Keeping Songs Fresh, and the Predictability Factor

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Synthesizer Singer-SongwriterIn musical composition, we use the word “fresh” to mean that there is an acceptable dose of innovation and creativity. A song that bores us is suffering from one of two things: it’s either 1) too predictable, or 2) lacks formal design. A song that lacks formal design is often relatively easy to fix. Form in music means that a song is structured into recognizable sections. Those sections (for example, verse – chorus – bridge, etc.) give the listener a sense of order and structure. You have a better chance of making a positive impact on an audience if songs have a somewhat easily perceived structure.

Here’s a non-musical example. If you are an architect designing a new building, no matter how innovative your building design is, users of the building will expect certain things. For example, regardless of how creative you are, users have an expectation that they’ll enter the building through a door, and that there will be windows, floors and walls.

In songwriting, no matter how creative your approach is, listeners will expect to hear repeating elements such as melody, chord progressions and lyrics. Like a building’s repeating elements (more than one door, more than one floor, more than one wall, etc.), listeners of music need repeating ideas. Those repeating ideas are what contribute to the form of the music, and without them, listeners are lost. It is the presence of repeating musical ideas that tell the listener that “this is the verse”, “this is the chorus”, and so on.

No matter how creative or imaginative you’re trying to be with your songwriting, it’s undeniably true that predictability is a vital part of good songwriting. At the same time, it begs the question: If predictability is so important, how do you keep songs fresh?

There are several things you can do within a song that will give the listener the best of both: enough predictability to make them feel secure, and enough creativity to help the song stand out from others. And the great thing is that creativity is best in small doses, so you don’t need to delve into the world of the weird in order to get something that qualifies as innovative.

If you latest song is boring you, try these very simple solutions for keeping a song fresh:

  1. Try a key change. Try the verse and chorus in two different keys, or simply change key for the final verse and chorus. A key change is a subtle way to get attention.
  2. Add a bridge. If you’ve developed a verse and chorus only, you may find that the repetition of those two components leaves your song feeling too repetitive. Adding a bridge after the second chorus, or instrumental solo, will help break the pattern.
  3. Change the tempo. Changing tempo is tricky, but can work. A good example of this is Lionel Ritchie’s “Say You, Say Me“.
  4. Change instrumentation. Making subtle changes to instrumentation throughout a song will help keep a song feeling new. Generally you’ll want to explore adding instruments for each repetition of a song component. For example, what can you add to verse 2 that will differentiate it from verse 1?
  5. Add an instrumental solo in an unexpected place. Everyone expects a solo after the second chorus, but you can try fitting one in between the second verse and the chorus.
  6. Add vocal harmonies. Harmonizing melody lines is a great way to keep a song fresh. Similar to adding instruments, it’s a way of repeating something, but giving the listener something new at the same time.


Written by Gary Ewer, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website.
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