You wouldn’t set out on a journey without knowing where you want to end up. Songwriting is not much different.
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Good songwriting, like any kind of musical composition, is a mixture of working forwards and working backwards. Working backwards means that you’re going to identify goals, and then create the musical components that aim toward that goal. The listener, of course, only really thinks forward, so why does it work so well to work backwards? When you start by identifying the musical goals of your song, you give yourself a point to aim for, so to speak, and allows musical phrases to move forward in a more natural way.
There are several goals that work together to produce one song. Let’s take a look at them:
- Harmonic Goals. Most songs have several different individual chord progressions, one for the verse, the chorus, the bridge, and so on. To create a harmonic goal, establish the first chord of a middle section (the chorus, for example). This will be the goal of the section that precedes it (the verse progression). If your song is in the key of C major, and your first chorus chord will be C, this means that you can choose to end your verse on a chord that moves easily to C, such as G, Dm, or F. Now that you’ve got that chord, go back to the start of the verse and create a progression that moves toward the end of the verse; perhaps something like: C Dm Bb C F G Am G. This progression can be repeated, or can move directly to a chorus.
- Lyrical Goals. The lyrical goal of most standard pop songs will be the emotional expression we find in the chorus. To realize a lyrical goal requires you to i) establish a song topic, and then ii) decide what ultimately happens in the chorus. Once you’ve got the goal, you can move back to the verse, and start crafting a verse lyric that helps the goal make sense. Remember to use emotive words sparingly in the verse, saving them for the chorus.
- Melodic Goals. Melodic goals are usually seen in strong partnership with the song’s harmonies, so harmonic goals and melodic goals will usually coincide. Establishing a melodic goal can be as simple as asking, “Where does this melody end up?” We know that chorus melodies tend to be pitched higher than verse melodies, so working backwards means choosing the basic range of your chorus first, and going back to the verse to craft something a bit lower in pitch. Another aspect of the establishing of melodic goals is to take melodic shapes that happen in the chorus, and “prepare” them in the verse. Think, for example, of the start of the chorus to The Beatles’ “Penny Lane“. Note that quickly ascending 3-note motif on the title lyric. The verse starts with a similar 3-note motif, but pitched lower.
- Instrumental/Orchestrational Goals. As you’ll probably reserve the busiest and heaviest instrumental accompaniment for the chorus, it can be helpful to know what that sounds like before determining the basic instrumental sound of the verse. Choruses will tend to use instruments playing higher, louder and with more rhythmic activity than verses.
While it may seem that identifying goals first is simply logical, you’d be surprised how many songwriters set out to create a musical journey without even knowing where that journey goes. Songwriting goals can evolve as a song is created, so it’s crucial to look backwards from time to time throughout the writing process to make sure that those goals are being properly prepared.
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