Elton John

Sometimes Principles Confuse Us

Lately it seems that I’ve been getting a lot of comments, both through email and in the comments section at the ends of various posts, questioning some of the various songwriting principles I write about.

Mainly, a comment will go something like this: “You say that chorus progressions are shorter than verse progressions, but I know of a song where the verse progression is shorter than the chorus. So you must be wrong.”

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Or, “In this article you say that chorus melodies are usually higher in pitch than verse melodies, but here are three songs where that’s not the case… What’s going on?”

Good songwriting is guided by principles, not by rules, and thank heavens it’s that way. We’d never be interested in songwriting if all we had to do is follow the rules, and — presto — we’ve written a great song.

So what are the main differences between rules and principles? At least with regard to songwriting, a rule is something that absolutely needs to be present in order for the song to work. If it isn’t there, you’ve got a problem.

I can’t think of any songwriting rules.

A principle, however, is much easier to identify. There are probably dozens, maybe even hundreds, of principles that all work together in the production of music. Many of those principles can be combined because they’re basically trying to achieve the same thing. And principles do so by guiding your musical choices, not demanding them.

For example, in my eBook “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting”, one of the first principles I describe is the fact that song energy tends to increase as a song progresses: the end of most songs is as energetic, or more so, than the beginning.

There are other principles that actually are a rephrasing of that. The one I mention often on this blog, that chorus melodies are usually higher in pitch than verse melodies, helps to achieve that goal of increasing song energy. That’s because as the human voice moves higher, it naturally exudes a noticeably higher energy level.

So what is going on when you have a song that seems to go in the opposite direction of a stated principle? For every principle I describe, I could come up with a list of songs that actually don’t do that.

There is no one reason why a song that “violates” a principle still might work. It really depends on the song. A song can have a long, meandering chorus progression for example (“Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” – Elton John – Bernie Taupin), when the principle indicates that most songs will use shorter, tonally strong progressions in their chorus.

In that case, the progression, though long and meandering, is actually quite tonally strong. It’s all a matter of comparing one section to another within the same song – that’s what really counts.

All of this is a long-winded way of saying: you should expect to find songs that violate practically every principle you can think of. It’s the way it is in the arts. If no principles were ever challenged, music would never evolve or progress.

And I’d say one other thing: when it comes to your own songs, it’s best to analyze the songs that you feel are not working, and resist the temptation to apply the principles of songwriting after the fact. If your song sounds great, celebrate that, and move on to the next one.

It’s really only for weak songs, or for ones that seem to have some unidentifiable problem, that it makes sense to put the magnifying glass on it and figure out where a tightening-up of principles might make it better.

Gary 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.Written by Gary EwerFollow Gary on Twitter.

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  1. Great article and no complaining here;) I’d also add that you can flip it and analyze the great hot songs on the radio too that seem to break the principles and figure out what is making it great with the audience! Like you’re Elton John example. Thanks!

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