Predictability in Songwriting Gets an Undeserved Bad Reputation

Great songs get the balance between predictable and unpredictable just right.

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Rock bandIt may make you glow with pride if someone listens to the songs you write, and tell you that your music sounds like Bruce Springsteen, or Justin Vernon, or some other top-level singer-songwriter. But that is, of course, a double-edged sword. If you sound too much like someone else, you can be labeled a copycat – someone lacking in uniqueness or individual style.

The problem is that if you have too much of an innovative approach to songwriting, you run the wrist of being overly weird or out-of-touch with your audience. Balance, as is true of most things in music, is vital.

All good music can be seen to be a mixture of predictable musical decisions with a bit of innovation. The bit of innovation is what makes you different from everyone else, and the predictable elements is what makes you part of the in crowd.

And again, balance is vital. Sounding too much like other music that’s out there in the market may get you pegged as lacking musical imagination. You can be accused of trying to recreate music that everyone is already listening to.

But I want to stand up and make a case for predictability in music, and offer the opinion that there are worse sins in songwriting than sounding like most of the other songs in the charts. True, individuality and personal style will be a crucial part of making your own mark on the music world. But conforming (at least to a certain degree) to the styles and compositional practices of the day has always been part of being a composer of music.

Even aficionados of Classical music will often find it difficult to hear significant differences between the music of Haydn and Mozart. They both lived at the same time, and both conformed to a similar style of composition. The differences in writing style between those two composers were minimal, and both were seen to be the greatest composers of their day. Similarity did not get them labeled as uncreative or unimaginative.

I love music that sounds unique, and I am certainly not trying to make a case against being innovative. I would sum up my thoughts on this topic by saying: the fact that your songs may sound very similar to other music being written today is not an indication of a musical problem on your part. It’s more likely to be a sign that you understand what society is listening to these days, and know how to apply that knowledge to your own compositional style.

And regarding compositional style, think of it as a herb that gets added to a meal. Everyone makes spaghetti sauce, and practically everyone will know that it’s mainly tomatoes. Beyond that, you add a few herbs and spices of your own, and suddenly that sauce becomes yours, unique and distinct.

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Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow on Twitter.

“The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” 6-eBook Bundle looks at songwriting from every angle, and has been used by thousands of songwriters. How to use chords, write melodies, and craft winning lyrics. $95.70 $37.00 (and you’ll receive a FREE copy of “From Amateur to Ace: Writing Songs Like a Pro.“)

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4 Comments

  1. The Beatles borrowed all the time, but as the last person states know one who buys those records would know or care, The public in general do not recognise Borrowed chord sequences. Original Titles can often be the making of a Great song, sadly so many beginning writers, either ignore it or are not creative enough to think slightly out of the box.

    A fusion of what is happening today on this planet , coupled with awell worn theeme
    can often lead to a great title and a Great song, but few can seem to find that magic connection.

  2. You hit the proverbial nail on it’s head with this one, Gary, as always. I used to become defensive when folks pointed out similarities between my songs and others’ but I learned to embrace what they’re REALLY saying, that it sounds “right”. As I guess most songwriters have felt, often your most well-liked stuff will be your “poppiest” sounding.

    It’s great that you mentioned Justin Vernon, one of the masters, I agree. Writes glorious pop songs that start out as indie rock. Sometimes, after I’ve been listening to him for a while I’ll guiltily think, I want to write a song just like one of his, but interestingly what comes out only feels like the original song to me – others can’t hear it. So it seems to come down to understanding how you want a song to feel: and that’s how I’m mostly writing these days, trying to perfectly capture a feeling; while unashamedly borrowing and even stealing from others if necessary. No-one’ll ever know…

  3. Hello Gary, I bought your resources a while back. Your books cured an aspect of music I didn’t fully understand until recently and it has been a blessing. Your blog post sits well with my current opinion of the music industry. I’ve decided to create a resource of my own for a new age of song writing producers arming them with the tools and knowledge for them to be creative on demand and also help them find themselves in music. I would like to promote your books as a course specifically to song writing. How do you feel about this?

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