Joni Mitchell

Creating Beauty Within a Song

Beauty is one of those song characteristics that is incredibly hard to define, but we seem to know it when we hear it.

Not every great song is beautiful. That’s because as long as a song makes an emotional connection to the listener, it’s usually going to work. Therefore, whatever we might define as beauty becomes a characteristic that enhances the success we already perceive within the song.

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When I say that we know beauty when we hear it, an example will show you this: Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower” is counted as one of the greatest songs of all time (#47 on Rolling Stones’ “500 Greatest Songs of All Time”), but not necessarily what we’d come up with to demonstrate beauty.

Paul Simon’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water” (#48), however, is more likely to occur to us if we’re asked to come up with a beautiful song.

But both songs are successful — great, if you will — because they both make that all-important emotional connection to the audience.

If you’re hoping to write something that audiences will think of as “beautiful”, here are some characteristics you might consider:

  1. Melody. Beautiful songs tend to have melodies that display a somewhat expansive range, balancing stepwise motion with occasional leaps, both upward and downward.
  2. Tempo. It’s fair to note that songs we think are beautiful tend to be slow or mid-tempo ballads. The slower tempos allow us to more carefully consider the shape of the melody.
  3. Chord progressions. This may be a result of the slower tempo of most beautiful songs, but we like chord progressions that use more numerous chords, and ones that make greater use of inversions (slash chords) and certain non-diatonic chords.
  4. Lyrics. A beautiful lyric is often one that uses imagery — words and phrases that create images within the mind.
    “Moons and Junes and Ferris wheels
    The dizzy dancing way you feel
    As every fairy tale comes real
    I’ve looked at love that way…” (“Both Sides Now” – Joni Mitchell)
  5. Instrumentation/production. Though not typically a songwriting issue, there’s no question that how you choose to accompany your song will have a huge impact on how people perceive it. The lush orchestration of “Skyfall” (Adele/Paul Epworth) is a big reason we think of that song as being so beautiful.

So there are lots of ways to create beauty within a song – Slow it down, animate the melody, write imaginative lyrics, and be mindful of how you accompany it. But remember that unless your song is making that vital connection the heart of the listener, beauty alone may not solve a song’s problems.

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 Ewer. Follow on Twitter.

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