These days you might be listening to Handel’s “Messiah,” and even if you don’t know that work, you no doubt know his “Hallelujah Chorus” which ends the second part of the oratorio. “Messiah” is a lengthy work consisting of fifty-three movements, and listening to the entire piece will take you more than two hours. (Most performances will eliminate a few movements.)
What often doesn’t get mentioned about “Messiah” is that Handel completed the writing of it in a mere twenty-four days. Mind-boggling! If any of us were asked to write fifty-three songs in twenty four days, we’d be more than a little intimidated, and I think it’s fair to say that most would fail that challenge.
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When the creative juices are flowing, it’s exciting. If you start and finish a song on the same day, you feel that you’ve achieved something worth bragging about. But what do you do when, for reasons you just can’t identify, you can’t finish anything you start?
The Main Reason the Creative Process Stops
Are you the kind of songwriter that finds it easy to start a song, but hard to continue? There can be any number of reasons why the initial burst of creativity that gets you starting a song seems to quickly evaporate.
But most of the time, the reason for being unable to finish a song comes down to this: you aren’t applying your understanding of the structure of music to this new fragment you’ve just written.
There may be no less inspiring word to a creator of music than the word “structure.” But being aware of how good music works is the key to turning your songwriting frustrations into songwriting success.
Sometimes when you’ve written a fragment of a song, the best way forward is to stop for a moment, think about that bit you’ve just created, and then ask yourself this important question: Where in my song should this fragment live?
Is it a bit of chorus hook? Is it the start of a verse? Is it better thought of as something that could work as a bridge after the chorus? Identifying what it is you’ve just written is a vital part of how to proceed.
But how do you know where in your song the fragment you just wrote works best? That’s where an understanding of the structure of music plays such a crucial role. It is, in fact, exactly why I wrote “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting”, and all the other eBooks I’ve written: to help you understand the structure of good music.
And no matter what genre you call your own, you will know:
- Verses tend to be lower in pitch than choruses.
- Verse melodies tend to be slightly more rhythmically-active than choruses.
- Pre-choruses tend to move upward in pitch and musical energy, helping the verse connect more successfully to the chorus.
- Verse lyrics tend to be more narrative while chorus lyrics tend to be more emotional.
- Bridge sections stand out from the chorus by either heightening musical energy, or (in the case of energetic songs) might bring musical energy down as a kind of temporary contrast and “relief.”
And I could go on. The more you listen to good songs in your genre, the more you get an idea of how structure plays a vital role in their success.
How To Keep Going
So if you’re writing a song, and you get stuck, the first thing you need to do is to stop, and think about what you’ve just written. And ask yourself, “Where does this fragment really belong?” If it’s a chorus hook (it often is), is it written high enough in pitch that it sounds like a chorus?
If it’s too low, change key and move it higher. That one fix may help the creative juices to start again as you’ll hear new energy surge forward. If it’s the verse you’re now trying to write, keep it below the range of the chorus.
If you feel your song needs a bridge, try improvising higher in pitch than the basic range of your chorus, and see where that leads.
The More You Listen
And another final bit of advice: the more you listen to good songs in as many genres as possible, the more your brain understands how the basic structure of music works, and the more easily your songwriting process kicks into gear.
If you get frustrated every time you try to write a song, and everything grinds to a halt soon after you start, the best next step is to simply stop. Take a breath, feel good that you’ve got something written, and then slowly apply your understanding of the structure of good music to your songwriting process.
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