Songwriter in the studio

Coming Up With a Songwriting Troubleshooting List

Once you’ve written a song, do you have a list — even just a mental one — that you go through to assess your song?

I have mentioned often that troubleshooting a song should really only be done if you’re noticing something about your song that isn’t really working, but you can’t identify what that is. If your song sounds great and you like what you’re hearing, analyzing your song will only serve to sow seeds of doubt in your mind. It’s best to let great songs be great, even if they seem to violate some basic principles of good songwriting.

But let’s say you’ve written something, but you feel it could be better. You need to analyze and assess your song to make it sound better. Where do you start?

It really depends on what you see as the most notable and important feature of your song. For example, the lyric might be its most important feature, the aspect that you started the song with. Or perhaps it’s a really great melody you’ve come up with.

I’d recommend that you start with the feature that you think is your song’s most notable strength, and then move out from there.

In that regard, here’s a list of things you’ll want to check to give your song its best chance. I’ve put them in a particular order, but the point here is that you should actually start your troubleshooting process with that element that’s most notable.

In other words, put these categories in an order that makes sense for your songwriting process and your songs:


  • The chord progressions point to one particular chord as the tonic chord. (Example: C Dm Am G C focuses on C as the tonic chord).
  • The progressions in the chorus are short, tonally strong, and catchy.
  • The progressions in the verse might be longer than the chorus, but still, one chord should seem to operate as a tonic chord.
  • The chords in your progressions are typically strummed for the same amount of time. In other words, chords change every four beats, with some changing after two, and others changing after eight. This is called harmonic rhythm.


  • A chorus melody should be catchy, hook-like and rhythmically strong.
  • Melodies need to partner well with the chords that are supporting it.
  • Melodies also need to partner well with lyrics, moving up as lyrics become more emotional.
  • The rhythm of a verse melody can be complex, but the rhythm of a chorus melody should be simpler and more locked in to the hook of the song. (Michael Jackson’s “Jam” is a great example of this.)
  • A chorus melody usually sits higher in pitch than a verse melody. The higher voice shows more musical energy which works well in a chorus.


  • Verse lyrics should be mainly observational and descriptive, keeping emotions somewhat subdued.
  • Chorus lyrics should be mainly emotional, acting as a kind of reaction to the observations made in the chorus.
  • Lyrics should use the kinds of words that you might use in casual conversation.
  • Even songs that aren’t specifically “story songs” need to use lyrics that make sense from one line to the next, working as a kind of “story.”


  • The construction of your instrumental plan needs to lock in to the emotional levels of your song.
  • Low-emotion moments work best when instrumentation is smaller and more transparent.
  • Higher emotions are best supported by rhythmically busier instruments.
  • Be sure your instrumental and production choices aren’t getting in the way of (i.e. covering) the vocal lines.
  • Think of backing vocals as a kind of instrumental choice. Fuller more complex vocals often work better in a chorus.

Depending on your song and chosen genre, you can develop aspects of a troubleshooting list that might pertain just to your kinds of songs.

As you can see, a lot of troubleshooting relies on common sense. In a way, troubleshooting songs means putting aspects of your songwriting process into words so that you can check each element out “in slow motion”, as it were.

Also, you’ll notice that fixing one aspect of your song will sometimes have an effect on other aspects, so you’ll want to go through your list several times as you work out problems and make your song better.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter

Thousands of songwriters are using “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” eBook bundle to polish their songwriting technique. Every aspect of how to make a song better is covered. Stop wasting time — take your songwriting technique to a new level TODAY. Ten eBooks, plus a free one: $37 USD (Immediate download)

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