Last week, we talked about how songwriting is a free-flowing motion that can ignite all your senses. The right combination of music and lyrics can make your skin tingle all over, leave you wide-eyed; be gasping for air, leave a bittersweet taste in your mouth or even drown out the rest of the world. In short, a great song is one helluva party for your senses!
Now, we keep saying that there are no ironclad rules in songwriting. This still holds true, for as long as you understand and believe that songwriting is not songwriting if it’s not a form of expression – for yourself, or for others. It is a way to channel thoughts, feelings, and aspirations.
Writing a song can convey the absolute truths, or even the absolute lies, from the depths of the heart. Writing a song can be the result of inspiration or the makings of one. It all boils down to what the song expresses; if it doesn’t express anything, then it makes no sense and means nothing to your listeners’ senses, right? And if you think about it, songwriting is kind of a cycle of the senses.
Take Eric Church, an American country music singer and songwriter. He said that the key to songwriting is just to be able to observe, and put yourself in situations to be around people, and let those ideas come to you. This is essentially putting your senses to work, observing and absorbing what is around you, allowing for everything and anything in life and in existence to be captured in a song – songs that, in turn, make your listeners’ senses come alive. And this is what you need to make it happen…
What is the Secret to Better Songwriting then?
Must you have a creative bone in your body to be able to write songs? You’d be surprised, but being creative is just a by-product of being original. Sure, some writers get by with “recycling” (or, if you prefer, “upcycling”) lyrics and melodies, but never really get to stamp their identity on any of their work. You do not want to be one of them. By all means, you can certainly draw inspiration from the big-timers, but when it gets down to the wire, your identity should still shine through.
I am confident that you are already aware that you have something original to offer, otherwise, you wouldn’t be in this industry. I’m sure that you have written songs that you are proud to call yours. The goal is to write more of those songs, put more of you on the table, less the hit or miss approach. Hence, the relevance and importance of knowing the basic principles of the songwriting process.
The Principles of Songwriting
Let us refresh our memories on the principles that I have already shared in my previous post:
- The first guiding principle states that how you arrange the song depends on the message you want your listeners to hear. You do not have to follow the usual Verse-Chorus, Verse-Chorus, Bridge, Verse-Chorus arrangement. Be anything but generic.
- The second guiding principle is building the energy throughout the song. The energy at the end should surpass the song’s energy at the beginning. Key transitions work best on the bridge section to the final chorus where you can transpose the chords from the original key to the desired key. Take a look at Beyonce’s Love on Top. The chorus goes through three key changes as she demonstrates her vocal power. This is the section where the energy builds up until it climaxes at the very end and you find your breath taken away just by listening.
- The third guiding principle is to allow for contrast – occasional yet strategically positioned dips along the way, which make the song unpredictable and exciting.
So far, so good. These guiding principles give the song context, meaning, and life. Right about now, you are probably analyzing the songs you’ve written in the past, or making a mental note to apply these principles to your next songs. You’re definitely on the right track. Let’s make sure to keep you on that track with a few more principles I learned from that songwriting course I told you about.
More, More, and More
- Keep the chord pattern simple – songs nowadays do not require too many chords. Justin Bieber’s song Sorry runs on the chord pattern F-Am-G and a pattern change in the chorus where Dm is added after the chord pattern, then shifted to F-G on the chorus’ last line. Sam Smith’s Stay With Me is another song with a simple pattern, the chords are Am – F – C all throughout. Savage Garden’s Truly, Madly, Deeply carries the chords C – G – F – G from start to finish.
- Maintain the balance between chord changes and patterns. Contrast is only effective when positioned correctly; you can’t add a chord somewhere just because you can. Chord changes should somehow be predictable, not shockingly out of place. You want a coherent song, not senseless mashups (Mind you, there are many awesome mashups out there that go so naturally together, you wonder why you didn’t think of it yourself).
- The lyrics, melody, and the chords should blend in harmony. Your chords cannot be in minor scale when the lyrics of the song denote happiness or positivity. As you probably already know, minor chords are sad tones. If the lyrics in a particular section of the song require impact, then the melody that you create for that section must be in tune with the emotions that the words carry. Obviously, you would not appreciate listening to a song that talks about pain and yet carries a happy tune (unless it wanted to express irony. Ha!)
- The chorus needs strong chord progressions. On harmony, the chorus carries the emotional impact, thus, needs strong chord progressions. On the other hand, verses take us to how the story unfolds, and require relatively weak chord progressions. For example, the progression C – G – F can sound great on verses, whereas the chorus may sound epic if you add an Am chord for a C – G – Am – F progression. This progression is widely used by a lot of songwriters, artists, and musicians.
- Keep the song’s hook memorable. It should be short, catchy, and appeal to your listeners. Your listener needs something to remember as soon as your song is played. One good example of a successful hook is Lady Gaga’s Bad Romance. The song resonates the “uh oh oh ohs” in anyone’s ears. First time I heard it, the “uh oh oh ohs” played in my ear for a month!
There you have it! Now that this little secret has been revealed to you, what are you waiting for? Start writing your next song using these principles and tell me about it! I’d love to hear your progress. And if you come up with a party for the senses, don’t forget to send me an invite! Haha!
For any questions or comments, please, please, please, drop me a line or two! We’re just getting started. Do watch out for the next installment in the music production series and get in the gear for Song Arrangement next week! Till then!