Songwriting: Improving Your Odds

A typical audience member is better at saying why they like a song than why they don’t. When a listener doesn’t like a song, they don’t take the time to wonder why. They just don’t like it, and that’s all they know. They click to listen to something else, and they’ll do that until they find something they do like.

But as a songwriter, it’s important that you take the time to figure out what it is about your latest song that isn’t working for you. You don’t have the luxury of simply writing until you write something you like. That can result in a lot of wasted time, and creative inconsistency.

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Just as a mechanic hooks up a computer to your car to pinpoint exactly what’s wrong with the engine, learning to properly analyze music saves a lot of time, and can help you fix songs, and then improve the odds that your future songs will be good ones.

If you’re writing a song right now that isn’t working, but you’re not sure how or why it’s weak, start by recording a barebones version of your song: you and a guitar or keyboard. Listen to it a few times, and then try the following:

  1. Identify a climactic high point. This is a moment, usually in the chorus, or toward the end of the verse in verse-only or verse-bridge songs, that could be described as the song’s point of Maroon 5 - Payphonehighest musical energy. In many songs, that high point happens at the start of the chorus. Think of the chorus of “Payphone” by Maroon 5. But in many cases, this climactic moment might be subtle. It doesn’t need  to set the world on fire, but most songs need some moment like that. In other songs, it might come more toward the end of a chorus (or the end of a verse in verse-only songs), often described as a “payoff line.” Songs with no payoff line, or no climactic moment will sound aimless and without an enticing point of focus.
  2. Listen carefully to the chord progressions, and tighten up the harmonic rhythm. Most good progressions will feature a regular rate of change — its so-called harmonic rhythm. For most songs, there should be a regularity to how often chords change. If you find that chords are changing randomly, rework them. Practically any great song in any genre will display this feature.
  3. Be sure your progressions are mainly strong. A strong progression is one that targets the tonic chord — the one that represents the key of your song. Verses and bridges can tolerate progressions that wander a bit (“fragile” progressions), but certainly choruses need to be short and strong. While something like Example 1 below would possibly work well in a verse, you need something shorter and tighter, like Example 2, for a chorus:
    1. C  Dm  Bb  C  |C  Dm  Bb  C  |Eb  F  Bb  Gm|  Eb  F  Gsus4  G…
    2. C  F  Bb  C  | C  F  Bb  C…
  4. Be sure each line of your lyric moves logically to the next. You’d be surprised how often this is a problem. Song lyrics that meander aimlessly prevent listeners from connecting to your song in an emotional way. Even abstract lyrics need this important aspect of focus. Read through each line. You should be able to say, “Because I said this, I then said that,” as you move from one line to the next.
  5. See that your melodies use lots of repetition, both approximate and exact. Repetition is an aspect of songwriting that’s tricky but vital. Part of repetition comes from the form of the song itself: choruses are repeating sections that stand out as a song’s most important feature. But within each section, look to see that repetition plays an important role. To hear this aspect of songwriting clearly, listen to Pharrell Williams’ “Happy.” There is a lot of approximate repetition in the verse, and then exact repetition within the chorus.

Analyzing music requires a certain amount of objective listening. It requires you to listen as if it isn’t your own song. As you listen, say to yourself, “I just bought this recording… Am I happy with my purchase?” That one question will move you toward a much more objective point of view, and makes it more likely you’ll be able to identify and fix problems.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

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