Not All Songwriting Formulas Are Bad

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Synthesizer KeyboardSongwriting formulas are not usually thought of as the friend of serious songwriters. That’s because the word “formula” implies something rather opposite to “imaginative” or “creative”. Normally when you use a formula, you’re following what amounts to a set of instructions that have proven their worth in the past. The reason you’d use a formula is for that reason: it worked in the past, so it will work again. The negative result that comes from use of a formula is obvious. But not all songwriting formulas are bad.

That’s because there are some aspects of music where the predictability offered by a formula is desirable. Let’s take a closer look at various songwriting formulas, the good and the bad.

  1. “Formal” formulas.
    1. Verse/Chorus formulas. When you decide to write a song that starts with an intro, moves to a verse, then the chorus, and so on, you’re following a formula. It’s probably the most common one, and probably the most harmless one. The danger of a formula is sounding too much like something that’s been written already. And the good thing about this kind of formula is that it’s been done so often that its use is not going to point to any one song.
    2. Formal Oddities. A formal oddity is any aspect of the form a song that stands out as something unique. There are lots of examples of this: starting a song with a drum solo, a stop-time pause… that sort of thing. It can be exciting in one song, but using the effect again takes it from being an inspired moment to being trite. Avoid repeating a formal oddity.
    3. Vocal Oddities. If you’re using some sort of vocal effect between lines (The “yahoo” in Kool & the Gang’s “Celebration”, for example), you’ll want to be sure that it doesn’t crop up in your next song. Even things like the way you’ve EQ’d the voices can be formulaic if it’s distinctive enough. Be careful, and avoid vocal oddities.
  2. Harmonic formulas.
    1. Chord Texture Formulas. How full the chord is when you play it is what we mean by the texture of a chord. It’s quite typical to use thinner textures for verses (especially earlier verses) and thicker ones for choruses. This is a good formula to follow.
    2. Progression Formulas. A certain amount of predictability in the way your chords progress from one to the next is almost a necessity in most styles of popular music. As with formal designs, the more creative you are, the less you’ll want to copy those chord changes exactly for your next song. But the fact that you followed a I-chord with a IV-chord in one song does not mean you should avoid it in other songs. Listeners need this kind of predictability.
  3. Melodic/Instrumental Formulas. This not a songwriting formula, per se, because I’m talking about the tendency for certain instrumentalists to play certain figures and motifs over and over because they fall easily under their fingers. Keyboardists who improvise melodies are very familiar with this problem. So when recording or performing your music, listen carefully for any particular instrumental effects – certain rhythmic patterns, melodic ideas or chord voicings- that keep innocently appearing. The same thing can happen if you use a particular instrument to compose; you may find the same melodic ideas happening from one song to the next. One way to help solve this is to use different instruments to create melody lines in different songs. Even switching from working out melodies on guitar to working them out on a mandolin or violin can help to keep things fresh.

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