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Musicians, whether performers or songwriters, have a challenge that never goes away: addressing the predictability/innovation paradox. The paradox: all songs contain things a listener expects to hear, contrasted with things that are original and, to some degree, unusual.
Get the balance right, and you’ve got the makings of a potential hit. Get the balance wrong, no matter in which direction, the end result is listener boredom. Songs that are too predictable leave listeners feeling like they’ve heard it all before, and they will go looking for something else to interest them. Songs that are too innovative leave listeners feeling confused and mystified about what you’re trying to do, and again, they’ll go looking for something else.
Looking at this paradox from a performer’s point of view means finding ways to make your performances exciting and new, but not so new that your audience gets confused about what you’re trying to do. This is possibly one of the most important tasks that producers deal with: making your music sound fresh but not overly weird. It’s why musicians and producers often butt heads in the studio: the performer wants to journey out into new uncharted waters, and the producer fears losing audience.
Songwriters have the same challenge, but the details of that challenge are different. Some of the best songs in any genre being written today are still conforming to the verse-chorus-bridge formal design, so obviously it’s possible to be innovative enough while using decades-old (centuries-old, actually) templates.
But how should you as a songwriter ensure that the music you’re writing is fresh? “Fresh”, in songwriting terms, simply means that your songs are “innovative enough.” Fresh means that you’re offering your audience something they’ve never heard before, at least not from you, and they feel inclined to follow you to see where it all leads?
Here are 5 ideas for keeping your songs fresh from a songwriter’s point-of-view:
- Try a “new” time signature. Most of the songs written in any genre today are in a standard 4/4 time signature, the one that results in the alternating strong beat-weak beat pattern. So try a 3/4 meter (also called triple time or waltz time): a strong beat followed by two weak beats. Examples: “She’s Leaving Home” (The Beatles), “Boxing” (Ben Folds Five).
- Try an extended instrumental intro. This is tricky (and not necessarily a songwriting issue), because songs with long intros might have a negative impact on an audience who usually just wants the song to get going. But an instrumental solo can be a great way to start a song if it’s well-played. (Example: Piano Man by Billy Joel). And if extended solos aren’t your thing, simply getting some interesting sounds out there before the verse begins can do a lot to keep your song sounding creative. For example, give the intro to “The Mother We Share” (Chvrches) a listen.
- Try non-standard instruments. The Beatles used string quartet, sitar and other instrumental groupings not usually heard in pop music. It’s a good way to make otherwise unremarkable music sound exciting and new.
- Try changing tempo during a song. Most songs will end with the same tempo that it started with. But you can grab some attention by making tempo changes in the middle of a song. Be careful though – a tempo change will become predictable if you use that technique too often. Some examples? “Stairway to Heaven” (Led Zeppelin) , “Bohemian Rhapsody” (Queen), and “Paranoid Android” (Radiohead).
- Try adding vocals-only sections. Dropping the instruments and switching to vocals only, as in Queen’s “The Prophet’s Song” from their “A Night at the Opera” album, can be dramatic and attention-getting, to say the least. It will require you to write good vocals, and for this you may need to get some musical-technical advice. And you need to practice a lot, because vocals only will sound horrible if they sound out of tune.
Gary Ewer is the author of “Beating Songwriter’s Block: Jump-Start Your Words and Music“, now available on Amazon and other online sites. He’s also written a set of songwriting manuals, “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” 6-eBook Bundle, designed to get you writing better songs. Read more..