5 Questions Every Songwriter Needs to Answer

If you can answer ‘yes’ to these 5 questions, your song is probably a good one.

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Rock band in concertThere’s a fine line that must be trod when writing songs: the line between innovation and tradition. Tradition is what makes us feel comfortable, because we’ve seen it before, and innovation is what makes us feel excited, because it’s new.

That’s the positive take on those two words. But like most things in life, there is an important caveat with both. Tradition means it’s been done before, so we risk losing audience from boredom. And innovation will usually pull audiences into uncharted waters, and so losing the audience is again a risk.

Every good songwriter finds the balance between the two. You want enough innovation that your songs sound fresh, but you don’t want so much that they just sound confusing.

In any case, once you’re done your song, if you fear that you’ve been too innovative, or, conversely, too set in the old ways, here are five important questions to ask yourself. If the answers to all of them are “yes,” you’ve got the balance just right:

  1. No matter how complex the songwriting topic is, did I use common, everyday words? (You’d be surprised how intricate a picture you can paint for your audience by simply using words that are in common usage.)
  2. Does the song melody have an interesting shape? (If you can hear that it moves in a generally upward direction at one point, then switching at some other point to move in a different direction, that’s the kind of thing that’s good. If your melody moves up and down randomly without regard to shape, in an attempt to be innovative, it’s too confusing for audiences, and can’t be easily remembered. “Always On My Mind” (written by Johnny Christopher, Mark James and Wayne Carson and sung by Willie Nelson, is a perfect model.)
  3. Does the tonic (key) chord play an important role in most of the chord progressions? (Most progressions should represent a journey away from or toward the tonic chord. This is more true of a chorus than a verse, but in any case, the tonic should stand out as important.)
  4. Once I’ve recorded the song, is the way I’ve used instruments at all interesting? (Your band may need to be told what to play and when to play. Choruses should be more filled out than verses.)
  5. Have I thought of a unique angle with my song topic? (Yes, most songs are still about love, on some level. But if you’re simply writing a “Hey, baby, I love you, you mean everything to me” kind of lyric, don’t expect audiences to be enticed by that. You need to create images, pull listeners in with a unique take on your subject, and dig deep into the actual meaning of your lyric.)

Some songs work even if you give a “no” to one of the questions above. That’s because songs are intricate partnerships between various song elements, and that partnership can be (and often is) stronger than any one element on its own. Resist the temptation to fix a song that’s working!


Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow on Twitter.

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