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The Pros and Cons of Predictability in Songwriting

One of the biggest challenges for songwriters is to write something that’s unique and innovative, but not so unique that it turns your target audience away. At the same time, if it’s not unique enough — if it’s too predictable — you’ll also turn audiences away because they’re bored: they can hear what’s coming before you even give it to them.

That kind of predictability, by the way, isn’t always bad. Some people like the fact that they’re favourite singer-songwriter churns out songs that sound a lot like the ones they churned out last year.

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But the audiences won’t really grow that much, because the best way to keep building an audience for your music is to broaden the definition of what you think good music is.

If, for example, The Beatles’ had kept churning out “Hard Days Night” kinds of songs until the 70s, there’s no doubt there’d have been an audience there to listen and buy the albums. But because their own definition of what they thought good music ought to be changed quite radically, they added to their audience base. They probably lost audience along the way, too, but they gained far, FAR more than they lost.

In music, predictability allows you to tap into people’s desire for the familiar. Innovation allows you to tap into people’s desire for risk and excitement. But it’s a delicate balance. Too much predictability and you’ll find it hard to build an audience. Too little (i.e., music that sounds too strange for the target audience), and you wind up with the same problem: hard to build an audience.

If you find yourself really wanting to build on your fan base, you’ll find that you’ll be giving most thought to the issue of predictability versus innovation, and how to get the balance right. Here are some random thoughts of my own on this issue:

  1. Predictable chord progressions are often better than innovative ones. Even in music that might sound strange to your ears, you’ll find that it’s the musical arrangement that can often make the music sound odd.
  2. Put your innovative touch on melodies, lyrics and musical production before you put it on chords. Predictable chords have a way of giving the audience a kind of musical anchor while they sail the seas of your more complex lyrics and melodies.
  3. If your song sounds “strange” even to your ears, allow moments of your song to move back into the realm of predictability. I love using Paul Simon’s “My Little Town” as a great example of this: a verse that’s long, intricate and meandering, with complex lyrics, time signature changes, and moving to different keys. But the chorus is short, strong and predictable. That moving back and forth between complex and simple is an important part of the charm of that song. (And this moving back and forth is a favourite “trick” of prog rock composers.)
  4. Sometimes the best (safest?) innovations involve tempo changes, key changes, instrumentation changes and meter changes. These kinds of modifications that might happen in the middle of your song allow you to keep everything else more predictable. But the end result is a song that sounds a bit more cutting edge. “Come Sail Away” (Styx) and “Stairway to Heaven” (Led Zeppelin) are good examples.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

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