Between Chords, Melody and Lyrics, Something Should Be Predictable

As a songwriter, you should see predictability as a great way to balance innovative elements in your music.


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Songwriter at pianoYou wouldn’t think of “predictability” as being a good characteristic to incorporate into music. After all, when something is predictable, it usually means that it’s been done so often that it’s obvious what’s going to happen next. Who wants to write a song like that? But one of the most important characteristics of good music is the proper balance between the predictable and the unpredictable. To put it simply, in order to build an audience base, you need to provide the listener with at least some things that are unsurprising. In that sense, predictability is a good thing in songwriting.

But getting the balance right is essential. And it’s hard to advise songwriters on how to balance these two important characteristics, but perhaps there’s a rule-of-thumb here that might help:

Between your songs’ chords, melody and lyrics, something should be predictable. Here’s what I mean by that.

Let’s say that you’ve got a chord progression that is tonally quite fragile: C  Ab  Db  G  C. [LISTEN] It starts and finishes solidly in C, but takes a little detour through Ab major before ending up back in C major.

Now let’s say that going along with the chords is a melody that similarly shows a creative bent: [LISTEN]

As you can hear, the two innovative elements together make for a rather inventive moment in your song. But in most pop genres, being overly creative in this way may scare off listeners. It might be better to try this: keep the innovative chord progression, and simplify the melody. [LISTEN]

That simpler melody acts as a kind of “anchor” that gives the listener something predictable to help them with the much more creative chord progression.

That’s what predictable elements in a song do; they act as a sort of thing the listener can tie themselves to, so to speak, so that other more innovative elements can happen. And because the listener is fixated on the predictable bit, it makes the innovative  factor a lot easier to deal with.

Here are some other bits of advice for balancing innovation and predictability within a pop song:

  1. Tame a weird chord progression by providing a predictable bass line. If your chord progression flies through several keys, and you worry that the listener will get scared off, try using chord inversions (“slash chords”) to create predictable patterns in the bass, such as scale passages. Or alternatively, use a pedal bass (i.e., keep the bass sitting on one note while the chords change above it.) This was a favourite technique of Genesis and many other progressive rock bands that were very innovative.
  2. Tame a weird lyric by attaching it to a melody comprised of predictable note patterns such as scales and arpeggios.
  3. Tame a weird melody by simplifying the rhythm and repeating lyrics.

Something else should be said here: Music that is very innovative is not a bad thing, and some of the best music written goes through a period of time where its true genius is not obvious. This happens routinely in the so-called “classical” music world. Most of the world’s greatest composers through the ages did not see a lot of fame in their own day, such was their level of innovation.

But if you’re looking to build an audience base quickly without abandoning your desire to be innovative, simply try to provide something predictable as a balance, and the innovation should work well for you.


Written by Gary Ewer, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website.
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  1. Not sure if this is good or bad but I usually stick to a common chord progression and then I like to throw in a new chord at a bridge or something. I love common tone relatives. For example, if you are in the key of C and your melody is on C, then you could change the chord to Ab.

  2. Gary,
    Really enjoying your newsletters. Excellent tips that are refining my song writing skills. When I listen to the radio I recognize so many of the things you are teaching. I have written a few ‘7 minute songs’ which I will record and post soon. Just wanted to say thank you!

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