As a songwriter, being unique is a vital part of your success. If you’re not giving the world something that’s singular and distinctive — in some way different from all the other songs out there — then you’re simply copying someone else’s success.
Songwriters are very familiar with the chorus hook, but there are other kinds to experiment with, and you will want to discover the power of layering various kinds of hooks in the same song. “Hooks and Riffs: How They Grab Attention, Make Songs Memorable, and Build Your Fan Base“ shows you how it’s done.
But all art, whether you’re talking about songs, paintings, novels, sculpture or poetry, is actually a blend of two things: art and craft. The craft part is the technical aspect. If you’re a sculptor, for example, the craft of sculpting is your actual technique — your prowess — with the tools.
The art of sculpting goes beyond craft. The art is the actual piece we look at. The sculptor takes a piece of clay and, beginning with a personal vision of what the final piece will look like, fashions a final work that is unique, nothing quite like other works of art out there.
But the art of sculpting does depend on a high level of crafting skills. If you don’t work well with the tools, you’re not going to be able to realize your personal vision of what you want the final piece to look like.
All of this applies to songwriting as well. There is a technical (craft) side of songwriting, and there is also an artistic side. All good songs, like all good sculptures, represent a balanced blend of craft and art.
Craft: Following a Pattern
If you’ve ever been to a craft market, you get to see the world of craft and art, where the balance is strongly toward craft, and not so much toward art.
As a good example, you’ll likely see (if you live in northern climates like mine), someone sitting behind a table selling mittens that they’ve just knitted. If all the mittens look similar to each other, it’s because the same pattern was used to create them all.
The only difference between the various pairs would be the colour of the wool they’ve chosen. Other than that, we see their level of craftsmanship on full display. But art? Since there was no unique vision for what any pair of mittens would look like when finished, the mittens represent craft, not art — certainly not in any meaningful way.
That’s not a criticism, by the way. For my mittens, I need them to fit my hands and to keep them warm, and since my hand is like all other human hands, with the only meaningful difference being size, I need my mittens to be the same shape as every other pair of mittens made out there.
But how about songwriting? Now we need things to be balanced more toward art: a unique, personal vision of what the final version of the song will sound like.
Art: Making Decisions that Set Your Song Apart
Your prowess with the craft of songwriting ensures that your song will, like others:
- be structured to have verses and perhaps a chorus;
- use chord progressions that feature a tonic chord as an important harmonic goal;
- use melodies that are supported by the chord progressions;
- use lyrics that allow listeners to generate feelings.
But those things come under the heading of the craft of songwriting. What about the art of songwriting? In order for your songs to truly be art, there needs to be something intentionally unique about your song.
In other words, once your audience has heard your new song, they need to have heard something that they’ve never really heard before. When The Beatles recorded their Rubber Soul album, the songs themselves were unique. Every song was just a little different from other songs that pop groups of the day were doing, “Norwegian Wood” and “Michelle” being great examples.
And even the songs that were more similar to the normal fare that listeners might expect were performed in unique ways that only The Beatles might do: the bass through a fuzzbox in George Harrison’s “Think For Yourself“, for example.
The best songwriters lean toward uniqueness as an instinct. To not do so means that you’re simply copying what other songwriters and performers have done.
And if all you’re really concerned about is copying a pattern that’s been set down before, then you’ll have given your listeners something palatable, but not likely representative of art.
Written by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.
“The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” eBook bundle includes “Writing a Song From a Chord Progression”. Discover the secrets of making the chords-first songwriting process work for you.