hit song. They would probably describe it more as an attempt to create something innovative enough to stand out from everything else, while at the same time similar enough that it doesn’t scare listeners off. It’s a bit of a tight-rope walk, and for many, an interesting challenge.

The Beatles were probably the most successful at that tight-rope walk. They could write music that seemed to voyage into unknown territory, and instead of scaring off listeners, they grabbed them and pulled them along. “Lucy in the Skies with Diamonds” is a good case in point, but they wrote and performed dozens of other examples.

So what are you fixated on when you write? Are you trying desperately to “write a hit song”, or are you trying to write something that is true to who you are? The attempt to write a hit song can leave you feeling empty if it’s producing something that doesn’t really show the real you.

@MrTrolololol75 used the music of Frank Zappa as an example of someone who wasn’t out to please the general public, but was a musician who simply had something to say, and said it. It’s a great example. And in my opinion, we’ll still be looking at Zappa’s music 100 years from now, when many or most of today’s singer-songwriters will have faded into oblivion.

Every once in a while it’s a good idea to re-examine why you write music, and to figure out if your focus is correct. You may feel that there is a hit song inside you somewhere, but if that song isn’t describing the real you, you may be missing out on an opportunity to show the world the amazing musician you really are.


Written by Gary Ewer, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website.
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  1. Some folks can say they’ve been writing music since they were 5 years old and now have a successful career doing so. I am NOT one of those people. I’m too poor. BUT, what I can say is that for the past 24 years writing music has become nearly aloof of any explanation. Although…there are certain “essences” I prefer to stick to, mainly as it is my style I guess. I believe in receiving visuals from audibly stimulating sounds. For example…take a good Beatles song. Lucy in the sky with diamonds. The “flow” of the verse is visually similar ( IMO ) to a “blending of weightlessness and bright colors” or suffice it to say, it leaves me with a floaty feeling, or an angelic graceful angel dancing in slow motion a blue sky with white clouds.

    I guess what I’m trying to say is, every note and part of the verses has created a “soup” of a certain flavor. It is experienced the same through everyone, it tastes dfferent to everyone. But when we explain it, it cannot be conveyed unless it is “played”

    Songs are meals and entrees prepared with ingredients just like any other form of creativity.

    When I write a song, there is a Notch in my gut that says “okay, this is a note that belongs here.”
    Then end result is a combination of what belongs on top of what. A stack/blend of a mood, or feeling someone may be in or want to portray. I luv writing music. 🙂

    Just started my own music blog. Looking forward to making friends. Ciao! 🙂

    • Hi Jared:

      Thanks for your comments. Your thoughts about Lucy in the Skies reminded me of a piece of instrumental music I heard of, written years ago, a piece the composer called “Green Music”. He claimed that many people spoke to him after the premiere performance, telling him how uncanny it was that the music did indeed prompt images in the listeners’ minds of the colour “green.” I found out some time later that he had named the piece “Green Music” only because he didn’t know what else to call it, and it actually had nothing whatsoever to do with the colour green!


  2. I have been deep in the songwriting process for about 2 years now and I have a book rack full of books and a nifty binder of all my favorite material. It’s become my favorite thing to simply just learn more and more about songwriting every day. I find melody to be the most difficult part when rounding out my song. A lot of times I start with melody but i just can’t find a different melody for the chorus or the verse to finish off my songs. I used to think…well maybe your verse is just meant to sound weak so the chorus is that much better…but then, on the annuals facebook page (one of my favorite bands), I realized i loved the verse melody just as much, if not better, than the chorus melody. It was a song they just put out for their new upcoming album and the song is called “Bother” only available through streaming on their facebook. The verse is about 4 chords while the chorus is 3 with 2 of them being the same and it’s damn near the catchiest thing I have ever heard with simple lyrics and the best Melodies! I was wondering if you have any melody advice? people only seem to touch on it briefly

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