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Using Familiarity and Innovation Within the Same Song

All songs are a mixture of things that we find familiar and predictable, with a touch of innovation and newness tossed in. The familiar things, as far as a listener is concerned, start with the very sound of the music: the sound is often what gives the genre away.

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But there are other familiar, predictable things about a song that go beyond helping us to identify the genre. For example, chords and lyrics usually have a fairly predictable aspect that’s noticeable:

  • Chord progressions, for the most part, are often unsurprising. If you hear C-F-Am-G7… you know the next chord is likely to be C. But even if it isn’t, it’s predictable what the other choices might be: either Am or F, or perhaps Ab.
  • Lyrics tend to be predictable, even if just in vague terms. For example, you can usually tell from the first couple of lines what the general topic is, and although you could never predict with certainty what the next line will be, you know in general terms what the basic direction of the lyric will be.

Melodies are less predictable, if only because melodies move hand in hand with chords, and for any one chord there are several notes that could serve as a melody note. Having said that, we do know that verse melodies usually sit somewhat low in pitch, and move higher in the chorus.

It’s not just that many aspects of songs are predictable and familiar, we know that listeners tend to like that. Most songs are a mixture of predictable and unpredictable elements, but it’s usually weighted strongly to the predictable side of things.

The innovation and newness in a song is, as I mentioned in the first sentence of this post, “tossed in”, and if you think of it as being like a spice or a herb that you might toss into a sauce, you’ll probably get the balance just right.

I wrote an article about this many years ago (“6 Characteristics That You Find in Almost All Songs“) in which I described a new song as affecting us in the same way taking a walk through an unfamiliar city might.

That city, strange as it is, will probably be structured similarly to other cities you’ve been in, and will have sections that you’ll expect: a restaurant district, a financial district, a residential area, and so on.

Those familiar aspects give us a sense of calm and satisfaction. Without those familiar bits, we’d feel completely disoriented and confused in a new city. But the familiarity helps us. It gives all the new bits in a predictable structure, in the best sense of that word.

It’s the same with songs. Don’t be afraid to allow your song to offer, at least in some small degree, a predictable form and general direction. Songs can be, of course, too predictable, and we all know when we’ve crossed that line.

Verses and bridges are where you might put most of your innovation. For song choruses and that all-important chorus hook, that’s where predictability is not only tolerated, it’s welcome.

So as long as your song has something creative and imaginative — something your audiences have never heard in quite that way before — predictability can go a long way to building and keeping a strong fan base.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary EwerFollow Gary on Twitter

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