Every now and then I clean up my Inbox and give a quick re-read of the emails I’ve received from songwriters for the past while. Those emails serve as a reminder to me of what issues up-and-coming songwriters are dealing with, and the best way to solve them.
Here’s a quick summary, in no particular order, of five of the most recent and common songwriting problems, and some suggestions for how to improve. I wonder which ones you’re dealing with? Hopefully the suggestions below will be a help. And if you have any suggestions of your own for similar problems for which you’ve found your own unique solution, please feel free to share them in the comments section.
Problem #1: Lyrics lacking in structure. Lyrics actually progress through a song. So avoid “stream-of-consciousness” writing. If you tend to ramble with lyrics, you will confuse your listeners and leave them bored. SOLUTION: Try to make verse lyrics observational in character, where you describe situations, circumstances and people. Progress to chorus lyrics, which is your opportunity to emote and tell the world how you feel about what’s going on.
Problem #2: Instrumental music lacking a solid melody. An instrumental tune is not a song devoid of melody. If that were the case, the best examples of instrumental music – classical music — would have no melodies. In fact, an instrumental needs melodies every bit as much as sung music needs melodies. SOLUTION: Hum your new instrumental to yourself. Better yet, record yourself humming your instrumental, and listen to it. Does it sound like a catchy melody with a good dose of repetition? If not, you need to go back and work out a melody that people will be able to hum to themselves. If they can’t sing it, they likely won’t remember it.
Problem #3: Song sections that are too long. And by extension, the related problem: songs that are too long. Remember that one of the challenges of music in the pop genres is that most songs are short – between 3 and 4 minutes. How to get a short piece of music to sound like a complete musical journey… that’s the challenge. SOLUTION: If your song is 5 minutes in length or longer, look at each section and try to see which section is the one that’s too long. It might be that your intro is simply too lengthy for the rest of the song. Or perhaps your verse goes on far too long. Remember that one section should sound like it’s seeking out the next section. If it sounds like it’s simply rambling, find ways to shorten it.
Problem #4: No obvious plan to the song’s musical energy. It’s a principle of songwriting that the energy at the end of the song should be the same or greater than the energy at the beginning. But the normal plan is to have low intensity in the verses, then higher in the choruses. So the song energy is working well if it describes an up-and-down pattern. SOLUTION: Use instrumentation, backing vocals and rhythmic complexity to craft a sensible energy plan for your song. Minimize the energy of verses, and build things up for your choruses.
Problem # 5: Melodies that all sit in and around the same 3 or 4 notes. Sometimes you’ll notice that the melodies you’ve written for your verse and chorus tend to sit around the same several pitches. Consequently, there’s no real lift or attraction when the verse moves on to the chorus, and the song feels a bit flat. SOLUTION: Look for ways to use higher notes in your chorus. If that’s not possible (due to limitations of your vocal range, for example), look for ways to lower the pitches you use for the verse.
One of the best ways to assess your own songs is to develop the ability to listen objectively. Try listening to your song as if someone has written it and is singing it to you. Sitting with your guitar and playing it may not do it for you; you can often hone your abilities to listen objectively by listening to a recording of yourself.
Objective listening allows you to hear your music the way someone else does. Once you’ve developed your abilities to do that, you start to hear many little problems that you might otherwise have missed, and your songwriting abilities will immediately improve.
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