Creating a Hierarchy of Songwriting Elements: What’s Most Important?

For every song you ever hear, it’s possible to compile a short list of elements that go together that make the song. For most, that list will include lyrics, melody, chords, rhythm (groove), instrumentation, and so on.

Because every song is a musical journey, and every journey must be to some degree unique, the priority a songwriter places on any one of those elements will differ. For example, your songs might be more about the beat — the groove you want the listener to experience — than anything else. That will be especially true if you’re main interest is dance music.

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For others, the lyrics may be front and centre. Leonard Cohen’s lyrics were the heart and soul of his songs. For me, his instrumentations and production were often not terribly interesting. But that’s OK, because we don’t usually listen to his music for the instrumentations. Every time you write a song, you are, in a sense, creating a hierarchy of elements. You are deciding what’s important, and what’s less vital to the life of that song.

I bring this up because making decisions about what’s important in any one song is a great way to ensure that your music maintains a healthy sense of diversity and innovation. Making those decisions early in your process allows you to more accurately focus on what’s really important.

As you start your next song, here are some tips for making sure you’ve identified what’s going to be important:

  1. Start with your song’s “initial idea.” What’s the first thing that popped into your mind for a songwriting idea? Was it a line of lyric? Was it a rhythmic fragment? A bit of melody? Whatever that initial idea is, that’s often going to succeed as a point of focus. From there, you put your energies into making that fragment serve the rest of the song.
  2. Keep other song elements from upstaging your main idea. If your song is a ballad in which the melodies are lovely and perfectly sculpted, keep the backing instruments from getting in the way.
  3. Yes, more than one element can be important. But think of those elements as friends having a conversation. Sometimes, friends will talk over one another, but not often. More often than not, elements will move back while others take centre stage.
  4. Yes, something usually needs to be more important than everything else. Putting the magnifying glass on your songs in this way can expose a problem that you didn’t know you had: nothing seems to be stepping forward as a vital component in the song. That gives you the opportunity to go back to the drawing board and enhance some element so that the audience has something to focus on.
  5. Consider rotating through points of focus. For every song you write, try switching what’s important. It keeps your music sounding original and fresh.

Regarding the second point above — not allowing other song elements from upstaging your main one — it reminds me of the DVD I watched of the members of Genesis discussing the making of their “Selling England by the Pound” album.

They mentioned that for the song, “The Battle of Epping Forest,” the instrumentation was, in their opinion, far too busy for the melody and lyric. The tune and the words were getting lost in the overly-energetic instrumentation that was supposed to be playing a backing role.

That serves as a great reminder to us all: decide what’s important, and let other elements stay safely in the background, and only come forward during moments when the main point of focus takes a breather.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

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  1. Do you agree with the general consensus among producers of pop music that the lead vocal (which I suppose is the melody) is almost always the most important element of a mix.

    • Yes, for hit songs in the pop genre, because that genre is especially focused on the person/personality of the group or singer. Producers know that hit songs will sell if the audience makes a strong connection to the singer.

      I still think it’s possible to separate the structure of a song (in the writing stage) from the production-end of the process, and say that in the creation of the song itself — before anyone records it — the best songs will be ones that present their elements in a kind of hierarchy.

      Once a song is recorded, even songs that focus on, say, rhythmic groove more so than melody, will still appear to be all about the melody if the singer is high profile (an Adele-level singer, for example). Still, that doesn’t change the fact that the structure of the song may place other elements higher in importance than the lead melody line.


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