Most songwriters start the songwriting process by improvising on ideas. You may have nothing to start with, and so the purpose of that initial improvisation session is to come up with something catchy.
Let’s say that you manage to come up with something short but great, something that might serve as an important fragment of what will eventually become a complete song. The problem you’re having is: How do you take your little fragment of music and turn it into a full song?
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Every song is different, so it shouldn’t surprise you that there are many ways forward. Thankfully, good songwriting is guided by principles which suggest a way to build on your initial idea.
If you find yourself in that situation, where you have a bit of a musical fragment, with little or no idea how to turn it into something that resembles a complete song, please have a look at the following tips. I hope you’ll find them helpful:
Every section of a song has its own set of unique characteristics. We know that verses tend to be lower in pitch than choruses, for example. So you need to look at that fragment you’ve created and make a decision: Does it sound more like a verse, or more like a chorus? Perhaps it’s something else. If you want it to be a chorus, but doesn’t sound right, it may need to be raised in pitch. But identifying where in the song that fragment might belong is a crucial first step.
Repetition is a powerful songwriting tool! Let’s say you’ve got something that’s 4 or 8 beats in length — a nice little musical phrase. You’d be surprised what simply repeating that fragment will do. Now you’ve got something that resembles at least half of the chorus you need, and things start to look more helpful.
Moving the fragment up or down. Songs may appear to be complex and intricate, but when you take a closer look you’ll find that the same musical fragment is simply being moved up and down, with little else added to the composition. The Rolling Stones’ single “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” (Mick Jagger/Keith Richards) is a great example. Listen to the verse and see how many times one idea is used, repeated, moved higher and lower. Then listen to the chorus, and notice the same thing. There’s only a small amount of musical information in this song, but repetition is cleverly used to make a complete tune.
Changing chords under the fragment. You can get a lot of musical mileage by playing the same short idea over and over, changing chords underneath it as you go. “Born In the U.S.A.” demonstrates this: the main idea is played over a B chord, then repeated virtually note-for-note over an E.
Put the idea away and try to compose a partner idea. Most songs will use separate melodic ideas for the verse and the chorus. Let’s say you’ve decided that the fragment you’ve improvised would make a nice chorus. What do you do? Put it away, then try to improvise a new idea lower in pitch than your original one. Once you’ve got something, play it and move directly into your chorus idea. You’ll know right away if they’ll partner well together. And if they don’t… don’t toss it! You may have something that can help with some future song you’ll be working on.
Choosing the key for your song usually involves, at least in the first instance, finding the key that suits your vocal range. Most of the time this isn’t specifically a songwriting issue as much as it is a performance issue.
But there are other aspects of key choice that amounts to making a songwriting choice. For example, deciding to put your verse in one key and your chorus in a different one does have a dramatic effect on the way a song is perceived by an audience.
“Chord Progression Formulas” show you how to create dozens of progressions in moments, using patterns and formulas. It’s easy, and the “key” ingredient for any songwriter who likes starting the songwriting process with chords. READ MORE.
Over the past more-than-a-decade of this blog I’ve written extensively about this aspect of writing. If you’ve been looking to add a bit of innovative freshness to your songwriting at least regarding key choice, I’ve listed 5 popular articles from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” blog below in which I’ve dealt with that issue. I hope you find them useful:
1. Key Suggestions For Song Sections
It’s not unusual for a song to change key somewhere, but keep in mind that the most common situation is actually to start and end in the same key. And some songs, like the enormously successful “Uptown Funk” (Mark Ronson, Jeff Bhasker, et al), key of D minor (D Dorian, actually), keep it very simple, featuring only two chords: Dm and G, from the beginning to the end.
One of the most common key changes happens in the final chorus repeats, when the key is moved up a semitone, much like what you hear in “Man In the Mirror” (Siedah Garrett, Glen Ballard, recorded by Michael Jackson).
