Your Music, the Captivating Ingredient, and 5 Important Questions

Every song you write needs something distinctive that sets it apart from everything else you’ve written.

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Michael Jackson - Don't Stop Til You Get EnoughSometimes 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:

  1. Why would anyone want to listen to this song?
  2. What sets this song apart from every other song I’ve written?
  3. What is this song’s distinguishing characteristic?
  4. Why would someone return to this song tomorrow?
  5. 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.


Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow on Twitter.

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  1. Gary, thanks for the excellent posts.
    Can you comment on changing chords during passing notes? Our guitarist Bill likes to write tune intros with fairly rapid Everly Bros-style chord changes – that’s fine.
    He then goes on to write the verse tune but insists on changing some chords on the passing notes, e.g. a line like the Everly’s “… Wake up little Suzie and weep …” (key of D) would be awarded a quick extra C on the “and”. This grates on my ear.
    Your words of wisdom would be much appreciated.

    • Hi Robert:

      The concept you’re talking about here is called the harmonic rhythm. How often you change chords in a song should be relatively steady. For many songs, holding a chord for 4 or 8 beats is common. Sometimes songwriters get confused and think that every note of a melody needs to be accommodated by the chord beneath it, and that’s not necessarily true. You can create a natural sounding progression if you choose a chord that: 1) takes into account the melody notes on the strong beats (especially the first beat), and 2) accommodates as many of the other notes in the bar as possible. Not all notes will be chord members. For example, “Groovy Kind of Love” uses chords for which most melody notes don’t exist in the accompanying chords.

      Once in a while it can sound exciting to have a chord quickly injected into the harmonic rhythm. The opening of “I Want to Hold Your Hand” might be a good example of that. But other than those anomalies, it’s best to keep to a 4-beat or 8-beat harmonic rhythm.

      Hope that helps,

      • Gary

        Thanks very much for the advice on harmonic rhythm.

        Could I ask another question? I document songs for the band by aligning the lyrics document, notation and DAW tracks in standard sections, i.e. Intro, V1, V2 etc. in the usual way.

        Question: When there are pickup beats, is it conventional for the verse markers to start at the main downbeat? Or at the bar which includes the pickup, e.g. in the example below, does Verse 1 (V1) begin at “weak” (2nd red arrow) or at the beginning? The former seems to make for greater elegance in the DAW track, having 8 bars to the verse (rather than 9).

        Your advice much appreciated.


  2. Thank you for your daily posts on songwriting. It has helped me a lot this past few months.

    Sent via BlackBerry by AT&T

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