Similarity is a dangerous quality in the world of the creative arts. And it is a particular problem in pop songwriting, because — weirdly — it’s also an important quality.
And it all comes down to how you define similarity and how excessive that similarity might be.
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Your target audience will expect certain things from your songs. They will have come to know the kinds of things you write about, as well as your singing style, your prefered instrumentation, and even the way your melodies work and the kinds of chords you’re likely to use.
Those are aspects of similarity that define who you are as a songwriter, and they’re usually positive attributes.
And it’s always been that way. If you listen to a Mozart symphony that you’ve never heard before, you will probably be able to identify that symphony as his, just because you might be familiar with the way he composed, and the similarity you hear between that one and other symphonies of his that do you know.
Similarity is unavoidable. And in moderation, similarity between your songs is to be expected, and isn’t something you should worry a lot about.
But excessive similarity might be a problem that needs to be dealt with. Why? Because without knowing specifically why, your audience will feel that they’ve heard your new song before, and that would be certainly undesirable!
Giving your listeners something new with just a hint of similarity to other songs you’ve written is a kind of musical sweet spot that the best songwriters know how to achieve. Sometimes a bit of obvious dissimilarity can sound cheeky and fun, like when Queen followed “Death on Two Legs” with the rather unexpected “Lazing On a Sunday Afternoon” on their “A Night At the Opera” album.
If you find though that your songs are coming across as a bit too predictable, here are the things to check:
- You shouldn’t be singing about the same thing all the time. “Love” is an overarching theme in pop music, and if all your songs are “I love her… why won’t she love me too??”, you need to branch out and consciously write about other things.
- Your songs need to explore a good range of keys. You may find that your musical muscle memory is always taking you to, say, G major. But that will give all your songs a sameness before they’re even out of the gate. Improve your instrumental abilities, and find other keys to be comfortable with.
- Find ways to incorporate other instruments in your performances. This might mean finding friends who can play other instruments on your recordings — flute, strings, trumpet, mandolin, etc. — and any of these choices will add something pleasantly unexpected to your music.
- Avoid using the same songwriting process for every song. If you like starting the process by strumming some chords to see what else happens, there’s a good chance that most of your songs will have an unpleasant sense of sameness to them.
- Try mixing up vocal performance style from one song to the next. Most good singers will instinctively do this to a certain degree. Springsteen can get a real rocker’s edge to his voice in a song like “Born in the U.S.A.“, but offer something completely different in “I’m On Fire.” That difference comes not just from the vocal style, but also by changing up the basic range: higher for “Born in the U.S.A., and lower in “I’m On Fire.”
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