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It’s a fair question for a songwriter to ask: If you’re going to talk about songwriting principles, doesn’t it make sense that each musical genre should have its own set of principles? After all, you might think, if all songwriters were to use the same principles, all songs should sound more or less the same. But that’s actually not true. It is possible to speak of songwriting principles that transcend musical style, and even era. And if you’ve read this blog for a while, you know that I often relate what composers of today’s hits are doing to what the great composers of Classical music have been doing for centuries.
So how can that be? How can the melodic and harmonic “rules” that Bach, Mozart and Schubert applied to their music be applicable today? For that matter, is it even relevant for us to study the music of great songwriting masters such as Cole Porter, George Gershwin, and Richard Rodgers, and apply their principles our songs today?
The answer is yes. The principles of old are still relevant. The guidelines and fundamentals that formed the greatest melodies that flowed from the minds of Classical geniuses are, by and large, the same principles that are in place today.
The biggest and most relevant difference between the music of different eras and genres is performance style and instrumentation. When it comes to how melodies are constructed, how chord progressions work, and even the general focus of the lyric, you may be surprised to know that nothing much has changed.
So what should this mean to you as a songwriter? Just this: if you aren’t broadening your musical experience to include music of all genres and eras, you are missing out on an enormous opportunity to improve your songwriting skills.
In my eBook “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” I’ve outlined eleven different songwriting principles that apply to practically all genres. I’ve summarized them here.
Many of you may be ready and willing to listen to other genres, but don’t know where to start. You might want to consider starting with a dose of Classical music. And by “Classical”, I’m referring to the larger more general term applying to music from approximately 1600 to the 20th century and beyond.
Here’s a little list to get you started. For each example, notice the melodic structure, and also note that the way we use chords today really hasn’t changed all that much. You might even want to try your hand at improvising a recreation of these classics as a pop, country, bluegrass or other style of music. You’ll be surprised at how well some of these pieces transfer to other genres.
Note also that I think songwriters should also be listening to music not specifically written for the voice. We learn from everything these great composers were writing.
- Baroque: “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” (J.S. Bach) (And listen to Apollo 100’s upbeat early-70’s version here.)
- Classical: “Turkish March” (W.A. Mozart)
- Romantic: “Ich Grolle Nicht” (R. Schumann)
- Romantic: “Nessun Dorma” (G. Puccini)
- 20th Century: “O Fortuna” (Carl Orff, from “Carmina Burana”)
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