In the long run, it’s probably more important to know why a song fails than why a song succeeds. When a song is great, your most important job is to move on and get the next tune happening.
But when a song fails, you could be doomed to repeat that failure — if it’s failing because of some missing bit of knowledge. Practicing your songwriting skills is important, of course, but you could inadvertently be reinforcing errors that you’ve been making for years.
So when you feel that a song you’ve written just doesn’t seem to work, it’s worth the time to stop, look at it objectively and figure out why.
There could be any number of reasons why a song fails, but in my experience, 90% of bad ones will fail for one or more of these reasons:
- The form of the song is confusing. You need a chorus that really pops, but your chorus is lacklustre; your verse lyric should tell you what’s going on, but instead you’ve got it doing what the chorus usually does: emoting instead of describing; and so on. These are elements of form that are crucial to get right, and is part of the musical momentum of a song.
- The melody lacks shape. An untrained audience may think that a song melody meanders up and down in a kind of random way, but good melodies make great use of repetition, both exact and approximate, and those patterns are crucial to a song’s ability to be easily sung and remembered.
- The chords seem to wander aimlessly. A good chord progression targets the tonic chord — the “home” chord represented by the song’s key — and so most good progressions will move away from and then back to that all-important tonic chord. Audiences need that sense of direction.
- Strong and fragile chord progressions are used haphazardly. A strong progression unambiguously targets the tonic chord, while a fragile one might do a bit of pleasant wandering and include some altered chords or ones that don’t necessarily belong to the song’s key. In most songs, a fragile progression works best in a verse or bridge, while a chorus is benefited by short, strong progressions.
- Individual song elements are working at cross-purposes with each other. An example of this might be a chorus melody which soars upward, trying to build excitement, but the lyrics are low-key and unemotional. It’s important to look at every component of a song at any one moment, and find ways to have all of those components supporting each other.
- You’re relying on a hook to save a bad song. You can get fooled into thinking that the hook is everything, but it’s just one part of a successful song. When you’ve got a good hook, you can get lazy and ignore other aspects, such as god song structure, performance quality, production, and then aspects such as melody and lyric.
- You’re waiting for inspiration. You’d be surprised how much of a difference just getting going makes. If you’re sitting around waiting to feel inspired, you are wasting a lot of time. Make a regular writing schedule for yourself, and then stick to it, no matter how uninspired you feel. Believe it or not, hearing your own music is one of the best sources of inspiration you can find!
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