Stop worrying if your songs break the rules. There are no rules.
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In songwriting we rightly speak of principles more than we speak of rules. To say that there are rules means that straying from them is a mistake. Nothing in the arts is a rule. You can speak of guidelines, principles and basic songwriting theory, but if you’re writing to a set of rules I can guarantee you that you’re writing boring music.
This is important to remember because you will occasionally write a song that seems to defy the common way things are done, to the extent where it almost seems that rules are being broken. But the only rule I know if is: there are no rules.
I believe strongly in following basic songwriting principles, because those principles are based on decades of observation. When we say, for example, that chord progressions should be mainly strong and short in a chorus, that’s a concept that’s based on thousands of songs that show that basic principle.
But you may have written a song where the chorus progression takes the listener on a fascinating journey using secondary dominant chords and other altered chords, like Elton John’s “Someone Saved My Life Tonight.” I wonder if anyone would have said to Elton, “Great tune, Elton, but the melodies are too long, and the chord progressions go on forever!” I hope not, because we can tell that that song works, and works really well.
Principles only speak of how the majority of songs have been created in the past, and like everything in the arts, principles can evolve.
So here are some thoughts for you to consider as you compose your songs:
- Resist the temptation to correct a song that works. The danger is that you may have created a gorgeous piece of music that actually defies the basic principles of how most music works. But if it’s working, you can damage that unique musical experience by fixing something that should be left alone.
- There are no rules. But having said that, if you find that you song isn’t working or sounds boring, it could be fixed by analyzing it, and seeing if some important principles have been violated.
- Consider tempo and key when fixing a song. If a song isn’t working, it’s normal to automatically focus on tangible elements such as melody, lyrics and chord progressions. But it will surprise you that sometimes it’s the intangible elements such as tempo and key that need some attention. So before changing the melody or chords, try singing your song higher or lower, or move the tempo around and see if things improve.
- Develop an ability to listen to your music objectively. It’s a useful exercise to record your song, and then put it away for a week or more. Then listen to it again as if it’s someone else’s song. This is so important. Songwriting can sometimes make you near-sighted, and your ability to hear your music the way someone else is hearing it is a skill you need to develop.
- Develop the confidence to know the difference between mistakes and charming uniqueness. The difference is that a mistake feels wrong right away, while charming uniqueness makes your song sound different from anything else you’ve heard, but you love that about it.
One final bit of advice: develop friendships and connections with other songwriters, join songwriting circles, and consider the advice of other writer’s who are also trying to make their music sound better. Other songwriters usually can hear when something doesn’t sound right, and they often have the musical vocabulary to be able to explain clearly what’s not sitting well with them.
And remember: Resist the temptation to fix a song that works!
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