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Balancing Innovation and Predictability in Songwriting

It’s a normal desire for songwriters to place a high priority on building a fan base. Your purpose in writing might be to express your thoughts and opinions in your own musical style – whether or not it makes friends or enemies – but it’s rare to do that with no thought to bringing a few fans along for the ride.

Style is one of those loaded terms that is hard to pinpoint. For any one songwriter, style might refer to:

  1. one’s own particular sound within a given genre; or
  2. one’s own particular way of expressing his/her thoughts, feelings or opinions.

With regard to the first point, your sound is determined by many possible factors:

  1. choice of chords;
  2. melodic shapes and ideas;
  3. specific approach to the writing of lyrics;
  4. instrumentation/production decisions;
  5. anything else that sets your music apart from anyone else’s.

In describing all of those elements, there’s an overriding issue: does your music tend toward being predictable, or toward being innovative?

Contrasting Predictable with Innovative

Predictable music is anything that conforms to characteristics that are normal for your chosen genre. To some extent practically every song written will exhibit some aspect of predictability. Just the fact that your song is in a key, no matter how strange other characteristics of your song might sound, is an aspect of predictability.

Any time you stray from the conventional norms of your genre, you move away from predictability and toward uniqueness or innovation. If you find that your music sounds like a mashup of metal with country, you’re moving into something that’s not much done, and you’ve strayed into the realm of the unpredictable.

But there’s a potential problem with both predictability and innovation in music: innovation tends to scare listeners away, especially new listeners who haven’t learned to trust your musical instincts yet. Conversely, predictability runs the risk of boring listeners who are looking for something new.

Much of The Beatle’s music from Rubber Soul onward could be described as being quite innovative for its day. It worked massively well for them, however, because they had built a loyal following at that point, and many were willing to ride the wave of innovation, such was the public’s level of trust.

Striking the Right Balance

Are you looking to get serious about building on your audience base? If so, you need to strike a balance between predictability and uniqueness, with that balance being considerably more toward what’s expected rather than what’s unique.

And what is the proper balance? It really depends on what you’ve done in your songwriting already and how much of a loyal following you already have. If you’ve got a large following of interested, trusting fans, you’d be surprised by how much you can surprise your fans with a totally new approach. Challenge them!

But if you’re starting out and want to get a fan base established, incorporating too many innovative, unexpected elements might have an adverse affect on those who are just discovering you.

There is no one right answer here, but in order to build a healthy fan base for your music, consider these tips:

  1. Good songs have historically between those that use lyrics that give listeners something to think about, such that they feel compelled to return to the song multiple times.
  2. Good songs succeed on a musical level, whether that music tends toward something innovative (“strange”) or something predictable (“expected”).
  3. Good songs usually have something unique to offer the listener, something that sets it apart from other songs in the genre.
  4. Feature musical strangeness in one element (lyrics, say), and keep other aspects more predictable (melodic structure, for example).
  5. Good songs follow strangeness with something predictable.

As you build your core base of listeners, you’ll start to realize that more and more of your fans are willing to accept new and interesting ideas from you. Innovative music has a way of cementing loyal fans, albeit more slowly.

The balance will ultimately need to be up to you.


Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

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  1. Pingback: Balancing Innovation and Predictability in Songwriting - The Hit Songwriting Formula | The Hit Songwriting Formula

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