It’s a good question: Can a song be successful even though it violates some of the basic principles of good songwriting? Yes, though it doesn’t happen a lot. Most of the time, we can point to the various parts of a song and see how it is reinforcing principles that have been around for ages. It’s how we can actually study music and get better.
How can music, which goes against some of the basic and important principles of good structure, wind up sounding good? Well, that’s the arts for you! When music sounds great, we can know most of the time why it’s sounding great. But then there’s a part of good music which means that it sounds really fine, with no good way or reason for knowing why.
The writers of “A Horse With No Name,” who used the same two chords for the entirety of the song, in the verses, the chorus and the bridge, might have been advised that a bridge needs something different. Neneh Cherry’s Manchild, which uses chords that don’t often seem to fit together, and Genesis’ “No Reply At All“, which places the chorus melody considerably lower in pitch than the verse — these are but a few examples of songs that work despite their “violations.”
The success of music that strays from principles is why I usually advise songwriters to avoid overly-analyzing or scrutinizing their own music if it’s working well. If the song sounds good, it’s good. And it won’t matter if you put the magnifying glass on that song and find all the ways that it violates principles. Once a song is great, it makes any discussion of breaking of rules moot.
That is meant in no way to advocate willingly going against all the established norms of music. But for the sake of a bit of uniqueness, you’ll probably find yourself side-stepping principles, hopefully in a positive, creative way.
I never like to think about rules when it comes to songwriting, and much prefer the term principles. A rule dictates, while a principle simply prescribes a course of action without insistence.
And so a principle will nudge you in the right direction, and will be forgiving of all the times you might stray a bit in order to make your musical point.
If, ultimately, the partnership of all the musical elements means that you create something enticing for the listener and pleasing to their ears, the straying from the principle has worked. That’s music composition at its best.
Written by Gary Ewer (Follow on Twitter)
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