You’ll hear lots of songwriters say that there are no rules in songwriting. But while that may be the case, every one of us has written a song that we think really works well, and other songs that we have to admit are real turkeys, and we toss them aside.
So if something can be either good or bad, doesn’t that really mean, when it comes down to it, that we’re talking about songs that follow what we most of the time would call a rule?
That’s when I like to shift to talking about guidelines and/or principles, rather than rules.
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To me, a rule means that you must do a certain thing at certain moments in a song, and that if you don’t do that thing, you’re violating that rule. And as I hope you know, there should be no time in a song where you must do any one certain thing.
That’s when thinking of your songwriting as being guided by principles is a far better way of thinking.
In my own eBook series, “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” 10-eBook Bundle, I’ve identified eleven different principles. Who knows, there may be more than those eleven. And in a sense, practically all principles of good songwriting could be condensed to one overarching principle:
Your song should represent and offer a coherent musical journey.
The problem is that that’s really not very helpful in the song-creation process. It’s true that once a good song is finished, you feel that you’ve taken your listener on a musical journey, but as a writer you want specifics. That’s where more specific principles are more helpful.
The eleven principles I feel would take you a long way to writing a song that really works well are:
- Songs without contrast risk being boring.
- In general, the energy at the end of a song should equal or exceed the energy at the beginning.
- Two chords that have a note in common will form a strong progression; and if that first chord moves up by four notes or down by five notes to reach the next chord, the progression becomes even stronger.
- A verse will usually tolerate more fragile progressions than a chorus.
- There should be a perceivable and somewhat predictable pattern to the planning of chord changes.
- The shape of the melody should be planned with vocal range, harmony and text in mind.
- A) A verse can use text that is narrative and inconclusive, with predominantly fragile chord progressions;
B) A chorus can use text that is reflective and draws conclusions, and use stronger progressions.
- The presence of the key note (tonic note) will strengthen the underlying structure of a melody. Choruses can and should feature the tonic note in its melody more than verses.
- The latter half of verses will often be pitched higher than the first half; chorus notes are often higher than verse notes.
- The hook: Make it short and memorable.
- Adding a hook to a bad song gives you a bad song with a hook.
There are probably lots of ways to communicate those thoughts, and even ways in which some of those principles overlap each other. But as you can see, they aren’t rules. And for many songs, there will be one or two of those guidelines that aren’t particularly obvious.
Good songs Don’t Need Fixing!
If you’ve written a good song, and you can just tell that it’s working well, it makes no sense to go back and try to adjust it to ensure that every one of those principles is on clear display!
But if you write something that just doesn’t seem to be working the way you wish it would, it’s definitely worth seeing if and how you might have missed some important principles. In my eBook “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting”, and in the ten other eBooks in the bundle package, I describe each of those principles in detail.
Good songwriting has never been about rules, but there are definitely ways in which you can and should be guided by basic principles of musical construction when you write your songs. Instincts alone won’t always produce a great song. Learn more about the basic principles of good songwriting!
If you’re trying to make your lyrics a much more important part of your songs, you need to read “Use Your Words! Developing a Lyrics-First Songwriting Process.” It’s part of “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting 10-eBook Bundle”, and right now, it’s FREE.