6 Characteristics That You Find in Almost All Songs

No matter what your favourite songwriting genre is, you’ll find these similarities between them all.

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City buildings with musical notationImagine that you’ve been plucked up and placed in an unknown city, someplace you’ve never been before. You start to explore, not knowing what’s beyond the next turn. Obviously, you feel lost. But even though you’re somewhere you’ve never been, you start to see similarities to other cities that are known to you. For example, you turn a corner, and notice that you’re in a restaurant district. So while you don’t know this city, you start to see food establishments and fast food chains that look familiar.

That mix of the unknown and the familiar causes a kind of happy excitement, a feeling that even though you’re someplace new, you’re seeing a lot of the same kind of sights, and hearing the same sorts of sounds, that you might hear in any other city. It gives you a sense of knowing where you are, a sense of predictability that’s actually comforting.

Audiences approach new songs in the same way. There’s no way they can know, from one moment to the next, what a new song will sound like. But, just as all cities have a restaurant district, a business district, a residential zone, and so on, most songs similarly share basic characteristics: a verse, a chorus, a basic rhythm, etc. In a way, most songs share a comforting sense of predictability.

So what are the characteristics that all songs seem to have in common, no matter what the genre? Take a look at the following list, and see if the songs you are writing show these important features:

  1. Songs usually build energy as they proceed. Whether by using instrumentation, melodic range, dynamics (i.e., loudness), tempo, and rhythmic intensity, the end of your song should usually come across as more energetic than the beginning.
  2. A song’s chord progressions should proceed from fragile to strong. A fragile progression is one that is perhaps tonally ambiguous or meandering, while a strong progression is one that clearly points to a tonic note and chord. Verse and bridge progressions can be fragile, but chorus progressions should be short and strong.
  3. A song should show a steady harmonic rhythm. The term harmonic rhythm refers to how long you play a chord before moving on to the next one. Most songs will keep that pattern fairly steady, changing chords every 4 or 8 beats.
  4. A song should show a strong relationship between melodic shape, lyrics and chords. When a melody rises to a high point, it’s usually for a good reason: you want to highlight something significant in the lyric. Good songs show a clear and important relationship between all components, to get the message across.
  5. A song’s chorus will feature the tonic note and chord more often than the verse. The tonic note is the one that represents the key your song is in. It acts as a strong sense of “home”, and so chorus melodies are usually written to place special significance on that note and its accompanying chord. Verses can wander a bit more, avoiding the tonic note. But choruses need to feature that note as an important goal.
  6. Chorus melodies usually sit higher in pitch than verse melodies. That’s because the human voice generates more energy in its upper range, and we obviously want more energy to occur in a chorus than in a verse.

Innovation in songwriting is a good thing. It sets you apart from other songwriters. But in amongst the innovation, listeners need to feel that pleasant sense of predictability. They need to know that songs may be new, but that doesn’t mean that they are totally unpredictable to the point of sounding chaotic.

So don’t fear that structuring your songs into verses and choruses makes your music too predictable. Don’t worry that like most songs, your chorus melody is higher than your verse. Those are the elements of predictability that help give your audience musical comfort in amongst the unknown.

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Written by Gary Ewer, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website.
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