Peter Gabriel in concert

Trying Too Hard

It’s okay to wish and hope that your songs might become viral successes that the whole world can’t get enough of. And if you really want that, it seems to be a no-brainer that all it takes is some analysis of the world’s top hits, and do whatever it is they’re doing.

No matter how much the best songwriters/performers/bands say they don’t, they do take notice of what the top acts are doing, and try to copy the sounds and styles they hear.

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A good example: Peter Gabriel. For those singer-songwriters who make it big, he is arguably one of the most independent ones out there, seemingly marching to the beat of his own drum, with his own distinctive style and sound.

Yet if you listen to his albums, they each mirror, at least to some degree, the sound that was prevalent at the time in the pop music genres. His 1986 album “So” features highly synthesized sounds, big bass, loud drums… everything that the top acts were doing in the mid-80s.

If you read Paul McCartney interviews, you know that he is eager to describe the sounds of the bands contemporary to The Beatles, and how they tried to copy those sounds in a bid to stay current.

There’s nothing wrong with trying to stay ahead of the curve, or at least to sound like you belong to the year in which you happen to be writing. But there’s a point where it becomes a distraction, and it compromises the quality of your music.

At what point does that happen? When it affects the very notes you’re writing. Because everything I’ve been talking about here is more an issue of production. Even though Peter Gabriel’s basic sound mimics to a large degree the sound of the pop music of that day, it didn’t affect the innovative writing style: the actual notes of the melodies, the chord choices, and the lyrics.

Today, it seems that most writers of pop songs are striving to sound as much like other writers of pop songs as possible. That’s not just a jaded opinion; there is research that actually shows it to be true.

So how do you know if you’re trying too hard as a songwriter? If you find that not only are you mimicking the basic sounds of your era, you’re also using the same kinds of lyrics, favouring the same melodic patterns, and grabbing hold of the same rhythmic and formal patterns that you hear in practically every other song, you may be trying too hard.

The downside to trying hard? You wind up writing a song that, at best, will flash but flare out and become just part of the noise. It’s just too similar — too much like everything else, with nothing distinctive to set it apart.

How do you keep from simply being a copy of every other song out there? Work and rework the basic structure and elements of your songs apart from production issues.

As you compose, don’t focus on production-level challenges. Focus on songwriting structure:

  1. Write melodies that are uniquely structured and shaped.
  2. Choose basic chord progressions that work well, and then work with those progressions to come up with something more unique and supportive of your melodies.
  3. Choose song topics and lyrics that set you apart from everything else that’s going on in your genre.

Once you’ve got something that sounds innovative and fresh as a bare-bones piece of music, then turn your attention to production and get it sounding like it belongs to today.

If you do things in that order, you’ve got the best chance for writing a song that’s going to get the attention of the largest audience possible.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

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