Songwriting: On Being Safely Innovative

The danger of innovation in songwriting is the possibility of losing fans. They know what to expect from you, but suddenly you’re moving in a new direction that they don’t like.

The danger of not being innovative is that you won’t build a fan base, or at least build it painfully slowly. I maintain that the best musicians working today, whether we’re talking about songwriters, bands, or solo performers, are constantly redefining what they do.

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And in so doing, they lose fans and they gain fans. Their hope is that they’re gaining more than they lose. In order to do that, you have to be — for lack of a better term — safely innovative.

I think the best way to innovate in music is to do one of two things:

  1. Incorporate elements in your songs (whether at the songwriting level or the performance level) that don’t seem overly astonishing to your faithful fans, but allows you to be creative nonetheless. In other words, stay well within the genre you’ve been working in, but throw in some unexpected surprises. Or…
  2. Throw in a one-off quirky number from a completely different world, whose real purpose is to give the audience a “what the heck was that??” moment.

For the second point above, bands and performers have had fun throwing in songs that seem to have come completely out of left field.  Often, if it’s short enough, it’s a great way to be safely innovative:

  1. Why Don’t We Do It In the Road” (Lennon & MacCartney)
  2. Lazing on a Sunday Afternoon” (Freddie Mercury)
  3. Pavlov’s Daughter” (Regina Spektor)

For the first point above, adding creative elements to your music might be as simple as doing any of the following:

  1. Come up with some innovative song forms. If you’ve been stuck in the verse-chorus-bridge format, try ideas like:
    1. An extended instrumental intro.
    2. Changing the order of your song form (e.g., try starting with a chorus).
    3. Experiment with different keys for the verse and the chorus.
    4. Put the verse and chorus in different time signatures. (e.g., 3/4 for the verse, 4/4 for the chorus, as in “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds”)
  2. Use less-common time signatures in general. Songs in 5/8, for example (“Everything’s Alright” – Andrew Lloyd Webber – Tim Rice), or even 7/4 (“Money” – Roger Waters) can add something quirky without scaring off your loyal fans.
  3. Throw in some innovative instrumentation. Acoustic instruments that don’t normally (or at least often) get used in the pop genres can add an air of fresh innovation to an otherwise standard tune. Alto flute, balalaika, string quartet, ocarina… use your imagination!

There are so many more possibilities, but you get the idea. Keeping the basic elements of your songs similar to what your audience has come to expect from you, but at the same time throwing in some curve balls, is one of the best ways to be safely innovative.

Remember that it’s unreasonable to expect that you can please all listeners. The fact that someone doesn’t like whatever new direction you’re taking your music is not an indicator that you’re doing something wrong.

Songwriting and performance of music in general is ultimately self-expression, and if your innovations cause some of your listeners to turn away, you’ll gain a new following. And in so doing, you’ll be keeping your music fresh and imaginative.

Written by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

Hooks & RiffsGary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.  Hooks & Riffs“Hooks and Riffs: How They Grab Attention, Make Songs Memorable, and Build Your Fan Base” shows you how a good hook can make the difference between songwriting success and failure. With great examples from pop music history.Hooks and Riffs: How They Grab Attention, Make Songs Memorable, and Build Your Fan Base” shows you how a good hook can make the difference between songwriting success and failure. With great examples from pop music history.

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