The danger of a songwriting formula is that everything becomes predictable. Here’s what you can do about that.
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Using a songwriting formula means one or both of the following: 1- fitting your song into one of many possible song designs (verse-chorus-bridge, for example); or 2- using a writing procedure that you’ve used previously to create a song. There’s perfectly natural reason that you might be tempted to use a tried & true songwriting formula: if it’s worked before, maybe it’ll work again. But there’s a danger in formula-writing that usually compromises the benefit, which is that everything becomes predictable.
Theoretically, a songwriting formula that produces a great song once should do it again. But the thing is that people don’t just want a song that works; they want a song that works that doesn’t really resemble the last thing you wrote. So if all of your songs are verse-chorus-bridge songs, it can become tiresome to your audience.
If your last song started with a guitar solo, and it really worked well, your status as a songwriter greatly diminishes if you do it again. Your audience will get the feeling that you’ve got one good idea, and you just want to keep doing it over and over again.
Some formulas are less of a problem than others. For example, the predictable nature of chord progressions is usually a good kind of formula to follow. The fact that you had a C followed by a Dm in your previous song doesn’t usually mean you can’t do that again. (Doing it in every song might be a problem, of course.)
And when all is said and done, the verse-chorus format is so common in music that the fact it’s still the most common song design being used proves that we haven’t tired of it.
But here is a short list of songwriting formulas, ideas and procedures that are great, but can be a problem if used too many times, or in consecutive.
- You’re relying on the same instrumentation all the time. Some instrumentations work really well without becoming tiresome (the standard guitar-bass-drums kind of idea, for example) but once you add a distinctive instrument to one song, adding it to your next one can diminish its beneficial impact. So go ahead and use that oboe or french horn for your instrumental solo, but not in every song.
- You’ve devised a unique song form (great!) but you’re using it all the time (bad!). Song forms like the aforementioned verse-chorus-bridge can sneak under the radar because everyone does them. But something unique, like starting with a solo, following it with a chorus, then a verse, then on to a new-tempo bridge… that sort of thing can be a wonderfully fresh approach for one song, but once you’ve used it, drop it. Its appeal is in its uniqueness, and doing it again kills the uniqueness.
- All your songs are in the same key. Without knowing it, audiences’ musical brains can get saturated with the same key happening all the time. Yes, even non-musicians can subconsciously feel that weariness that comes from key-overkill. The other problem that comes from too much of the same key happens with instruments: certain musical lines and ideas are key-related. For example, certain riffs happen in G major on a guitar that don’t necessarily happen in other keys. So change up the keys you choose, and learn to play in those keys rather than using a capo.
- Backing rhythm patterns are same old same old. At certain tempos, drummers can fall back on the same kind of backing rhythmic patterns, and it will give your songs a predictable sound. As a songwriter getting ready to rehearse your new song with your band, do a bit of experimenting: dial up or create different loops so that you can give your backing instruments some new ideas.
- Your song topics and catch phrases are all the same. Yes, love is still the most common topic for popular songs. But that doesn’t mean you can’t be more creative. Doing the simple “my girlfriend left me, and I feel so down” songs get boring really quickly, especially if 4 of your last 5 songs are all following that basic formula. So don’t be so straightforward. Use analogies and metaphors, try singing from a different point of view, and find other ways to be less obvious about your topic. And even though love is a common song topic… try something else!