Just one problem can sink a song’s chances to connect with listeners. Here’s 10 of the most common problems, with easy fixes.
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When a song just flows out of you, so easily that you wonder how the heck that happened, it’s magical. When everything comes together effortlessly, it feels wonderful, and you can’t wait to get started on your next song. But as you well know, that’s not usually how it happens. Most of the time, good songs take time, and they take work. For many good songwriters, it can take seconds to come up with the idea for a song, but it can take days, weeks or months to finally get it sounding the way you want.
Most of that time is spent fixing nagging little problems. The lyric feels forced, or the melody rambles a bit too much. Or there’s something not quite right about the chord progression, or… And so you keep fixing, honing and sculpting your song. It’s like you can hear it in your head, but coaxing it out from your musical brain into an audible form takes time.
And while writing songs is mostly enjoyable, it can be frustrating if you can’t put your finger on why it’s not working.
Here’s a list, in no particular order, of the 10 most common reasons why songs can fail, and what you can do to eliminate those problems.
- There’s not enough contrast. SOLUTION: A song needs to contrast one element with another. For example, it works well to have some loud sections, and then some softer. (If your song has a strong poetic lyric, contrast becomes less important.)
- The song’s energy feels haphazard. SOLUTION: Song energy should ebb and flow, but generally speaking the energy at the end should exceed the energy at the beginning.
- There’s not enough repeating elements. Listeners need to feel that a song represents a kind of short musical journey. What helps them make sense of that journey is when they hear things repeating (the chorus, for example). SOLUTION: Develop motifs – short musical cells – that get repeated throughout a song in different ways. Read this post for more about motifs.
- Chord progressions feel aimless. This can happen if you simply use too many chords. Remember that songs are relatively short events (4-6 minutes). SOLUTION: Long progressions can work, but shorter progressions where the chords mostly change at regular time intervals (every 4 beats, for example) helps give a strong sense of cohesion to the harmonic structure of a song.
- You’ve used too many “fragile” chord progressions, and not enough “strong” ones. A strong progression points unambiguously to one chord as the tonic. SOLUTION: While fragile progressions, which move around creatively, can sound interesting, songs (especially choruses) should use more strong progressions than fragile ones.
- Verse, chorus and bridge sections are too different from each other. It strengthens a song’s sense of design to somehow link verse, chorus and bridge with melodic shapes, harmonies and lyrics that complement each other. SOLUTION: Find ways to borrow melodic shapes and ideas from the verse and propagate them in the chorus and bridge. For example, take a melodic motif from the verse, and perhaps invert it for the chorus. (See this article for more about this.
- Your lyrics are disorganized. Verse lyrics need to set up situations, but if you’ve used the verse to emote about how you’ve lost your love, you’re getting it all wrong. SOLUTION: Use the verse to tell a story, or describe a situation. Save strong emotive text for the chorus. Check any hit song, and you’ll see that this guideline is basically a rule.
- The tonic chord and tonic note are used too often in your verse. There is a sense of finality and repose to a tonic note. So if your verse keeps hitting the tonic note, it can stunt the song’s energy. SOLUTION: Use the tonic note and chord more often in a chorus than in a verse. Especially toward the end of the chorus, allow musical lines and harmonies to point toward the tonic.
- The song’s melodies wander up and down without a clear sense of direction. SOLUTION: Chorus melodies should be pitched a bit higher than verse melodies.
- The song is missing a catchy hook. Not all song’s have standout hooks, or even need them, but it could be the element that’s missing from your tune. SOLUTION: If everything seems fine with your song’s structure, it may be that it simply needs something “hooky.” This may have nothing to do with songwriting itself, in the sense that backing instruments can create a hook-based accompaniment. But in any case, your song needs something that people can remember and hum, and hopefully bring them back, and that’s the importance of a good hook
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