How Working Backwards Through a Song Strengthens Its Structure

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Songwriting music paperWhen you plan a traveling vacation for yourself, it’s normal to think first of what your trip’s most significant event or day or city is going to be. From there, you plan out the rest of the trip, both forward and backward in time, using that significant event as a focal point. In particular, you’ll probably think about how you’re going to get to that city — what’s going to lead up to it.

By establishing the climactic moment of your trip first, you can make it even more eventful, even if it’s just one memorable happening in a trip-full of memorable happenings. Once you know, for example, that viewing the Eiffel Tower is your dream, you can now plan the days that lead up to it, making that day all the more special.

Songs are not much different. Most of them will have a climactic moment, and most of the time, that moment will be somewhere in the chorus. So now you know why many songwriters start the process by creating a chorus hook, something that represents the song’s catchiest moment. From there, it’s possible to create all the moments that lead up to it, and that strengthens its structure.

In that way, you work backwards, and then test how things sound by checking forwards. Here are some specific suggestions:

Lyrics: A chorus lyric will tell the world exactly what the song is about, because identifying the emotion of the moment (something a chorus does quite naturally) identifies exactly why a listener is going to engage with your song. Once you know that much, you can create a verse lyric that builds properly, making the chorus lyric more poignant and powerful. You have an opportunity to write a verse that knows already exactly where it’s going.

Melody: Part of what makes a climactic moment powerful is that it is usually the highest note of your melody. So once you know where that is, you can construct melodic shapes that lead into it from below. It will set up the climactic moment in the chorus perfectly.

Chord Progressions: The sense of randomness that comes from many weak chord progressions is often made worse by the feeling that the progression has no specific aim: no obvious tonic chord. This can work to your advantage in a verse, but if you really want a chorus progression that works well, try working backwards. Play the tonic chord (the one representing the key of your song), then add a chord in front of it. Once you’ve got two that sound good, place another in front, and so on. By working backwards, then checking forwards, you create strong progressions that work really well in a chorus.

Good songwriting is often a case of working backwards and checking forwards. When it’s done well, the listener never gets any idea that many of the song’s important elements were composed specifically to make a later event sound better. As far as the audience is concerned, songs only work in a forward direction. But that shouldn’t prevent you from exploring the benefits of working backwards.


Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow on Twitter.

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  1. I have occasionally written the climax to the song first, but normally, I write in a fairly linear fashion, starting with the first verse. I can’t believe that I never thought of doing this before; it makes so much sense.

    I love the books and I love the daily posts; they have both helped me tremendously. THIS ONE, is coming at a perfect time. I am going to be writing some songs to order, and starting with the emotional climax will make it much easier to fit the rest of the pieces into the puzzle.

    Thanks too much!

  2. Pingback: Interesting Links For Musicians and Songwritiers – October 17, 2014 | Creative Music | Inspiring Musical Creativity

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