3. Downward Key Changes Might “Brighten” a Song – Here’s How
Lowering a key in the midst of a song can be tricky, for the reason that downward-moving keys can sap song energy. But there are times when changing key downward can act like a breath of fresh air. It really depends on the chord progression you use.
4. Using Abrupt Modulations to Generate Song Energy
Many modulations make use of what is called a “pivot chord.” That’s a chord that can be “seen” to be in the old key, but also as a chord from the new key. Here’s an example, with the pivot chord underlined and in bold. This progression begins in C major and ends in D major:
5. Writing a Song that Moves From Dorian Mode to Major Key
As you likely know, it’s not unusual for songwriters to create songs where the verse is in a minor key or mode (often aeolian mode), and then switch to a major key (usually the relative major) for the chorus.
I want to talk in this post about the dorian mode, which is a minor-sounding mode, and a nice alternative to the minor key or aeolian mode. To know the sound I’m talking about, play a C major scale, but start on D and end on D. You get a scale that sounds minor
If you’re looking for tons of progressions to play around with, experiment with, and use however you see fit in your songs, Gary’s written two collections: “Essential Chord Progressions”, and “More Essential Chord Progressions”. They’re part of the songwriting eBook bundle packages available at the online store.Get today’s deal!
A bridge is the section of a song that typically comes after the second chorus in verse-chorus songs. In verse-only songs, like “I Should Have Known Better” (Lennon & McCartney), the bridge will usually come after the second verse.
For many songwriters, the question of whether or not to use a bridge (or any other optional section like a pre-chorus, instrumental solo, etc.) comes down to musical instincts. Sometimes, by the time you’ve reached the end of the second chorus, it just sounds good to move on to the new melody, chords and lyrics that a bridge offers.
But if you’re really stuck, and you find yourself not knowing whether a bridge would help or hurt your song, here’s a list of tips and tricks for getting the most out of a bridge:
If ending the song after the second chorus sounds too abrupt, a bridge can help. It extends the song by offering a new melody, chords and lyrics, and often a new key.
If the lyric doesn’t seem finished once the second chorus has happened, a bridge gives you an opportunity to add more.
If, generally speaking, the song doesn’t have much contrast between sections (e.g., if the melody of the verse and the chorus sit in the same basic range), a bridge can give you an opportunity to present a new melody in a new basic range.
If the verse and chorus both sound powerful and energetic, a quiet bridge can provide a new approach that will be welcome to the audience. (John Newman’s “Losing Sleep” is a great example of this. Please watch my video that describes this technique from the vantage point of the lyrics.)
If the song really needs a climactic high point, a bridge can offer an opportunity that sets it apart from whatever happens in the verse and chorus. A classic rock example of this is Ambrosia’s “How Much I Feel“, (starting around 2:40, with the climactic high point at 3:20), but you can hear this in more modern songs that use bridges as well.
A good lyric is key to a good bridge, because it’s not just that the lyric is different — it’s usually integral to the fuller meaning of the song. It provides not just “information”, but perspective on why the singer is communicating these thoughts at all.
So if you decide that because your song seems short without it, you want to go with a bridge, consider the fact that the bridge needs to sound vital to the structure of the song, and you’ll need to do more than simply add 8 meandering bars. They really need to sound important, and so you’ll need to go back to the drawing board to come up with a great lyric, melody and chords for this new section.
Each eBook in “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” 10-eBook Bundles shows you the fundamental principles that make great songs great. Comes with a Study Guide to show you how to get the most out of the manuals.
In songwriting, a principle is a statement that attempts to explain why some aspect or element of music works the way it does. Principles are not rules, because a rule implies that it must (or at least should) be done a certain way in order for the music to be successful.
But a principle no such demands regarding how you must write music. A principle is usually worded as a reason why we like to hear certain things in music.
For example, there is a songwriting principle that that the energy we perceive from music generally increases (or at least stays the same) over the length of a song. So you’d have to listen to many, many songs before you hear one where the basic energy level starts high and keeps diminishing. Most of the time, that would be unsatisfying to us.
