When songwriters and other musicians use the term “formula” as it pertains to pop music, they’re usually talking about certain noticeable features of songs that keep appearing over and over. In most cases, it’s a situation where the writer thinks, “Because I’ve done this thing in my song, the next step is to do that thing…”
Trying to get a handle on writing song lyrics? Discover the benefits of making a lyrics-first method your new go-to process with”Use Your Words! Developing a Lyrics-First Songwriting Process. It’s FREE right now when you purchase the 10-eBook Bundle.
Chord progressions are probably a good example of a songwriting formula (though most of the time, it’s not typically what we think of when we talk about songwriting formulas.) A typical, predictable kind of progression that you might see in a pop song might be:
With chords, it’s usually the case that as you add chords to your progression, and you think about what the next chord could be, your musical mind is guided by the thousands of songs you’ve heard before, and how that kind of chord progression usually proceeds. In that sense, you’re working according to a certain formula. (“I played C, then I moved on to Bb… the next logical chord is probably F…”)
The thing is, chord progression formulas are not usually bad things to consider using. Most of the time, the predictable nature of chord progressions is a positive aspect of good songwriting.
And in fact, even the great classical and Baroque composers used predictable, formulaic progressions. With a composer like Bach, when he’d use a complex progression with some strangeness added in, he’d typically follow that progression with something much more predictable and tonally strong. So even Bach used chord progression formulas as a way of strengthening his music.
But what about the bad formulas? Which ones are bad?
There are aspects of songwriting where, as listeners, we want and need originality. So while predictable chords can strengthen a song’s form, predictable lyrics, melodic shapes, and generally predictable song form can be detrimental.
Those predictable non-chord aspects of songwriting make your fans feel that they’ve heard your song before, and that’s not good. So as you write, keep your attention on these possible formulas:
- Lyrical clichés. A cliché is a kind of formula, in the sense that once you’ve started with a word or two, you feel compelled to finish the thought in the most predictable way possible (“I’m down on my knees and begging you please…”)
- Melodic formulas. This one is tricky to identify, because we don’t often think a lot about it. But the formula (the “rule”, so to speak) is this: keep your verse melody low, and then move it upward as it connects to the chorus, and then keep the chorus melody high. But if you do that with every song, you’ve succumbed to a kind of melodic formula, and it’s probably time to change things up. Or it least be more clever and less obvious about it.
- Instrumental formulas. Again, another formula you might not often think about, but it can be bad if you start every song with a drum beat/pattern, then add in your bass and guitar, and then start your verse. It can give your audience a “haven’t I heard this before?” kind of feeling.
- Song topic formulas. If every song is about frustrations with your lovelife, it could be a problem, because you might find that you’re simply repeating yourself with each song. In reality, this winds up being a kind of lyrical formula, because you’ll find yourself using similar words and phrases, and it all becomes a bit too predictable… too formulaic.
- Song form formulas. This can happen in several ways: if all your songs are in the same key, or you choose the same tempo, the same feel, the same mood, etc. You start with a certain form in mind, with every intention of being innovative, but it often doesn’t happen. Like starting a walk by going in the same direction you’ve always gone before, you’ll likely find that you follow in the footsteps of a walk you’ve done previously.
Being innovative and creative in songwriting is hard, because if your song is too innovative, you’re risking simply confusing your fans. But while writing to a formula may seem safe (it usually is!), the risk becomes writing something too similar to other songs you’ve written, and then your fans feel bored.
Avoiding songwriting formulas usually means actively avoiding them. You have to think about how you’re going to be innovative with each and every song you write. The temptation, when you’ve written a good one, is to find a way to replicate that success.
But simply replicating means you’ve bought into a formula. One great song should mean that you need to find a way to completely change direction and do something new.
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.