Writing Songs That Are On The Cutting Edge

Wanting your songs to be innovative and fresh is the dream of most songwriters. As long as people “sort of” get it, you’re on the right track.


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Rock BandInnovation in songwriting is a tricky balancing act that many songwriters never get right. Too little innovation means you’re simply copying what’s been done before, and your song is unremarkable. Too much innovation means that even if your music is respected, you’ve become at best a musician with a small cult following. Either way, you won’t be getting what you’ve aimed for: songs with across-the-spectrum, broad-based appeal that grab almost everyone’s attention. Writing on the cutting edge means giving people what they haven’t heard before, but doing it in a way that doesn’t confuse your target audience and scare them away.

The end result of being a cutting-edge composer of music is that songwriters who come after you will try to copy you. That, of course, is a good thing. You want to be seen as the person who “started it all.” But the difficulty is that cutting-edge songwriters are essentially defining the new world order for music. And as I mentioned, most songwriters never get that right.

If The Beatles had broken up right after “I Want to Hold Your Hand” and “She Loves You”, we’d still be playing their music today. Those songs were possibly a little innovative, but their main claim to fame was that they wereThe Beatles - Revolver really, really good. When Revolver was released, however, musicians could tell that a new direction was being forged. When Sergeant Pepper happened, it was a seismic event that grabbed the attention of most pop musicians, and even musicians from outside the pop world.

Sergeant Pepper was innovative but not scary. It was confusing, but only confusing enough to entice people to listen and to try to figure it out. The really innovative bits caused people to ask questions, not to dismiss it. “Who’s Sergeant Pepper?”… “Who’s Billy Shears?” “What’s with the Sitar?”… Almost nothing on that album was “typical” for its day.

The impact on popular music was mind-blowing. And it was done by producing music that was similar enough to what people had heard before, but different enough to shock, not scare. And much of the innovation was production-based, not songwriting-based.The production decisions that gave us the final version of “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite,” especially regarding instrumentation, were more innovative than the actual song was.

And so that’s the formula. Create a musical experience that’s similar enough to what’s been done before, but with enough of something new that you shock without scaring. Simple, right?

If you’ll pardon the apparent contradiction, writing music that doesn’t scare off listeners means that the innovative direction you’re taking needs to be, in itself, somewhat predictable. What made Sergeant Pepper so effective is that the world could sense it coming. They didn’t know what it would sound like, but they had a bit of an idea. The seeds were sown in Revolver, and came to fruition in Sergeant Pepper.

ViolinSo how do you become a more innovative songwriter? Music evolves slowly, but if you want to make a mark, here are some ideas for at least breaking you out of the rut and getting a bit of attention.

  1. Listen to many different genres of music, especially ones you don’t normally listen to, and really think about what you’re hearing. What appeals to you? What surprises you? Try to incorporate some of those ideas into your own music. The blend will be innovative and unpredictable.
  2. Experiment with song form. Instead of identical verse melodies, try a different melody for verse 2. Or changing the tempo in the chorus. Or changing the time signature in the bridge. Or…
  3. Try unconventional instrumentation. What about a string quartet? Or a brass quintet, accordion, or no instruments? Anything that causes people to think, “Now that’s a little different.”
  4. Improve your abilities to write good lyrics. Love songs always sell, but you may need to work on a more sophisticated message for your music. What do you want or need to tell the world?

A final point that a lot of songwriters don’t consider: most of the world’s most innovative composers and songwriters honed their skills initially by writing music that was conventional for its day. Guitarist-Singer-SongwriterBeethoven’s early music was world-class, but typical of its day. His later music was ground-breaking and incredibly influential.

The same goes for every innovative music act out there. They started by building a healthy audience base, and they did that by being really good at what everyone else was doing. Then they blew the doors off and gave the world something new.

Songwriting is a creative art. So today, as you start your next song, simply ask yourself, “What am I going to do in this song that’s creative?”


Written by Gary Ewer, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website.
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  1. Pingback: The SongRegistration Music Blog | Is Your Songwriting Two Steps Ahead?

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