The best songwriters use principles to guide their writing, even if they’re doing it on a subconscious level. Many songwriters don’t need to be told to have the musical energy of their song increase as it proceeds; it just sounds and feels right to do so.
But if you’re ever in a situation where your song seems like it should be working, but it isn’t and you can’t identify the reason why, it’s almost certain to be the violation of one or more of the basic principles of songwriting.
Those principles are vital to musical viability, and it’s why I wrote the eBook “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting.” In that manual, I use the word “secrets” to be synonymous with “principles,” because they’re crucial to any song’s success.
The interesting thing about principles is that they are usually applicable cross-genre. The basic principles of songwriting apply to country songs in pretty much the same way that they apply to metal, folk, pop or rock.
There is a principle that “Songs without contrast risk being boring,” and that will apply to any song of any genre. We also know that when you use lyrics that are descriptive and narrative in nature (“first this happened, then that happened…”), chord progressions work best if they are “fragile” and creative. That works for any style of song.
In my eBook I’ve listed and describe eleven different principles, and they apply to songs and songwriting regardless of what genre you call your own. Many of those principles will have you nodding your head: you possibly already apply those principles instinctively to your writing.
But you may find that there are some principles that you hadn’t considered before, ones that may surprise you; for example: How frequently the chords change in your song should form a predictable pattern.
Most of the time, becoming a better songwriter means sitting down and writing more songs. The more you write, the more you learn and the better you become. But occasionally, it can be best to put the pencil down and read to get a new and important perspective.
I’m proud of the fact that over the years, thousands of songwriters have been finding “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” a useful addition to their musical toolbox. Right now, buying the entire bundle of my 10 songwriting eBooks will give you an 11th eBook for free: “Use Your Words! Developing a Lyrics-First Songwriting Process.”
What a world we live in. At the touch of a smartphone button, we can get the answer to anything we want to know. Tomorrow’s weather? Stock prices? What’s the migration path of the red-shouldered hawk? It’s our 21st-century world, and, leaving social media aside for the moment, there’s practically nothing bad to be said about it.
That ability to get answer to questions quickly and easily extends to the songwriting world as well. With online forums and other social media, a songwriter can get quick answers to “what’s wrong with my song?”
A lot of songwriters are using computers to create music, but if you’re still doing it old-school — sitting on the edge of your bed with your guitar to figure out your next tune — songwriting today is pretty much the same as it’s always been.
Except even old-school writing allows you to go online to get an opinion on how your latest song is going. And if you’re stuck, you’ll find dozens or even hundreds of other songwriters willing to help you with your problem.
The Best Answer
We’re uncomfortable with not knowing the answer to something. Immediate help is something we’ve become used to in our century. Thirty years ago, if you really wanted to know the migration path of a red-shouldered hawk, you’d put on your coat and walk down to the library. But that might take an hour or more… And then that walking… *gasp*!
I’d like to make the case that leaping to your computer to get the help of songwriting friends is not always the best answer. You may wind up with several good solutions to try, and I certainly don’t want to say that all advice you might get online is bad. Much of it is good.
But I truly believe that the best answer to being stuck in a song is: let the song sit in your mind, and wait. You won’t get an immediate solution. It may take days or weeks before you figure out what’s wrong and how to fix it.
But the solution will be your solution. And because no one knows your song like you do, the fixes that you come up with will, more often than not, be the best ones for your song.
My recommendations for the next time you get stuck with your song, where you can’t seem to find solutions, are:
Put the song away for a short period of time — a couple of days, or perhaps a week.
Take the song out again and play what you’ve got.
Work on the problem section one element at a time. In other words, try changing a chord (even if you don’t think the chords are the problem), or change a melody note here or there.
Keep modifying bits of your song at the problem area, putting the song away, taking it out again and listening with fresh ears.
With this method you won’t necessarily come up with the quickest solution to a snag, but you will often come up with something that works better than one an outsider to the song might suggest.
And it takes patience. In our 21st century world, we’re used to quick answers. Sometimes the best way forward is the slow way forward.
