Band in rehearsal

The Importance of Musical Patterns in Good Songwriting

As humans, perhaps one of our strongest skills is recognizing patterns when we hear or see them. Pattern recognition gives us great enjoyment when we listen to music. Here’s what I mean:

When listening to a song, most people cannot say what key they’re hearing. Most could never identify any specific note of the melody. But not being able to identify the notes of a melody has absolutely nothing to do with whether they “understand” it, or whether they can enjoy it.

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That’s because when we hear music, we perceive the relationships between notes, not actually the notes themselves. Today you might hear someone sing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” in D major, then tomorrow hear someone else sing it in C major, and hear them as exactly the same. All the relationships and note patterns would be identical, even though the two renditions would have no notes in common at any given moment.

So patterns and relationships are what your audiences hear when they listen to your songs. And that means that the most successful songwriters are the ones that write patterns that connect most strongly to listeners.

Another way of saying that is: Great songs are a collection of attractive patterns and shapes. So:

  1. If your melodies seem unsatisfying: check their shape and contour. Good melodies will make great use of repetition, both exact and approximate, as a way of helping listeners understand and enjoy musical patterns.
  2. If your chords seem unsatisfying: check to make sure that they support the melodic shapes and patterns you’ve created.
  3. If your lyrics seem unsatisfying: remember that patterns can play a role in a listener’s enjoyment of words. Rhyming, for example, is a kind of pattern creation. Good rhyming needs to feel natural, not forced. And other poetic devices such as alliteration, phrasing, word rhythm, etc., all become crucial contributors to an audience’s perception of your song.

Probably the one other kind of pattern that resonates most strongly with listeners is a rhythmic pattern. When we speak if a song’s groove, we are usually talking about how the rhythmic patterns, set up by the various instruments, all coordinate and support each other.

In many ways, the groove of a song can wind up being the most important and intricate set of patterns within it, and can make or break it.

For every song you write where you feel that the melody, for example, is lacking, you’re probably witnessing a situation where the patterns you’ve set up are either weak (uninteresting) or nonexistent (no recognizable patterns). The quality of your patterns is where the fixing lies.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter

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