The Truth About “Rules” in the World of Songwriting

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Singer/ SongwriterIt’s a natural human tendency to find out why something works, and then to use that information to do it again. As you can imagine, this could be somewhat disastrous in the world of songwriting. If you approach every new song project by applying the procedure you used in your last song, you’d be rejected as unoriginal and uncreative. So with songwriting, it becomes a tricky tightrope act of applying principles and guidelines in a way that hasn’t really been heard before.

Every article I’ve written in this blog for the past 3 years addresses some aspect of a songwriting principle. As you might know, every time someone says that you shouldn’t do a certain thing, it’s possible to point to at least one song that violates that principle, and does it beautifully. So what’s the good of a guideline that can be successfully ignored?

The more poignant question really is this: WHEN should you be applying a rule. Because you could be rejecting great songwriting ideas based purely on what a songwriting principle says, and that could be a tragedy.

Principles and rules are the “music theory” of songwriting. And what a shame if you use music theory to tell you what you can and can’t do. Music theory was never meant to tell you what to write. All you get by sticking to a rule is music that is likely to be predictable to a fault.

So back to my question: When is it appropriate to apply principles and guidelines to your songwriting? The best answer is: When you’ve identified that your song has a problem… NOT before!

So when we say that verse melodies should be higher than chorus and refrain melodies, aren’t we glad that Bob Dylan apparently didn’t consider this at all when writing “Blowin’ in the Wind”? And for every aspect of musical composition that we consider a “rule”, we can list the songs that work despite ignoring the rule.

So yes, there are guiding principles, observations and advice that are based on songwriting history, a history that tells us why things work, and why they often don’t.

But the worst thing you can do is to start the songwriting process by considering these guidelines. It’s far better to write from your heart, and only consider those principles when something isn’t working.

Just as a final note here, I usually get two kinds of questions when people send me MP3s of their music. If they ask some version of “Could you listen to my song, and tell me why it’s not working…”, I begin to think of the songwriting principles that have existed, in some cases, for centuries, and hopefully identify why something isn’t working.

If, however, they simply send me the music and say “Could you tell me what you think of this…”, I never think about rules or principles. I just listen. And I’m either entertained or I’m not. And if a song works, the rules become irrelevant.

And that’s the way it should be. Only consider songwriting principles if you’re stuck, or if something isn’t working the way you’d hoped it would work. In those cases, a principle can help identify the problem and help you fix it. And that’s a whole lot better than throwing out what could be a good song that just needs a little help.


Written by Gary Ewer, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website
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  1. Hi Gary. I’m a longtime reader and a keen songwriter – having been helped a great deal by your writing advice! But, I wasn’t aware you gave readers specific feedback for their own music, I find that really admirable. Would you mind listening to a couple of my songs and letting me know what you think? There are parts of them that don’t quite work, but having worked on the songs for so long and grown very attached to them, I’m unsure as to why! It’s probably time for me to hear some home truths from someone who I trust when it comes to songwriting advice. Let me know!


    • Hi Tom:

      I’d be happy to give your music a listen. If you have them on an online site such as MySpace, SoundCloud, or some other type of service, that would be best. If you don’t, you can send me an MP3: gary [at] pantomimemusic [dot] com.


  2. Pingback: Posts that Caught my Interest | Inside Home Recording

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