Good songwriting almost always comes about by following some basic principles. Those principles are not cast in stone, of course. If they were, we’d call them rules.
For some songs, the principles seem obvious and clear, and you don’t have to do a lot of thinking to know why those songs work so well. For most songs that make it to the top of the Billboard charts, you can be fairly certain that you’re looking at a song that follows, to a large degree anyway, the time-honoured principles of good songwriting.
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Just because I’m the curious type, I love looking for songs that seem to defy principles, or at least what we’ve come to know as songwriting norms. I’m talking about the songs that succeed even though there’s some measure of strangeness about them.
“Bohemian Rhapsody” is in a class all by itself. Comprised of many more sections than most other songs, and even including a mock operatic middle section, what other song is like it? There are reasons the song works so well, but those reasons are often the ones we see in larger classical forms.
When I was in high school, a novelty song called “Convoy” (Bill Fries, Chip Davis) hit number one on many charts, and even sits at the 98th position on Rolling Stones greatest country songs list. I don’t know of any other song that sounds like it.
One of my favourite songs from the early 80s is Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’“, but even it has something odd about it: It’s over 4 minutes in length, but the chorus doesn’t finally arrive until almost the 3-and-a-half-minute mark. That flies in the face of what every good songwriter knows: get to the chorus before 1 minute.
For every song that exhibits these kinds of strange characteristics, you can be sure there was a producer in the background wringing their hands with worry. Songs that stray from songwriting norms have a way of scaring audiences away.
I love when a musician is willing to go out on a limb and try something that bucks the trend and shows a bit of musical bravery. It takes a great deal of conviction and confidence to know that what you’re writing is going to work, especially when it strays from what everyone else in that genre is doing.
Strangeness is not always something that works, however, but the best songwriters know how to get the balance right. Odd music for its own sake rarely works.
If you’ve written something that you love, but others find strange, that’s when you need to find the musical courage to hold that song up and declare your support for it. Without oddness, we’d never have had some of the best songs Lennon & McCartney wrote!
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