Writing music wouldn’t hold a lot of interest for us if everything was completely predictable. We like the fact that we think we’ve written something others will like too, but then we must wait and see what the final impact on an audience is.
Over the past number of decades of pop music, there have been hits that have defied logic. They struck a chord with audiences in unexpected ways, or they incorporated some sort of musical element that went against the norm of the day.
Some examples, along with what producers of the day might have said:
- “Hey Jude” (It’s too long!)
- “Beat It” (Quincy Jones thought the intro was too long)
- “Bohemian Rhapsody” (The formal design was too complex, and the opera section too weird.)
That’s the great thing about music: it can succeed even when it seems to defy the compositional norms of the day.
It can make you wonder — what sorts of things are so common that going against the norm might actually be a good thing? Have you ever written a song that’s really grabbed your fans’ attention, even though it seems to go counter to the basic principles of pop music composition?
If you’re interested in trying your hand at writing a song that defies explanation, one that goes in a slightly different direction, here are some song elements to play with:
- Long Song Intro. Most song intros are on the short side, usually averaging 10-15 seconds in length. TRY THIS: Create a song intro that works as a mini-composition, perhaps up to a minute long, or create an instrumental solo if you’re up to it. You’ll want to be sure you don’t lose your audience’s attention (that’s the problem with long intros). So keep the instrumentation interesting, and the music relevant to the rest of the song when it eventually starts. EXAMPLE: “Sweet Child of Mine” (Guns & Roses) – a 50-second long intro.
- Major key verse, minor key chorus. It’s relatively normal to write a verse in a minor key, and then switch to major for the chorus. To do it the other way around – that’s considerably less common. TRY THIS: Create a verse in a major key, like C major, and then switch to A minor for your chorus. It’s best if the two keys are the relative major/minor of each other, and also best if your chorus melody sits higher than the verse. EXAMPLE: “Tragedy” (The Bee Gees)
- Long song. Progressive rock artists were famous for their song tunes. They solved the possible problem of audiences getting distracted or bored by making a song with several sections. TRY THIS: For lengthy songs, try using different tempos in the various sections. It helps break the song up and keeps things interesting. EXAMPLE: “Stairway to Heaven” (Also a great example of a long 1-minute intro.)
- Low pitched chorus. We know that it’s quite normal to have a chorus higher than the verse, and that’s so that there’s a natural energy build as the song progresses. TRY THIS: Find ways to ramp up the musical excitement by building instrumentation, or perhaps using a higher key in the chorus, even though the melody goes lower. EXAMPLE: “No Reply At All” (Genesis).
The thing about songs that seem to break the “rules” is that you have to trust your instincts that they’re working. But in that sense, it’s always an issue of instincts. Writing songs that stick to the accepted conventions still requires you to carefully assess what you’re writing.
The benefit of writing music that go against the expected principles is that you’re giving your audiences something new, hopefully something refreshing. Done well, “weird” music can make a positive impact and build your fan base.
Written by Gary Ewer. Follow on Twitter.
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