In 2005, when I wrote my first eBook, “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting”, I was planning to call it “The Essential Principles of Songwriting.” After some considerable thought, I reasoned that most people would be turned off by the word “principles”, and opted instead for “secrets.”
To my mind, however, it conveys the same thing, and I think people generally have a more positive view of a secret than they do of a principle. And I use the word principle a lot when I write these blog posts, because it conveys more exactly what I mean: that good songwriting (or good anything) comes down to understanding certain principles.
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What do I mean by principles? Here’s a random sampling of songwriting principles, just to give you an idea:
- Musical energy should increase or, more rarely, stay the same (not diminish) as a song progresses.
- Chorus melodies should be pitched higher than verse melodies.
- Songs without contrast risk being boring.
- The shape of a melody should be planned with vocal range, harmony and text in mind.
There are more, and in fact, there are probably dozens. Each principle of songwriting is actually interlocking, in the sense that one principle partners with, or strongly affects, another. For example, the second principle I listed above (chorus melodies should be higher than verse melodies) is a kind of realization of the first principle (that musical energy should increase as a song progresses).
In my eBook, I refer specifically to 11 different principles, all referring back and forth to each other.
Applying Principles to Songwriting
When you solve a musical problem in a song, you’re actually applying the expectations of a principle. Here’s how that might work.
You might notice, for example, that your chorus lyric is missing an emotional punch, even though you’re using very emotional words. (“Oh, I love you, need you, wish you were here…”). You realize, after some inspection, that it’s the verse that’s the problem… that the verse itself is full of emotional phrases and words, so when you reach the chorus, the audience has heard it all already.
So you fix the chorus problem by reworking the verse lyric to be in a more observational, narrative style, which gives the chorus more punch. What you’ve done is to apply the expectations of a principle: that verse lyrics should be descriptive, leaving the emotional response for the chorus.
Using Production to Fix Bad Songs
In applying songwriting principles as you write, you are solving musical problems before you get to the production or recording-mixing stage of your project. The more you can apply the basic principles of songwriting to what you’re writing, the less responsibility there is on the part of the producer to fix what needs to be fixed.
I’m not a producer — I’m a composer — but I know enough about production to know that good production is an art form. Its main job should not be to solve or correct songwriting problems, but rather to partner with a good song to create something wonderful.
If you are using production to fix a song, you’ve taken it to the studio too soon. You need to get a song working in its most bare-bones fashion first, and then, once you like what you hear, you use production-mixing-engineering to enhance the beautiful work you’ve already done at the songwriting stage.
And this applies even to songs that are created primarily at the computer.
It’s impossible to completely separate songwriting and production, but the more you spend time writing your songs with little or no thought to eventual production, the more you can apply the principles of good songwriting. Leaving other issues until the song elements work well (melodies, chords, lyrics, etc.) means your production can serve not as a crutch to prop up a bad song, but as an art form in its own right.
If you get stuck at the chord progression stage of songwriting, you’ll find “Chord Progression Formulas” to be a vital go-to text for your process. Create dozens of progressions in moments by applying a formula!