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Songwriting: Hiding the Good Stuff

When you hear a song that you really like, what is it that you like about it? The answer probably changes from song to song. It might be the way the melody sounds for one song, while for another it might be the lyrics.

But those are superficial characteristics. (I don’t use the word superficial to mean unimportant or trivial, but rather to mean characteristics that we immediately notice: the aspects that sit on a song’s surface, so to speak.)

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Because you’re a songwriter, you’re aware that it takes a lot more than a good melody, chords and lyrics to create a good song. There are important aspects that sit in the background, not so easily noticed. And so now we’re talking about the aspects of songwriting that make a song great, but of which listeners may not be immediately aware.

Here’s a good example of what I mean: Most non-musicians can tell you that a particular song might be comprised of verses and choruses. But what makes a section sound like a verse, or a chorus? Typically, the lyrics change with each verse, and with a chorus, the lyrics keep repeating.

But that’s the characteristic of verses and choruses that are most noticeable. The bit that sits in the background — that most non-songwriters don’t notice — is that the energy level of the verse is usually very different from the chorus.

I would argue that the fluctuating energy of a song is more important than how the lyrics change — at least musically speaking. That fluctuating energy entices listeners to keep listening. It pulls people in, and makes them feel that something even better is on the way.

In that sense, whether you’re listening to a verse or a chorus is not that important. How the musical energy ebbs and flows if far more important. If you take Lennon & McCartney’s song “Happiness is a Warm Gun” (from the White Album), you’ll probably notice that it’s hard to tell what the actual form of the song is:

  • Section 1: “She’s not a girl who misses much…”
  • Section 2: “I need a fix ’cause I’m going down…”
  • Section 3: “Mother Superior jump the gun…”
  • Section 4: “Happiness is a warm gun..”

And we’re completely OK with not knowing how to label each section. What’s important is that each section takes the song to new levels of musical energy, and it happens by moving the vocal line up and down, changing the vocal quality of the vocal line, changing the instrumentation, and so on. The differences are more important than the labels.

What other aspects of good songs tend to be the ones that people don’t automatically notice?

  • Lyrical imagery. Words and combinations of words that give us a clearer picture of what the lyric is trying to tell us.
  • Instrumental choices and effects. Sometimes the genius of a song can come down to the choice of the actual player. For example, I’m not sure how to quantify the importance of the bass playing of Jaco Pastorius on Joni Mitchell’s song “Coyote” (from her album Hejira), but I feel that it was a perfect choice that makes the song better.
  • Dynamic choices. Not just how loud you choose to perform the music, but the aspects of the loudness of music that might rise and fall as the music progresses.
  • Key choices. How you pull listeners up and down with the key can be a tremendously powerful tool that sits in the background, powerfully affecting the energy of the music. (And since I’ve already mentioned Joni Mitchell, check out the intro to her song “Amelia” from that same “Hejira” album, and notice how she uses key changes in the intro to keep moving the music upward.)
  • Musical motifs. We usually recognize a good hook when we hear one, but motifs can be every bit as important, or even more important. A motif is a musical idea (a rhythm, a melodic shape, or some other characteristic) that gets repeated and developed as a song progresses.

If these aspects typically sit in the background, why am I mentioning them at all? It’s because in music, the bits that we don’t immediately notice often are the bits that add strength and power to music. If your song consists merely of a strumming guitar, you may not have given the song enough other layers, layers that add strength to the structure of that song.

If you really want to discover more about the hidden “good stuff” in a song, listen many times to a song that you like, and start making notes about the bits you like… and then keep listening. Eventually you’re going to start noticing the bits (like the modulating intro of “Amelia”) that add so much to what we really like about music.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

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