Guitarist - songwriter

Writing Songs That Are Less Predictable

Every singer-songwriter has an identifiable style, but what does that word style actually refer to? For the most part, your own “style” refers to the performance and production that listeners hear when they listen to your songs.

You can take practically any song and move it firmly into one genre or another just by adjusting the way the song is performed, and changing the production decisions of that recording, and it’s actually not that hard to do.

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Here’s Springsteen’s “Born in the USA“, but you may be surprised at how easy it is to make that sound like a bluegrass tune (from the “Pickin’ On…” series).

Rihanna’s “Diamonds” becomes a pretty convincing “classical” work (almost like a movie soundtrack). Even a standard church spiritual like “Swing Low Sweet Chariot“, usually sung slowly with some measure of reverence, takes on a completely different character as an uptempo jazz/dixieland tune. (Or if a metal/rockabilly version is more your style…)

But all those versions, as you can hear, happen by modifying the performance style of the original version of the song. The actual notes, certainly the notes of the melody, the lyrics, and most of the chord changes, are pretty much the way the songwriter created them.

My point is that you can take a Springsteen song and make it sound like it isn’t a Springsteen song, just by changing the performance of it. And that being true, is it true, then, that you don’t need to be overly concerned about your own songs sounding too much the same at the songwriting level?

In other words, even if you write ten songs in a row that all sound very similar, can’t  you deal with that similarity by changing the way the song is performed and recorded?

That answer is possibly. But the examples I’ve given above show how you can take one song and make it sound like a completely different genre. And as a singer-songwriter, you’re not likely to do that. You’ve got your own style, your own genre of choice, and you may stray a little from that, but not much.

Because you’ve got a genre that you enjoy and that you’re identified with, it becomes all the more important to do something at the songwriting level that ensures each song you write isn’t too much like every other song you write.

So as you write your songs, here are some things you can keep in mind — ways to ensure that your music isn’t overly predictable:

  1. Don’t keep choosing the same key. This may sound like a recording-level decision, but I’m talking about creating the song by working in a particular key. By working out the song in one key or another, you might avoid typical “muscle memory” issues on your guitar or keyboard that make all your songs sound the same.
  2. Move the tempo choices around. Take a look at the last dozen or so songs that you’ve written, and compare tempos. You may find you’ve been unknowingly using similar tempos that can cause all your songs to have a similar feel. A different tempo, chosen at the songwriting level, can actually make a song take a new, innovative direction.
  3. Change the way you start a song. Try lyrics-first for one, chords-first for the next, melodic-ideas-first for the next one, and so on. Generally speaking, the element you start with tends to be the one that gets the most attention as you work, and that can be beneficial.

If, while looking back on your songs, you find that everything has a similar sound, don’t panic. As you can hear with the many stylistic differences in the performance of some of the world’s biggest hits, it’s easy in retrospect to change up your own performance of a song you’ve been performing for years, as Eric Clapton did with his original “Layla“, modifying the performance to be a slow ballad-shuffle.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

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