I’m really pleased to notice (or at least I think I notice) that the quality of lyrics has been becoming an important sought-after aspect of good mainstream songwriting. It seems only a few years back that everyone was talking about chord progressions. The term “killer chord progression” was one I’d hear in many musical conversations.
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I feel confident going out on a limb and saying that no song has ever become great because of its unique, thought-provoking chord progression. That’s not to say that chords aren’t important. How they interact with the melody will make or break a song. But that’s not the same thing as saying that chords stand out as being vital on their own.
But lyrics can and do contribute to the longevity and power of a song. Some songwriters have become great based almost solely on their accomplishments as lyricists. But I know of no one for whom it is said that their greatness is directly attributable to their ability to come up with great chords.
There are different aspects of lyrics that need mentioning:
Powerful imagery. Imagery means being able to create a fairly complete picture in the mind of the listener by using a minimum of words. “Her icy stare” says more to us than “her harsh stare.” We know what a harsh stare might be, but with “her icy stare”, we picture it — perhaps even feel it — more clearly.
Salient topics. You can write a song about practically anything, but a good song topic is going to be one that makes a strong connection to the listener and makes them feel that they’re hearing about something worth thinking about. It’s why love songs work so well; everyone’s “been there”, and they like hearing and thinking about it.
Interesting turns of phrase. A good lyricist will find interesting ways of wording their thoughts. Cleverness can be important in a good song lyric, because everyone has their own unique way of being clever. In that way, cleverness leads to uniqueness of writing style, and that’s always a good thing.
Probably the most important quality of any good song lyric, however, is its conversational style. Even lyrics that seem complex or even abstract project this important casual style of delivery.
When the night shows
the signals grow on radios
All the strange things
they come and go, as early warnings
Stranded starfish have no place to hide
still waiting for the swollen Easter tide
There’s no point in direction we cannot
even choose a side.
As you read the words, the lyrical direction is not immediately apparent. You definitely get powerful images, you get the feeling that he’s talking about something important, at least to him, and you certainly get interestingly artistic phraseology.
And you’ll notice that one other crucial element: each line of the lyric, on its own, sounds casual and conversational, as if they were snipped out of a conversation one might be having about radios, starfish and the like.
Of course, you quickly begin to get the feeling that the lyric is about so much more, and that’s when the lyric, like all good lyrics, exceeds the sum of the parts and becomes great.
You may be developing your own unique lyrical style, but no matter how you do it, it’s worth the time to read through what you’ve written, and take a examine each phrase for its casual, conversational tone.
That casual nature goes a long way to making audiences want to listen.
Get “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” eBooks. They’ll help you polish your technique, and make you the best songwriter you can be. Comes with a Study Guide, tons of chord progressions, and information covering every aspect of how to write good music.
As a songwriter you may be attracted to the notion of writing something complex, something that really gets your audience thinking. Complex chords, intricate harmonies, thoughtful lyrics, melodies that surprise… it’s all part of what makes your 4-minute song something that will stimulate the imagination of your listeners.
The problem with complexity in songwriting is that it can miss the mark and turn audiences off if complexity is all you’ve achieved. Most of the time, an audience is looking for something they can connect to on an emotional level. In that regard, it won’t matter how clever your songwriting is if it isn’t allowing the audience to make an emotional connection.
Looking for ways to create dozens of progressions quickly? Read through “Chord Progression Formulas.” They’ll give you the formulas that will help you come up with lots of progressions within moments. Get it separately, or as part of “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting 10-eBook Bundle”
The best kind of complexity in music is the kind that has, at its core, a foundation of simplicity. In other words, no matter how clever you’ve been with, let’s say, your lyrics, you’ve offered the listener something that touches them and makes them feel something primal and basic.
If you’re trying to take your songs to some new level, having your audience discover something deeper in your thought processes, diving into the deep end may simply deliver a confusing song that misses everyone’s mark.
