Though risky, adding something unique in the design of your song can pay off.
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It’s a tricky tightrope to walk: writing a song that sounds enough like the others that it comes across as being part of what’s great out there, while at the same time trying to be unique. The problem with uniqueness is that it can be risky. It can succeed, like “Bohemian Rhapsody” did, or it can flop because it scares your base away.
Uniqueness in music can happen at the songwriting level, which means either that it’s the melody, the chords, the lyrics or some other element that stands out as being different, or the internal structure itself. It can also happen at the production level, which means that you’re adding something a bit off the beaten track when it comes to instrumentation, sound or recording effects, or some other element.
If you’re looking to write a song that has uniqueness built in before you ever get to a studio to record it, here are some ideas.
- Create unique chord progressions. As you know, chord progressions are not protected by copyright, and that’s because it’s nigh unto impossible to create one that no one has heard before. Having said that, some progressions are very distinctive when paired up with a particular tempo, instrumentation and harmonic rhythm. So The Beach Boys managed to make the verse progression to “God Only Knows” uniquely theirs, in the sense that it would be hard to make it your own if you used it in your own song. (Especially the middle part: E/B Cdim E/B A#dim A). As long as your progression makes sense on some level (i.e., it seems to be pointing to one chord as the tonic), it’s still possible to create something practically unique.
- Create unique melodic shapes. Most melodies will move by step with occasional leaps. So try something a bit riskier: try writing a melody that uses mainly leaps for at least part of it. In “Just Give Me a Reason” (P!nk and Ruess), you can hear that the chorus melody uses a downward leaping arpeggio as its main motif, and it’s distinctive, catchy and enjoyable to listen to. Try working out a melody that puts two or more upward leaps together. It’s not easy because it depends a lot on vocal range. But in so doing, you’ll be creating something unique that can get some attention.
- Create a unique formal design. Because we know that energy builds as a song progresses, it makes a lot of sense to start songs with a verse and then move to a chorus. But try mixing things up. Ultimately, the most important design element is to contrast sections that are next to each other. So try something unique: Instrumental solo – verse 1 – bridge – verse 2 – chorus – chorus – Instrumental solo. In that suggestion, the bridge should be in the “opposite mode” to your verse key. So if your song is in G major, try a bridge in E minor.
Any time you do something surprising, you set your song apart from others. That’s good, but there is always a risk. Listeners enjoy hearing tried & true aspects of music. It’s why so many songs on the Billboard Hot 100 at any one time sound so similar to each other. Uniqueness is risky, but it’s often what it takes to get attention in the songwriting world.
Written by Gary Ewer. Follow on Twitter.
Download “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” 6-eBook Bundle, which includes “Chord Progression Formulas”, a great way to create dozens of progressions in any key.