One of the first things a listener picks up from a song is the mood. Right away, we can usually tell if it’s upbeat and cheerful, or dark and brooding, or somewhere in between. The fact that we notice mood so quickly is probably an indication of how important it is to people.
Online songwriting forums (Reddit and so forth) are great ways to find out what people are dealing with when they write songs. Occasionally you’ll find songwriters dealing with this issue of mood, and more often than not, the problem is that they find their songs to be too light and fluffy, and wish they could come up with something with a bit more edge.
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If this is something you’re dealing with, where everything you write sounds like it could be a soundtrack for a Sunday picnic, here are some suggestions:
- Switch major key songs to minor key. Most of the time, this is an easy fix. If your song is in C major, and the chorus progression is something like C-F-Am-G-C, you can switch those with the equivalent chords from C minor: Cm-Fm-Ab-G-(or Gm)-C.
- Use lowered VII-chords in place of V-chords. If your progression is C-F-Am-G-C, try switching the G chord to a flat-VII: Bb. That gives you C-F-Am-Bb-C.
- Use lowered III-chords as a passing chord between I and IV. Let’s say you take that sample progression (C-F-Am-G-C), where you strum each chord for 2 beats. You might try strumming the first C for 1 beat, follow it immediately with a Flat-III chord: Eb. That helps to take the sweetness away from the progression, and move it toward something with a bit more edge.
- Use melodies that have sections that dwell mostly on one note. This is one to experiment with. You hear the effect of this dwelling on one pitch in first part of the verse in Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone.” You also get a version of this in Neil Young’s “Southern Man”, where the melody keeps coming back to those opening vocal line pitches.
- Think about your lyric choices. Sweet lyrics can be the reason a song sounds so mushy. Freddie Mercury mentioned once in an interview that they were worried about the lyrics to “Your My Best Friend,” as they sounded a bit over the top in the sweetness category. But in that case, they actually work. But just to put it out there: sweet lyrics may need to be darkened a bit, and can be a contributor to a song sounding too warm and fuzzy.
- Think about instrumentation, production and vocal quality. Edgy instrumental sounds (distorted guitar and other such effects) can help to dampen the cheery mood of your music. Think about “Helter Skelter” (Lennon & McCartney) and what the guitar sound does for that song.
- Experiment with key. This partners up with point #6 above. Lowering key might encourage darker tones from your voice, but there’s also the consideration that raising the key puts your voice closer to the upper part of your range. That allows some natural strain to come through, and might be what your song needs. For example, give Joe Cocker’s version of “You Are So Beautiful” (Billy Preston, Bruce Fisher) a listen, and try to imagine it in any other key. It seems to be purposely chosen to allow the full range of emotions to shine through, including the upper-register screams.
And don’t forget that the basic beat – the groove – of your song will give away its mood almost right away. So experimenting with different ways to present the song, including playing around with tempo, can be a vital part of darkening the mood of a song.
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