Innovation will make your music unique, but could negatively impact your audience base.
Every songwriter I know wants to stand out from the rest. While it’s important to be able to be innovative, and present music to the world that sounds unique and fresh, there’s always a danger that being innovative will scare listeners away and make it difficult to build a fan base.
If building that fan base is your main focus, you will need to know that while most good music is a mix of predictable with innovative elements, music that appeals to the masses will be heavily balanced toward being predictable.
Getting the balance right is like walking the proverbial tightrope. Music that’s too predictable will be like a flash in the pan: immediately accessible, but with little long-term staying power. Music that’s too innovative come across as insular, exclusive, and pretentious.
So how do you write songs that are innovative enough to grab people’s attention, but not so creative that they simply scare most of your potential audience base away? Here are some ideas:
- Lyrics. Learning to create well-crafted, innovative lyrics is something that takes time and experience. And (though we often hate this word) study. Innovative lyrics will often read like poetry, while typical Hot-100 lyrics often read like an adolescent’s journal. So it’s worth the time to study great lyricists and then practice the art of lyric-writing. Some lyricists to study: Imogen Heap, Bon Iver, Elvis Costello, and a songwriter I’ve only recently been enjoying: Kate Havnevik, whose lyrics are very simply constructed, but very evocative.
- Chord progressions. Chords are a tricky thing to be innovative with, because the chords you choose are similar to the land you choose to build a house on: it needs to be stable and supportive. Having said that, there are ways to be a bit more creative than basic I-IV-V harmonies. Try increasing your chord palette by adding a good dose of altered chords. If you’d like a short lesson in what altered chords are, and how to use them, read this blog post I did on that topic.
- Melodies. One way to create melodies that sound more innovative and unpredictable is to play around with the phrase lengths and time signatures. We know that most pop songs feature melodies that are constructed to be in 2-, 4- or 8-bar phrases, usually in 4/4 time. So try changing things up a bit with some innovative time signatures and phrasings. You might experiment with 3- or 5-bar phrases, and try odd time signatures such as 5/4 or 7/4.
- Song forms. It doesn’t take much to make a song form feel innovative. Keep in mind that all song forms have the same purpose: to allow the contrast principle to work. One section differs from the next in measurable ways. But simply creating contrasting sections that follow each other might be a bit too unstructured, so here’s an idea: start with something predictable, like a verse-chorus structure, and add new sections in and around that form. That means your final song might be: Instrumental intro – Verse – Instrumental – Verse – Chorus – Change key – New verse melody – old chorus melody… and so on.
- Instrumentation. When The Beatles’ “Sergeant Pepper” album came out, George Harrison’s “Within You Without You” was a topic of great interest, mainly because the instrumentation. (It’s also a great example of odd phrase lengths and time signatures, as described above). Incorporating non-standard instruments is a great way to have your song stand out from the pack.
Don’t forget that when all is said and done, innovation for innovation’s sake will sound pretentious and confusing. A little bit of innovation goes a long way, so of the five ideas listed above, you might want to focus on one or two components at a time. You may find that all you really need is one small idea to make your entire song sound fresh and new.
Written by Gary Ewer
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