Limiting the Number of Ideas in a Song

Clutter, at least with regard to songwriting, happens when the following is true:

  1. your song has too many musical ideas, and/or
  2. those ideas don’t communicate well with each other.

But what do we mean by too many musical ideas? What constitutes an idea, and how many ideas should a good song have?

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To answer that question, it’s best to take a successful song and see how many distinct ideas we find. So let’s take the number 39 song on the Rolling Stone’s list of “500 Greatest Songs of All Time” – “That’ll Be the Day,” written by Jerry Allison, Buddy Holly and Norman Petty, and recorded by Buddy Holly and the Crickets in 1957. It hit number 1 in the charts, and serves as a good model for typical pop song of its time.

For the purposes of this post, let’s define “distinct idea” as something that happens in the song that appears to have no direct relationship to something else that happens within the same song.

There’s really only one distinct melodic idea in this song, from which all other melodies are created: that 5-note motif that starts the chorus: “That’ll be the day…”. When it switches to Verse 1, we hear that the melody is patterned after the same descending-note figure.

It’s a 3-chord song using A, D and E7, with the inclusion of a secondary dominant B7 near the end of the verse, and it’s all typical of 50’s pop songs.

There’s an instrumental break in the middle that uses the same chords in a different order: A  D  A  E7  D  A  E7. The lyrics are focused and limited in the best sense of the word, all summed up by the line “You say you’re gonna leave, you know it’s a lie ’cause/ that’ll be the day, when I die.”

To those who don’t write songs, it might be astonishing how successful a song like this can be with such a limited number of musical ideas. But good songwriters will know: a limited number of distinct ideas, where most things that happen relate to something else within the song, is the norm for good songs.

In case you wonder if a limited number of distinct musical ideas might be a classic 50’s-rock thing that changed, give a song like “We Found Love” (Calvin Harris, recorded by Rihanna) a listen, and you’ll hear a song where the lyrics repeat many times, and there’s really only 2 distinct, short melodic ideas.

Or perhaps a song like country hit “When It Rains It Pours” (Luke Combs, Ray Fulcher, Jordan Walker), recorded by Luke Combs, where most of the melodic ideas relate to the opening figure at the start of verse 1. You hear fragments of new ideas during the pre-chorus and bridge, but they’re always brief, returning quickly to the downward-moving motif that starts the song.

In short, the lesson here is: good songs are usually compilations of very few ideas. The more distinct ideas you find in a song, the more confusing the form, and the more musical clutter the audience has to deal with and remember.

If you find that your songs are typically over 5 minutes in length, and there doesn’t seem to be a particular reason for it, do a bit of analysis and count up the number of unrelated ideas you hear. You might find that simplifying and reducing is the best solution.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter

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