Carpentry tools

Songwriting Lessons from the Unlikeliest Sources

I don’t know if you feel the same way, but sometimes I learn the best lessons regarding music by thinking of something completely unmusical. Metaphors speak loudly and meaningfully to me.

I like building things out of wood. It’s something I love, even if I’m not doing it at a professional level. But with every piece — bookshelf, table, box, whatever else — I get better, and I learn something.

The other day I was reading the web article “Ten Rules for Finish Carpentry,” by Will Beemer. It describes tricks of the trade — ways to make the niceties of carpentry even nicer. And I couldn’t help but see the parallels between building something out of wood, and building something out of music.

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Every “rule” Will describes in that article is actually a tip, a tip that will make the finished product more beautiful. If you like working with wood, you’ll love the practicality of his advice. I kept saying to myself, “Yes, it really makes sense to do it that way…”

And I found that the list of tips serves as a powerful metaphor for songwriting, and for music composition in general. And here’s how.

When you’ve finished a woodworking project, you want two things to be obvious and evident:

  1. Its practical use.
  2. Its aesthetic beauty.

The tips on the page are all meant to mainly address the second point– to make the finished product more beautiful. When something is built well, its practical use is often not the thing you notice first; it’s its beauty.

In songwriting, aesthetic beauty is usually first on the list. But the structure (the aspect we don’t often want to be clearly evident) is crucial to that beauty. It may get tiresome to be thinking about structure and formal design in songwriting, but those are the qualities that enhance a song’s aesthetic beauty.

Building Music

In a way, writing music can be trickier than building something out of wood in the sense that we don’t write a song according to a blueprint or precise plan. We usually start with an idea, and we build on the idea. What we end up with might be a little (or a lot) different from how we thought it would go. And that’s fine… as long as we adhere to certain principles of songwriting.

Carpenters don’t have to follow every tip on “Ten Rules for Finish Carpentry,” and songwriters don’t have to adhere to every principle of songwriting. Sometimes our instincts will lead us in a different direction.

But take this as a gentle reminder: the principles of songwriting are ones that we know because they’ve been common in most hit songs from the past 7 decades. Sticking to principles is usually the best and easiest way forward.

What are those principles? There are many – probably dozens or more, but in my eBook series I’ve condensed them down to 11 overriding concepts that you’ll find in most songwriting. They are the ones I constantly refer to on this blog: keeping chorus melodies higher than verse melodies, using mainly tonally strong progressions in a chorus, using contrast throughout a song, and so on.

Those are principles, not rules. For every principle I can list, I can also list the songs that work despite ignoring that principle. But in every song, it’s the structure of the song that saves it.

If you find that getting a song to sound the way you want it to sound is frustrating, you are missing one or some of the basic principles of good songwriting. You will have more success by sticking to principles than ignoring them. And you will be surprised by how creative and imaginative you can be while still sticking to those principles.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

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