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When a Song Sounds Bad, Take a Look at the Structure Underneath

When a song sounds great, we like to think that there’s a certain magic involved. But if you are a student of songwriting, as most good songwriters consider themselves to be, you’ll know that it’s not magic that makes a song great.

A song sounds great when it follows basic musical principles. And we love it when those principles aren’t obvious and noticeable.


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Architecture provides us with a very appropriate metaphor. A beautiful building, like the Sydney Opera House, can take our breath away. But underneath all that beauty, the basic structure still needs to adhere to basic principles of architecture and physics.

Sydney Opera House

Buildings might fall if certain laws of physics are violated or ignored, and similarly, songs can fail if musical principles are ignored.

Concentrating on the structure of your music might make you fear that your song will sound technical and uninspired, but that’s simply not true. In fact, chords that sound great, melodies that soar, lyrics that really grab the listener — these are usually powerful elements of songs because they adhere to important principles.

If you’re looking for a quick run-down of what the various elements of your songs should be doing, and how they contribute to a solid underlying structure, consider these as starters:

Lyrics

  • Lyrics need to fluctuate between observational and emotional.
  • Songs that are all-emotional all the time will dull the effect they’re looking for. So verses should be minimally emotional, aiming instead to describe people, situations and circumstances. Leave the emotional release for the chorus.
  • Lyrics should use common, everyday words — the kind of words you’d use in a conversation.
  • A good lyric doesn’t need to rhyme, but if you choose to write rhyming lyrics, be careful that you don’t force the rhyme. Forced, corny rhyming is distracting, and one bad line can kill an entire lyric. (“I need to have you near, like my favourite brand of beer…”)

Melodies

  • Most of the time a good melody will move from a low range to a higher range.
  • Listeners hear emotion in a voice that rises higher, so use higher melodies in the chorus.
  • If your verse is descriptive of people or situations, use lower melodies to keep the emotion in check.

Chords

  • Most chord progressions will target the tonic (key) chord.
  • Verse progressions can be long and wandering, guided by the subject matter or story line.
  • Chorus progressions tend to be shorter and tonally stronger, locking in to the simplicity of the chorus hook.

There is so much more that can be said about the structure of music, but I hope that these will give you a clear picture of how structure is always an important part of good songwriting.

If you’re still not sure how the elements listed above apply to good songs, choose any song that you’ve loved over the years, and then start looking through the list. I would wager that almost any song you choose will display most if not all of these elements.

It’s hard, but not impossible, to apply songwriting principles after the fact. But if you find that most of the songs you’re writing these days leave you feeling discouraged, read through those lists above several times, and try to apply them now as part of your songwriting process. I believe you’ll start to see positive results quickly.


Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

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