In songwriting, a principle is a statement that attempts to explain why some aspect or element of music works the way it does. Principles are not rules, because a rule implies that it must (or at least should) be done a certain way in order for the music to be successful.
But a principle makes no such demands regarding how you must write music. A principle is usually worded as a reason why we like to hear certain things in music.
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For example, there is a songwriting principle that that the energy we perceive from music generally increases (or at least stays the same) over the length of a song. So you’d have to listen to many, many songs before you hear one where the basic energy level starts high and keeps diminishing. Most of the time, that would be unsatisfying to us.
The best songwriters use principles to guide their writing, even if they’re doing it on a subconscious level. Many songwriters don’t need to be told to have the musical energy of their song increase as it proceeds; it just sounds and feels right to do so.
But if you’re ever in a situation where your song seems like it should be working, but it isn’t and you can’t identify the reason why, it’s almost certain to be the violation of one or more of the basic principles of songwriting.
Those principles are vital to musical viability, and it’s why I wrote the eBook “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting.” In that manual, I use the word “secrets” to be synonymous with “principles,” because they’re crucial to any song’s success.
The interesting thing about principles is that they are usually applicable cross-genre. The basic principles of songwriting apply to country songs in pretty much the same way that they apply to metal, folk, pop or rock.
There is a principle that “Songs without contrast risk being boring,” and that will apply to any song of any genre. We also know that when you use lyrics that are descriptive and narrative in nature (“first this happened, then that happened…”), chord progressions work best if they are “fragile” and creative. That works for any style of song.
In my eBook I’ve listed and describe eleven different principles, and they apply to songs and songwriting regardless of what genre you call your own. Many of those principles will have you nodding your head: you possibly already apply those principles instinctively to your writing.
But you may find that there are some principles that you hadn’t considered before, ones that may surprise you; for example: How frequently the chords change in your song should form a predictable pattern.
Most of the time, becoming a better songwriter means sitting down and writing more songs. The more you write, the more you learn and the better you become. But occasionally, it can be best to put the pencil down and read to get a new and important perspective.
I’m proud of the fact that over the years, thousands of songwriters have been finding “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” a useful addition to their musical toolbox. Right now, buying the entire bundle of my 10 songwriting eBooks will give you an 11th eBook for free: “Use Your Words! Developing a Lyrics-First Songwriting Process.”
Written by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.
Each eBook in “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” 10-eBook Bundles shows you the fundamental principles that make great songs great.