Songwriting is problem-solving. For every song you’ve ever written that really works well, you’ve probably solved dozens or more problems that have taken you from the initial concept through to the finished product.
Over the past couple of decades I’ve helped songwriters solve issues related to their songwriting, either working directly via in-person or online sessions, or indirectly through my songwriting eBook bundle. And pretty early on I identified certain mistakes that seemed to be the most common ones, regardless of genre.
“The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” eBook bundle includes“Writing a Song From a Chord Progression”. Discover the secrets of making the chords-first songwriting process work for you.
Once in a while I like to remind songwriters of those common errors because if you can avoid those ones, you’ll speed up your songwriting process and become a much more efficient composer.
I’ve got them numbered 1-7, but the order doesn’t matter. You’ll probably recognize at least a few of them as ones you’re always working to avoid:
1. The form of the song is confusing.
When we talk about form, we’re talking about many possible things as they relate to a song. Most of the time, form refers to the overall structure of your song: the verses, chorus, and then any other sections you decide to add.
How form becomes confusing relates to musical energy. As sections alternate (verse 1 to chorus, chorus to verse 2, verse 2 to chorus, chorus to bridge, etc.) there needs to be a strong sense of contrast. Verses tend to be lower in musical energy when compared to the chorus, for example.
If your song doesn’t feature this kind of ebb and flow of musical energy, you’ve got problems that directly relate to form.
2. The melodies you use lack a sense of shape and contour.
A good melody pairs up with the chords that support it, and also help to amplify the meaning of your lyrics. But more than that, a good melody has a discernible shape.
By shape, I mean that quite literally. You should be able to take a pencil and draw a line that represents any particular melody within your song. As the melody moves up, your line should move up, for example.
And by the time you’ve finished that drawing, you should have a line that has a general (and usually gradual) up-and-down contour. If it simply looks random, like a scribble with no sense of design or shape, you may be discovering a problem that will make your melodies difficult for listeners to remember.
A great way to get used to using melodic shape as a diagnostic tool is to take a well-known hit song and do a line drawing that represents the melodies in that song.
3. The chord progressions wander aimlessly.
In most songs from the various pop genres, the chord progressions should feature the tonic chord as one that serves as a kind of “home base.” That’s certainly not to say that you can’t get creative and do something surprising, but the tonic chord, particularly in the chorus, needs to feature prominently.
Think of a song as being like a short walk around the neighbourhood, with your house acting as home base. You can find interesting places to see in your neighbourhood, but you can’t stray too far from home.
4. Your strong and fragile chord progressions are being used haphazardly.
A strong progression is one that clearly points to one chord as being the tonic, while a fragile progression is one that is a bit more ambiguous. This mistake is not like mistake #3 above; it’s a little different, so read on.
Here’s how this one works: Let’s say you’ve got three progressions that you’re using in your song: one for the verse, one for the chorus, and then let’s say one for the bridge section. The verse and bridge progressions can creatively wander a bit (though not losing sight of the tonic chord), while the chorus progression needs to be short and tonally strong.
So you might do something creative for your verse like: C Am Bb Eb Dm F C (I vi bVII bIII ii IV I). But your chorus is probably going to be more successful if you do something shorter, something that more clearly points to the tonic chord, like: C Am Dm G C (I vi ii V I)
That shorter, stronger chorus progression helps the chorus hook by making the music more memorable and catchy. A song can work well if all the progressions are strong, but choruses won’t work well if the progression is fragile.
5. Your lyrics aren’t supporting the form of the song.
Lyrics you find in a verse aren’t like the ones you’d find in a chorus. Verse lyrics are narrative in character. They either tell a story, or they describe a situation, or they make observations about people and/or events.
But chorus lyrics are more reactionary from an emotional point of view. A good chorus lyric is meant to help create emotions within the listener.
So the emotional content of a song goes up and down as a song progresses. That’s an important aspect of form that makes songs successful. If your lyrics are all-emotion all the time, you’re missing the opportunity to emphasize this vital aspect of form.
6. Good songs need more than a good hook.
A good hook is crucial for most pop songs, but if the only good thing about the song is its hook, you’ve still got work to do!
Once you’ve got a great chorus hook working, you need to turn your attention to other aspects of the song. A good verse will prepare a chorus hook, forming a musically logical partnership. A good instrumental solo can make the chorus hook sound all the more inviting when it returns.
There’s a lot more to a good song than the hook. And if other aspects of your song are weak, a good hook won’t save it.
7. You’re wasting time by waiting for inspiration.
This isn’t something you identify by looking at a song; it’s something that becomes obvious if you start to wonder why it’s taking you so long to write music.
If you only feel that you’re able to write a song when you feel inspired, you’re probably misunderstanding what inspiration is all about. The kind of inspiration that really works for you is the musical excitement you feel while you are writing.
If you have a day where it feels hard to write, don’t just put your pencil down. Try writing anyway, and you might be surprised by how the excitement for writing will come directly from the act of writing.
The best inspiration comes from within, because with each and every songwriting problem you solve, your creative brain gets a shot of excitement — inspiration — and then you feel more like continuing.
As I say, these certainly aren’t the only problems you’ll encounter with your songwriting. But I know them to be among the most common ones that I’ve seen.
Once you get these ones under control, you’ll find your songwriting process will speed up and become much more efficient. Sometimes it can be good to look at a single issue at a time, and save other ones for a different day.
Perfecting your songwriting process can take a long time, but as long as each day gets better, you’ll find that songwriting will remain the exciting and fun activity it was meant to be!
When you hear a problem with your song, but don’t know how to solve it, you might find the answer in “Fix Your Songwriting Problems – NOW!” Get this eBook separately, or as part of “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting 10-eBook Bundle”