Stevie Wonder in a Recording Session

Why We Like Songwriting Formulas

It’s probably a product of the age in which we live, but once we’ve invented or created an item, our mind moves quickly to how we can mass produce that item for maximum profit. Songwriting isn’t much different, and that’s probably why songwriters talk a lot about formulas.

In songwriting, a formula is a system or procedure that can produce good songs. It is the musical equivalent of mass production of an item, like perhaps a car. The main difference, of course, is that mass-producing a car successfully means that you’ve created thousands or millions of vehicles that all look exactly the same, while a songwriting formula results in (hopefully) unique songs.

The benefit of formulas is that they give the audience something that’s been successful before, and will hopefully be successful again.

The problem with formulas is that even though the songs must be unique, there can sometimes be an unpleasant quality of sameness. Songs written to conform to an established formula often share a similar sound, formal design, and instrumentation.

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The sameness I’m talking about is usually purposeful. For example, the Motown sound used an immediately recognizable instrumentation, with their iconic bass lines, horn sections and orchestrations. Songs were based on an older gospel style of writing, complete with call and response melodies and standard, tonally strong chord progressions. There was a lot more to it than that, of course, but the formula was important to the success of the Motown label.

That usage of the word “formula” pertains mainly to how the song was treated in the studio during the recording process, and in that sense, all songs are put through a formulaic process to appeal to the expectations of today’s buying public.

For you as a songwriter, there’s another usage of the word formula that applies to how you design your song. The verse-chorus-bridge format is a kind of formula. So is the fact that your song is 4 minutes long, and might have a minor verse that moves to a major chorus.

The problem with formulas from a songwriter’s point of view happens when you apply a similar approach to all of your own songs. If one hundred songwriters, for example, write a song that features a minor key verse moving to a major key chorus, that’s not as much of a problem as if you write one hundred songs, all of which have a minor verse and major chorus.

That’s because one hundred songwriters all have their own writing style, apart from key, that makes enough differentiation that no one notices the key choice from verse to chorus.

The danger with songwriting formulas is that your audience starts to feel that they’ve heard your song before, and that’s before they even hear the song in its entirety.

So how do you avoid the problems that can arise from formulaic songwriting? Here are some bits of advice:

  1. Avoid starting consecutive songs in the same key.
  2. Experiment with time signatures (4/4 is most common, so try 6/8, 3/4, or non-standard meters such as 5/8 or 7/8).
  3. Avoid writing all your songs on the same instrument. Even if you don’t play an instrument well, you’ll come up with more interesting melodies and chord structures if you switch instruments from song to song. Try getting ideas from mandolin, bass, flute, or any other instrument you can lay your hands on.
  4. Try writing a song where you don’t label each section as a verse or chorus. Songs need contrast, and that’s why verse-chorus formats work so well. But try not labeling a section as being anything other than “this section.” The Beatles’ “Happiness is a Warm Gun”, from the White Album, is a good example of this. It’s one distinct section following another, with little concern for the verse-chorus “requirement.”
  5. Add something non-standard into the middle of an otherwise predictable, formula-based song. For example, try changing the tempo in the middle (“Say You, Say Me” – Lionel Ritchie), add a solo instrument that’s not often used (the flute in “California Dreamin'”), or pull two short songs or song ideas together (“Cry Baby Cry”/”Can You Take Me Back” – Lennon & McCartney)

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter

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