In order to help students fully understand a topic, teachers will identify a list of principles that strive to explain as much as possible with as few words as possible. We teachers of music do that very thing: we study as large a collection of music as possible, and then come up with a few statements that hope to explain how most — not likely all — of those songs work. Those statements are principles.
With regard to songwriting we sometimes toss the word “rules” around, but it’s almost never about rules; guiding principles are a much more relevant way of comparing and understanding music. But how do we identify the principles that guide the writing of songs?
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In songwriting, a principle is identified when we notice many or most songs with a similar basic trait or characteristic, a trait that is almost necessary to the success of music in general. That may seem easy, but in fact it can be a difficult challenge, because the characteristic might be working almost entirely in the background. And it’s got to be the kind of trait that almost all songs, regardless of sub-genre, display to varying degrees.
Here’s an example. We might notice that some songs start in a minor key for the verse, and then switch to major for the chorus. Not many songs do the opposite: you don’t notice many songs that start in major and then switch to minor.
You might be tempted to say something like “Good songs start in minor and switch to major.” But of course we know that’s wrong. We know that many, probably most, songs start and end in the same key. But there’s obviously something pleasantly enticing about a song that starts in minor and switches to major, so there must be a principle involved.
The actual principle in play that makes changing from minor to major work is this: In general, the energy of the end of a song should EQUAL OR EXCEED the energy at the beginning.
There are other things we can say about musical energy that shine a brighter light on that principle. For example, we know that even though musical energy increases as a song progresses, it rarely increases in a straight line. It usually moves up and down, but higher toward the end than the beginning.
That statement regarding musical energy is a principle, not a rule. A principle is a far more encompassing than a rule. It gives the songwriter and producer much more leeway in achieving the principle’s intent. Rules are rigid and don’t allow for flexibility. Principles encourage creativity.
With musical energy, for example, there are many ways to make the end of a song more energetic than the start:
- Build up the instrumentation.
- Play louder as you go.
- Switch from minor to major.
- Play faster.
- Move melodies higher.
- Change to a higher key.
- Use more backing vocals later in the song.
- Add countermelodies later in the song.
Any one song might only use one or two of those ideas. But they all work to achieve the same thing: they boost musical energy.
To most fully understand songwriting as an art form, you need to dissect songs that have made the most powerful impact on our culture, and describe, in the most concise way possible, why they succeed. You need to be able to find the commonalities between those songs, and express those common traits using as few words as possible.
In “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” eBook, I identified eleven different principles, the intent of which has been to describe the success of as many great songs as possible. Those principles are not meant to prescribe exactly how you should be writing songs, but rather to serve as a guide that allows you to express your creativity in your own unique way.
The best way to fully understand those principles is to engage in active listening of music on a daily basic. Active listening means striving to put into words what you like about a song, what you don’t like, and then to think of ways you can incorporate the things you like into your own music.
And if you succeed with that, then you’ve properly understood the principle involved, and you have a better chance of writing songs that express your own unique approach to creativity. That’s what musical principles are all about.
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