At the centre of every profound song is a core of simplicity. Practically every song that works can be pared down to something basic — something elemental. In that sense, if you reverse-engineer a song that seems complex and — in a musical sense — impenetrable, you start to discover that the best ones have something structurally simple at their nucleus.
If you’re writing a song where you’re trying to stimulate the imagination of your listeners, ask yourself a simple question: What am I really trying to do here? Here are some tips you might consider:
For a more complex chord progression, strip your ideas down to something basic — a “I-IV-V-I” kind of skeleton — and then use that as a foundation to throw in more interesting chords.
For a more complex lyric, the rules of connecting to your audience still remain. So in an among all the complex imagery and metaphors, you still need to include words and phrases in your lyric that touch the heart of the listener. As a great example, check out the lyric to Imogen Heap’s “Hide and Seek.” In among the complexity are lines whose purpose is to reach out and connect to the audience’s emotions.
For a more complex melody, think about where your melody is starting and where it’s finishing, and how, on a simplistic level, it partners with the chords you’re using. Simple melodies move mostly by step and use mostly diatonic notes (i.e., notes that belong to the key you’ve chosen). Complex melodies will possibly move around a bit more, include more surprising leaps and non-diatonic notes. But those complex note choices more often than not occur between strong beats. It does not take much complexity to make a more intriguing melody.
For a more complex feel, set up a predictable, basic song groove, and then insert more intricate rhythms and phrasings to give the impression of complexity. A great example of this is in “One For the Vine” by Genesis (Tony Banks), where, in a middle section of the song, rhythmic syncopation makes it sound like something very complex is happening to the time signature. In fact, everything stays in 4/4 time, but the rhythmic complications make it seem that something much more is going on.
If you like the chords-first songwriting process, you need to read “Writing a Song From a Chord Progression.” It will give you important step-by-step descriptions of how to make this method really work for you. Get it separately, or as part of “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting 10-eBook Bundle”
If you’re having a day when it’s hard to come up with verse and chorus progressions that work well as partners, how about an easy method that will work every time. The method below uses C major as a sample key, but of course you can transpose to any key that suits your song:
Write out the chords that occur naturally in C major: C Dm Em F G Am Bdim (I ii iii IV V vi vii)
From that list, start the process of making a chord progression for a verse by writing out just the minor chords: Dm Em Am
From those three chords, improvise a rhythmic pattern that uses mostly two of those chords, and occasionally the 3rd one, for example: Dm Em Dm Em |Am Em Dm Am | repeat….
You can throw in other chords from C major, of course, but focus mainly on the minor chords.
Now time to create a chorus progression: Write out the major chords from the C major list: C F G
From those three chords, improvise a progression, throwing in an occasional minor chord, for example C F Dm G |C F Dm G |Am F Dm G |Am F Dm G
By choosing from that one list of chords, you simplify the process so that you aren’t spending all day trying to find chords that work. By focusing on minor choices for the verse and major for the chorus, you create a really important sense of balance between the two sections.
Major choruses, particularly after a mainly minor verse, gives the chorus a special feeling of brightness that almost always works well.
You may worry that because all of these chords come from C major, there won’t be any sense of uniqueness or innovation with your chords. But in the balance between predictable and unique, it’s often better to use chords that are solid and predictable, and leave the more innovative qualities to your melodies and lyrics.
Get “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” eBooks. They’ll help you polish your technique, and make you the best songwriter you can be. Comes with a Study Guide, tons of chord progressions, and information covering every aspect of how to write good music.
If you’re ready to take your songwriting to its highest level possible, you need “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting 10-eBook Bundle.” Get the manuals that thousands of songwriters are using. Comes with a Study Guide.
Do you ever find yourself wondering when a song you’ve been working away on is actually finished?
What I mean is that there always seems to be something you can do to a song. For me, it seems possible to take any musical piece I’ve been working on and, regardless of whether or not I’ve declared it done, keep working on it.
