Band rehearsal session

5 Tiny Adjustments That Can Save a Bad Song

A few posts back, I mentioned that in the creative arts (songwriting and other forms of composition, for example), good editing is more often about what you remove than what you add or change. In other words, the best fixes to bad music frequently happens when you remove stuff, not add stuff.

If I’ve written something that’s 5 minutes long, getting it down to 3-and-a-half minutes almost always yields a better piece of music than to work in the other direction – to make it longer. And practically everyone I know who creates for a living agrees with that notion.

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There’s another truism that usually results in nods of agreement: there is a very, very fine line between a song that’s a dud, and one that has hit potential.

That’s worth thinking about. Just think of the number of songs you’ve either tossed or put in a proverbial box, never likely to see the light of day again. You’ve got good reasons for setting them aside: they probably suck. We’ve all got them.

But the difference between that dud, and something that can really grab attention for all the right reasons, is usually small. It’s possible to take a song that fails to make any impact, and then, by changing a chord or two, or modifying the melody slightly, or even just nudging the tempo in one direction or another, have it become something that people want to listen to.

So if you’ve finished a song recently that you think misses the mark entirely, here are 5 ideas for making a tiny adjustment that might make all the difference to how you view (and hear) it:

  1. Change the tempo. Changing tempo often also means changing performance style, so a tempo shift can be a real eye-opener. Get the band together and see what happens when you radically (or even just slightly) change the speed.
  2. Change the mode. You might have been hearing your song as a power ballad in a mainly major key. Try shifting the tempo slightly faster, and move the chords from mostly major to mostly minor. If your progression, for example, was this: C  F  Am  G  C, you can either do some chord substitutions that stay in C major but change the C chords to Am (Am  F  C  G  Am). Or go all the way and change your song into a minor key rendition: Cm  Fm  Ab  G (or Gm) Cm.
  3. Nudge the key higher or lower. Musical energy increases as voices go higher. So if you need a bit more kick, move your C major song up to D major. Or down to Bb major if you find that your relaxing tune is too lively.
  4. Make slight modifications to your melody. Melodies that you create instinctively and quickly have the benefit of having a pleasant quasi-improvised feel, and that’s a good thing. But then go back in and see what tiny adjustments you might make to that melody that take it even further. I did this myself to a new tune I’ve been writing – I changed a melodic leap that went from B up to E, and had it pop up to the F# above before descending to the E. It made all the difference (in my opinion. ;))
  5. Let your band have a go at finding the magic in your song. A song that you’ve been working on might not have much sparkle, or much to excite you. My suggestion would be to give it to your bandmates, and don’t tell them how you want it to go. Just get the rehearsal going, and let the music go in whatever direction your bandmates decide. You might find that they’re hearing the music in a totally different way. “Different” in this context might be bad, but it’s often good, especially if they’re good players.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

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