If you’re a mathematician or physicist, formulas play a large role in your professional life. Formulas in that context are simply a kind of equation, and without them you don’t really have a profession.
Songwriters know the word formula very well. In a songwriting context, “formula” is a word that describes a process, or perhaps set of steps that results in a finished song. In a sense, a songwriting formula says “once you’ve done this, you should then do that.”
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Formulas exist on many levels in the songwriting world. The fact that we say “once you’ve done a verse, you should follow it with a chorus” is a kind of formula. Even the fact that pop songwriters, as their songs approach being 4 minutes long, are looking for ways to end the song before it gets too long, are responding to the directions that come from a type of formula.
You’ll often hear of songwriters speaking negatively about songwriting formulas, and when they do, they’re typically talking about the more restrictive kinds of formulas. For example, if you start all your songs with a guitar solo, and if all your songs use a pre-chorus, and if the bridge always starts on a vi-chord, ending on a big pause before launching into the final chorus repeats, you’re using a formula that likely works but stifles creativity, and that’s why good songwriters hate the word formula.
Why We Have Formulas At All
Where do songwriting formulas come from? Quite simply, a formula comes from the history of your chosen genre. Country songs sound like country songs because of all the things older country songs have in common. The kind of backing vocals, the ways the lyrics are written, even aspects of the melodies and chords — these are all results of songwriting formulas, and they all have roots in music history. Your song sounds like a country song because you’re using formula-based elements in your music.
That’s where they come from, but why do we use them? Someone must be using them, or else we wouldn’t be talking about them. Another way to ask this question is: Are songwriting formulas automatically bad?
No, formulas aren’t necessarily bad, and music would be a structureless mess if we didn’t use some kind of structure that relates to a formula. The good thing about a formula is that you’re giving the listener, at least to a certain degree, what they’re expecting to hear, and within reason that can be a good thing.
When Formulas Become More Important Than Originality
Where formulas become a problem is when your song seems to exist merely to put flesh on a formula. In other words, when the formula becomes more important than the original material you’re writing, you’ve got a problem. In that way, formula equates to predictability: the more you use a formula, the more predictable your music becomes.
How do you make sure that you’re not a slave to a songwriting formula? As you write, think about the following:
- Am I incorporating enough individuality and innovation into my songs? Innovation usually means that you’re stepping outside of the predictability that comes from using a songwriting formula.
- Are all my songs using the same (or almost the same) kinds of chord progressions, topics, melodic shapes, form, etc.? It likely means that you’re responding to the restrictions imposed by formulaic writing.
- Are all my songs in a similar tempo or performing style? This is a symptom that often comes from songwriting formulas.
As you may know if you’ve read my blog, I feel that chord progression formulas are mostly harmless, and can be a good way to add some solid structure to a song. You can have very imaginative melodies and abstract lyrics, and a solid chord progression behind all of that is a great way to keep listeners feeling that they’ve not been thrown into a sea of musical complexity.
Written by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter
Like starting the songwriting process by working out the chords first? There are benefits and dangers. Read “Writing a Song From a Chord Progression” to get this process working properly for you.