I think practically anyone I know who writes music feels the same way. And I think it’s because every time we hear music (particularly our own music), the sounds we’ve written stimulate our imagination, and we can imagine even more!
But it’s actually an important question: How do we know when it’s time to stop working on a song, declare it finished, and move on to writing the next one? Because if you’re not careful you can waste a lot of time writing and rewriting the same song in a months-long struggle to get something to sound better.
Probably no one knows exactly how to answer this question, but here are some thoughts I hope might help if this is an issue for you.
You can always move on. There’s no need to be stuck in the same song, even if you know it isn’t finished.
You can perform songs that you feel aren’t finished. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with singing your song even if you think there’s more that you’d like to do to it.
A collaboration can help complete a song that’s slow sounding finished. One of the best ways to get a song to the finish line is to play it for a fellow songwriter and see what they think. The influx of new ideas can be exciting.
Changing something in a song can stimulate your musical brain to create new ideas that will find the path forward to completion. Let’s say your song is in G major; try switching the chords to imply the key of G minor. That one change can make things sound new, fresh, and encourage a new concept for the song.
There is no definitive answer to the question. Knowing a song is finished is more a feeling than it is anything else. If it seems finished, it probably is.
If you’ve got a melody, but don’t know how to add chords to it, you need to read “How to Harmonize a Melody.” It will show you, with sound samples, a clear step-by-step for adding chords that will make your melody sound great.
As humans, we work best when we have a target to aim for. Imagine a basketball season, for example, that might end with no playoffs, no awards, and no official recognition for anything you’ve done. It would be hard for the players to get excited at all.
Songwriting is not much different; we’re supposed to think that songwriting is fun, and that’s supposed to sustain our interest and create inspiration, at least in part.
The ideas in this article come from “Fix Your Songwriting Problems – NOW!” It’s part of “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting 10-eBook Bundle.” Get it separately, or as part of the bundle package.
But if you’ve been finding it hard to stay excited about songwriting, you know that the simple act of writing often isn’t enough. We feel our excitement and interest-levels rising when we have something to look forward to, something related to songwriting, but bigger and more inspiring.
What’s the songwriter’s equivalent of the basketball playoffs? What represents that kind of target? Here are some things you could or should be thinking of that can keep you focused on the future, and excite you to keep writing songs:
Performances. Simply put, if you’re writing songs but not getting them out there or performing them, you are working in a creative vacuum. Planning a house concert for several months into the future may be all it takes to get you pumped to write a set of songs to present.
Recordings. Making a recording is a major source of creative excitement. But because informal recordings are so easy to do these days, I’m talking about taking things to the next level. If you can afford it, hire an experienced producer and do it right. Get excellent players, singers and make a recording of your songs that shows the world what you’re capable of as a writer.
Festivals. Summer is a great time for music festivals, and getting a spot on the roster can be something that stirs your creative spirit and makes songwriting fun and stimulating.
Songwriting Contests. To be honest, I’m not a huge fan of contests, because there’s so many ways for a contest to reward the wrong thing. But if you do your research and find the contests that are reputable and professional, writing just the right tune can be powerfully motivating. (Always register the copyright of any songs you enter.)
Inter-arts collaborations. As a songwriter, writing for film, theatre, dance or some other arts discipline offers you a kind of experience that takes songwriting to a whole new level. Most of these kinds of collaborations require you to work closely with other artists, making decisions where everyone needs to be on the same page. Some may find that limiting, but most of the time the rewards are worth the compromises.
Here’s the thing that all of those ideas have in common: they all require you to work to a deadline. That one simple feature alone — the need to have work done by a certain date — is powerfully motivating.
And it’s exciting, because it’s possible to miss deadlines. So meeting the deadline gives you a shot of creative adrenaline that keeps you moving forward as you plan your next songwriting project.
Thousands of songwriters are using “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” ebook bundle to improve their songwriting technique. If you’re looking for excellence and consistency, get the bundle today. Comes with a FREE COPY of “Use Your Words! Developing a Lyrics-First Songwriting Process.”