Every song you write needs something distinctive that sets it apart from everything else you’ve written.
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Sometimes you just like a song because it’s got energy and drive, and stays out of the way of itself in a really captivating way. It’s easy to fault dance tunes for being a bit light on musical ideas, but it’s intentional, and it usually works.
Michael Jackson’s “Don’t Stop Til You Get Enough“, from “Off the Wall”, is a good model for this kind of music. It’s well done, and though the lyrics are actually quite good, it derives its life from the rhythmic groove coupled with the excellence of the instrumental performance.
The rhythm and beat of dance music is what you might call a “captivating ingredient.” When it’s working, the lyrics don’t need to be overly clever or enticing, and chords and melodies can get away with being very repetitive.
But of course, not all music is dance music, and when beat and rhythm don’t rise to the top in musical importance, what else is there that makes music interesting?
The captivating ingredient for any one song will often differ from the captivating ingredient for other songs. The point is, you need to be able to take each and every song you write, and ask yourself, “What is its captivating ingredient?” There are other ways to ask the same question:
- Why would anyone want to listen to this song?
- What sets this song apart from every other song I’ve written?
- What is this song’s distinguishing characteristic?
- Why would someone return to this song tomorrow?
- What is the part of this song that people will be humming long after they’ve finished listening?
If you’ve recently finished a song, or are about to, ask yourself those five questions. If you find that you get stumped, unable to really answer, you’ve at least identified an important problem, and now you can set about to fix it.
Not every song will be a hit. Producers know that. Sometimes a song is excellent but won’t necessarily get the attention of a large enough population base to make it a hit. But even in (and you might say especially in) those cases, there needs to be something interesting that happens, something that sets it apart and sets it up.
If your song is limping along without a specific reason for living, here are the usual suspects, and what you can do:
- Boring instrumental performance. Work with your band, try to inject musical motifs (recurring instrumental ideas) that can serve as building blocks for a good instrumental accompaniment.
- Boring melody. If nothing is standing out as being memorable or hummable, look for ways to insert a melodic leap or other kind of interesting moment.
- Boring lyrics. A good lyric is more than recounting a story. Lyric writing gets easier and better the more you study the lyrics of good writers. Make lyrics clever but not overly so. Good lyrics will sometimes use a mix of astute observation, clever humour and metaphor.
- Boring chord progression. More often than not a a boring progression just needs a bit of help, and trying to be too complex with your chords can lead to disaster. So try some simple modifications to a basic progression such as using inversions (slash chords), implied chords (i.e., accompany a verse melody with just the bass) here and there.
And one other important point. Any song longer than 4 minutes needs to be looked at carefully to make certain that it’s not going on too long. Some songs need to be longer to accommodate instrumental solos, but if your song is 6 minutes long because there are 4-6 verses, you’d better be sure that those are very captivating verses. And usually they aren’t, so don’t be shy to cut the song down to something a bit shorter.
Written by Gary Ewer. Follow on Twitter.
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